Everyone wants to know which are the smartest dog breeds. But do you really want a smart dog? And which dogs are considered “smart” or “dumb,” anyway?
I’m as impressed as anyone by super-intelligent dogs like Chaser, a border collie who knows over 1000 words. Impressive, yes, but if I want a conversation, my husband knows at least that many. We, like many owners, love our dogs for their other talents: protection, athletic ability, snuggling, and comedic relief, to name a few. Brightest is not always best. Our smartest dog, Louis, is by far the most trouble, and the dimmest, Poquito, who can’t remember how to get on the couch from one day to the next, is the least bother.
We, like many owners, love our dogs for their other talents: protection, athletic ability, snuggling, and comedic relief, to name a few.
Not that Poquito, or any other dog, is actually stupid. Research into canine intelligence has exploded over the past few decades, and studies around the world continue to amaze us with what dogs are really capable of understanding.
Louis, I must admit, was chosen for his shaggy good looks. We had visions of Hollywood stardom when as his trainer, Maggi McClure, first visited. She told us he had the looks and the brains. Alas, his Aussie mix smarts and energy combined with baggage from his first year in an abusive situation landed him not on the silver screen, but in behavior boot camp.
Smart dogs have their own issues
McClure, a certified trainer and behavioral consultant, has been teaching dogs (and owners) in obedience, agility, and herding for over 20 years. I talked to her recently about the smartypants dogs at the top of every intelligence list and whether they actually make better pets than your average biscuit-brain.
“Border collies,” McClure says, “have work ethic, athletic needs, and the ability to function mentally in a complex manner. That said, they’re easily stimulated, and you best be sure the simulation is appropriate or they will create strange jobs. People build the drive—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I actually had a client with a biting BC. If they didn’t throw the ball fast enough the dog would lash out in frustration. Bloody legs, bad bites. It was a real problem they created in the dog by building a ball addiction.”
Louis, she observed, is so sensitive to his environment that he has trouble filtering, which can be exasperating for him and for us. A car in the driveway sends him into a frenzy, a loud motor causes panic. We love him as much as his slower-witted companions, he’s just more trying.
Other breeds, even those not always considered the sharpest knives in the drawer, can still learn enough to get into trouble.
Motivation is a key factor, according to McClure. One client came to her at wits’ end over their highly food-motivated Labrador retriever. This dog could get on the counter and open baby locks to get what it wanted. This lab was intelligent enough, or motivated enough, to do whatever it took for a tasty snack.
“The smart ones can get into trouble if they want something,” McClure says. “They’re going to find creative ways to get that resource.”
Which are the ‘smartest’ and ‘dumbest’ dog breeds?
Dr. Stanley Coren, (Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia) literally wrote the book on dog smarts. In “The Intelligence of Dogs,” Coren lists the following at the top of the class.
1. Border Collie
3. German Shepherd
4. Golden Retriever
5. Doberman Pincher
6. Shetland Sheepdog
7. Labrador Retriever
10. Australian Cattle Dog
Pet Breeds combined their own data with Coren’s rankings to come up with a list of the least intelligent dogs, based on trainability. Here they are from worst to first.
1. Afghan hound
3. Chow chow
9. Basset hound
10. Shi Tzu
The American Kennel Club has a different ranking.
In defense of bloodhounds, beagles and other bottom listers
It’s more important to look at breed characteristics than to rely on tests when choosing a dog, McClure says. Most tests rate trainability rather than actual smarts.
Some dogs have visual intelligence, amazing hearing, or the ability to sense movement. Bloodhounds, who appear at the bottom of the traditional intelligence lists, have an incredible sense of smell.
“We need to look at the whole dog and not base our ideas of intelligence on obedience protocols.” – Maggi McClure, Certified Dog Trainer
“A bloodhound is gifted with a great schnoz and has a tremendous ability to focus and shut down his other senses so he can do his job,” McClure says. “We need to look at the whole dog and not base our ideas of intelligence on obedience protocols.
“A beagle may be more difficult (to train) than a border collie,” McClure says. “Why? The beagle is “hardwired” to hunt independently and use their voice for us to track where they are. To a pet owner this looks more like running away than coming when called. So training the recall will be harder than a different dog. But they are doing intelligent work.”
This shout-out for beagle brains is welcome news to Bridget and Mark Nowlin, who faced training issues with their first beagle, Buster, and their new addition, Watson.
What their pets lack in trainability, they say, is more than made up for in sweetness.
“Watson loves to climb up into your lap and rub your face,” Bridget says. “He basically hugs you.”
If you want a dog who can do tricks, by all means get an Einstein poodles or herding breed. If you want a dog to adore you on their own terms, a beagle, mastiff, or basset hound could be just the ticket.
“Dogs who can engage well with people are the most trainable and can be wonderful family members,” McClure says. “If they have a biddable and personable nature they’re more apt to do well and train easily. The dogs who are not engaged but lazy also can make great pets, as their motivation to do nothing appeals to many people. Low activity, low engagement equals not trainable, but easy to live with.”
Motivation to do nothing? I can live with that.