You might think your beagle is the smartest canine on the block, but he's got the dubious honor of being among the least trainable of dog breeds. The snarling Doberman next door? He's a quick study.
Dog intelligence, like human intelligence, comes in various forms. And although the best in any breed can be nurtured by owners willing to put in the time and effort, there are fixed realities when it comes to your animal's inherent qualities.
If it's bred to hunt, herd, or retrieve, the dog is more likely to be quick on its feet, eager to work, to move, and to please you. It will learn faster. If it's bred to be a livestock guard dog or a scent hound, it may seem distracted and just a bit dense.
Yet, even if some breeds are more nimble, trainers say any dog can learn the basics like sitting and staying. It just might take them longer to catch on.
The key is knowing what your pooch is built for and how to motivate him.
But keep in mind that the smartest dogs often don't make the best pets. Your job is to find a breed that suits your lifestyle and to focus on bringing out the best in your dog.
In his bestselling book, The Intelligence of Dogs, neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, PhD, focuses on trainability as a marker of intelligence.
The University of British Columbia psychology professor relied on the assessments of 110 breeds by more than 200 professional dog obedience judges who scored breeds based on working/obedience tests.
The top dogs absorbed commands in less than five repetitions and obeyed them 95% of the time or better. Here's the list along with a breed description by the American Kennel Club:
1. Border Collie: A workaholic, this breed is the world's premier sheep herder, prized for its intelligence, extraordinary instinct, and working ability.
2. Poodle: Exceptionally smart and active. Bred to retrieve things from the water. The miniature variety may have been used for truffle hunting.
3. German Shepherd: The world's leading police, guard, and military dog -- and a loving family companion and herder.
4. Golden Retriever: Intelligent and eager to please. Bred as a hunting companion; ideal as a guide and as assistance with search-and-rescue operations.
5. Doberman Pinscher: Known for its stamina and speed. Bred to be a guardian and in demand as a police and war dog.
6. Shetland Sheepdog: The "Sheltie" is essentially a miniature working Collie. A rough-coated, longhaired working breed that is keenly intelligent. Excels in herding.
7. Labrador Retriever: An ideal sporting and family dog. Gentle and intelligent.
8. Papillon: A happy, alert breed that isn't shy or aggressive. Known as Dwarf Spaniels in the 16th and 17th centuries, they reach 8-11 inches high.
9. Rottweiler: Robust and powerful, the breed is happiest with a job. Suitable as a police dog, herder, service dog, therapy dog, obedience competitor, and devoted companion.
10. Australian Cattle Dog: Happiest doing a job like herding, obedience, or agility. Energetic and intelligent.
Do Smart Dogs Make Better Pets?
You might think a smart dog will do what you want it to do. Not necessarily.
"Smart doesn't mean easy," Coren says.
"A Doberman is going to get bored and destroy your sofa and vase collection if you're out of the house for 8 to 10 hours a day, while an English bulldog may take 8 hours to figure out you're gone," Coren says. "You'll come home and he'll greet you and your pottery is still on the shelf."
A border collie is bred to work all day, so if it doesn't have an opportunity to work or exercise, it will be miserable, says Chris Redenbach, an Atlanta-based dog trainer who runs The Balanced Dog training program. "Typically, it'll come out in other areas, like destructiveness, running away, nipping at kids."
Having a smart dog "is like having a very smart kid," Redenbach says. "They're always into something and will get into trouble if they're bored.
Coren says his beloved beagle, a breed that scored low in obedience tests, is perfect around Coren's nine grandchildren because he doesn't seem to mind -- or remember -- them pulling on his ears.
Veterinarian Sophia Yin, an animal behaviorist in Davis, Calif., tells people to seriously evaluate the amount of energy they have compared to the breed they want to get.
"Are they the type of person who can exercise it a few hours a day? How much time are they willing to invest in training the dog, because the more energetic the dog is, the more training he might need," she says. "When they think they want a smart dog, it's a huge misconception. They don't need smart; they need attentive."
Can You Teach a Dumb Dog New Tricks?
If your canine seems clueless, it may be that it has been bred to be more independent or not so eager to please its owner, Yin says.
Training will require more patience and the right kind of motivation, whether it's praise, petting, or treats.
"For breeds, instincts make a difference, but for the basics - 'sit,' 'come,' 'down' - they'll all learn at the same rate. With good technique, the difference might be a month," she says.
Her Australian cattle dog, for example, stays at her side when they're out and loves a pat on the head. Her Jack Russell terrier, a high-energy breed that didn't make the smart list, has to be rewarded lickety-split with a treat or he'll lose interest in learning. A pat on the head just won't do it.
The beagle, a breed trained to work independently, probably needs more training time, Yin says. And the bulldog, which scored well below average on obedience tests, can learn quickly -- as long as he doesn't feel pushed around or punished.
The beagle and bulldog are among the dog breeds on the bottom of Coren's list. These dogs had to hear commands 80 to 100 times or more before they obeyed them 25% or less of the time. They include:
1. Shih Tzu
2. Bassett hound
3. Mastiff/Beagle (tied)
7. Chow Chow
10. Afghan hound (least obedient)
Redenbach doesn't like categorizing dogs as smart or dumb; she says that's too simplistic. Like Yin, she says positive and consistent training will make a good dog.
"The number of intelligent dogs I have met has been on the increase over the years because the better trainer I become, the smarter I see they are," Redenbach says.