Dog smarts, like human smarts, come in a variety of forms. While you may want to believe that any dog can be nurtured and trained just enough to forget its inherent qualities, the reality is that breed matters. For instance, if your dog is bred to hunt (like hound dogs and retrievers), herd (like Australian Shepherds, also known as Aussies), or retrieve (like Pointers and setters), then they’ll be more likely to move, work, and please their owners. On the other hand, dogs who are bred to guard or track a scent are easily distracted, and may seem — we hate to say it — a bit dense intellectually in comparison.
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Nonetheless, trainers claim any dog can learn the basics — sitting and staying — but it might take them a while to catch on. The trick is knowing what your dog is built for and how to motivate him or her to do what you ask.
Top 5 Smartest Dog Breeds
In 1994, neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, PhD, wrote what is now a best-selling book titled The Intelligence of Dogs ($18, Amazon), in which he focuses on the trainability of dogs, and uses it as a gauge for intelligence. To get his results, Coren spoke to 220 professional dog obedience judges, who scored more than 110 breeds based on working and obedience tests. Think your pooch made the top five? Read on to find out.
1. Border Collie
Border collies, originally known as the “Scotch sheep dog,” take first place when it comes to smarts. This herding breed is known for its phenomenal listening skills. Border collies can learn and follow a new command in just five seconds. Take the world-famous border collie Chaser, for example; she knows 1,022 toys by name.
According to the Collie Club of America, collie dogs originated in the highlands of Scotland and Northern England. The breed didn't become truly popular, however, until Queen Victoria visited the Scottish Highlands and feel in love with a cute little collie dog. Queen Victoria was so enamored with the breed, that there is now a statue of her beloved pup, Sharp in the Windsor Home Park in Berkshire, England. According to the Border Collie Museum website, the royal also mentioned her collies in her journal.
“Friday, September 27. Dear good Sharp (a favorite collie of mine) was with us and out each day, and so affectionate,” the queen wrote.
Sure, there are designer poodles like goldendoodles and whoodles, but there’s a lot more to the poodle breed besides their adorable names and hypoallergenic qualities. Standard poodles are the salutatorians of the dog world. Initially bred in Germany for bird-hunting and water retrieving, poodles have quite a history of helping people, from herding sheep to bringing supplies to the wounded.
Fun poodle fact: In 1921, Babe Ruth (the king of baseball) was gifted with a French poodle pup by Douglas Myles of Dupont, New Jersey. Myles had reportedly been bedridden since his return from France, where he fought in the Argonne, and was carried onto the Polo Grounds on a stretcher by Knights of Columbus workers to see his first ball game of the season. Myles supposedly presented Babe with the puppy who was named “Casee” in honor of the Knights of Columbus. Apparently, Myles gave Babe the puppy as a mascot for his record-breaking home run.
3. German Shepherd
The German shepherd was designed to be utilitarian and intelligent. In 1889, breeder Captain Max von Stephanitz began standardizing the breed to be a “good servant of man.” For the record, it looks as though Captain von Stephanitz did what he set out to do, considering German shepherds are the world’s leading guard, police, and military dog.
The very first Seeing Eye dog, named Buddy, was a female German shepherd. In 1928, she was gifted to Morris Frank, a young man who had read about dogs being trained as guides for blind veterans during World War I. "I knew she was going to be my declaration of independence," Frank said. Buddy's service ignited the service-dog movement, offering those with disabilities the “divine gift of freedom,” to quote Frank. Now, several puppies are trained by a staff of dedicated volunteers each year at a training center in Morristown, New Jersey.
4. Golden Retriever
This gentle giant ranks fourth in its class when it comes to dog smarts. Originally bred to hunt, golden retrievers make for sweet, owner-pleasing pets. They’re the perfect pet for a family with children and are more than willing to learn if you’re willing to teach. Golden retrievers are not only smart, but they’re popular, too. The AKC named the breed the third most popular breed in the U.S. for four consecutive years.
Quick note: Golden retrievers are different from yellow labradors; the two dogs belong to two separate breeds. Yellow labs usually have a muscular build and a broad head with pronounced eyebrows. Golden retrievers, however, have flat or wavy coats, what many people call a “smiling” expression, and a long snout. Labs can also vary in color — chocolate, yellow, and black — whereas golden retrievers generally stay within the creamy blonde realm. Regardless, both pooches would make for a lovable new addition to the family.
5. Doberman Pinscher
Dobermans are a muscular breed. They’re speedy, fearless, and loyal. In fact, in 1890, a German tax collector named Louis Doberman decided to befriend the breed and trained the dog to be a guard dog. Over the years, the Doberman pinscher breed became refined and talented enough to be trained as a police and war dog.
A quirky fact about Doberman dogs: During World War II, Dobermans served the U.S. Marine Corps in the war dogs program, founded on November 1, 1943. A pack of courageous Dobermans lead Marine Corps officials through jungles, guarded sleeping soldiers in foxholes by nights, and saved hundreds of lives. When their training was finished, many of the dogs went back to living “normal” lives with families. And, despite their harsh training, not one was reported to have bitten anyone. Sadly, not all of the Dobermans made it home. Some had to make the ultimate sacrifice and are now buried in the National War Dog Cemetery on the island of Guam.