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Are Shetland Sheepdogs Smart? – Examining the Sheltie’s Intelligence

With their strong urges to herd squirrels and rabbits, Shetland Sheepdogs may seem “out-of-control” at times. Telling them to stop herding over and over again may seem like a sign of a dumb dog. But, is this really the case?

Highly trainable and responsive, Shelties are some of the smartest dogs in the world. In fact, they’re the 6th most intelligent dog breed for obedience & working intelligence. However, what truly makes them smart is their ability to herd with little to no human training. This natural skill requires a special type of dog intelligence, called “instinctive intelligence.”

Dog intelligence is more than just being able to learn commands. That said, the Sheltie checks all boxes of a truly intelligent dog breed. Read on to learn how we measure IQ in dogs and the real reasons why Shelties are smart.

RECOMMENDED: 100 Smartest Dog Breeds

Measuring the Sheltie’s Intelligence

Measuring dog intelligence is more complex than you think. There is no perfect way to measure IQ in an objective way. However, we do have obedience and working intelligence. This basically tells us how quickly a dog learns commands.

The term was coined by pHD and canine psychologist, Stanley Coren. In fact, it’s the IQ type that we use today in the smartest breeds list. And with the help of 199 obedience trial judges, he formulated a criteria which the judges used in his trials.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Coren’s criteria for dog intelligence was initially met with a lot of controversy that still holds today. And while it doesn’t tell the completely story, it’s a great starting point for measuring dog intelligence. The criteria is as follows:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for a dog breed to learn a new command. Dogs that required fewer repetitions were considered to be smarter.
  2. The rate at which a dog will obey a known command on the first attempt. Breeds with a higher success rate were believed to be more intelligent and obedient.

Not all dog breeds participated in the trials, though. Only those that were recognized by the AKC or the Canadian kennel club were invited to participate in Coren’s intelligence trials. As such, many dog breeds were immediately eliminated.

Plus, not every dog breed that participated qualified for Coren’s final list of smartest breeds. Only those with at least 100 responses qualified. In other words, only popular dog breeds with enough participants qualified.

The good news is that Shelties are recognized by both kennel clubs. In addition, they’re one of the 30 most popular dog breeds in America. Thus, they had no problem getting enough Sheltie participants for the intelligence trials.

How Shetland Sheepdogs Performed

To our surprise, the Sheltie performed above and beyond most dog breeds. In fact, they are one of the 10 smartest dog breeds – coming in at 6th place. Only ten dog breeds are in the same intelligence class as the Sheltie.

But what does this all mean? This means that the Shetland Sheepdog is capable of learning a new and basic command with fewer than 5 repetitions. As a result, your Sheltie may be able to pick up a basic trick in just a few minutes!

Shelties also performed exceptionally well in the obedience intelligence section. They’re able to obey a known command on the first attempt with a 95% or better success rate! These work-loving herding dogs didn’t shy away from performing.

As mentioned, only 10 breeds are in the same league as the Sheltie. The others are popular breeds like the German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Border Collie, Poodle, Golden Retriever, Labrador, Doberman and the Australian Cattle dog.

Shelties vs. The Average Dog

There’s nothing wrong with being average, especially when it comes to dogs. But that does not mean there isn’t a sizable gap between the smartest dogs (like the Sheltie) and the average. So how do the two intelligence class compare?

The average dog breed needs roughly 25 to 40 repetitions in order to learn a new basic command. In other words, the Sheltie is at least 5 times faster at learning commands than your average dog. And in some cases, they’re 8 times faster!

With that said, the average dog breed will obey a known command (on the first try) with a 50% or better success rate. This means that the Shetland Sheepdog is roughly 90% more obedient than an average dog!

Sure, Shelties are superior in obedience and working intelligence. However, being average is not bad. In fact, many popular breeds are average, including the Australian Shepherd, Boxer, Shiba, Siberian Husky, Jack Russell and the Cavalier King Charles.

2 Other Reasons Why Shelties Are Smart

In the first section, we covered just one type of dog intelligence. But in reality, their intelligence is a lot more complex than that. Even Stanley Coren admits his results aren’t perfect because they don’t take into account other dimensions of dog IQ.

However, according to Coren, two other dimensions include instinctive and adaptive intelligence. Both of which, are just as important – if not, more! The problem with these two other IQ types is that they’re not easy to measure.

We can’t exactly hand out a written IQ test to dogs nor create a criteria for measurement around the two other IQ types. In other words, they’re more more subjective than objective – especially when it comes to adaptive intelligence.

1. World-class herding skills require dog intelligence

Instinctive intelligence is like the natural ability or special skillset that the dog was born with. It can be guarding, herding, retrieving, flushing and even providing companionship. Because all dogs were bred for a purpose, all breeds have this.

It should be no surprise that the Shetland Sheepdog’s instinctive intelligence is herding. In fact, they are one of the 10 best herding dogs with a specialization in herding sheep. But how exactly is this considered an intelligence?

Herding is not something that’s taught to the Sheltie. Rather, they were born with the ability to do this with very little human training. If you put a young Sheltie on a farm with sheep, there’s a good chance that the dog starts naturally herding.

The Shelties herding/nipping is so instinctual it is a tough one to change! So, in the meantime it requires a lot of management. 

– Toffee’s mom (Sheltie Forums)

Not all dogs can herd in an intelligent way. This ability to instinctively push and drive livestock flocks in a certain direction requires this special instinctive intelligence. A huge part is the dog sensing how the flocks move and coordinating movement.

And even if your Sheltie has never seen a farm animal, these instincts are still seen in the home. For example, it’s not uncommon to see these dogs chase and nip at children, squirrels, rabbits, the cat or any other small animal around.

2. The Sheltie’s adaptive intelligence

On the other hand, adaptive intelligence refers to the dog’s ability to learn for him or herself. This is not instincts, nor the ability to learn commands. Rather, it can mean problem solving and learning from past experiences.

And unlike instinctive IQ, this dimension of intelligence can vary greatly among all Shelties. As such, all Shelties are born with about the same herding ability. However, not all are great problem solvers or great learners outside of obedience.

As you may have guessed, there is no objective test to measure this intelligence. Instead, we look at owner anecdotes and stories to examine the adaptive intelligence in these dogs. The good news is that Shelties tend to have high adaptive IQ.

For example, this owner’s Sheltie was able to learn the names of people and the family cats in just a few months:

I am completely amazed at how quickly she picks things up. She’s almost 4 months old and knows all of our names and both the cats names.

– Madismomma (Sheltie Forums)

Learning from previous experiences is a clear sign of adaptive intelligence. This Sheltie, in a short time, had learned what each member of the home is called. The owner continues by saying that the Sheltie will go to a person when asked to.

Another owner tells us how her Sheltie responded to something he has never been taught!

Once he wandered in my room, so I pointed at the door and said leave please. He turned and walked right out. I never taught him that!

– Texarkana (Sheltie Forums)

The owner has never taught her Sheltie to “leave.” Most likely, the Sheltie picked up on the cue and made an educated guess. He could have also witnessed the owner doing the same thing to another person. Either way, he learned this himself.

Sure, these are just two examples of high adaptive intelligence in the Shetland Sheepdog. But you better believe there are many more! Ask any Sheltie owner what smart things their dog does and you’ll be sure to find a lot of stories like these.

Is Your Sheltie Smart?

The Shetland Sheepdog is a smart dog in regards to obedience and working IQ. There’s no denying this. And as one of the best herding dogs, their instinctive intelligence is impressive too. But just how smart are these dogs?

To find out the answer to this question, we asked real Sheltie owners whether they thought their dog was intelligent. As such, we surveyed the popular Sheltie subreddit and other dog forums to find the answers to this question.

Here’s what the Sheltie owners had to say:

Real Owner Answers:

1. Madismomma says Yes:We’ve had other breeds as well that were supposed to be smart, but I am completely amazed at how quickly she picks things up. And I just know she understand all that I’m saying to her.

2. Terri says Mixed:I’ve only ever owned three dogs and they have all been shelties. Two girls and one boy. My girls are the smartest dogs you could ever imagine, Arran on the other hand is as dumb as they come.”

3. Sylvia says Yes: “I wouldn’t have any other breed, since we had our first sheltie, can’t believe that they are sooooo smart. We have 4 now and each one is different, all very smart in their own way.

4. Sheltiecookie says Yes:By far the most intelligent dogs I’ve ever owned are Shelties and I’ve had a lot. Even with their smarts, they always seem to do things that impress you even more.

5. Dogflourish says Yes:I agree that Shelties are super smart dogs. They are also some of the most fun dogs to be around too! Intelligent and friendly breed.”

6. Blacknblue says Yes:My shelties are like mini furry people. Sometimes I think they are training me. I have a border collie too, but I think one of my shelties is even smarter than the BC.”

7. Greensunshine says Yes: Remarkably smart dogs that know exactly what you want with very little needed communication. Sometimes I think my Shelties can read my mind.

8. Elaine2004 says Yes:Shelties are by far more intelligent than the breeds listed above them on the top 100 list. Thats why we are owned by Shelties! They’re not foolish they know how to exactly train us to their liking.

9. Argosmom says Mixed:Had two Shelties in my life. First family dog was not the brightest bulb in the pack, but still loving and adorable. Our Argo is unbelievable smart though!

10. Sablemable says Yes:Sparky, my six year old tri is smart. After lapping up all the water, he sat by the empty water dish, stared at me, and when he got my attention. Then turned at looked at the jug of water!

Is the Sheltie For Me?

The intelligence of your Shetland Sheepdog does not matter. In fact, the intelligence of all breeds do not really matter. The truth is all dogs are intelligent enough to get through housebreaking and all the obedience training needed.

Unless you plan to have your dog do specialized work (instinctive intelligence), then the IQ of the dog matters even less. Instead of asking how smart a dog breed is, it’s better to ask if the personality and the temperament matches you.

However, the Sheltie happens to be one of the smartest dog breeds in the canine kingdom. After all, they are exceptional in all three dimensions of dog intelligence!

At the end of the day, Shelties are fantastic dogs that are affectionate, lively and alert. In the home, a Sheltie will have a gentle side. It’s why they’re one of the most popular dogs, even for families that don’t need to herd livestock!

Pick up a Shetland Sheepdog today and you won’t regret it!

Do you own a Sheltie? How smart is your dog and what intelligent things do they do? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Charlie's mom

Sunday 20th of March 2022

My sheltie, Charlie got a little tangled around a pole during our walk and unraveled himself.After that I just have to say uh-hum & he immediately fixes it.A passersby stood watching in amazement and said he's never seen a dog fix that before!

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