Smartest Dogs

Are Saint Bernards Smart? – The Guide to St. Bernard Intelligence

The Saint Bernard's intelligence.
Written by Richard Jeng

Saint Bernards are big and fluffy dogs that we frequently call top “nanny dogs.” They have a calm and gentle touch that’s perfect for kids, seniors and adults. So many families around the world trust these dogs to watch over the home. So, they must be smart, right?

Are Saint Bernards smart? Saint Bernards are below average when it comes to obedience & work intelligence – ranking 123rd out of 138 breeds. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. The St Bernard’s intelligence is highlighted by their ability to understand human emotions, while also effectively assessing perceived threats. It’s why they’re superb, smart guard dogs.

There’s much more to the Saint Bernard than just doing tricks and commands. After all, thousands of parents trust these dogs with their kids for a reason. Read on to learn why these dogs scored so low on the intelligence test and what actually makes them smart.

RECOMMENDED: 20 Least Intelligent Dog Breeds

Measuring the St Bernard’s Intelligence

When it comes to obedience and working intelligence, the Saint Bernard had some of the lowest scores among all dog breeds. But what exactly is obedience and working IQ?

This measurement of canine intelligence was developed by top canine psychologist and pHD, Stanley Coren from the University of British Columbia. It measures the breed’s ability and speed of learning new commands, in addition to the obedience of the dogs.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Coren didn’t do it alone. He had the help of 199 obedience trial judges all around North America. At the time, this represented roughly half of all professional judges.

Using Coren’s criteria, the judges were able to assess and evaluate each breed. From there, Coren had the necessary data to finalize his infamous smartest dog breeds list.

Here’s what Coren’s criteria was based on:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for the dog to learn a new command. The fewer repetitions that a breed needed, the higher they ranked.
  2. The success rate that the dog will obey a known command on the first attempt. Breeds that had a higher success rate were considered more intelligent and obedient.

Not all dog breeds participated in Coren’s trials. For example, only those recognized by either kennel clubs were tested in the trials. The Saint Bernard, of course, is recognized by both the AKC and CKC. Thus, Saint Bernards participated.

In addition, not all dog breeds that participated made the cut for the final list of smartest dogs. Only those with at least 100 responses qualified. This meant that rare or unpopular dogs likely didn’t make the cut.

However, Saint Bernards are one of the 50 most popular dog breeds in America. As a result the trial judges had no problem finding enough “test samples” from this breed.

How Saint Bernards Performed

For obedience and work intelligence, Saint Bernards didn’t perform well. Out of 138 qualifying breeds, the Saint Bernard came in 123rd place. As such, these dogs are placed in the “below average” dog IQ category.

But what exactly does this mean? The Saint Bernard is able to learn a new command with 40 to 80 repetitions. In other words, it may take them a whole day to learn an unknown command, though it depends on the difficulty of the command.

In addition, Saint Bernards may obey a known command on the first attempt with a 30% or better success rate. They may not always listen on the first try (or even the second try), but they will get it with a little patience.

This may seem “low” but it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, some of the world’s most popular breeds are also in this intelligence category. For example, dogs like the Chihuahua, French Bulldog, Maltese, Pug and Chinese Crested are below average!

Saint Bernards vs. Smartest Dogs

Compared to the smartest dog breeds, the Saint Bernard is a much slower learner with a much lower success rate with regards to obedience training. In other words, there’s a sizable gap in performance between the two classes.

The top canine intelligence class also happens to be the top 10 dog breeds. These dogs are, by no coincidence, also the most popular breeds. The smartest dog breeds include the German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador, Doberman, Rottweiler and more.

With that said, the smartest dog breeds are able to learn a new unknown command with fewer than 5 repetitions. For basic commands, it may only take them 10 minutes!

These dogs are also the best at recalling commands and obeying. As a result, the smartest dogs tend to obey a known command with a 95% or better success rate! This makes them some of the most obedient animals and pets in the world.

Why Saint Bernards Rank Low

So why do Saint Bernards actually rank so low on the list of smartest dog breeds? As we mentioned, the dog intelligence in which Coren measured focuses on obedience and working intelligence.

Measuring this specific type of dog intelligence is a good place to start, but it doesn’t tell the full story. As such, there may be reasons why Saint Bernards rank low for dog intelligence, despite being such intelligent dogs.

Stubborn St. Bernards

The Saint Bernard is a notoriously stubborn dog breed. According to VCA, one main concerns is that a Saint Bernard learns quickly, but can be stubborn. That is, they may understand the command that is being taught, but won’t necessarily obey.

Saint Bernards have an independent mind and often think for themselves. It’s why they tend to go on stubborn streaks depending on how they feel. That said, they’re not the most biddable dogs in the canine kingdom. They don’t obey for the sake of obeying.

They can be very stubborn and independent, but they’re also 1-owner dogs. If you’re the one she is attached to, you must train her.

– Yukiko11 (City Data)

Saint Bernards can be even more stubborn during obedience training if the handler is not someone who he or she trusts and respects. So if a random obedience trial judge is training the Bernard, the dog may very well be less responsive.

It’s no coincidence that the dog breeds with the lowest scores are also some of the most stubborn dogs. Stubbornness can be a huge disadvantage when it comes to obedience tests, which most likely affected the Saint Bernards’ performance.

Reasons Why Saint Bernards Are Smart

Obedience and work intelligence, which measure the dogs’ ability to learn and obey, is not everything when it comes to dog IQ. Even Stanley Coren admits there’s more to it.

The other two components of dog intelligence are adaptive and instinctive intelligence. Both are very different types of intelligence that are much more subjective than obedience & work IQ, thus harder to measure in dogs.

Instinctive Guardians & Protectors

Instinctive intelligence refers to a special intelligence related to what the dog breed was bred for. In other words, what job does (or did) the dog do? In the past, all dogs were developed for some job or role in society – typically to help humans.

For example, there are herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs, retrievers, companions, guardians and so much more. There are even truffle-tracking dogs! Each dog has the ability to do their intended jobs all thanks to instinctive intelligence.

In addition, this ability is natural to the dogs. That is, they need very little human training to perform these instinctive jobs. It’s like how Border Collies will naturally start herding if livestock are around. All this requires a special type of dog IQ.

Bernards only get aggressive if they need to. They won’t let anyone out of their car unless we are present and we give him the ok for the person to be there. 

– Anonymous (My Smelly)

In the Saint Bernard’s case, they were bred to be guardians and protectors. With their massive size and frame, is this really a surprise? In fact, Bernards were descendants of the mastiff-type dogs first brought by the ancient Romans in order to be guard dogs.

According to How Stuff Works, Saint Bernards are one of the 10 best guard dogs! Not only are they so loyal and protective, but also highly intelligent too. In uncertain situations, Saint Bernards may be able to easily access the situation.

Not all big dogs are great guard dogs. Guardians are excellent at sensing perceived threats and in analyzing the situation. After all, the Saint Bernard isn’t going to take everyone. They tend to pick their moments to fight back, which speaks volume for their instinctive IQ.

Check out this Saint Bernard doing what they do best:

Saint Bernard’s Adaptive Intelligence

The last dimension of canine intelligence is adaptive intelligence, which may be the most crucial or important component. This intelligence refers to the dog’s ability to learn for itself. That is, can the learn from previous experiences?

A dog with high adaptive intelligence is able to quickly learn to avoid past mistakes. These dogs may also be able to pick up environmental cues that associate them with actions. This is the other type of learning that makes the dog good at solving problems.

A dog that understands that the smell of sun-tan lotion means it’s time for swimming, is adaptively intelligent.

Of course, adaptive intelligence is also the hardest component to measure in dogs. The only thing we have are owner anecdotes and stories of Saint Bernards that demonstrate high adaptive IQ. But even so, we have plenty of stories that show just that.

One Saint Bernard owner explains to us why his dog, named Zeus, is so smart:

The second is grab my walking shoes from the back entrance, my Bernard is already waiting for me next to his leash. He knows he’s going for a walk.

– Zeusbernard (Dog Forums)

The owner continues by saying, “it could also be sunscreen or something as simple as changing into my basketball shorts…he always knows when I’m going out for a walk.” What’s even more impressive is that he doesn’t react the same with the owner goes out to water the yard.

Not only is Zeus able to learn from past experiences, but also differentiate small clues that determine whether the owner is going out for a walk or to do some yard work. Without a doubt, this dog is an adaptively intelligent St. Bernard.

Zeus the Saint Bernard is just one story of high adaptive intelligence in this breed. However, if you take the time to search the internet, there are plenty of stories that prove their high adaptive IQ!

Is Your Saint Bernard Smart?

So is your Saint Bernard smart? Well, it can depend on the dog. Like humans, intelligence will differ depending on the individual. This is especially true for adaptive intelligence.

The the best to gauge the Saint Bernard’s true intelligence is by asking the owners themselves. As a result, we surveyed real owners from the Saint Bernard subreddit and other dog forums. Here’s what they had to say to this question.

Real Owner Answers

1. Happeemommee says Yes:She is very loving and extremely smart, but also rotten. She seems to have no boundaries when it comes to other people’s personal space.”

2. Luvmyangels says Yes: While they are smart, they can also be stubborn. It’s not uncommon for a Saint to ‘melt’ when he/she doesn’t want to do something and when a dog this size decides to lay down and not move.”

3. Diverrjohnsil says Yes:Our bernard is too smart for his own good. I just wish he would put those smarts to use instead of doing nothing and lounging.”

4. Sendiulino says Yes:They are smart, but take a touch longer to retain commands long-term. It does not diminish anything in their character though at all.

5. Berniethebernard says Yes:Don’t underestimate these dogs. They may look like they don’t know what is going on, but they’re actually crazy smart!

6. Jkopaydog says Yes: My St Bernard is ridiculously smart. He will play dumb in order to get out of doing obedience training, but with food he all of a sudden understands everything.”

7. Stmybernardo says Mixed: I have raised two bernards. The older was never the brightest and had a goofy personality to match it. The 2 year old actually loves obedience and learning, which is completely different from anything I read.”

8. Leslie K says Yes: These dogs just need the right motivators to be able to act ‘smart.’ They don’t like to do everything you say unless there is something in it for them. Otherwise, they’re deceivingly smart dogs.

Do you own a Saint Bernard? What makes your dog so smart and intelligent? So let us know in the comments section below.

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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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