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Are German Shepherds Smart? – Examining the German Shepherd Intelligence

The German Shepherd is the face of the police K-9 force. They’re brave, athletic, powerful and loyal to a fault. And while German Shepherds do look intimidating, owners may wonder if they were chosen for the job due to high dog intelligence.

German Shepherds are some of the smartest dogs in the world. In fact, the GSD is the 3rd smartest dog breed for “obedience and work intelligence,” according to canine psychologist Stanley Coren. But even so, their intelligent instincts and their ability to adaptively learn is what actually makes the German Shepherd smarter than nearly all dogs.

Let’s dive into what makes really the German Shepherd such an intelligent breed. We’ll discuss how the experts measure their intelligence and other reasons why these dogs are highly intelligent. Read on to learn more about the German Shepherd/s intelligence.

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Measuring a German Shepherd’s Intelligence

We measure a German Shepherd's intelligence based off obedience and working intelligence.

German Shepherds are the third smartest dogs in the world. But how did we come to this conclusion? The infamous list of smartest dog breeds measures just one type of dog intelligence, called “obedience & working intelligence.”

This term was coined by canine psychologist, researcher and pHD – Stanley Coren. Though this type of dog intelligence isn’t perfect, it still tells us a lot. In short, O&W intelligence measures how fast the dog can learn commands and retain their training.

There’s definitely a correlation between the speed of learning and intelligence. However, this type of test favors breeds that enjoy working, such as the German Shepherd, more than others breeds that were bred for something else.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

In 1994, Coren requested the help of 199 obedience trial judges from all over North America. Based on a criteria he developed, the obedience trial judges evaluated as many dog breeds as they could. That said, his criteria for dog intelligence is as follows:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for a dog breed to learn a new command. Dog breeds that needed fewer repetitions ranked higher on the list.
  2. The success rate that a dog breed will obey a known command on the first try. Breeds with a higher success rate also ranked higher on Coren’s intelligence list.

Despite the enormous response, not all dog breeds made the final cut. For instance: only breeds that received at least 100 evaluations qualified for Coren’s dog intelligence list. Rarer dog breeds did not have a big enough sample size to qualify.

In addition, only dog breeds recognized by the AKC or Canadian Kennel Club participated in the trials. In other words, there were no hybrid breeds that participated (despite their popularity). Not even the smart Goldendoodle had a shot.

However thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the German Shepherd in America, they easily met both requirement. Plus, GSDs are recognized as a distinct breed with every kennel club in the world. So, they participated.

How the German Shepherd Performed

As expected, the German Shepherd performed exceptionally well. In fact, only two other dog breeds managed to top them in obedience and working intelligence – the Border Collie and Poodle. But as a top-10 smartest dog, what does this mean?

German Shepherds were placed in the top dog intelligence class, among the top 10 dogs. Breeds in this class are able to learn a new command with fewer than 5 repetitions. German Shepherds are able to learn basic commands in a few minutes!

In addition, German Shepherds exhibited characteristics of high obedience. As a result, a GSD is able to successfully obey a known command on the first attempt with a 95% or better success rate. Not many animals can do the same!

Coincidentally, some of the most popular dog breeds (in the world!) were also in this same IQ class. For example, dog breeds such as the Golden Retriever, Rottweiler, Labrador, Doberman, Papillon and Blue Heeler also made the cut.

German Shepherds vs. Dumbest Dogs

On the other side of the spectrum are the least intelligent dog breeds, at least according to Coren. Not only are they much slower at learning, but also a lot less obedient. But how do these “dumb” dogs compare to the GSD?

For reference, the breeds that performed the worst include the Beagle, Basset Hound, Bloodhound, the Chow Chow, Shih Tzu and the Pekingese. All of which, can be quite intelligent outside of obedience and working intelligence.

Dogs in the least intelligent class need between 80 and 100 repetitions to learn a new command. This meant that German Shepherds are at least 16 times faster at learning new commands than these dogs in the lowest class!

As for obedience, low intelligent dog breeds were able to obey a known command on the first try with a 25% or lower success rate. In other words, German Shepherds are about 3 to 4 times more obedient than these other dogs.

While this success rate seems low and the learning speed slow, there can be other factors, such as the dog’s stubbornness and handler familiarity, that may contribute to such low marks.

2 Other Reasons Why German Shepherds Are Smart

Coren’s smartest dog breeds list was based on just one dimension of dog intelligence, that is, obedience and working intelligence. And although it’s not the best way to gauge true dog IQ, it can be measured in an objective manner.

That said, there are actually three components of dog intelligence, according to Stanley Coren. The other two, which may actually be more important, are instinctive and adaptive intelligence. Both of which, the German Shepherd excels in as well.

1. German Shepherds have sharp instincts for guarding

Instinctive intelligence refers to the natural ability or innate skill that the dog was originally bred for. In the past, all dogs were bred for a specific role or purpose. In addition, only a few toy dogs were actually bred for solely companionship.

For example, Welsh Corgis were bred to herd cattle, sheep and other farm livestock. But without little to no human training or intervention, Corgis are able to instinctively round up and drive livestock in their desired direction. That is their instinctive intelligence.

Likewise, German Shepherds were bred to be the ultimate utility dogs. In other words, they could do it all as a multi-purpose working dog. However, as hinted in their names, the German Shepherd’s instinctively intelligence is in herding and livestock guarding.

German Shepherds did, and excelled, at almost everything. They were used as herding dogs, sheep guards, police dogs, therapy dogs and much more.

Gail Norris, a German Shepherd owner tells us,every night as soon as I got into bed and turned off the light, she would go through every room of the house, stopping to push aside the living room drapes with her head, and letting out a menacing growl. Once Sheba was satisfied that no one was lurking around, we settled down for the night.

This example shows Sheba’s instincts to guard and protect. No one taught him that. Rather, GSDs will have the instincts to guard and protect the family, which explains why they’re regarded as such a loyal breed. It’s all part of their high instinctive intelligence.

But how is this high intelligence? A popular trait of the best guard dogs is the ability to differentiate a friend from a threat. German Shepherds are great at reading intentions based on human expressions or actions. This requires this special type of intelligence.

To become so great at so many dog jobs, you need to have high instinctive intelligence. And, that’s exactly what the German Shepherd has.

Just check our these German Shepherds doing what they do best:

2. The German Shepherd is great at learning from past experiences

The final dimension of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. This refers to the ability of the dog to learn for itself. Problem solving and the ability to learn from past experiences are both associated with high adaptive intelligence in dogs.

Th problem is that there’s no objective way to measure this type of intelligence. Though, we do have real owner stories that suggest high adaptive intelligence in German Shepherds.

For example, a German Shepherd owner tells us:

If we’re sitting on the couch, I can tell Odin “Ok Odin, its bath time.” and he’ll hop off the couch, go into the bathroom and get in the tub.

– Kelsey (GSD Owner)

She adds, “I’ve never met a dog who can do that before!” Kelsey’s GSD quickly learned that the action that follows the words “bath time.” From his previous experiences, Odin knew exactly what was going to happen and did what he had to do. Smart boy, indeed.

As we already know, learning verbal commands is easy for the German Shepherd. As such, learning word correlations is not a problem for this dog. But how about learning actions through other stimuli?

Another GSD owner, Jacob, tells us why his German Shepherd is highly intelligent:

I go into my bathroom all the time, but the moment I put on sunscreen he knows that we’re about to go for a walk and waits patiently next to his leash.

Scooter the German Shepherd learned a specific scent and the subsequent action. The fact that he’s able to associate not just commands, but also scents, with an activity shows he has high adaptive intelligence.

These are just two examples, but if you asked any German Shepherd owner, they would probably tell you equally remarkable stories of adaptive IQ in these dogs.

Is Your German Shepherd Smart?

The experts tell us that German Shepherds are smart, but what do the owners say? We believe the best way of gauging a dog’s intelligence is by asking the owners themselves.

So, we surveyed the popular GSD Subreddit and other online dog forums for real answers from real owners. Here’s what they had to say about the question.

Real Owner Answers:

1. Motheroftheworld says Yes: “German Shepherds are very intelligent and they’ll learn to push your buttons. They are amazingly loyal and will want to be with you. You will never go to the bathroom alone again, ever.

2. Gsdinthehome says Yes: “My GSD is the most loving and smartest dog that I’ve ever owned. He’s very sharp and picks things up very quick – commands, situations, etc.”

3. Graphitefingers says Yes: “She’s a very intelligent dog and definitely keeps me on my toes. Thankfully she’s not destructive and is really well behaved. She likes to see how far she can push me, but that comes with owning an intelligent breed.”

4. Downtownvehq says Yes: “If you underestimate the intelligence of a German Shepherd, they’ll run all over you – sometimes literally.

5. Dominantfighter says Yes: “While training with treats, our GSD is the most obedient and intelligent dog I’ve ever met. She learns new things almost immediately and does whatever I tell her.”

6. Saffellbot says Mixed: “My German Shepherd had a defiant phase when she was a young puppy. It took a few months of constantly being assertive with her before she finally came around.”

7. Underrateddawg says Yes:After owning 7 dog breeds in my lifetime, there is no dog breed that I believe is more intelligent than a German Shepherd.

8. Richmondc says Yes: “I’m in a training class with him and most shepherds including my past ones took 2-4 months in the beginners class. But mine moved to intermediate in 3 weeks. He picks up everything pretty fast, like he understands English.

9. Dandaman76 says Yes: “Potty training was a breeze for my GSD. He learned all the basics in a week, so I’m convinced that there isn’t a smarter breed.

10. Deadmanstheory says Yes: “My German Shepherd actually learned how to open the fridge. If that’s not intelligence I don’t know what is.

Dealing With Smart German Shepherds

German Shepherds are crazy smart, no doubt. But raising a smart dog breed isn’t always ideal for every person. With higher intelligence, comes more responsibilities. Smarter dogs, like the GSD, will need extra care and attention.

Because German Shepherds are so intelligent, they require a ton of mental stimulation. It makes a lot of sense, as dogs with higher mental capacities need more mental activities. Without daily mental activities, GSDs may exhibit destructive behavior.

Mental stimulation can come in many forms, such as brain games, obedience training and dog puzzles. And while obedience training may seem to be the most obvious, not all owners have the time to provide hours of training a day. The solution: puzzles and toys.

Smart Toys for Smart German Shepherds

Personally, I think smart toys and dog puzzles are great! They’re perfect for those that can’t spend hours a day with their GSDs. With that said, here are my favorite dog puzzles.

One of my dog’s all-time favorite is the StarMark Bob-A-Lot. It’s an interactive bobble toy that requires your German Shepherd to tilt it a certain way to release his favorite treats.

It comes with 2 chambers so you can put your dog’s meal and treats inside. For your German Shepherd, make sure to get a size large. If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking it out at Amazon.

A dog puzzle that my dogs absolutely love is the Nina Ottosson Dog Puzzle. There are 3 variations, but I went with the Hide n Slide.

It’s a challenging puzzle where your German Shepherd needs to move the sliders to reach his favorite treats. Put in a few of his favorites and he’ll be all over it! I suggest you take a look at Amazon here.

There are a ton of fantastic puzzles and toys that’ll help with your German Shepherd’s mental stimulation. If not what I recommended, I suggest you get them something.

Is the German Shepherd For Me?

German Shepherds are fantastic dogs that bring the brains and brawn. GSDs are one of the most popular dog breeds in the world for a reason. But know that they come with a lot of work.

If you’re looking for a big lap dog or a low maintenance dog, these dogs are not for you. Sure, it can make training easier in the beginning, but the extra amount of mental exercises needed will make a GSD more time-consuming than you think.

When deciding which dog breed to raise, never pick one based on how “intelligent” they are. All dogs are capable of learning basic tricks and commands. Some dog breeds just require more patience or consistency than others.

Instead, ask if the dog breed’s temperament and personality match yours. Are they a good fit for you and your lifestyle? German Shepherds are devoted, brave and freakishly intelligent. If that sounds like a pet you’d like in your family, then go ahead! You certainly won’t regret it!

Do you own a German Shepherd? What are some “smart” things that they do? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Ken W

Saturday 19th of March 2022

I think it’s a little misleading since being stubborn and defiant doesn’t mean you aren’t intelligent, but using this criteria, a dog who doesn’t want to do what you say is going to be judged to be of equal intelligence to a dog who CAN’T do what you say.

That being said, there are only a handful of scenarios where you need to concern yourself with how “smart” a given breed of dog is, and these are excellent criteria for informing those situations. It’s really more of a labeling problem than it is a problem of actual utility.


Saturday 19th of March 2022

Exactly. Just because a dog doesn't obey you doesn't mean they don't understand you.

Misty Lucas

Tuesday 30th of November 2021

If my German Shepherd had thumbs, he would be human! After him, I will probably never get another dog, unless it's a German Shepherd!

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