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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.