Smartest Dogs

Is the Belgian Malinois Smart? – A Guide to Malinois Intelligence

The intelligent Belgian Malinois.
Written by Richard Jeng

Always eager to perform and play, the Belgian Malinois is an excitable dog breed that’s full of life and energy. While these active dogs need plenty of run to stay happy, they can be obedient too. But is an obedient dog a smart dog?

So, is the Belgian Malinois smart? The Belgian Malinois is an exceptionally intelligent dog breed with a strong work ethic. In fact, they’re the 26th smartest dog (out of 138 breeds) when it comes to obedience and working IQ. But because of their high adaptive intelligence and eagerness to obey, these dogs have become a gold standard for police K-9 work.

There’s more to the Belgian Malinois’ intelligence than just learning commands and tricks. Police units all around the world trust these dogs for a reason. We’ll discuss what actually makes the Malinois one of the smartest dog breeds in the world.

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Measuring Malinois Intelligence

The intelligence of dogs is broken up into three dimensions. For the list of smartest dog breeds, the rankings is based on just one dimension: obedience and working intelligence – a term coined by canine psychologist Stanley Coren.

According to Coren, this type of intelligence is the most objective to measure. That said, Coren was able to develop a criteria and “standard” for this obedience and work. This IQ basically measures a dog’s ability to learn and retain the information.

It’s certainly not perfect, though a good starting point for measuring dog intelligence. Because the trial was essentially an obedience test, breeds with strong work ethics, like the Belgian Malinois, did a lot better on the test.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Although Stanley Coren was credited for developing this criteria, he had the help of 199 obedience trial judges from North America. They assessed as many breeds as possible (given the criteria), allowing Coren to collect enough data for his list.

The criteria for dog intelligence is as follows:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for a dog breed to learn a new command. Dog breeds that needed fewer repetitions, such as the Malinois, were considered smarter.
  2. The success rate that a dog breed will obey a known command on the first attempt. Those with a higher success rate were believed to be more obedient and intelligent.

As mentioned, the smartest dogs list only consists of 138 breeds. Of course, there are many more dog breeds in the world! It’s just that not every dog breed participated. In fact, only those that were recognized by the AKC or CKC were tested.

In addition, not every dog that participated qualified for the final list of smartest dogs. Only dogs that received at least 100 responses qualified. This ruled out uncommon recognized dogs because it was too difficult to get enough dogs for the test.

The good news is that the Belgian Malinois is recognized by the American and Canadian kennel club. Plus, they’re one of the top 50 most popular dogs in America. In other words, they had no problems with participation and qualification.

How the Malinois Performed

The Belgian Malinois performed exceptionally well on the trials. So well, that they ranked the 26th best in performance. This places the Malinois in the “bright dogs” category with other standouts of the same intelligence class.

But what does this actually mean? The Belgian Malinois is capable of learning a new command with just 5 to 15 repetitions. For a basic command, they’re able to learn it in 30 minutes or less! Few dogs are faster at learning commands than a Malinois.

The Belgian Malinois also excelled when it came to obedience retention. These dogs will obey known commands with a 85% or better success rate! They’re one of the most intelligent, but also obedient dogs in the world!

Performance like the Belgian Malinois isn’t easy. However, other popular breeds in the same IQ class include the Corgi, Pointer, Cocker Spaniel, Bernese Mountain dog, Springer Spaniel, Pom and the Weimaraner. Not a bad class to be in.

Malinois vs. Least Intelligent Dogs

Without question, there’s a significant gap between the least intelligent and the Malinois. Those in the lowest intelligence class are often stubborn and independent. They don’t work for the sake of working, unlike the Belgian Malinois.

On average, the least intelligent dog breeds needed between 80 to 100 repetitions to learn a new command. In some cases, they needed more. This means that a Belgian Malinois is at least 5 times faster at learning commands!

On the other hand, the Malinois is also much more obedient. The lowest dog intelligence class has a 25% or worse success rate when obeying known commands on the first try. That said, a Malinois is at least 3 times more obedient!

In all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with being in the lowest intelligence class. In fact, some of the most popular dog breeds are in that class! For example, the Bloodhound, Beagle, Chow Chow, Shih Tzu and Bulldog are all the “least intelligent.”

Other Reasons Why the Malinois is Smart

The Belgian Malinois is most famous for being part of the Navy Seal military unit.

Obedience and work intelligence is just one dimension of dog intelligence. And according to Coren, here are two more: instinctive and adaptive intelligence. Both of which, may be more important though they’re harder to measure.

This is especially true with adaptive intelligence. In this case, we can only rely on examining stories and anecdotes from owners. And while instinctive intelligence is easier to measure, it’s impossible to compare dogs of one group to another.

Sheep Herding Intelligence

Instinctive intelligence is the dog’s natural ability or innate skillset. In this case, the Malinois’ skill would be sheep-herding, which they’ve done long before becoming a top military dog. Though few are still herding today, their instincts are still intact.

In the past, all dog breeds were bred for a purpose, role or job in society. They were mainly used as extra help to humans. For this reason, we now have a wide variety of specialized dogs, such as guard dogs, herding dogs, retrievers and more.

But how is herding a type of intelligence? Just think about it. With little to no human training, these dogs are able to instinctively push and drive livestock in a certain direction. They can predict the movements of sheep and guide accordingly.

He’s very playful, and we have been on top of correcting aggressive behavior. The pup is learning to not herd her (persistent – nip ankles, cheeks, ears, etc.)

– Sands101 (GermanShepherds.com)

This requires a special type of intelligence in dogs, that is, instinctive intelligence. And because the Belgian Malinois is one of the top herding dog breeds, we can assume they have exceptionally high instinctive intelligence as well.

However, this can be a problem too. If you’ve owned or played with a Malinois puppy, it’s easy to see the herding instincts. Without proper socialization and exercise, they won’t be able to control herding. As a result, they will likely nip at your heels.

Belgian Malinois’ Adaptive Intelligence

The adaptive intelligence of the Belgian Malinois is a bit more complex than the other two types of dog intelligence. It’s a lot more subjective and relies mainly on “word of mouth” stories to assess this special IQ type in dogs.

That said, this intelligence refers to the dog’s ability to learn for itself. For example, a Malinois may be a great problem solver or quick at learning from past experiences and mistakes. All these are clear signs of an adaptively intelligent dog.

While adaptive intelligence can vary among the Belgian Malinois, most seem to excel in this area of dog IQ. Here’s an example of an adaptively intelligent Malinois learning:

We live in an apartment, on the top floor next to the elevator. Our Malinois knows when we have people heading to our floor based on the length of the elevator sound.

– Jemstaff (Dog Forums)

The owner continues to explain that whenever the elevator sound lasted a certain length (longer than when going to lower floors), their dog would patiently wait at the door. His Malinois picked up on such a small cue and learned from the past.

Another Malinois owner explains to us his dog’s incredible ability to learn on his own:

After putting on sunscreen every day before our daily jogs, our dog has associated the scent of the sunscreen with going out. He’ll wait for me patiently by the leash.

– Jason F. (Malinois owner)

This Malinois picked up on two things. First, he learned that the action of his owner putting on some sunscreen always meant that they’re going on their jog. Next, he also learned that the next step is to put on the leash. This is a clear sign of high adaptive IQ.

These are just a few stories demonstrating what adaptive intelligence in the Belgian Malinois looks like. And while not all Malinoses may be this smart, many of them are. Just ask any owner and you’ll likely hear many stories like these!

Do You Really Want a Smart Malinois?

Owning a smart dog breed, such as the Belgian Malinois, doesn’t really matter. In fact, smarter dogs can be a bigger problem for most owners. In other words, smarter dog breeds have their own issues that may likely lead to inconveniences.

For example, smarter dogs tend to need a lot of mental stimulation. Much more than a proclaimed “dumb dog.” But the problem is, not every owner has the time or commitment to provide the Belgian Malinois with sufficient mental stimulation.

And by mental stimulation, I mean activities that work their brain. You may be great at getting the proper physical stimulation (exercise) for your Malinois, but that is only half the equation for raising a happy and healthy Malinois.

What my Mal likes is mental stimulation. Wear that little brain out with half an hour or more of problem solving, fetch, tug, and bite. Works better than running with him.

– Littlelebowski (Pistol Forum)

Without adequate mental stimulation for your Malinois, they will likely exhibit destructive behaviors. For example, they may start digging holes or tearing apart the couch. No matter how much you walk your dog, they can still be active without metal exercises.

Mental stimulation can come in the form of obedience training, which is the most common type. But that does take a lot of time and commitment that many owners don’t have. However, you can also use dog puzzles and games for mental stimulation.

Best Dog Puzzles for a Malinois

Dog puzzles keeps your Malinois’ brain busy while giving you some “time off.” It’s a no-brainer and a win-win for you and your dog. That said, here are some of my favorite dog toys.

One of my Aussie’s all-time favorite dog puzzle is the StarMark Bob-A-Lot. It’s a lot more useful than it looks. The Bob-A-Lot is an interactive bobble toy that releases treats when your dog pushes the toy. It forces your Malinois to problem solve to get the treats!

This dog puzzle comes with two chambers, which allows you to put both treats and even a full meal in the capsule. For your Belgian Malinois, I would recommend getting a size large. It’s been so useful and I highly recommend checking it out on Amazon.

I bought this dog puzzle for both my dogs because they just love it so much. The Nina Ottosson Dog Puzzle is the perfect dog puzzle for a Malinois that needs some mental exercises. Yes, there are more variations, but the Hide n Slide looks the most impressive.

Don’t be fooled – it’s a challenging puzzle where your Malinois needs to figure out how to get to the treats by moving around the sliders. Just put in a few of his favorites and he’ll be stuck to this puzzle for a good while.

If these don’t appeal to you, that’s okay. These are just what I’ve personally used with my smart dogs. The point is to get your Malinois something – anything that appeals to you. There’s a huge selection on Amazon to choose from.


So do you own a Belgian Malinois? How intelligent is your dog? What smart things does your dog do? 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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