I love dogs. I always have. In my sixty years, I've owned many, many different breeds. I've also bred several breeds of dogs and have trained dogs for other people. All in all, my experience ranges from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, and many dog breeds in-between. I've had lots of opportunities to observe and test canine intelligence for myself, through formal testing and through general observations. I've enjoyed the smart dogs I've owned and handled, but some of the not-so-smart dogs I've known were excellent pets and totally adorable. But what is dog intelligence, and how is it measured? Is the way canine intelligence is measured actually a true assessment? Keep reading to learn more!
Most dog owners wonder how smart their dogs are. You can find numerous lists on the topic that rate breeds from the smartest to the least intelligent dog breeds, but not all the lists agree. Sometimes they're not even close! Occasionally, a dumb dog from one list might appear as a smart or above average dog on a different list, which is one reason I don't totally adhere to the lists made by so-called experts.
Another reason I think these lists might be circumspect is that they don't take individual dogs into account. For example, my favorite breed, and the one with which I've had the most experience, is the Great Dane. The Dane often appears near the top of the list, at around number 12 or 14. This is below the Border Collie, the Golden Retriever, the Poodle, and the German Shepherd. I've never had much experience with Poodles, but I have with Border Collies, and I've had a lot of experience with Goldies and German Shepherds. One of the numerous Danes I've owned, Hamlet, was the smartest dog I've ever known. He was much smarter than any Golden Retriever or German Shepherd I've had.
How Is Dog Intelligence Measured?
Most canine intelligence tests measure trainability and obedience. Such tests observe how many repetitions it takes a dog to learn a new task. Obviously, these tests figure the fewer repetitions required, the smarter the dog is. Most tests also measure how quickly a dog responds appropriately to a learned command. The quicker the dog obeys, the smarter he must be, right? I don't believe that's always the case. The typical tests don't take into account other important factors.
There are some dog breeds that are independent thinkers. Instead of blindly obeying commands from the human master, the thinking dog might decide the best course of action for itself. This is often seen in working dogs, especially in livestock guardian breeds. These dogs are in charge of protecting other animals in their care from predators like wolves, coyotes, and foxes. In many cases, the flock guardian dogs are left on their own for several days. There's no human there to tell them what to do. The canines have to make decisions on their own as to what is and isn't a threat to the animals in their charge. When a threat presents itself, a livestock guardian will have to decide, on its own, the best way to deal with the threat. A wonderful example of such a breed is the Great Pyrenees.
Surprisingly, the Great Pyrenees rarely appears at or near the top of smartest dogs lists, nor do other flock guardian breeds. Since these dogs think for themselves, they're often described as “stubborn” or “hard to train.” While it's true that flock guardians might not see any reason to learn to shake or roll over on command, it doesn't mean they're not intelligent. They simply don't think such “tricks” are important because they're not part of their job. Amusing tricks don't help the dogs better protect their sheep, goats, or chickens.
Obedience vs Independent Thinking
So...which is best? Do you want a super obedient dog, or one that thinks for itself? There's no best option here. It all depends on what you expect of a dog, and if you have a specific job for your dog to accomplish, and on what the job entails.
For example, you probably wouldn't want a Golden Retriever to be in charge of protecting your sheep. For one thing, because the Goldie is so friendly and non-aggressive, it would probably try to be pals with the offending predator, or it would wait for its master to tell it what to do. On the other hand, you probably wouldn't want a Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherd, or other livestock guardian breed to compete in an obedience trial. Furthermore, flock guardian dogs and other intensely focused working breeds don't always make the best pets. They need a job to do in order to be happy and well adjusted. When they get bored, they might become destructive.
If you're looking for a smart dog to add to your family, be careful when making your choice. Think about the dog's main purpose, and find out more about what kind of “smart” the dogs is. Don't confuse obedience with intelligence because they're not always the same. Without doing some research first, you could wind up with a very frustrated dog and numerous destroyed possessions.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 27, 2018:
My parents always loved German Shepherds and they were indeed smart. We have had a number of mixed breeds that were also intelligent. Many of the herding dogs such as Border Collies do think independently when it comes to rounding up sheep, etc. Animals in general have much more intelligence than many people seem to realize. It is not all instinct accounting for their actions.
IS1820 on October 26, 2018:
I really liked your article. Well written and very clear. I have never really given any thought to canine obedience, independent thinking and obedience in dogs. People often come to many conclusions, thinking they know but actually have no clue.