Who’s A Clever Dog? 30 Exceptionally Smart Canine Breeds
All dogs are smart, of course, especially yours—but some dog breeds are likely smarter than others. When psychologist Stanley Coren wrote “The Intelligence of Dogs” 25 years ago, he judged various breeds by their ability to learn and obey new commands. Natural instinct and a knack for dealing with unexpected situations are important too, but how quickly a dog learns to do what we want it to do remains the main factor in establishing a dog’s intelligence.
Based on Coren’s original rankings, here are 30 of the smartest dog breeds.
How did border collies become the world’s smartest dogs? Genetics. These dogs have been selectively bred for intelligence for centuries. In fact, border collies have such powerful brains that owners must be careful not to let them get too bored, or else their mental energy is likely to find destructive outlets. Fortunately, these dogs take to training very quickly.
We know border collies best for their work on farms, like the dogs who mentor Babe the pig as he learns to herd sheep in the movie Babe. But these dogs can also learn other complex tasks, such as search and rescue. If you’ve got the time and energy to provide them with enough exercise and mental stimulation, border collies also make excellent companion dogs.
Poodles are usually considered among the most adorable dog breeds, and they’re as clever as they are good-looking. Their ability to respond well to training has made them highly successful in competitions (they have taken “Best in Show” at Westminster twice) and as performers—a troupe of poodles was once a popular circus feature.
We often think of the poodle as a tiny lap dog—probably due to the pop culture image of the dog as a pampered companion to wealthy individuals. But standard-sized poodles can also make excellent hunting dogs; they’re fine swimmers, once they’ve become accustomed to water and can be trained to retrieve fallen birds. Miniature poodles work well in fields because they’re able to get into nooks and crannies where their larger brethren can’t fit.
The German shepherd is a smart, confident dog. It loves having a clear job to do and is a preferred candidate for police and military work, as well as guard duty for individual families. (German shepherds were also one of the first breeds selected for training as guide dogs for the visually impaired.)
The German shepherd sometimes has a fearsome reputation, often reinforced by movies that depict the dog as a snarling henchman to evil characters. (In fact, for decades, British dog owners, harboring a two-war grudge against Germany, referred to the breed as “Alsatians.”) Although the breed doesn’t warm easily to strangers, it can develop a strong affection for its human companions over time.
Golden retrievers love to please humans and will eagerly learn new tricks. They’re great performers—think Air Bud—and often do well in agility competitions. But they’re also hardworking dogs, whether they’re providing assistance to the visually impaired, detecting explosives with their keen sense of smell or helping find disaster victims in search-and-rescue operations.
But one of the golden retriever’s best jobs is right there in its name. The golden retriever was first bred in 19th-century Scotland for the express purpose of finding birds downed by hunters’ rifles and bringing them to their masters without damaging the bodies. Golden retrievers are still highly popular among hunters today, but their friendly nature makes them excellent family dogs, as well.
Like German shepherds, Doberman pinschers often have a reputation for being overly aggressive, thanks to their size and frequent use as police or military dogs. The stereotype is understandable; after all, they were originally bred specifically to defend their owners, with an emphasis on strength as well as smarts.
With the right training, though, the Doberman can be an excellent companion that consistently responds well to learning new commands. In fact, studies show they are less aggressive than many other breeds, including some that aren’t even known as particularly hostile.
The Shetland sheepdog was bred as a herding dog capable of thriving in the rugged landscape and cold climate of the Shetland Islands, well north of Scotland. They still have a strong herding instinct to this day and are a dominant force in other athletic competitions.
Shelties look like miniature collies and often resemble them in personality, as well. They are quiet, but focused, and extremely loyal, which makes them great dogs for children. They have two coats of fur, a vestige of their subarctic origins and they shed frequently—but the good news is their fur sheds in clumps, making them easier to groom.
The Labrador retriever’s origins can be traced back to Newfoundland and an early 19th-century breed known as the St. John’s water dog, which often helped fishermen bring in their nets. Although that breed died out in Canada, a few dogs had made it to England, where they were renamed after the Labrador Peninsula and bred as hunting dogs.
When labs made it back to North America, their skill as retrievers made them quite popular. They also make good water rescue dogs and often serve as canine assistants to the visually impaired or disabled. They are easy-going and intensely curious and get along great with people, though they sometimes have a tendency to wander off on their own to track interesting smells.
Papillons, also known as continental toy spaniels, are small dogs who got their name from the French word for “butterfly,” because of their large, furry ears, which resemble a butterfly’s wings. These dogs are often high-spirited, so they thrive well with people who can give them plenty of play time.
Luckily, they tend to pick up new commands readily, so there’s no shortage of possible activities for you to enjoy with them. Papillons are generally a friendly breed and can be good family dogs. They even get along well with children—provided those children know how to behave themselves around dogs!
Some people believe the Rottweiler can trace its pedigree all the way back to the Roman Empire, when the imperial army used dogs to herd cattle in order to feed its troops in Germany. Closer to our time, the breed gets its name from the town of Rottweiler, where these dogs had almost died out until the German military, facing a need for army dogs, encouraged a renewed breeding effort in the early 20th century.
Modern Rottweilers can have excess aggression and strong territorial streaks, so owners have to work closely with them to make sure they’re properly socialized. Once they are, though, Rottweilers take instruction well and are usually very calm—unless they need to protect their people!
Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian cattle dog came about when a cattle farmer crossbred drovers from England with tamed dingoes, creating an intelligent, high-energy breed that was ideal for herding livestock across miles of rough ground. They remain one of the world’s best herding breeds to this day.
Like many working dogs, the ACD needs to have a sense of purpose. It can make a fine family dog, but if it doesn’t have a “job,” its herding instincts can resurface, and it’s been known to nip at children’s heels when it thinks they’re misbehaving. But these dogs take well to training and require little in the way of grooming, so they do make for excellent pets in a one- or two-dog household.
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Corgis have enjoyed a bit of fame in recent years, through their role as the favored pet of Queen Elizabeth II. She has had them by her side ever since she was a young girl, although she stopped having new puppies bred several years back so that her dogs would not have to outlive her. (Her last corgi died in 2018; the two dogs she has left are actually “dorgis,” which are corgis crossbred with dachshunds.)
Americans also can’t get enough of this breed, and it’s easy to see why: The corgi has a steadfast, affectionate nature; they love to follow people and they hunger for attention, but they almost never bark unless something is seriously wrong.
The miniature schnauzer is the most popular of all the schnauzer varieties. Despite their relatively diminutive size, they make good watchdogs, and when they aren’t on duty they can be extremely playful. They are cautious around strangers, but readily take cues from their owners—your friends are likely to become your miniature Schnauzer’s friends once you introduce them.
Officially, miniature schnauzers have three fur colors: black, black and silver or salt and pepper. There are miniature schnauzers with solid white coats, but kennel clubs in North America believe these dogs aren’t purebred schnauzers. If they were accepted as show dogs, though, we bet white schnauzers would prove just as successful at obedience competitions as their cousins!
English Springer Spaniel
The English springer spaniel gets its name from its original role as a hunting dog, when it would run ahead of a shooting party and “spring” game birds resting on the ground into the air. They look similar to the slightly smaller English cocker spaniel; 200 years ago, the two types of spaniels were separated out from the same litters and bred to each develop distinctive traits.
For the English springer, that means, among other things, a friendly personality that makes it not just a good family dog, but also a dog that can get along with other pets, though English springers will often choose a favorite family member with whom to spend most of their time. These dogs should be given tasks to focus on or else they’ll get restless. When it comes time to play, though, their long legs make them very speedy runners—and they also love to swim!
Belgian Shepherd Dog (Tervuren)
There are several varieties of Belgian shepherd dogs, but the Tervuren, named after a village in the region, is particularly notable for its intelligence and demanding nature. But this isn’t a dog you should get if you’ve never raised a dog before; it requires a lot of attention to bring its high energy down to a manageable level.
Once you’ve calmed a Tervuren down, though, it can be a loyal companion and is frequently chosen as a protective escort—not just because of the bonds it forms with people, but because it’s able to sit quietly by a person’s side in cars, trains and airplanes. And, like other herding dogs, the Tervuren takes well to training for obedience and agility competitions.
“Schipperke” is Belgian for “little shepherd,” although some people will tell you that it means “little captain,” and refers to how these dogs have acted as guard dogs on barges. Either way, this tiny dog has become very popular with dog owners. Some prior experience with dogs is necessary for owning this breed, though, as schipperkes have a strong independent streak and sometimes ignore commands they aren’t interested in following.
The “little black devil,” as the schipperke is known as, has a great deal of energy. It loves to poke around in new environments and chase after small animals. With firm guidance, however, it can become an excellent pet or competitive dog.
The Keeshond has a revolutionary pedigree; it’s named after the Dutch patriot Cornelis de Gijzelaar, whose nickname was “Kees.” (“Hond,” as you might guess, is Dutch for “dog.”) Far from being angry rebels, though, these dogs are actually rather friendly and form quick attachments with people. They make excellent therapy dogs and, unusually for smaller breeds, have even been successfully trained as guide dogs for the visually impaired.
As a house dog, the Keeshond doesn’t need to be bathed that often, but it does require frequent grooming. Experts suggest a weekly brushing and recommend that you never shave its fur, or you’ll remove the distinctive black markings on its outer coat.
German Shorthaired Pointer
The German shorthaired pointer was bred for hunting and is as effective on rugged terrain as it is retrieving downed fowl from the water. If you aren’t a hunter, it can still be a great dog for families, as long as it’s provided with plenty of activity to burn off its excess energy. It would make an excellent running companion, for example, or could tag along while you ride a scooter or bicycle.
As if that’s not enough, many writers have expressed their love for German shorthaired pointers. The novelist Rick Bass even wrote a memoir entirely about his pointer, Colter, which he subtitled “The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had.”
English Cocker Spaniel
As mentioned earlier, the English cocker spaniel is very closely related to the English springer spaniel; the two dogs were selectively bred out of the same litters in 19th-century England. While the springer was trained to flush wild game out of the brush, the slightly smaller cocker spaniel’s special task was to retrieve quail and woodcocks for hunters after they’d been shot.
Cocker spaniels love to be around people and will form emotional bonds readily. (The fastest way to win a cocker’s affection? Be the family member responsible for feeding it.) If you’re gentle with them and let them hang around rather than forcing them outside, they will gladly be loyal companions.
Though it is sometimes mistaken for a spaniel, the Brittany is a distinctive breed of hunting dog, tracing its roots back to the Brittany region of northwestern France. It’s still highly popular there, but has also become a preferred breed in the United States, where it’s known for its distinctive orange and reddish-brown coloring.
If you aren’t a hunter, a Brittany can still make an excellent pet. Properly socialized as a puppy, it will become a gentle, friendly dog who is always ready to play a new game and will learn the rules quickly. You should plan on setting aside some time every day to keep your Brittany happy and active.
Weimaraners were originally bred in 19th-century Germany as hunting dogs for aristocrats and are still frequently praised for their regal appearance. They tend to form intense bonds with people and can suffer deep separation anxiety when left on their own. Their hunting instincts remain strong; if they live in a woodsy area, they may go after small animals
Like many hunting breeds, Weimaraners have a lot of energy, but they respond well to human instruction and, with proper attention, can cultivate an inner calmness. William Wegman became famous in the 1980s for training his Weimaraner to pose for elaborate, sometimes humorous photographs. The dogs became celebrities in the art world and would eventually go on to star in children’s books and make guest appearances on Sesame Street.
Some people think the Malinois is a type of Belgian shepherd, like the Tervuren, but other experts recognize it as a unique breed. It’s a favored dog among law enforcement organizations, as its keen sense of smell can be used to detect explosives or track missing persons. The Secret Service even uses Malinois to guard the White House.
Malinois work hard, but they also work smart. Though they pick up new tasks quickly, these dogs require a consistent regimen of obedience training and are not a good dog for inexperienced owners who don’t have the time to work with them properly.
Bernese Mountain Dog
The Bernese mountain dog is a large canine, originally bred to work on farms in the Alps. Its distant ancestors were used to pull carts, and carting competitions featuring these dogs remain popular to this day. “Berners” thrive in the outdoors, but a little exercise can go a long way for them, making these dogs enjoyable walking companions.
In a home, a well-trained Bernese is an even-tempered dog, who not only gets along well with children but won’t mind if they become extremely physically affectionate. (Or they could pull the kids in a wagon!) Though they are not necessarily bred as rescue dogs, there are many reports of Berners alerting their families to household fires and sometimes even pulling them to safety.
Pomeranians have been a popular toy dog breed ever since the days of Queen Victoria, but they’ve enjoyed a particular burst of attention in recent years. There is a negative stereotype of Pomeranians as spoiled brats, and it’s true that an insecure Pomeranian can become demanding and aggressive.
With effective training, however, Pomeranians are friendly, outgoing companions. They are especially popular in cities, where their small size and comparatively minimal exercise requirements are well suited to urban living. (They still need to be walked regularly, of course, but can get by on short bursts of activity, especially if they have plenty of toys at home to occupy their attention.)
The Vizsla is an all-terrain hunting dog from Hungary and has been a source of Hungarian national pride for centuries. These dogs were favored companions for the aristocracy, who took great pains to keep these dogs’ bloodlines pure, and though their numbers grew diminished at times, the Vizslas have always been able to bounce back.
Vizslas are gentle dogs and develop close bonds with their families, often becoming visibly upset at the first sign of separation. They’re fast learners, but you shouldn’t be too strict with them, due to their sensitive natures. Make sure they get plenty of exercise; if you have a nearby lake or pond, with a bit of encouragement they can become eager swimmers.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
The Chesapeake Bay retriever can trace its origins back to a pair of St. John’s water dogs (the same Canadian breed that spawned the modern Labrador retriever) that wound up in Maryland in the early 19th century. They were bred with other local dogs to work with hunters and fishermen and became so popular in the region that they became the official state dog in 1964.
Chessies love the water, but they are also happy to run in open fields. When they’re happy, you’ll definitely know it, from their joyful barking and the open-mouthed smile that lights up their face. A mixture of consistent training and relaxed activity time will make your Chesapeake Bay retriever a loyal, affectionate friend.
Yorkies are famous for their small stature, rarely reaching more than seven pounds in size. But this is no lap dog: The Yorkshire terrier is intensely curious and, if it’s been properly trained, disinclined to sit still—unless it’s tired.
The Yorkie knows it’s a good dog and can learn new commands easily, especially in a reward-driven training program. Give it plenty of attention and it will stick close by you. A long coat is considered especially attractive in a Yorkshire terrier, but requires an intense grooming regimen, and even Yorkies who aren’t competing in dog shows need regular, maybe even daily, brushing—a time commitment to keep in mind before adopting this breed.
The Puli is a distinctive breed, famous for its matted black fur, which is often said to resemble dreadlocks. (It’s a look that requires constant grooming to keep the curls from getting too thickly clustered.) Although the Puli is a small dog, its origins as a herding breed make it a poor candidate for indoor living—it should be able to spend plenty of time outside getting exercise.
Pulik (the plural comes from the dog’s Hungarian name) are good at taking instructions, if you start training early, and can thrive in many competitive environments. But they also thrive as guard dogs—another throwback to their shepherding background. A Puli will stand its ground tenaciously against an intruder, loudly warning its family of danger, though it will rarely go on the attack.
The border terrier was originally bred for fox hunting in northern England, and its hunting instincts can still be seen in its phenomenal winning record in the American Kennel Club’s “Earthdog” competition, where dogs race through underground tunnels, tracking rats by their smell. (Don’t worry; the rats are kept safe behind wooden barriers.)
Border terriers can be stubborn, but give them a clearly defined job to do, and they probably won’t waste much time figuring out how to get it done. They’re fast for dogs their size and can jump significant heights, making them keen performers on agility courses. Their small size, along with their independent streak, also make them great companions for people living in small apartments in cities.
The Briard can trace its roots all the way back to 14th-century France—and it almost died out as a breed 100 years ago, when the French military put Briards on the front lines during World War I. Fortunately, enough of them survived, and the Briard continues to find frequent work as a service and therapy dog to this day. Its readiness to learn new commands also makes it popular for film and television productions, from My Three Sons and Married with Children to Emma Stone’s Easy A.
Briards form fierce emotional attachments; they’ll cry miserably when you leave, then rush to greet you when you come home. Introduce children and other new people carefully, and the Briard will gladly welcome them into the “pack,” although its herding instincts may kick in if it thinks its people are wandering off.
The Samoyed was bred in Siberia to herd reindeer, and the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen also used them as sled dogs for Arctic expeditions. Their fur is well suited to the climate and is sometimes used to knit sweaters that can handle especially frigid temperatures. If you’re willing to let a dog sleep in your bed, the Samoyed is ready; back in Siberia, it used to huddle with its human family to stay warm at night.
Sammies need a lot of attention, and you’ll have to be careful to show them who’s boss. With proper training, though, a Samoyed will become a playful companion—as friendly as the smile on its face suggests—and will get along well with small children.