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All dogs have a great capacity to learn, perform tricks, and, of course, convince you they deserve another treat. A “smart dog,” however, is often thought of as a dog who is highly trainable. But according to dog trainer and behaviorist Karen London, Ph.D., a dog’s intelligence can be measured in many different ways, and the characteristics that make a dog smart can vary widely. Some of those qualities include being highly trainable (including being able to learn new commands quickly), adaptable, able to learn complex tasks, and possessing good problem-solving skills. Smart dogs are also emotionally intelligent and able to interact positively with humans and other animals.
“Smart” dog breeds have historically been given jobs that suit their talents, and today, many of these dogs have important jobs, such as search and rescue, therapy, and service work. Whether you’re looking for a loyal companion or a working dog, these genius dog breeds are sure to impress you with their cleverness and adaptability. Just be careful — they might end up running the household.
Most intelligent dog breeds:
1. Border Collie
Border Collies are known for their intelligence, agility, and herding instincts. Lots of Border Collies are still gainfully employed as working dogs on farms and ranches, but whether working or not, they’re quick to pick up skills related to obedience training, agility competitions, and flyball.
While the Border Collie is considered one of the most intelligent dog breeds, they require a lot of mental and physical stimulation and may try to herd other pets or even children if they need something to do. They can be encouraged to redirect this energy, but may not be a good fit for potential pet parents who don’t have lots of dog experience.
2. Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian Cattle Dog, or “Blue Heeler,” is another herding breed known for working with cattle. The breed, which hails from Australia, is medium-sized with a muscular build and a short, dense coat speckled gray-blue or red. They have a strong work ethic and are loyal and protective of their families, though they can be shy with strangers. While Heelers are highly intelligent, they are also pretty independent, which can translate to stubbornness. They are a great fit for active households with plenty of opportunities to exercise their minds and bodies.
The Schnauzer is a breed that originated in Germany. These smarty-pants dogs have wiry, salt-and-pepper coats and a lot of confidence; they’re aware of everything going on around them. They’re friendly, personable, and make great family pets. They are also pretty good watchdogs, which means some barking is to be expected. They need regular exercise, but mental stimulation is more important for a Schnauzer. After some explorative play, they love cuddling on the couch with their people.
4. German Shepherd Dog
German Shepherds are very versatile and trainable for all sorts of jobs and circumstances. They have an imposing presence, with a muscular build, and have transitioned from their original jobs as herders and sheep guarders to, most frequently, working for the police and military, as they are loyal and have protective instincts that lead them to respond intensely to potential threats. These persistently smart pups can also make great service dogs and have a strong desire to please their people. They need patient and knowledgeable handlers to be at their best and require lots of regular exercise.
5. Belgian Malinois
The Belgian Malinois is another smart herding dog who has segued into military and police work but can also be trained for search and rescue and as a service dog. These dogs get super focused on whatever new tricks they’re asked to do and can stay focused for a long period of time. If only we all could say the same. With that much brain power, the Belgian Malinois needs lots of mental activity and exercise, so they need experienced pet parents with time for training and outdoor runs. But it’s worth it — a well-trained Malinois is an amazing companion.
The Weimaraner is a large breed with a short, sleek coat that is typically silver-gray and a lot of brains. Weimaraners were originally bred as hunting dogs and have a strong prey drive, lots of endurance, and immense speed. They are now often used in search and rescue teams, police work, and as service dogs. Though tough, Weimaraners are very loyal and affectionate with their pet parents and need a lot of company to prevent anxiety and destructive behavior. They also need plenty of exercise.
The Poodle offers so much: intelligence, elegance, and a hypoallergenic coat, which is curly and non-shedding. There are even different sizes for different households: Standard, Miniature, and Toy. Poodles are considered by many to be one of the most intelligent breeds, as they are quick learners who are great with obedience, agility, and even hunting. They also make great service dogs. Just don’t leave them to their own devices too much, or they’ll get creative in destructive ways.
8. Labrador Retrievers
The Labrador Retriever is one of the most popular dog breeds in the world. These dogs are known for their intelligence, friendly personalities, and loyalty. Their coats can be various colors, including black, yellow, and chocolate, and they were originally bred to retrieve game and fish. They love to swim and need a lot of exercise, as well as social time to be happy pups. They’re generally very friendly and a common choice for families with kids, and they like other animals, too.
9. Shetland Sheepdog
The Shetland Sheepdog hails from Scotland and was originally bred as a herding dog. Like most herding dogs, they’re super smart and still love participating in competitive herding trials. They can make great therapy dogs or work in search and rescue roles — give this dog a job, and they’ll thank you. They are loyal, affectionate, and social, and love the company of people and other animals. They have a lot of personality and energy, so are a good choice for families with the time, space, and patience to train them properly.
The Cockapoo is a mix of a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle. The character traits they inherit from each parent can vary, but like their Poodle parent, Cockapoos are hypoallergenic. Both Poodles and Spaniels are intelligent breeds, and Cockapoos also generally inherit this trait. They’re also affectionate and social, making them great family pets. They’re pretty adaptable to their surroundings, and with enough exercise and mental stimulation, they’re adaptable to most environments, including apartments.
11. Flat-Coated Retriever
The Flat-Coated Retriever has exceptional retrieving abilities and a thick, shiny coat (hence the breed’s name). These retrievers have a unique face that almost appears to be smiling, and they have a reputation for being eager to please to match. They’re playful, outgoing, energetic, and very adaptable; they thrive in many different living situations. They are also often used as therapy dogs as they are gentle and social.
The Papillon is a toy breed that originated in France and has beautiful butterfly-shaped ears and silky coats. Although usually considered a lap-dog, the Papillon is highly energetic and active; these smart pups are stars at agility and obedience trials. Papillons are quick to learn and agreeable. They love people and other pets and are quite fearless despite their size. They are great for apartment living as long as they get exercise and mental stimulation.
The Rottweiler is a large breed known for their protective nature and big brains; they are quick to learn and have a strong desire to obey. Though they are independent, Rottweilers are fiercely loyal to their families and are often used as guard dogs. They require consistent training and socialization to help make the best of their abilities.
14. English Springer Spaniel
The English Springer Spaniel is a sweet, playful, friendly pup who is also plenty smart. They have an excellent sense of smell and strong tracking abilities and have historically been used as hunting companions. They also have great problem-solving skills and still work alongside hunters today. If you don’t like clingy pets, they’re not for you; the Springer Spaniel is sometimes referred to as a “velcro dog” since they always want to be by your side. They’re also chill with all types of environments as long as they have company and regular activity.
The Schipperke is a small breed with a thick, black, water-resistant coat and a build often described as “sturdy.” These smart dogs have fox-like faces and thin legs, and are quite energetic and playful. The Schipperke is a clever and independent thinker who won’t be overly reliant on you for direction. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on your relationship, but obedience training is something they’ll take well to with consistency.
Corgis, a smart breed of herding dogs originating in Wales, have long, stocky bodies and adorable short legs. Not much is cuter than a Corgi’s waddle, and they’re well-known for being popular amongst the U.K. royals. Corgis who don’t live in palaces, however, still work as herding dogs today and are adaptable to different living situations, including apartments. These smart pups are highly responsive to training and enjoy learning new commands and tricks. Corgis’ excellent memories help them remember commands and routines forever. Despite their small size, they need a lot of exercise to keep waddling into their old age.
17. Golden Retriever
The Golden Retriever was originally a hunting dog but is now more often a beloved family dog. They have beautiful yellow coats and smiling faces and are smart and friendly. Golden Retrievers are highly active dogs who need lots of exercise and mental stimulation. They’re very attuned to human emotions and are often used as therapy dogs because of their calming presence and ability to comfort people. They’re a great choice for a first dog.
18. Doberman Pinscher
Originally bred to work as personal protectors and guard dogs, Dobermans are often used as police and military dogs because, when well-trained, they can quickly assess potential threats and respond to the slightest command. They have an alert and protective nature and make excellent watchdogs, but also make good family pets; they’re very sensitive to their pet parent’s feelings. They need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation to feel and act their best, but the Doberman makes a wonderful, loyal companion.
There’s a reason Lassie was always saving Timmy — Collies are the epitome of smart. Collies are blessed with an extraordinary level of intelligence that lets them solve puzzles and learn tricks with the ease of a seasoned pro. Just keep in mind that their brilliance sometimes leads to mischievous antics, when not provided enough physical exercise and mental enrichment.
20. Mixed Breed Dog
Don’t overlook one of the most common types of intelligent dogs: mixed breeds. These dogs exhibit a wide range of physical and behavioral characteristics because of their genetic diversity, which can result in unique dogs who are intelligent, athletic, and friendly. They can be just as trainable and reliable as purebred dogs and may also have a lower chance of having inherited diseases and health problems than purebred dogs.
However, mutts’ temperament and behavior can be influenced by a variety of factors, too, including their environment, socialization, and training — but the same can be said for purebred dogs. There’s no way to predict who your pet will be, so be sure to spend time with them before bringing them home.
Can you train your dog to be smart?
A dog’s intelligence is often measured by their training, and most dogs are capable of being trained if that training is compatible with their natural abilities. In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Dr. Stanley Coren examines how a dog’s intelligence and behavior related to specific tasks is influenced by their historical breeding for specific jobs. Essentially, an otherwise smart dog of one breed might struggle with a task they weren’t bred to excel at. For example, a toy-driven dog might not respond to a name game, like the famed Chaser who knew over 1000 words, because they are simply uninterested in toys — making them less motivated to the task at hand. So, find something that motivates your pup and unleash their inner genius with a little mental exercise such as puzzles, trick training, memory games, obedience training, herding, agility, and nose work.