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Are Cocker Spaniels Smart? – Here’s Why They’re Highly Intelligent Dogs

Whether you’re bringing home an American or English Cocker Spaniel, it’s going to be an exciting time for you and your family. Both breed variations are cheerful and optimistic dogs. But does do these traits translate to a smart dog breed?

Both the English and American Cocker Spaniels are smart dogs, according to canine psychologist, Stanley Coren. In fact, they’re the 20th and 23rd smartest dog breeds, respectively. But where the Cocker Spaniels really shine is with their high instinctive intelligence. Their ability to find and flush out birds is what makes them superb hunting dogs.

Cocker Spaniels are one of the few rare dogs that excel in all three dimensions of dog intelligence. And for these reasons, it’s no surprise they’re some of the most popular and intelligent dogs in the world. To learn more, read on.

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Measuring a Cocker Spaniel’s Intelligence

We measure how intelligent Cocker Spaniels are based on Stanley Coren's criteria.

As mentioned, Cocker Spaniels are classified as “bright dogs.” But how did we come to the conclusion? We didn’t arbitrarily rank this spaniel. Rather, the infamous list of smartest dog breeds is largely credited to canine psychologist, Stanley Coren.

According to pHD and researcher Stanley Coren, “obedience and working intelligence” is based on two main factors. These factors measure how quickly a dog breed learns commands, in addition to how well they retain their training.

The problem with measuring this type of dog intelligence is that naturally-diligent working dogs tend to perform better. It’s essentially an obedience test if you think about it. However, this is the best way to measure dog intelligence in an objective way.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

For Coren’s list of most intelligent dogs, he had the help of 199 obedience trial judges from all over the North American continent. The judges assessed and ranked as many dog breed for Coren, using the following criteria:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for a dog breed to learn a new, unknown command. The fewer the repetitions, the more intelligent the dog is.
  2. The success rate in which a dog breed will obey a known command on the first attempt. A higher success rate percentage means they’re more obedient and smarter. 

Despite the overflowing number of responses, not all dog breeds made it to Coren’s final dog intelligence list. In fact, only breeds that received at least 100 responses qualified, which meant less popular breeds weren’t included.

Additionally, only dog breeds that were officially recognized by either the AKC or Canadian Kennel Club could participate in the intelligence trials. Unfortunately, that means no mixed dog breeds.

The good news is that Cocker Spaniels are recognized by both clubs, while also being one of the more popular spaniels in America. They had no problems qualifying for this test.

How the Cocker Spaniel Performed

Both the American and English Cocker Spaniels performed roughly the same in the trials. Both breed variations scored in the top 30, landing them in the bright dogs category. 

This meant that Cocker Spaniels could learn a new command with just 5 to 15 repetitions. Not only is this unbelievably quick, but it means you can probably teach your Cocker Spaniel a simple command within minutes!

Obedience was another consideration in dog intelligence. Coren’s trials also proved that Cocker Spaniels were incredibly obedient too. They’re able to obey a known command on the first try with a 85% or better success rate.

Just for reference, other popular dog breeds in this same intelligence category includes, the Weimaraner, Bernese Mountain Dog, Pomeranian, Collie and both Corgi breeds.

Cocker Spaniels vs. Average Dogs

Now that we know Cocker Spaniels are smart, how do they compare against the average dog breed? Keep in mind that Cocker Spaniels are two categories above the average intelligent dogs, which is a significant gap.

The average dog needs 25 to 40 repetitions to learn a new command. In other words, Cocker Spaniels learn at least twice as fast as your average dog. 

As for obedience, average intelligent dogs will obey a known command on the first attempt with a 50% or better success rate. This means that Cocker Spaniels are about 70% more obedient than the average dog. 

There’s nothing wrong with being “average.” But if you’re curious, some of the most popular average intelligent dogs include: the Australian Shepherd, Great Dane, Boxer, Dachshund, Siberian Husky and the Pointer. All of which, are pretty smart.

2 More Reasons Why Cocker Spaniels Are Smart

Cocker Spaniels are super obedient, quick learners. But even Coren admits there’s so much more to dog intelligence than just that. So, what other reasons make the Cocker Spaniels such highly intelligent dogs?

In addition to obedience & working intelligence, adaptive and instinctive intelligence are the other dimensions that make up a dog’s true IQ. As such, many will argue that these other two aspects of dog IQ are even more important!

1. Bird hunting requires a Cocker Spaniels’ high intelligence

Instinctive intelligence refers to the skill, ability, or purpose that a dog breed was bred for. Nearly all dog breeds were once bred for a specific task and role in society. They were all meant to help humans. But how is this considered canine intelligence?

For example, herding dogs were bred to herd livestock. They were born with natural instincts and ability to round up sheep, maneuver them towards a specific direction – all without much training. This is their instinctive intelligence. 

Retrievers will naturally fetch objects. Guard dogs are vigilant and will protect their territory. Other dogs are just meant to be companions and lapdogs. But depending on the dog breed, instinctive intelligence will be different.

Cocker spaniels want to hunt with you. They might feel like hunting more than playing agility, so that’s where you need to build their drive and desire to do other sports.

– Elrohwen (Dog Forums)

Cocker Spaniels were bred to hunt. Though they’re mainly companion dogs now, few owners are still training Cockers to hunt. Regardless, they’re hunters at heart and retain instincts that make them some of the best bird hunters. 

English Cocker Spaniels were first bred to hunt Eurasian woodcocks, which is how they got their name, “cocker.” When the American Cocker Spaniels were developed in the USA, they were similarly tasked to hunt American woodcock birds.

According to Gun Dog Mag, Cocker Spaniels are great for bird hunting in dense cover. They have a sharp sense of smell and their instincts are to follow scents closely carried by the breeze or close to the ground .

Cockers will hunt in sections instead of sweeping through the area. It’s not a traditional method, but it’s effective with these small dogs. However, they can be easily taught to “run the sweeping zigzag pattern of a springer” if needed.

Check out this Cocker Spaniel tracking and flushing.

2. The Cocker Spaniel’s Adaptive Intelligence

The final dimension of dog intelligence is Adaptive Intelligence, which refers to what the dog can learn for him or herself. It’s the dog’s ability to learn from the environment and all its previous experiences or past mistakes. 

Though instinctive intelligence is roughly the same in all dogs of the same breed, adaptive intelligence can vary greatly. Still, most Cockers Spaniels are generally known to have great adaptive intelligence, as told by owners.

To illustrate just how high their adaptive intelligence is, one Cocker owner gives us his story, saying:

The other night we got home to find our smart little monster got into the recycling can. He emptied the entire thing onto the floor.

What’s extremely smart was that the Cocker separated the cat food cans to make it easier to eat. He continues the story by explaining:

Here’s the best part: he separated everything so the soda cans were in the dining room and the cat food cans were in the dining room. Then he re-cleaned every single cat food can by mouth.”

This is just one example of high adaptive intelligence in this spaniel breed. It’s clear that this wasn’t his first rodeo. Learning from past experiences is one of the leading indicators of high adaptive intelligence in a dog. And this is a clear sign of it.

I’m certain if you ask any Cocker Spaniel owner, you’ll be bombarded with many similar stories of high IQ. These dogs learn quickly – and not just with obedience training. According to owners, they are some of the best problem solvers in the dogdom.

Is Your Cocker Spaniel Smart?

To get a good idea of how intelligent Cocker Spaniels really are, we decided to ask the people that would actually know: real owners.

So we surveyed the popular Cocker Spaniel sub-Reddit and other dog forums to collect real responses to this question. Here’s what Cocker Spaniel owners had to say:

Real Owner Answers:

1. Pravana says Yes: “Cockers can be stubborn, but are very smart. Basil plays dumb sometimes when he’s being a mischievous butthead, but I know he’s not dumb by any means. He just finds whatever he’s doing to be more rewarding than listening to me.”

2. Skilltroks says Yes: “Cocker Spaniels are smart. Mine is smarter than me for sure. We ended up baby locking the trash can under the sink so he couldn’t get to it.”

3. Anonymous says Yes: “I’ve had many dogs, but Marshall was special. Smarter. And the only one who paid attention when I spoke.”

4. SFS_83 says Yes: “My Cocker Spaniel is a little too smart for her own good! She’s deceptively clever and i’ll often catch her trying to manipulate me into getting her to give her treats! Little smartie..”

5. Onlyhope_ says Yes: “There’s nothing dumb about a Cocker. They’re so good at making sure they get what they want. My 2 year old knows that i’m more likely to give treats in different situations. He does a good job picking him time to ask.”

6. Liptonice19 says Yes: “There’s absolutely no way anyone can think Cockers are anything but super intelligent dogs. Don’t get me wrong I love my dog, but I sometimes think that life would be that much easier with a dumber dog.”

7. Beeksya says Yes: “I’ve got two cockers. And they are stubborn! But extremely smart. Have you ever trained a dog before? …be patient, cockers are wonderful dogs.”

8. Imperiald0g1 says Yes: “I’ve had my cocker for about 2 years now. He’s a rescue, but has come a LONG way since early on. The one thing i’ve learned from owning a cocker spaniel is that they are incredibly smart!”

9. Lemeuf says Yes: “He was smart, determined, playful, thoughtful, loyal, and sweet. We were kids when we got him, so as a puppy he sometimes played a little rough with us (biting, etc), but as an adult would absolutely let babies tug on his ears and mouth.”

10. Zion2015 says Yes: “Cocker spaniels are seriously some of the smartest dogs. You have no idea until you raise one. They know exactly what they want and how to tell you.”

Is a Cocker Spaniel For Me?

Now that we know Cocker Spaniels are smart, are they the dog for you? They’re versatile dogs that thrive on the field, but they can be some of the best companion family dogs. After all, there’s reason why they’re in the top 30 dogs for popularity.

While it’s fun to look up how well a specific breed ranks in canine intelligence among other dog breeds, it should not be the deciding factor when picking out a dog. You really don’t need a dog that’s that smart.

Instead of asking whether Cocker Spaniels are smart, you should be asking if Cocker Spaniels fit your personality and lifestyle.

With that said, Cocker Spaniels are gentle dogs with a cheerful demeanor that’ll mesh with all types of people. Really – they get along with all people and animals, including smaller dogs and even cats (with enough socialization).

They love to be active and as a result, need a lot of physical and mental stimulation daily. And although training is fun and easy because Cockers are eager to please and obedient, it does require patience and consistency.

If after looking into their temperament and you still think Cocker Spaniels are for you, then you should bring one home. They’re some of the best dog breeds in the dogdom.

Is your Cocker Spaniel smart? What are some things they do that make them seem intelligent? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Tuesday 7th of July 2020

My cocker is 13 months old.

Give her a sniff of cheese then ask her to find it in the home or garden, she will leave any decoy treats and find the cheese. Now that is extra special, imo.

When walking, I ask her to stop, then stay. I walk past her (30ft or so) then command her to catch-up, then treat her. Several times on walks with no prompts, she just stops and sits down, waiting.......cheeky!

We have a traditional countertop bell. From a room or two away, tell her to "ring the bell" and she races to it, presses the bell to make it sound, then darts back for the treat.

So much more to do with her to see what she is capable of. She is a very intelligent dog and very affectionate.

Ps: Having never owned a cocker spaniel before, I wasn't aware of how fast they are, and they are rapid! I've yet to see another dog outrun her to fetch a ball or frisbee, quicker than a cockerpoo, staffy, rotty, doberman, French bulldog and a border collie, to date. Wow!


Sunday 17th of May 2020

I rescued a cocker spaniel she had been tied to a tree for 4 years she is unbelievably smart. I have had some trouble with her aggression against other dogs. They think she's about nine years old I've had her almost one year. I have to assume she had to fight coyotes to stay alive all those years. Is there any way to get her to overcome her aggression? She weighed 14 lb when I got herwhich has half the normal body weight. Absolutely great dog

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