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How Smart is Your Dog?

How smart are our dogs really? This is a question that we humans have been asking since dogs were domesticated. 

Canines are intelligent, relying on association, scent, instinct and memory. Dogs have always displayed characteristics of guarding, loyalty and playfulness and they're also gifted with an amazing sense of smell which we harness for complex tasks such as tracking or to detect explosives or diseases like cancer.

In the last two decades, scientists have been studying the cognitive abilities of our best friends and they keep making some remarkable discoveries...


It could be because they were hunters who had to use their brains to catch prey. It also could be because they’re very social - they need brainpower to communicate and cooperate.

It is known that puppies untouched by human hands for the first weeks of life never become wholly domesticated, which is why puppy socialisation is essential. This is a huge element to keep in mind and it is just one of the reasons why puppy mills are such horrible places that produce animals that will never be of sound body and mind.

Correspondingly, a dog that is fed, groomed and exercised, but otherwise given very little attention is unlikely to reach the same potential as those who are members of the household, loving pets who are spoken to regularly, played with and introduced to any number of outside influences and experiences.

According to neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, PhD, author of Born to Bark, there are three major types of dog smarts:

1. instinctive intelligence (what a dog is bred for)
2. adaptive intelligence (what a dog can learn by itself)
3. working and obedience intelligence (what people can teach a dog to do). 

Comparing breeds can be hard for the first two types, but there's a wide range in brainpower among breeds in working and obedience intelligence. 


Intelligence comes in many forms, even in dogs, so it's hard to say whether one breed is really "smarter" than another. But there are definite differences.

The bumper sticker "My Border Collie is smarter than your child" may be an exaggeration, but Border Collies are considered the smartest breed in training and obedience. In a survey, 199 of 208 obedience training judges ranked Border Collies in the top 10. 

The others, in order, were Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Shetland Sheepdogs, Labrador Retrievers, Papillons, Rottweilers, and Australian Cattle Dogs.

Apologies to Afghan Hound fans. These dogs ranked lowest on tests of working and obedience intelligence. They were considered the least "trainable" breed, followed by the Basenji, Bulldog, Chow Chow, Borzoi, Bloodhound, Pekingese, Beagle, Mastiff, and Basset Hound.


Mentally, a dog is like a 2-year-old childThe average dog can learn 165 words. Those in the top 20% of intelligence can learn 250 words, and the smartest dogs may be capable of much more. 

Chaser knows all of her 1022 dog toys by name!
Professor John W. Pilley taught his Border Collie Chaser more than 1,000 words - about the same vocabulary as a 3-year-old child. 

Astonishingly, Pilley discovered that she was capable of learning 10 words a day – the same as a nine-year-old child. But because she also needed more repetition than a nine-year-old to grasp the words, he decided to teach Chaser one or two a day instead – the same as a toddler. One of this main tips?

Most of all, training should be fun - so use play and praise your dog often.

There are very few that given time and having recognised the keywords, will not react to spoken from human to human such as: “Shall we go for a WALK?” or “ Time for BED”.

The list is endless and this shows that some dogs know when a keyword that they have learned is not being spoken to them… They can understand the context of the sentence and have the intelligence to know that even though a command word is spoken, that it is not directed to them, and they are not expected to react to it.

It is not just the spoken word that brings about association in the canine mind. How smart is a dog? Well, actions can speak as loudly as words

The mere fact of a dog’s owner walking into the hall or kitchen with a coat on may be enough for the dog to jump up from his or her resting place in anticipation of doing for a walk. Alternatively, the sound of a car engine in the driveway may be sufficient to send a dog running to the door, expecting the arrival of its owner after being home alone all day.


Maybe you can't ask a dog "what's one plus one" and get an answer. But extensive testing has shown that dogs can count up to four or five and understand the idea of addition and subtraction. If a dog sees a bowl with five pieces of kibble and another with two, he'll likely choose the bowl with more pieces. 

Dogs understand simple ideas of space. They're good at making a mental map of the space around them, as long as they have some landmarks. And while the concept of time is a little bit harder, they understand that things happen in some kind of order. They understand that one thing happens before or after something else. 

Puzzle toys stimulate dogs mentally
Intricate studies have proved that dogs show three-dimensional problem-solving skills

For example, they can locate valued items, such as treats when they are hidden and the dog has enthusiasm to find them. 

They can locate better routes to walk as they move about in their environment, such as the fastest way to a favourite chair. 

Amazingly, many smart dogs can actually figure out how to operate latches and simple machines.


In terms of social intelligence - the ability to communicate and cooperate with others - dogs are very clever. Not only can they interact well with other dogs, but they are very good at communicating with humans.

Brian Hare - a leading expert on animal behaviour at Duke University, has shown that domesticated dogs - in comparison to wild wolves - are much better at reading the social signs of others, such as a gaze or pointing with the hand. This research also led him to create the Dognition Assessment - a series of interactive games to test your own dogs' cognitive skills at home.

Neuropsychologists rank dogs' social intelligence on par with human teenagers. Research at Goldsmiths College in London showed that dogs felt empathy for not only their human guardians when they cried but also for human strangers.
Dogs also have the same brain waves as humans when they are sleeping and are thought to dream, just as we do. 


It can be hard to compare the intelligence of different species. But based on brain size and body size, dogs are among the smartest animals on the planet. Only humans, the great apes, turtles, bottlenose dolphins and elephants are smarter.


Experiments show that dogs will purposely fool people and other dogs to get what they want. When a person and a dog are playing and they try to trick each other, a person can fool a dog about 47% of the time. A dog has nearly the same success rate. He can fool a person about 41% of the time! For more on this topic, you could read this article in Psychology Today.


The good news is YOU can make your dog smarter. Dogs raised in a mentally stimulating environment learn faster than dogs raised in a boring one. New experiences and challenges help new neural connections form inside the dog's brain. Here are some "Fun Things to Do with your Dog".

Smart dog training must be interpreted by the dog as an extension of play in order for a dog to be eager to learn and remember the commands to the best of his ability. Some dogs, just like humans, are more intelligent than others. 

Not only can old dogs learn new things, but new challenges also can help hold back the mental decline that is sometimes a part of ageing. Canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs is often compared to Alzheimer's disease in people. Both can lead to disorientation, unresponsiveness, social withdrawal, and house-training accidents.

More mental activity and challenges can help slow these developments or other kinds of mental decline. 
Exercise can also help. 

Smarter dogs are NOT always better pets than less intelligent dogs. 

If you want a working dog, then pick a brighter breed. But as we found out with our own Belgian Malinois, smart dogs can be more demanding; they tend to need more attention and may be more high-strung and quicker to react in both positive and negative ways.

If you have young children or grandchildren, you need a dog who is friendly, sociable and relatively unflappable. It is actually an advantage if your dog does not remember which kid is the one who pulled his ear an hour ago! By the way teach your kids to never do that and also the subtle warning signs of canine body language

Dogs today may be getting smarter. This could be due to selective breeding for skills that require intelligence - such as hunting, guarding, guiding, and shepherding.

When it comes to canine brain size and how smart your dog is, it really is a matter of what they do with their brains, rather than how large their brains are that counts as a large proportion of their mental abilities will lay dormant or unused at any given time.

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