Smartest Dogs

Are Jack Russell Terriers Smart? – Here’s Why They’re Intelligent

Written by Richard Jeng

The Jack Russell Terrier has all the wonderful traits that come with terrier types. They’re lively and energetic, but also fearless and bold. Though as an owner, you may wondering just how smart these eccentric dogs really are.

So, are Jack Russell Terriers smart? When it comes to obedience and working IQ, the Jack Russell Terrier is average intelligent. In fact, they’re ranked the 84th smartest dogs out of 138 qualifying breeds. However, what makes them truly intelligent is their ability to effortlessly hunt in packs and learn from previous experiences.

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the Jack Russell Terrier. Just because they love to have fun doesn’t mean they aren’t highly intelligent dogs. Read on to learn about why these terriers are smarter than you think.

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Measuring the Jack Russell’s IQ

There are many ways you can measure a dog’s intelligence. However, there’s really only one method of objectively measuring IQ. Because we can’t exactly communicate with dogs, our dog IQ tests come in the form of essentially an obedience test.

The term “obedience and working intelligence” was first coined by Stanley Coren, a pHD and canine psychologist. According to the renowned researcher, this IQ-type is one of the 3 main aspects of dog intelligence. More importantly, it’s the easiest to measure.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

With the help of 199 obedience trial judges from North America, Coren was able to evaluate the obedience & work intelligence of hundreds of dogs. However, he had a dog intelligence criteria for his trials. Here’s what his criteria was based on:

  1. The number of repetitions needed to learn a new command. Dog breeds that needed fewer repetitions were deemed smarter.
  2. The success rate that a dog obeys a known command on the first attempt. Breeds with a higher success rate were not only classes as more obedient, but also more intelligent.

Although many hundreds of dogs participated in the trials, not all of them made the cut for the final intelligence rankings. In fact, only 138 dog breeds did. For better accuracy, more data was needed on each breed.

As a result, only dog breeds with at least 100 assessments qualified for the final rankings, thus eliminating breeds with low popularity. The good news is that Jack Russell Terriers are among the most popular terrier breeds.

How the Jack Russell Performed

The Jack Russell Terrier performed average. Out of the 138 qualifying dog breeds, they are the 84th highest performer. And while this doesn’t put them at the top of the canine kingdom, there is nothing wrong with being average.

This meant that the Jack Russell Terrier was able to learn a new command with just 25 to 40 repetitions. Depending on the complexity of the command, they’re able to learn something new in less than an hour. Not bad at all!

The obedience of the Jack Russell Terrier isn’t anything to scoff at either. These dogs are willing to obey a known command (on the first attempt) with a 50% of higher success rate. When the JRT is focused, he’ll likely respond well to obedience.

And for reference, some of the world’s most popular dog breeds are in this average intelligence category. For example, the Australian Shepherd, Husky, Shiba Inu, Greyhound, Boxer and the Bichon Frise are all average too.

Jack Russell vs. Smartest Dogs

The top 10 ranked dog breeds are in a class of their own. These dogs are the most intelligent in the world. In fact, they’re three classes above the average dogs, where the Jack Russell sits. So how do the JRTs compare to the best?

The smartest dogs are able to learn a new command with fewer than 5 repetitions. It’s simply incredible. This means that they’re able to learn a new command at least 5 times faster than the Jack Russell Terrier (and other average dogs).

In terms of obedience, the most intelligent dogs are just as impressive. When given a known command, they’re able to obey with a 95% or higher success rate. In some cases, they’re nearly twice as obedient as the Jack Russell.

And it’s no coincidence that the smartest dogs also happen to be the most popular dogs. For example, staple breeds such as the Golden Retriever, Labrador, Doberman, Rottweiler and German Shepherd are all among the top 10.

Reasons Why Jack Russell Terriers Are Smart

If not with obedience and working intelligence, what actually makes the Jack Russell Terrier an intelligent dog breed? As mentioned before, there are three components of true dog IQ. Up until now, we’ve only covered one.

According to Stanley Coren, the two other aspects of dog IQ include: instinctive intelligence and adaptive intelligence. Both of which, are just as important – if not more. However, the problem is that these dimensions can’t be measured objectively.

Rather, we have to mostly rely on anecdotes and observations to truly gauge the instinctive and adaptive IQ of the Jack Russells. The good news is that the consensus says the JRT excels at both these dimensions of IQ.

Vermin-Hunting Specialists

Instinctive intelligence refers to the original purpose that a dog was bred for. Before we had dogs as mainstream companions, they were mostly workers in society. In other words, they had their own set of jobs they were purposely bred for.

For example, Australian Shepherds were bred for herding and Beagles were bred for tracking. It’s why we have so many categories of dogs today: herding, retrieving, companion, pointing and the list goes on.

But is this really a type of canine intelligence? When Australian Shepherds are born, most are able to instinctively chase livestock and push them in formation. They can do this with little to no human intervention. This requires intelligence, that is, instinctively IQ.

On the other hand, Jack Russell Terriers were developed in the 19th century for hunting fox and rabbit, among other small vermin. The Jack Russell is capable of hunting both above and below the ground using quick agility and a tenacious bite.

If above the ground, JRTs are quick enough to chase down wild animals. Plus, they have the stamina to keep up on long stretches. However, when the game goes underground, JRTs are small enough to follow quarry down a burrow.

Their hunting instincts are what makes the Jack Russell Terrier highly intelligent. Their ability to corner, trap and predict underground movements require this special types of intelligence. Don’t believe it? Check out this amazing video of the JRT in action:

The JRT’s Adaptive Intelligence

The final dimension of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. This refers to the ability of the dog breed to learn for itself. Are they capable of learning from their own mistakes and all the past experiences? If so, they’re adaptively intelligent.

Adaptive intelligence can also refer to a dog’s ability to read and understand emotions. It’s not like we can tell our dogs how we’re feeling. Rather, they need to learn from experience. Those that excel at this tend to be fantastic companions and pets.

Most individual dogs from the same breed have roughly the same instinctive intelligence, but this is not necessarily true with adaptive IQ. In fact, adaptive intelligence can vary quite a bit among dogs. Even so, JRTs are known to excel in this area.

For instance, check out this owners story about his Jack Russell Terrier:

My JRT is an excessive digger. There are plenty of holes in my back yard. I’m not too pleased, but when I feel extra down he somehow knows and doesn’t dig.

– Tenabylek (Dog Forums)

This owners JRT shows high adaptive intelligence through his remarkable understanding of his human’s emotions. Likely, the dog knows the owner doesn’t like the holes. But what’s more impressive is he understands when his owner is feeling down.

Another owner tell us about his Jack Russell, saying:

Somehow my jack russell knows when we’re leaving the house. It could be the slightest cue and he’ll start running around and doing somersaults.

– Desevortan (Chrono of Horse)

If a dog is capable of picking up even the slightest clues about your intentions, that’s a highly adaptive intelligent dog. This could be something as big as changing clothes to something as small as putting on sun screen. Smart things will figure it out.

Of course, these are just a few stories of how Jack Russells are adaptively intelligent. There’s plenty more stories just like these. Ask any JRT owner and I’m sure they’ll have so many things to say about their dogs!

Is Your Jack Russell Smart?

As we’ve mentioned, the intelligence of Jack Russell Terriers can vary from dog to dog. Some dogs are just more responsive, thus seen as more intelligent. However, to truly gauge just how smart they are, we decided to survey real JRT owners.

We collected responses to this question from the popular Jack Russell subreddit among other top dog forums. Here’s what the owners had to say:

Real Owner Answers

1. Gentlearts says Yes: Jack Russells are very smart and funny. I think they’re great family pets..the perfect size, too. The two I know personally are couch potatoes most of the time, and the rest of the time they are engaged with their owners.”

2. KevinT says Yes:Of course every dog has its own personality but from my experience JRTs are one of the family friendliest dogs around.They’re very smart and sensitive to their humans feelings and moods.

3. Paigevz says Yes:Fabulous dogs, very smart. Because they’re smart, it’s potluck on the training. They CAN learn easily, but they’re smart enough to know the don’t HAVE TO.

4. Theycallmered says Yes: He was very smart and was great at listening to directions and commands. From what I can remember Baxter was quite easy to house train and rarely had an accident until much later in his life.”

5. Spookhorse says Yes: He is smart with lots of energy, but it can be channeled into doing fun stuff or work stuff. He’s a heck of a hunter when he gets to go to the farm and he patrols the backyard before he can do his business.”

6. Savinggracen says Yes:Jack russells may seem like little goofballs that don’t understand what is going on. But don’t be fooled….super intelligent canines.

7. Kellyb says Yes:Our Jack russel is so smart, you can teach him just about anything. He’s a great pal whether you just want to curl up on the couch and watch a movie, or go for a long walk outside.

8. Wickedfelina says Yes:They are extremely intelligent and will spend their last breath trying to outsmart you. They usually win and will only allow you a victory of sorts once in a while so that you are lulled into complacency. Diabolical!

9. sixarmybrats says Yes:Jack Russell Terriers are extremely HIGH energy, and I’d say the highest of the terrier breeds They are super intelligent dogs; but they’re ‘nervous in the service’ as I like to call it.

10. Dkpw says Yes:He was the most intelligent dog we’ve ever owned, was great fun and loved adults. Food was the only thing that could break that spell, and once the food was eaten, you could see him switch back.

Is a Jack Russell For Me?

Don’t be put off by the fact that Jack Russell Terriers are ranked 84th for the “smartest” dog breed. It’s really not a big deal. Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests they’re highly intelligent beyond just tricks and commands.

One reason why Jack Russells might have ranked so low is because of their stubborn and bossy nature. This is a common quality among all terrier dog breeds, though it is especially common in the JRT.

In fact, I Heart Dogs ranked the Jack Russell as the 4th most stubborn dog! This just means they need a firm and consistent hand, along with much patience. But because of their stubborn ways, we can see why they didn’t perform well on an obedience test.

The truth is, dogs don’t really need to be that intelligent. All dogs are all smart enough to give us the things that we need. Potty training can vary, but no dog isn’t capable of being house broken no matter how stubborn or strong willed.

Never pick a dog based on their intelligence ranking. Rather, you want to pick a dog that match your personality. Jack Russell Terriers are lively, active and charming. They love to have fun but also enjoy hanging around with their owners.

If this sounds like the dog breed for you, we highly suggest you bring one home! Keep in mind, a Jack Russell Terrier demands a substantial time commitment. Otherwise, they’re some of the top family companions you can find.


Do you own a Jack Russell Terrier? How smart is your dog and what makes you believe that? Let us know in the comments section below! We love to hear from you.

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About the author

Richard Jeng

Richard has been raising dogs his whole life, including a Poodle, Pomeranian, Corgi and Australian Shepherd. He's always working with animal shelters and dog rescues because of his passion for all dogs. Fun fact: his all time favorite breed is the German Shepherd. Read More.

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