Though we’d all like to think our own furry kids are the smartest, there does exist a list of the most intelligent dog breeds. Topping the list is the Border Collie, followed by the Poodle and the German Shepherd (The Intelligence of Dogs, Dr. Stanley Coren). We won’t mention who rounds out the bottom of the list, but even just listing these aforementioned breeds begs the question: is one dog really smarter than another, or is it just a matter of training?
The truth, I think, boils down to a little bit of both. Border Collies, as a whole, are very, very smart. They learn quickly, they are quick to follow commands, are highly motivated and they just LOVE having a job to do. This is a great combination, and it’s what makes them appear to be the smartest breed on the block. It doesn’t mean, however, that your mixed breed dog isn’t smarter than your neighbor’s Border Collie, especially if that Border Collie just lives in the backyard with no job to do and no one to challenge him.
Let’s take another example from WAY down the list, the English Bulldog. Now, I love Bulldogs as much as anyone else, but even I will admit that Bulldogs, as a whole, are just not the sharpest crayons in the box. Back in the day, Bulldogs were bred to be powerhouses. They simply didn’t need smarts for the tasks they did, and much of this persists in the breed we see today. That said, many Bulldogs excel at obedience when properly motivated (FOOD!) and though I might not want them taking my SATs for me, I’ll never turn them away for the emotional intelligence and loyalty they display to their owners.
Remember, within each breed there are significant deviations. For instance, I’ve seen some pretty dim Labradors, and they rank number six on the list!
It’s easy enough to estimate your dog’s intelligence with some exercises from Dr. Cohen’s IQ test. My absolute favorite exercise from the test is to throw a blanket over a dog’s head and see how long it takes them to get out. I remember doing this to a Basset Hound who gave it a good effort for about 2 seconds, and then stopped trying altogether and just accepted that he’d live the rest of his life with a blanket on his head. I’m not sure that’s a lack of intelligence, but it’s definitely a sign of lack of motivation.
Other tasks from the IQ test are centered on short and long term memory and language comprehension. Now, if your dog’s breed wasn’t designed for these kinds of tasks, he won’t excel. That doesn't mean he won’t recognize your car’s motor from four blocks away and know that you are almost home!
So, to make a long answer even longer, yes, I think that some dogs are just smarter than others, but I also think that training can work a long way towards bridging the intelligence gap. For some dogs, especially those that are hanging out at the bottom of the intelligence list, I think it’s reasonable to accept that they’ll never be a star pupil, but it never hurts to try!