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Are Malteses Smart Dogs? – Here’s Why They Rank Low for Dog Intelligence

The Maltese is known for many things, though none as prominent as their stunning coats with long white locks of hair. They love to warm laps and cuddle with their favorite people. However, owners may wonder just how intelligent these little toy companions are.

The Maltese is a below-average intelligent dog. In fact, they’re the 111th smartest dog breed when it comes to“obedience and working intelligence.” But what actually makes the Maltese smart is their ability to understand human emotions, and their keen ability to learn from people. That said, this is why the Maltese makes such a great companion.

According to the “experts,” these dogs aren’t as intelligent as many owners make them out to be. But it doesn’t mean the Maltese isn’t smart. Read on to learn why they rank low for dog intelligence and what actually makes them smart dogs.

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Measuring the Intelligence of a Maltese

We measure a Maltese's intelligence based on working and obedience.

Before we get into why the Maltese has been unfairly labeled as having below average intelligence, we need to first understand how intelligence is measured. After all, we can’t just give them our standard human IQ test and compare the results.

The current list of smartest dog breeds is largely credited to renowned pHD and canine psychologist, Stanley Coren. The ranking is based on an aspect of dog intelligence, called “obedience and working intelligence.”

O&W intelligence measures how well a dog learns a new command, in addition to how well they retain the training. It’s essentially an obedience test. And while this may be a good starting point, it isn’t the most accurate indication of dog intelligence.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Coren had the help of 199 obedience obedience trial judges from North America to help in the trials for his research. Using Coren’s criteria, the obedience judges were able to evaluate and rank several breeds for his research.

Unfortunately for the Maltese, the criteria was based solely on obedience and working intelligence. Here is what his criteria was based on:

  1. The number of repetitions necessary for a dog to learn a new command. Dogs that needed fewer repetitions ranked higher on the list.
  2. The success rate that a dog will obey a known command on the first attempt. A higher success rate meant that the dog was more intelligent and obedient.

Coren received a huge response from the obedience judges that volunteered to help. And although many dog breeds participated in the trials, only breeds with at least 100 evaluations were included in Coren’s final list of smartest dogs.

In addition, only dog breeds recognized by the AKC and/or CKC participated in the trials. Similarly, no mixed dog breeds participated as there are simply too many variations. The good news is that the Maltese is a popular and recognized purebred dog.

How the Maltese Performed

The Maltese didn’t perform that well in Coren’s trials. In fact, they were the 111th best performing dog breed, which placed them in the “fair intelligence” category. It’s worth noting that there were 138 dog breeds that qualified, so they weren’t at the very bottom.

So what does this mean for the Maltese? The Maltese needed just 40 to 80 repetitions to learn a new command. In other words, it could take a whole day to teach a Maltese a command. Factors such as the difficulty of commands were not taken into consideration.

Furthermore, the Maltese will obey a known command on the first try with a 30% or better success rate. Though this may seem low, it doesn’t mean the Maltese didn’t understand the command. They are just not as obedient due to their stubborn nature.

For reference, there are a ton of popular dog breeds in the same intelligence class as the Maltese. They are not alone! For example, the Pug, Chihuahua, Great Pyrenees and Saint Bernard are all fair intelligent dogs, though still intelligent in other ways.

Maltese vs. the Smartest Dogs

The Maltese didn’t even crack the top 100. But, that’s okay! Now how did they compare to the smartest dog breeds in the world? In regards to learning speed and obedience, there’s a significant gap.

The top 10 dogs are able to learn a new command with less than 5 repetitions! This means that they’re at least 8 times faster at learning commands than the Maltese. Depending on the command, it could take only a few minutes to learn!

What’s even more impressive is that the smartest dogs will obey a known command on the first try with a 95% or better success rate. These dog breeds are around 3 times more obedient than the Maltese, making them some of the world’s most obedient pets.

Coincidentally, the smartest dogs are also some of the most popular dogs. For reference, the Border Collie, German Shepherd, Poodle, Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler and Labrador Retriever are all in the top 10. 

Why the Maltese Ranked Low For Intelligence

Given how many Maltese owners believed they have a smart dog, why did they rank so low for dog IQ? When it comes to dog IQ, it’s really hard to standardize a test. In Coren’s case, he tried to calculate dog intelligence based off O&W intelligence.

Though it’s a great start, it doesn’t tell the whole story. O&W is the easiest to objectively measure. So, it was used. But just because your Maltese doesn’t obey you does not mean the dog doesn’t understand what is being asked.

Stubborn Dogs Are Unfairly Labeled Dumb

The Maltese is a dog breed that’s known to have a stubborn personality. That is, they always want to get their way and will often “protest” until they do. They can certainly go on their stubborn streaks from time to time, so extra patience is needed.

With a stubborn personality, it makes sense that a Maltese wouldn’t perform well on the obedience test. Depending on their current mood, the handler and other factors, they may not be up for it on the day of the obedience trials.

One Maltese owner said,

My Maltese is so stubborn. He won’t do any commands and will play dumb. When I have a treat in my hand, he’s the most obedient dog ever. Kind of hilarious.

Just understand that obedience isn’t everything when it comes to intelligence. Though another crucial quality of the Maltese is that they’re highly independent dogs. According to Pet Helpful, the Maltese are one of the 7 most independent dog breeds!

This means that the Maltese won’t be your typical velcro lap dogs. In other words, they are not as dependent on their owners as some other dog breeds. Plus, a Maltese likely won’t do your bidding just because you say so.

However, don’t think that this means the Maltese is not loving or loyal. All the known independent dog breeds are coincidentally breeds that don’t rank high on Coren’s smartest dogs list. Though they may understand what you’re saying, they may not always do it.

2 Reasons Why the Maltese is Actually Smart

As discussed, O&W intelligence was used for Stanley Coren’s smartest dogs list. But there’s so much more to canine intelligence than just that. Even Coren, who conducted the trial, will agree with this.

The other two dimensions of dog intelligence are adaptive and instinctive intelligence. Both of which, are crucial to measuring a dog’s true IQ. However, it’s just that these two other components are much less objective, making it harder to measure.

1. The Maltese’s ability to hunt requires high intelligence

Instinctive intelligence refers to the innate ability or skill that a dog was bred to do. While Malteses are mostly companions today, that wasn’t always the case back then. In the past, nearly all dog breeds were bred for a working purpose in society.

For example, Border Collies are some of the best herding dogs in the world. They were specifically bred for this job. The fact that they instinctively know how to round up livestock and drive them towards a direction requires this special instinctive intelligence. 

Cosy is ferocious! She stalks and kills her prey in no time flat! Many ants have fallen to her paw (or they’ve run away)!

– Snowbody (Spoiled Maltese)

Despite their small size, the Maltese was bred to be a hunter. Yes, that’s right. These little fluff-balls were once cold-hearted hunters that would track and eliminate pests in factories. Specifically, they were bred in Malta to hunt pesty rodents and other vermin.

The Malteses’ innate ability to track and hunt vermin is their instinctive intelligence. It’s why some of the modern Malteses will still show their prey-drive from the past. And since they were so good at their job, you can bet these little dogs have high instinctive intelligence.

But how is hunting a part of dog intelligence? To be a good ratter, the dog needs to be able to “predict” the rat’s next move. Rats are fast and if the Maltese is to stand a chance, they need to be smart on how to trap and cut off a rat.

2. The Maltese is excellent at learning from humans

In contrast, adaptive intelligence refers to the ability for the dog to learn for itself. Is the Maltese good at problem solving or at learning from past experiences? In my opinion, this may be the most important aspect of dog intelligence.

It’s worth noting that adaptive intelligence in Malteses can vary a lot. Whereas instinctive intelligence is roughly the same among individual dogs within a breed. All Maltese may have their instincts to hunt, but not all will have high adaptive IQ.

Fortunately, we have enough evidence (stories from owners) that suggests most Maltese will have high adaptive intelligence. For example, one owner tells us:

My Maltese has learned which person is coming down the stairs based on the sound of the stairway creaking when coming down.

She adds,my brother is the one that takes the dog out for walks, so Piper will often get really excited and run towards her leash when he’s on his way down.” This is a clear cut sign of high adaptive intelligence in this Maltese.

One of the biggest indicators of high adaptive IQ is the ability to learn from past experiences. After hearing so many people come down stairs many times, the Maltese started to recognize the person based on the sound of the stairs.

Of course, this is just one account of high adaptive intelligence in this breed. But if you asked any Maltese owner, you’ll likely get similar stories about how adaptable and great at learning they are. I mean, they’re popular dogs for a reason.

Is Your Maltese Intelligent?

The best way to gauge how smart Maltese dogs are is to ask the owners themselves. For this reason, we surveyed the Maltese Subreddit (and other popular dog forums) to ask owners this one question. Here’s what they had to say about their dogs:

Real Owner Answers:

1. Zekeyielz says Yes:I have no idea how Malteses ended up so low on the smartest breeds list, but they’re quite clever and smart. My dogs a bit stubborn, but I’m 99.9% sure he understands everything I’m saying.

2. Zainab1700 says Yes:My dog is very intelligent and gets along great with both dogs and cats. We had a cat when he got him and he never had any trouble with her at all.

3. Ocolyctpsis says Yes:They are quite intelligent, in my experience, and in general aim to please. Basic manners (sit, stay, loose leash walking) are easy enough as long as you are consistent.

4. Simricky1977 says Mixed:I have two Maltese and though they’re both stubborn dogs, Milo is much better at learning (not commands) than the other. He has very good understanding of the world…

5. Psycho2psycho says Yes:I have a female Coton (3) (11lbs) and a male Maltese (2) (7.5 lbs). They have very similar personalities and intelligence levels. Both were easy to train, sweet and all around wonderful dogs.”

6. Thorinoakenbutt says Yes:I’ve had my Maltese since he was a puppy and he’s the smartest dog I’ve ever had. He learned sit the first day I had him at like 6 weeks old. He knows sit, shake, lay down, sit pretty, back up, crawl, twirl, roll over, stick em up, bang!

7. Shamlortherok says No:Trying to train my Maltese is one of the hardest things i’ve ever done. Yeah…she’s not the brightest bulb but she’s the most lovable dog ever.”

8. Wazawhatami says Yes:Never underestimate their intelligence. That’s what I did because I’ve heard they were ‘dumb dogs’ only to find out i’ve been manipulated by these little fur balls.”

9. Timewrnleer198 says Mixed: “I think with the Maltese it’s a hit or miss for intelligence. My family has owned these dogs all my life…some were ‘smarter’ than others and easier to train.”

10. Dennsroberts1n says Yes:My Maltese is a super smart dog..and it’s a bit comical. I don’t know why people even question their intelligence.

Is the Maltese for Me?

Never pick a dog breed based on intelligence. This usually leads to owners not being able to handle the dog. The truth is all dogs, including the Maltese, is capable of providing you with everything you need in a companion and family pet.

Dogs don’t really need to be that smart. Unless they need to be trained for a specific job as seen with police and military dogs, there’s no reason to choose a “smart” dog. Instead, you will want to consider the temperament and personality of the dog.

Does the dog breed match your personality and your needs? Malteses are the perfect playmates for both adults and children. Plus, they’re friendly with a cheerful personality that all dog lovers can appreciate. If these dogs are for you, you won’t regret bringing home a Maltese.

Do you own a Maltese? What things do they do that make them seem smart or dumb? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Wednesday 15th of June 2022

Our maltese Minnie is now 13 years old. Highly independent and knows how to get what she wants. She is controlling us, not the other way around. She knows our morning routine and is very excited when I brush my teeth, because she knows the next step will be the long morning walk. On weekends, she tells us it is time to get to the car for our road trips to local parks. She sleeps a lot, but certainly wakes up when she anticipates action. Very picky eater, wants napkin and servant to feed her. Fortunately I am retired so I can obey. We love her like a true member of our family. It is unfortunate that a dog’s life span is so short. She will always have a place in our hearts. Just wish that us humans could be as kind and considerate as our little Minnie. What a wonderful world it could be!


Wednesday 19th of January 2022

I have a Malshi (maltese/shi tzu mix), and I thought I was going to have a 'dumb yappy dog' on my hands since I grew up with German Shepherds and my father always went on about how dumb small dogs were. I was surprised at how clever or smart my Malshi is. He loves to go on car rides, and over time he figured out the approximate time I would leave each day to pick my son up from school. Within 15 min to 30 min, my Malshi will come to me and give me the "eyes" to ask me if it is time to pick my son up.

Another cool way he communicates with me is he does this huge sneeze/sniff thing that is his way of saying "yes" or "of course." When I ask if he wants a treat he gives a loud sneeze/sniff sound.


Tuesday 12th of October 2021

I’ve owned several dogs, but my Maltese is the smartest of all, albeit in a funny, manipulative way. One example: She barks by the door like she has to go outside and relieve herself. My terrier leaves the family room and joins her at the door, not wanting to miss out on going into our back yard. When the terrier reaches the door, my Maltese circles back to the family room and steals her bone. This is a routine occurrence. I love that little dog!

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