Yet all four breeds are similar in size.
The difference is the type of intelligence each possesses, and we will have a closer look at this in due course.
In order to find out which breed is the most intelligent we must know what makes up a dog’s thinking, and take into account how a particular breed has been developed over time.
It is important to keep in mind that although some dogs are more easily trained than others such things are not marks of lesser intelligence. All dogs have redeeming features.
What is an “intelligent” dog?
It is almost impossible to say one breed is smarter than another. You may use the word ‘smart’ when you talk about your peers, especially if they seem to be more adept at a complicated sum or problem than you. That is because we have defined our intelligence in a specific way.
In terms of canine smartness clearly no such thing can be defined. But what we can say is one dog may be better equipped than another to undertake a specific task, such as search and rescue, or that a working dog needs more mental stimulation than a companion dog.
Of these differences we must consider what type of intelligence each dog has. According to research such as that cited in Psychology Today, there are three main types of doggy intelligence: “Instinctive”, “adaptive” and “obedience”.
Let’s look at all three in more detail:
Instinctive intelligence is about the nature of a breed. This type of intelligence has been teased to the fore over centuries of interbreeding. As a consequence today’s dogs are quite specialised in what they can and can’t do:
The best breeds of guard dog and services dog are those that are wary of strangers with a strong impulse to chase down and capture prey. They are loyal only to their owner.
Examples: German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Doberman Pinscher.
The best breeds of companion dog are those that do not want for a great deal of exercise and are content to sit beside their owner for long periods of time. They are also easy going and affectionate. Companion dogs make excellent therapy dogs.
The best breeds of working dog are those that are able to think for themselves and work alone. They are usually very active, easily trained and willing to please.
Adaptive intelligence is about the ability of your dog to adapt to a situation or surrounding. If your dog is excellent at problem solving and learns from experience he is likely to possess adaptive intelligence.
Generally speaking adaptive intelligence does not vary too drastically within a breed. However, you may yet encounter a keen Newfoundland that is able to complete given tasks admirably but is in all other respects quite incompetent when it comes to thinking for himself.
The breeds of dog that possess both instinctive and adaptive intelligence are placed at the top of our list of 10 of the most intelligent dog breeds. These include the Collie and the Poodle.
Obedience intelligence is the type of intelligence that is most commonly used by animal behaviourists to decide whether or not a dog is ‘intelligent’. That is because obedience intelligence (in conjunction with working intelligence) is the closest to what we humans know intelligence to be.
The ability of a dog to understand what we are telling it to do is vital to its function in our lives. Dogs are our friends, but over the years they have also worked for us in many ways.
In short obedience intelligence is similar to our learned intelligence.
Once more, the breeds of dog considered to have ample obedience and working intelligence are the Collie and the Poodle.
Pets: What are the top 10 smartest dog breeds?
The benchmark of most studies of dog intelligence is the work of Stanley Coren in the 1990s. he wrote a book called The Intelligence of Dogs. He has provided a short excerpt for Psychology Today, in which he reveals the breeds of dog that are the “most intelligent”.
Coren uses the findings of obedience intelligence tests more than the tests of instinctive and adaptive intelligence to define the smartest dogs. However, he also acknowledges the part played by the latter two in the overall ability of the dog.
According to his research, Coren specifies the top ten most intelligent breeds of dog (those that learn a new command in less than five seconds and obey at least 95% of the time) as follows:
1. Border Collie
An avid working dog, the Border Collie is widely regarded as the most intelligent breed of dog. This is a dog that has been bred to take orders and to obey commands in order to assist its owner. The Collie possesses a good dose of all three types of intelligence, and is capable of working on its own without human input.
The Poodle is now more often owned as a companion dog. However, in times gone by it was a prized retriever, capable of obeying numerous instructions and carrying out tasks of its own accord. The poodle has a heightened awareness of human sensibilities and is an affectionate (yet obstinate) playmate.
3. German Shepherd
The German Shepherd is a favourite breed of the armed forces and law enforcement due to its loyalty to its owner, strength, stamina and obedience. However, it is also an exceptionally affectionate dog, in tune with its human counterparts and capable of growing old gracefully curled up in front of the fire!
4. Golden Retriever
Of the Golden Retriever, Coren was most glowing. His studies of dog intelligence led him to discover that in one year recently the breed stood out from the crowd when it won 1,284 American Kennel Club obedience degrees. The versatile Golden Retriever is often used as a therapy dog and guide dog.
5. Doberman Pinscher
The Doberman has a fearsome reputation which is perpetuated by an owner’s using it as a guard dog. However, Coren discovered that the Doberman was incredibly loyal and obedient and responds quickly to instructions. Its capacity to learn earns it a spot in the top ten of the most intelligent dog breeds.
6. Shetland Sheepdog
The intelligence of a Sheltie is well-documented. They are highly intelligent animals and can be trained relatively easily. However, training needs to be consistent, forthright and include a variety of training measures in order to get the most out of this dog. Shelties do not respond well to harsh commands or being pushed around.
7. Labrador Retriever
The Labrador is another versatile breed of dog. Its willingness to learn and excellent obedience are combined with enthusiasm and energy. It can, on one hand, be an affectionate companion but on the other a thoroughly able and trustworthy therapy dog.
In Coren’s studies he noted how the Papillon responded willingly to instructions and was able to accumulate knowledge of its owner over time. It has achieved its position at number eight not only by its success in intelligence evaluations but also by its intuitive ways with its owner.
The Rottweiler, like the Doberman, has suffered from bad press over the years. Its willingness to learn and its loyalty to its owner have been abused by unscrupulous owners. The Rottweiler is another extremely intelligent dog capable of understanding the human instruction and the human temperament.
10. Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian Cattle Dog breed is smart and independent. The stubbornness of the dog is well-documented and can lead to difficulties of training. This is a dog that will enjoy taking the lead in any situation.
What does all this mean for you as an owner?
The level of instinctive intelligence varies from breed to breed. Dogs have for centuries been bred to perform certain tasks. Some dogs have been bred to guard, some to work and some to be companions.
If you are a prospective owner who is keen to adopt a dog that is classed as intelligent you should learn at least some of the history of the breed. By doing so you can determine whether the intelligence of the breed has been honed to obey or play.
That being said, most dogs these days are owned as companions. Unless you intend to enter your dog in obedience competitions your choice needs not to be swayed by a dog’s overall intelligence. Besides which, some dogs with lower intelligence have plenty of other redeeming qualities.