Intelligence is a relative term, and can mean a lot of things. The three types of intelligence found in dogs are generally considered to be instinctive intelligence (what the dog is bred for), obedience intelligence (what the dog can be taught to do), and adaptive intelligence (what the dog can learn on its own). When talking about canine intelligence, it’s mostly referring to the second kind, i.e. trainability. In other words, how easily and efficiently they can work with humans, and how complex of a task they can accomplish.

That said, most of this potential can only be unlocked with the right human, who has the right skillset and knowledge to give the dog the training and stimulation it needs. And while most, if not all, breeds can learn quite a few tricks and understand basic concepts, some breeds are just a little better at it than others.

The herders

A type of breed that regularly tops the lists of intelligent dogs is the herding group. Herding dogs generally have to think on their feet, predicting cattle behavior and making quick decisions. There’s also a desire to please, which makes them particularly trainable. The most well-known member of this group, in terms of intelligence, is the Border Collie ― we all know they’re one of the smartest dogs around. They’re also famous for their special stare, with which they pin down sheep, getting them to move the way they want them to, and pushing them where they want them to go.

The Rough Collie ― like most collie breeds ― and their smaller cousin, the Shetland Sheepdog, are also definitely the more intelligent sort. They’re often used in agility competitions, these days, though they’re originally bred for herding. If they’re kept as only companions, they need to be trained and exercised properly, in order to stay happy. They’re multi-taskers, and it’s a good idea to have a set of exercises and pastimes prepared for whenever you might need it, outside of your regular training. After all, a bored dog is an unhappy dog.

Another herding breed that needs some extra time and attention is the German Shepherd. They’re also classified as working dogs, and their flexibility and trainability has kept them consistently at the top of most popularity lists. The German Shepherd’s high intelligence has allowed them to find work as police dogs and military dogs, as well as loyal companions and herders, and they tend to take their job very seriously. They’re also protective of their family, and they’re well-known for holding their ground no matter what.

The Border Collie is consistently at the top of the list when it comes to the most intelligent dog breeds.

Tricks and training

A highly intelligent dog that is often underestimated, due to its ditzy beauty-queen reputation, is the Poodle. Whether it’s the Standard, Medium, or Toy variety, the Poodle has always stayed near the top of the list when it comes to the smartest breeds around. If nothing else, there’s a reason the Poodle has been part of so many circus shows, over the years. Originally bred to fetch prey from the water when hunting, this dog responds very well to training, even pulling off the most complex of tasks.

The Doberman Pinscher is often seen in movies as an antagonist, of sorts. It’s easy to understand why, what with their slender, muscular build, their dark coat, their sharp eyes and erect ears. It doesn’t seem to matter much that the Doberman actually has drop-ears when they’re uncropped, and that they’re pretty adorable ― most people don’t see that version. But despite its intimidating appearance, the Doberman Pinscher is one of the smartest breeds around, and is also incredibly friendly and family-oriented. Their loyalty and trainability make them excellent police- and military dogs, and they can be taught all kinds of complex tasks to perform.

Another very popular breed that also scores high on intelligence tests is the Labrador Retriever. Assistance dog, family dog, hunting partner ― this pup is as versatile as the rest. The Lab is easy to train, and loves getting things done. They’ll happily spend time with their family, just lounging around, as long as you take time to give them the exercise and mental stimulation they need.

Still in the top ten

These may be at the bottom of the top ten, but that still makes them sharper than most other breeds out there. A lesser-known smart pup is the Papillon, convenient in size and easy in temperament, and very happy to learn new tricks. The Rottweileris deceptively smart, and is definitely happiest when they’ve got a job to do. They were originally bred for protection, but these days, they excel at herding, therapy, and obedience, as well as demanding police work. And despite their intimidating look, they’re giant teddy bears, who love spending time with family.

Finally, there’s the Australian Cattle Dog, originally used for herding purposes ― like most dogs on this list. These days, if not working, the Australian Cattle Dog is common in agility competitions, where they shine bright.

An unexpected breed on the list may be the Rottweiler, who is happiest when working.

Smart does not mean ‘easy’

So an intelligent dog can learn lots of things, and pick up tricks and solve problems faster than other dogs. Sounds great, right? And it is. But one important thing to keep in mind before running off to get yourself a clever Doberman, is that ‘smart’ also means ‘work’. As in, work from the human. Any dog will throw a tantrum or two if they’re bored and restless, but dogs with higher intelligence can be even more challenging ― they simply need more complex entertainment. Some will even notice more acutely when you’re gone, and for how long, and might trash your home in your absence. Meanwhile, other dogs may barely even notice you’ve left, at all.

In short, a highly intelligent dog needs a lot to do. They need problems to solve, just like dogs bred for running and sled-pulling need more physical exercise than your average pup. If you feel that you can provide the challenges, training, and time needed to keep your smart dog happy, you won’t regret bringing one into your life.