Smart, smarter, smartest – dog breeds and their intelligence

“Border collies are really smart,” or “greyhounds are dumb.” You hear this kind of thing all the time. But is it actually true that there are dumb and smart breeds of dogs?


The Intelligence of Dogs


This view is probably due in part to the book The Intelligence of Dogs, by Prof. Stanley Coren. In it, Coren ranks various dog breeds by their supposed intelligence.


The top ten spots go to the “brightest dog breeds,” the ones that “understand new commands very quickly” and “obey their owner’s first command 95% of the time or better.” This category includes the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd Dog, Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Sheltie, Labrador Retriever, Papillon, Rottweiler and Australian Cattle Dog. These “brightest breeds” are supposed to learn easily, even with inexperienced or incompetent trainers.

The final category, on the other hand, is dog breeds rated lowest in intelligence. These include the Shih Tzu, Basset Hound, Mastiff, Beagle, Pekingese, Bloodhound, Borzoi, Chow Chow, Bulldog, Basenji and Afghan Hound. According to Coren’s book, these dogs need 30 to 40 repetitions before they have the faintest idea what is expected of them, and they are practically impossible to train.


The basis for this ranking was a survey of obedience trial judges. The judges were asked to list the ten dog breeds they considered lowest in intelligence and the ten that they considered highly intelligent. There were 199 responses. Coren used them to calculate a point total for each breed and then prepared the rankings based on these totals. That means the ranking shows that the judges surveyed have the impression that Border Collies learn “sit, down, heel” faster than an Afghan Hound, for example. So it is not surprising that the Border Collie, German Shepherd Dog, and Australian Cattle Dog fall into the “brightest dogs” category, while others like the Bulldog, Beagle, Pekingese, and Afghan Hound bring up the rear.


However, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the intelligence of an entire breed from this information. Instead, these results seem more indicative of how motivated these dogs, or breeds of dogs, are to work with humans in general. It is also possible that the owner of a dog like a Doberman or German shepherd generally values a clean “sit” or “heel” more highly than someone who has an English bulldog or Pekingese.


The role of selection


Of course, that doesn’t mean all dogs are equally suited to all tasks. Every breed was selected for certain skills. That means the “innate learning disposition” changes. The innate learning disposition describes the skills that are especially easy – or, indeed, not so easy – to learn. For example, it is easier for a Border Collie to learn how to guard a herd of sheep than for a Boxer to do so. And a Pointer will have an easier time learning the pointing position than a Malinois – it’s in his genes.  That doesn’t mean a Pointer is generally smarter than a Malinois.


There are differences between breeds when it comes to certain problem-solving tasks as well. Various studies performed in recent years show that working breeds that have been bred to work closely with humans are more effective at following indicative gestures than breeds originally bred for tasks demanding more independence. The level of attention paid to humans is probably the key factor here. For example, guarding and hunting dogs look to humans more than Molosser-type dogs when they cannot complete a task on their own. But that isn’t because the first group is more intelligent. They were simply selected for a stronger ability to communicate with humans.


Another systematic comparative study of the behaviors of five different breeds was conducted back in the 1950s. In this large-scale project, researchers John Scott and John Fuller raised Basenjis, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Fox Terriers, and Shelties under identical conditions and conducted various behavior tests with them. The researchers did indeed find differences between breeds in various behaviors, which could point to differences in intelligence at first glance. In one task, in which the dogs were supposed to go around an obstacle to reach food, Basenjis did better than Cocker Spaniels, for example. The reason for this was that they stayed active for longer, so in the process they tended to solve the task by chance, while Cocker Spaniels gave up sooner and simply lay down. In a maze task, Beagles were more successful than Shelties when the experiment was structured the same way. The Beagles explored their environment incessantly, while the Shelties were much more reserved in their behavior. So here as well, the dogs’ motivation is probably the key aspect, not their cognitive abilities.


Bigger brain = smarter?


One brand-new study concludes that dogs that have a larger brain have better short-term memory and self-control. For this study, owners performed various behavior tests at home with their own dogs. Results for 7,000 purebred dogs from 74 different breeds were used for the project. However, it would be mistaken to conclude that the study had shown that a larger brain means a smarter dog. A closer look at the data shows that larger dogs (those that logically also have larger brains) are more likely to have gone to obedience school and to be better trained. That means it remains unclear what portion of the effect is due to the size of the brain and how much influence should be ascribed to training experience. After all, several other studies have already shown that dogs that have received better training have an easier time resolving certain tasks.


Individuality instead of sweeping generalizations about entire breeds


All this means that the available scientific data do not paint a clear picture. It isn’t possible to determine a dog’s “intelligence” from the breed alone. Where differences between breeds have been found, they tend to lie in the breed’s function, meaning the traits for which the breed was selected, or there are simple morphological reasons for them. Besides that, an individual dog’s life experience, and especially his level of training, plays a crucial role in problem-solving behavior. Like people, dogs have to learn how to learn. Owners should take care to ensure a healthy level, neither overwhelming their dogs nor boring them.


Each dog breed has its strengths, and the same is especially true of every individual. That includes the strengths for which the breed was originally selected, but also the external influences the dog has encountered over its life. For the vast majority of characteristics, individual differences are so great that sweeping generalizations about specific breeds are better avoided.


I can say from my own experience that even a greyhound is not a stupid dog. These dogs, like others, are smart enough to learn new things. And yes, they can be trained, too. This argument should not be used as an excuse. Some of them may simply be more difficult to persuade to cooperate with humans. In those cases, you just have to find out what your own dog especially likes, what motivates him, and most of all, where his strengths lie.


The question of which dog breed is the smartest cannot be answered conclusively. That would be like asking which tool is better, a hammer or a screwdriver.  The answer always depends on the context, of course, and on what you need at the time.

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