The most intelligent dogs ranking 2011, is your dog on the list?

..... A smart border collie

Owners often brag about how smart their dogs are but what does this mean, and is your dog one of the recognised top most intelligent dog breeds?

A 2009 science paper by Stanley Cohen, Uni of British Columbia (ref 1) has concluded that dogs can be assessed on several behavioural measures and current thinking rates dogs generally at the intellectual capabilities of a 2 to 2 and a half year old child. Moreover, they are said to have the ability to understand upward of 150 words and are clever enough to intelligently deceive dogs and people to get dog treats.

While comparing dogs to humans is always fraught with danger, dogs are now known to be able to “solve complex problems and are more like humans and other higher primates than previously thought.” Ref 1

Initially most dog behavior has been evolved to further survival of their species. The intelligence was directed at how to hunt for food and how to thrive in the pack hierarchy. In modern society there are many more expectations on domestic dogs to fit into our modern lives, and so dogs have often risen to the challenge in spectacular fashion.

When it comes to assessing dog intelligence there are three main scales that dogs are ranked on:

  • instinctive (what the dog is bred to do),
  • adaptive (how well the dog learns from its environment to solve problems)
  • working and obedience (the equivalent of 'school learning').


THE TOP RANKED Most Intelligent DOGS, on the ‘Working and Obedience’ scale

While some people will reject the findings, a recent poll of 208 dog obedience judges in America ranked the seven smartest dogs. On a scale of intelligence based on ‘working and obedience’ intelligence of dog breeds, The following results were collated, from highest intelligence in the category downwards:

  • Border collies
  • poodles
  • German shepherds
  • golden retrievers
  • dobermans
  • Shetland sheepdogs
  • Labrador retrievers

Interestingly you will find that many of these breeds are also in the top ten highest dog breeds searches online in America and Australia.

Part of this intelligence assessment is their ability to understand human language. While the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, there are "super dogs" (top 20%) that can learn 250 words.

For owners who are mathematically challenged, it should be inspiring that dogs are now known to be able to count up to four or five. A dog’s basic understanding of arithmetic means that they can also detect errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. Guess there will be no short changing them on their dog treat bargaining in the future?

Cohen also confirmed that “dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions).” Ref 1


There have been many studies on defining how people think but only recently has effort been put into working out how dog’s cognitive processes work. In 2011 Monique Udell from the University of Florida, USA concluded that its mostly a combination of specific cues, context and previous experience. Ref 2

Her experiments show a human-like social behaviours in the domestic dog previously not recorded. Udell ran two experiments to gauge the performance of pet domestic dogs, shelter dogs and wolves. The first experiment observed the behaviour of each of the three classes of animals when they had ‘the opportunity to beg for food’. They were allowed to do this from both an attentive person and ‘a person unable to see the animal’.

The results showed that both wolves and domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching an attentive human and appealing to them, rather than approaching a neutral person. This has shown for the first time that both wolf (non domesticated) and dog (domesticated) have the capability to behave and adapt to a human's ‘attentional state’ to achieve a goal. It also showed that  wolves and pet dogs could swiftly improve their performance with practice whereas the shelter dogs had a great deal of difficulty in being “sensitive to stimuli predicting attentive humans”. While wolves performed well at achieving their goal, shelter dogs with less exposure to human beings (than domestic dogs) performed badly at begging.

The results implied that the dogs ability to “follow human actions stems from a willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with conditioning to follow the limbs and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement.”



Anyone that has owned a dog can attest to their general intelligence. The fact that they can be taught over 200 words, and can learn better ways for navigating environments or using deception to achieve their goal such as gaining a treat is break through research.

The dog intelligent ranking system regularly comes under fire, but it appears that the same five to ten dogs always rank highest on this working scale.

What the second begging experiment showed is something that I have observed regularly as a professional dog walker on my off lead dog walks. And that is that ‘damaged’ or abandoned dogs often have difficulty in learning acceptable social dog behaviours. Of great interest was that the wolf and domestic dog showed greater ability to apply intelligence to understanding how to relate to a human being than the shelter dogs did.

In human psychology there is a phrase called attachment theory that suggests poor bonding between mother and child in the first year of a baby’s life can impair learning abilities for the life of the child, and forming strong, loving attachments to other human beings.

It appears that a similar phenomenon may be occurring in shelter dogs. For instance, several shelter dogs that I have walked have often been isolated from other dogs because of the owner’s belief in protecting their dog.  Often these dogs have an inability to perform basic dog hunt tasks on their first few walks such as using their nose or any form of tracking skill to ascertain what types of animals have recently been in their immediate environment.

Similar to the begging experiment, I have handled several dogs that in fact won’t even take treats put in front of them either through fear or being overwhelmed with this new found freedom. You would rarely find a wolf or well looked after domestic dog dropping or ignoring food rewards.

It appears that these early experiments into dog intelligence are just touching the tip of what dogs can learn and how they can adapt to achieve better outcomes. Hopefully the more we know the better we will be able to treat our domestic dogs so that they can achieve their full potential, and be fully satisfied.


Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to



Ref 1, Ref 2


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