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Here’s What Actually Makes a Dog Intelligent, According to a Scientist

Nearly 30 years have passed, yet the debate still rages on. Which dogs are the smartest? Ever since the release of Stanley Coren’s “The Intelligence of Dogs,” the entire dog community has been in uproar. And it’s all thanks to its controversial ranking of dog breeds by intelligence. 

But what actually makes a dog smart? By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly if your dog has the brains…or if they’re a little, well, “behind the pack”…if you get my drift.

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The Current Method of Measuring Dog Intelligence

At the top of the list, you have the Border Collie ….anddddd….the Afghan Hound all the way at the very bottom. So how did the world-renowned psychologist, Stanley Coren, come to this conclusion? These rankings weren’t random.

Stanley Coren based his smartest dog breeds list solely on one component of dog intelligence, called  “obedience & working intelligence.” In short, this measures how quickly a dog learns a new command. In addition to how well a dog retains his learning.

What he found was that dogs in the top intelligence class were able to learn a new basic command with fewer than 5 repetitions. That means it would take these dogs only a matter of minutes to learn something new.

They were also able to obey a known command on the first try, with a 95% or better success rate. So who are these ultra intelligent dogs?

Here’s the top 10 smartest dogs:

  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle dog

But on the other side of the spectrum, dogs such as the Afghan Hound, Basenji and Bulldog needed a staggering 80 to 100 repetitions to learn a new command! What’s even more surprising is that they would only obey a known command less than 25% of the time!

Why This Method is Flawed

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t an intelligence test – It’s an obedience test! And while that’s somewhat true…this is unfortunately the best we have. This is the best way to objectively measure dog intelligence and quantify their cognitive abilities. 

No matter your view on this method, there’s still a correlation between how quickly a dog learns and how intelligent they are. It just doesn’t tell the full story. Needless to say, there are still major flaws to this method.

For example, some dogs are just too stubborn. It’s not a coincidence that dog breeds ranked in the lower half of the list also happen to be some of the most stubborn dog breeds too.

Dogs such as the Basenji, Bulldog, Chow Chow and Mastiff are all notoriously stubborn and independent dogs. But just because a dog doesn’t listen to you doesn’t mean they don’t actually understand what you’re trying to say.

And then you have dogs such as the Beagle, Bloodhound, and Basset Hound. All of which are curious dogs known for their incredible sense of smell. If you had hundreds of interesting scents flooding your nose all the time, you would probably be too distracted for obedience training as well. 

What Actually Makes a Dog Smart?

So if “obedience and working intelligence” doesn’t actually measure the true intelligence of dogs, what does? According to Stanley Coren, there’s also Instinctive Intelligence and Adaptive Intelligence. But we will break it down so that it’s easier to understand.

1. The Ability to Solve Problems

First, there’s the ability to solve problems. Imagine this: your dog is savoring his favorite treat, but in his excitement, he accidentally nudges another treat, causing it to roll under the bed.

The problem is, your dog can’t fit his head, let alone his body, under the bed to snatch that treat. Is your dog smart enough to use his paws to swipe at the treat? Or does he continue forcing his head under the bed until he gives up?

Here’s another good example.  Your dog loves sticks. And after hours of searching, he found the perfect stick. Now he wants to bring it home. But there’s one problem – it’s too big! When your dog carries the stick in his mouth, it’s too wide to fit through the doorway of the home.

Does your dog try to force his way through – only to give up and stare at you for help? Or is your dog highly intelligent and solves the problem by angling the stick to fit through the passageway?

Problem-solving is often seen as a clear sign of intelligence in dogs because it shows that they can think and learn for themselves. They don’t rely on their owners to do everything for them.

They’ll slowly think the problem through and try to come up with solutions on their own – even if those solutions don’t work. So, has your dog solved any problems that actually impressed you? Leave a comment below and tell us what they did!

2. Learning From Past Experiences & Mistakes

And then there’s the dog’s ability to learn from past experiences and mistakes. Imagine this scenario. You put your dog in a room while you quickly run to the grocery store to pick up some snacks. However, your dog absolutely hates being locked in the room.

But he has an idea. He’s seen you open the door by pulling down on the handle hundreds of times. And so naturally, your highly intelligent dog lunges at the door handle in hopes of recreating your actions to magically open the door.

And it works! All because your dog has unintentionally learned how doors work from all those times he’s seen you do it. This is clearly an example of high intelligence in dogs.

But here’s a great example of a dog learning from his past mistakes. You and your dog set off for the dog park on a clear sunny day. Your dog loves nothing more than to interact and play with other pups. There’s one thing he loves to do, which is to give precious licks and kisses to the other dogs.

But on this day, he tries this with a first-time visitor, because well, he wanted to welcome him to the park. But when he does, the new dog quickly snaps back at your dog. The next time at the dog park, your dog learned his lesson. He doesn’t get all up in his face, but instead, cautiously sniffs his butt.

This happens all the time with my overly-friendly Australian Shepherd, and if your dog learns like this too, let me know in the comments!

When intelligent dogs encounter a familiar situation, they can draw upon their previous knowledge to make informed decisions and respond effectively. This showcases their ability to apply learned info, which is a hallmark of true dog intelligence.

3. Adaptability

Another sign of intelligence in dogs can be seen with a dog’s adaptability. It’s no secret, all dogs are “creatures of habit.” They hate inconsistent behavior and would much prefer a predictable routine. But life isn’t going to be predictable all the time. 

For example, you get a new job on the other side of the country and you’re moving homes. The climate just went from hot to cold. And you just moved from a large family home to a small apartment. 

How fast does it take for your dog to adjust to this? Dogs that are able to seamlessly adjust to changing environments, situations, and experiences, reflect their ability to cope with the world around them.

Adaptability is considered a component of a dog’s intelligence because it shows their ability to learn, process information, and respond effectively to new and changing situations. 

4. Adaptive Intelligence

According to Stanley Coren, problem solving, adaptability, and learning from past experiences, all fall into one major dimension of dog intelligence. We call this the dog’s “adaptive intelligence.” In fact, this may be the most important component when trying to measure the true intelligence of a dog.

So why didn’t Coren use this for his smartest dog breeds list? Well, because it’s really hard to quantify and rank adaptive intelligence in dogs. It’s not like we can give them a verbal or written IQ test, like we do with humans.

We have to rely on owner anecdotes or stories to gauge the adaptive intelligence of an individual dog. So if you think your dog has high adaptive intelligence, I would love to hear stories of things they do that showcases this type of intelligence.

5. Instinctive Intelligence

But believe it or not, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dog intelligence. Even Coren will admit that there’s a final component of dog intelligence, called “instinctive intelligence.” This refers to the special ability or skill set that a dog was bred to do.

Dogs were bred to herd, retrieve, guard, hunt, track, and even provide companionship. Let’s take, for example, the Border Collie that was bred for herding. Herding is in their instincts, and it requires very little human training to get them to herd.

I know what you’re thinking. How is herding a type of intelligence? Imagine herding as a sport – it’s a bit like basketball in the world of dogs. Just like in basketball, being a skilled player means mastering the basics of shooting, dribbling, and passing.

But to truly shine on the court, you’ll need that extra touch – that is, knowing exactly when to take that shot, finding those perfect passing lanes, and making those game-changing decisions. This requires high basketball intelligence.

Now, Border Collies certainly have the athleticism, speed, and agility to be good herding dogs. But it’s their ability to read the flock, anticipate their every move, position themselves to push sheep towards an intended direction, and adjust their strategy on the fly, that makes them truly intelligent in herding.

This requires this special type of instinctive intelligence. And the best part is, all dogs have this in their respective field. So in theory, that sorta makes all dogs highly intelligent in their own way.

6. Memory of Vocabulary

Now this may be the most debatable measurement of dog intelligence. And that’s a dog’s memory of vocabulary. The average dog knows between 160 to 250 words, whether it be commands, objects, places, or actions.

In fact, a Border Collie named Chaser is often known as the “world’s smartest dog” because he understands roughly 1,100 words.

But is he really the smartest? A dog that knows lots of words is impressive, right? But here’s the twist: it’s not the whole story when it comes to dog intelligence. Dogs might understand many words or commands, but they interpret them in their own unique way. 

They simply make basic associations with words. So, it’s not quite like how humans comprehend the words. And while a huge vocabulary can be a fascinating party trick, it’s just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to a dog’s true smarts.

So what are things your dog does that makes them smart? Let us know in the comments section below!

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