Dog Training Smartest Dogs

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

Malteses are not considered smart dogs, but they're smarter than you think.
Written by Richard Jeng

The Maltese is known for its stunning coat with long white locks of hair. They’re docile and playful, but come with a charming personality that’s hard to resist. However, you may be wondering if there’s more to the Maltese than just good looks.

So, are Malteses smart dogs? The Maltese is a below-average intelligent dog breed when it comes to obedience & work intelligence. In fact, they’re the 111th smartest dogs out of 138 qualifying breeds. Even so, the Maltese is an extremely intelligent hunter and very capable of learning from its past experiences thanks to their high adaptive IQ.

According to the “experts,” these dogs aren’t as intelligent as many other dog breeds. But it doesn’t mean that the Maltese isn’t smart. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Let’s examine 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 had been unfairly labeled as having below average canine IQ, we need to first understand how intelligence is measured. After all, we can’t simply just give them our standard human IQ test and compare the results.

That said, the world’s smartest dog breeds ranking list has been largely credited to pHD and canine psychologist, Stanley Coren. However, he had the help of 199 obedience obedience trial judges from North America to help in the trials for his research. 

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Using Coren’s criteria, the obedience judges were able to evaluate and rank several dog breeds for his research. Unfortunately for the Maltese, the criteria was based solely on obedience and working intelligence. Here’s what his criteria was:

  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 breeds that qualified, so they weren’t at the very bottom.

So what does this mean for the Maltese? The Maltese needed 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! So how did they compare to the world’s smartest dog breeds? Namely, the top 10 most intelligent dogs? 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. 

Is Your Maltese Intelligent?

According to real Maltese owners, these dogs are generally very 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.

Why the Maltese Ranked Low For Intelligence

The Maltese is a low shedding dog breed, though they still shed.

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

Though it’s a great start, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Obedience and working IQ is the easiest to objectively measure. Thus, it was used. But just because a Maltese doesn’t obey a command does not mean he or she doesn’t understand what is being asked.

Stubborn and Independent

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.

Reasons Why the Maltese is Smart

Malteses are smart because they have high instinctive and adaptive intelligence.

As discussed, obedience and working 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 canine 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.

Spunky Ratting Dogs

Instinctive intelligence refers to the innate ability or skill that a dog was bred to do. Though most Malteses are companions and family dogs today, that wasn’t always the case. Back then, 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.

Maltese’s Adaptive Intelligence

In contrast, adaptive intelligence refers to the ability for the dog to learn for itself. In my opinion, this may be the most important aspect of canine intelligence. Some good questions: is your Maltese good at problem solving and learning from previous experiences?

It’s worth noting that adaptive intelligence in Malteses can vary a great deal. 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 the Maltese for You?

Never pick a dog breed based on intelligence. This usually leads to owners not being able to handle a dog and abandoning it. 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 and have a cheerful personality that all dog lovers can appreciate. If these dogs are for you, you won’t regret bringing home a Maltese.

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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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