Updated - Feb 28th, 2022
It seems like we’re constantly hearing about new and incredible things that dogs can accomplish. Some dogs sniff out cancer, others alert their owners to low blood sugar, and some perform the most unbelievable tricks and stunts.
There’s no doubt that intelligence is one of the many reasons we’ve chosen to live side by side with dogs for thousands of years. Today, some of the smartest dog breeds come in all shapes and sizes, with a huge variety of backgrounds.
Read our list of the most intelligent dog breeds to learn more.
What Determines a Dog’s Intelligence?
Although several characteristics may be used to evaluate a dog’s intelligence, many people rely on the research of canine psychologist and behaviorist Stanley Coren.
For his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren surveyed dog obedience judges across North America, using their responses to inform his methodology. Ultimately, Coren defined three types of dog intelligence:
- Instinctive intelligence: Dogs’ ability to perform the tasks they were bred for.
- Adaptive intelligence: Dogs’ ability to solve problems on their own.
- Working or obedience intelligence: Dogs’ ability to learn from humans.
Out of these, Coren chose working intelligence – in other words, trainability – to rank the 130 purebred dog breeds in his book.
Smartest Dog Breeds
Taking some inspiration from Coren’s research and theories of canine intelligence, here are 13 of the smartest dog breeds:
There’s no doubt that this active herding dog belongs on any list of the most intelligent dogs. Border Collies are athletic, energetic, and thrive when they have a job to do. These dogs are highly trainable and excel at a variety of activities – including obedience and agility competitions.
Because of their intelligence and high energy levels, these dogs are well-suited to active families or owners. You’ll want to devote adequate time to training and socializing these dogs – especially when they’re puppies – as they can be reserved around strangers.
Similarly, although they can make great family dogs, Border Collies aren’t the best companions for small children, due to their herding instincts.
German Shepherds are employed as police dogs, military dogs, and search and rescue dogs around the world. They’re well-known as working dogs – and for good reason.
In addition to being incredibly smart, German Shepherds are loyal, confident, and brave. These dogs can easily be trained to accomplish many tasks and make excellent companions. They bond quickly to their families, get along great with kids, and love to participate in whatever their families are doing.
As an athletic and intelligent dog, the German Shepherd needs positive reinforcement. It’s also important to make sure they have plenty of exercise.
One of the most endearing family dogs, the Golden Retriever is another breed whose intelligence allows them to excel as search and rescue dogs, guide dogs, service dogs, and therapy dogs.
Not only are Golden Retrievers smart – they’re friendly, devoted, and outgoing. These dogs easily make friends wherever they go, with people and other animals alike.
As sporting dogs and waterdogs by nature, Golden Retrievers are extremely energetic, athletic, and playful. They’re easy to train, eager to please and make great companions for a range of dog sports and family activities.
Poodles come in three different sizes and many color patterns. Don’t let the traditional dog show haircut fool you – the Poodle is one of the smartest dogs out there. They’re athletic, energetic, and versatile. Bred as hunting dogs, Poodles have long assisted their owners with myriad tasks.
Today, Poodles are excellent family dogs, especially for those with allergies. They have a non-shedding coat that’s often considered hypoallergenic. Plus, they’re eager to learn, and can make great competitors in agility, obedience, or other dog sports with regular training.
As herding dogs with incredible resilience, Australian Cattle Dogs are known for their unmatched ability to move, chase, and hunt livestock. These dogs are driven, energetic, and alert, making them excellent companions for families that like to run, participate in dog sports, or put their dogs to work.
With a dog this smart, however, training is important. (It can also be a great bonding experience.) You’ll want to make sure your Australian Cattle Dog has enough exercise and mental stimulation to ward off destructive behaviors.
The Doberman Pinscher is not only one of the smartest dog breeds – they’re also well-known as great watchdogs. They’re loyal, alert, and strong, not to mention devoted to their families.
That said, though Dobermans can certainly look intimidating and are always ready to stand guard, they’re fun and lovable companions at heart. They’re also very trainable, quickly learning new commands and tricks.
Plus, they’re energetic and athletic, which means exercise is important. These dogs are great for active families, especially those with a lot of space in which their Doberman can run and play.
The smallest dog on our list, the Papillon makes up for its small size with big smarts and a bigger personality. Papillons are friendly, alert, happy, and very athletic. These dogs often excel in agility competitions, as well as trick training.
With their characteristic wing-shaped ears, Papillons are great family dogs – they get along well with children and are eager to please their owners. Like many small dog breeds, they bond quickly to their families and are true companion dogs. For that reason, they won’t want to be left alone for long periods of time.
Descended from the mastiffs of the Roman legions, the Rottweiler is a guard dog with a big heart. These dogs are loyal, loving, and very devoted to their people. Though Rottweilers are calm and confident watchdogs, they’re much more playful and silly with their families.
As you might expect, Rotties are highly trainable and eager to please. They can, however, be a little stubborn, which makes training and socialization especially important. And as working dogs, Rottweilers need a lot of exercise and tend to excel when they have a job to do. They can also take part in common activities with their families — like swimming or running – as well as more unique ones, like carting or tracking.
Since 1991, the Labrador Retriever has topped the American Kennel Club’s annual list of the most popular dog breeds. Their intelligence, of course, is only one of many reasons they’re so popular.
Labs are friendly, happy, and outgoing. Like Golden Retrievers, they make excellent companions for families, especially those with children, and get along well with all kinds of other pets.
They’re also high-energy and athletic – these are water dogs, after all, and they love to swim, retrieve, and take part in any type of physical activity. Their combination of athleticism, intelligence, and trainability also makes them one of the best dog breeds for police work, search and rescue work, and service dog work.
10. Shetland Sheepdog
The Shetland Sheepdog is a fast, active, and smart herding dog from Scotland. Shelties are enthusiastic family companions – they’re affectionate, sensitive, and great with kids and other dogs.
While Shelties are highly trainable and eager to please, they’re known for their tendency to bark (which makes them attentive watchdogs). Teaching them new tricks and keeping them involved in running, fetching, or other activities can help give them the stimulation they need.
According to the AKC, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is one of the world’s most popular herding breeds. These dogs are affectionate, alert, and incredibly smart companions. Pembrokes love to play with their families, are easily trainable, and make formidable guard dogs.
That said, compared to some of the dogs on our list, the Pembroke can be a little stubborn and independent at times. They’re still willing to learn, though, and positive training will build a strong bond.
And while these corgis are happy with moderate exercise, they love to accompany their families on long walks, as well as play canine sports.
The only terrier to make our list of the most intelligent dog breeds, the Miniature Schnauzer is a friendly, obedient, and family-focused companion. These dogs are easily trained and very adaptable, and they love to play.
Miniature Schnauzers are great family pets. They get along well with kids,and can even make good watchdogs. And though they’re energetic and lively, Miniature Schnauzers can excel in city and suburban environments, provided they get regular exercise.
Like some other terriers, Miniature Schnauzers can get bored with repetition, so it’s important to mix up training sessions to keep their attention focused.
13. English Springer Spaniel
This hunting dog has a sweet face and a lovable personality. The English Springer Spaniel is a playful, obedient, and friendly dog that was bred to work side-by-side with humans. As such, these dogs are eager to please and highly trainable.
English Springer Spaniels are also good with kids – they’re polite and gentle, and happiest when they’re active companions in their families. They don’t want to be left out of family activity, preferring to be part of the excitement – whether it’s swimming, walking, or playing fetch.
Dogs are likely even smarter than we give them credit for. And just because a breed isn’t listed here, that doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent.
That said, when you’re looking for a dog for your family, evaluating their working intelligence – aka, how easy it is to train them – can be helpful in choosing a breed that’s right for you.
Of course, some breeds may be more independent or stubborn than others, but if you’re willing to put in the time to train them, you’ll have an even stronger bond at the end of the day.