What makes a dog “smart”
Dogs are intelligent, highly adaptable animals and can learn the skills necessary for an amazing range of jobs including guide dogs, search and rescue dogs, police dogs, and more. There are many ways to define canine intelligence, but in most cases, we perceive dogs as “smart” if they are able to understand what humans need or want from them. For example, dogs are a very visual species, whereas humans are highly verbal, so breeds that are better able to adapt to verbal communication are often perceived as more intelligent. Dogs can also be seen as smart if they are attentive to people and genuinely want to please them—a form of emotional intelligence.
Generally speaking, the dog breeds that are considered the smartest are eager to learn and can master commands quickly. When given a task, they’re consistently able to perform it well. Problem solving ability, memory and persistence play a part, but their ability to learn from their humans is also a factor. Smart dogs are good at figuring things out, to our delight or chagrin—like solving a puzzle toy or teaching themselves to open the refrigerator door.
With these criteria in mind, we’ve rounded up 20 smart dog breeds for anyone looking to add an exceptionally bright pup to their pack.
The most intelligent dog breed
According to a recent study out of the University of Helsinki (Finland), the Belgian Malinois sits at the top of the list when it comes to cognitive function in our canine friends. This hard working breed got its start as a dependable herding dog on farms in their native Belgium. But, in part due to their ability to follow commands and eagerness to please, these brave pups are often used in military and police service.
Smart small dog breeds
All members of the Poodle family are intelligent, but if small size is important to you, the Toy Poodle and Miniature Poodle are the way to go. These little dogs love running, swimming, and other outdoor activities. They usually get along great with kids and form tight bonds with their families.
Like other herding breeds, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi and Cardigan Welsh Corgi are active, energetic, and alert. Both are affectionate with their people, though Cardigans tend to be a bit more reserved around strangers than the more outgoing Pembroke.
Papillons are happy, friendly dogs that adapt well to any living environment—making them an excellent fit for anything from rural countrysides to city apartments. These little pups love spending time with their families, especially if it involves a high-energy play session.
Miniature Schnauzers are eager-to-please dogs and trusty friends. This watchful breed is friendly with kids and loves to play. These characteristics make them an ideal pet for many families.
Pomeranians love to be the center of attention and will happily perform tricks to entertain a crowd. When not putting on a show, these active dogs enjoy neighborhood walks, agility trials, and indoor games with their favorite humans.
Shetland Sheepdogs have all the characteristics of a herding dog—alert, intelligent, and obedient. Shelties are also affectionate, loyal family pets. Their tendency to bark makes them good watchdogs (but not always good neighbors).
Schipperkes are adventurous little dogs that like exploring. They love tagging along on outings and are a good fit for active families. Though they are very affectionate with their people, they can be reserved with strangers.
Smart medium-sized breeds
Border Collies are herding dogs that can often work on their own—out of sight of their handlers—effortlessly gathering livestock with their trademark "Border Collie stare." Their affectionate personalities and boundless energy make them a good fit for very active families with older, well-behaved children.
Australian Cattle Dog
Australian Cattle Dogs have endless energy and stamina. For this reason, they need to be in homes with very active humans. This often long-lived breed is a free-spirited dog and devoted, playful companion. However, Australian Cattle Dogs can be territorial with unfamiliar people or pets and may object to rowdy play by other dogs or kids as they get older.
Mudis are hard working Hungarian herding dogs and brave protectors. Their strong desire to work can make them challenging to train. They do best with a family that provides strong leadership, consistent training, and a lot of exercise.
English Springer Spaniel
Despite their high energy and stamina, English Springer Spaniels can be very calm dogs. Their playful, easy-going nature makes them good family dogs. The more time they get to spend with their people, the better.
Brittanys are a perfect fit for people looking for a lively, affectionate dog that’s always up for an adventure. They’re sweet-natured and happy pups, though they can sometimes be too exuberant for small children.
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
If you enjoy energetic dogs, outdoor activities, and endlessly throwing a tennis ball, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever may be for you. These playful pups resemble mini Golden Retrievers and have a unique, high-pitched bark.
Smart large breed dogs
Intelligence is just one of the reasons Golden Retrievers are among the world’s most popular dog breeds. They excel as hunters, guide dogs, search and rescue dogs, and—best of all—gentle family pets.
Outgoing, friendly, and happy-go-lucky, Labrador Retrievers are one of the best breeds for families. They love an active lifestyle that involves swimming, long hikes, and playing with their people.
Doberman Pinschers are both affectionate companions and fearless protectors. They’re very loyal to their families and typically playful and gentle with kids. And with several different varieties, you can find the one that works best for you.
The "King of Terriers," Airedales are a happy, adaptable breed that gets along well with people and other dogs. Though they are natural-born hunters, Airedale Terriers are calm, friendly dogs at home with their families.
German Shepherd Dog
German Shepherds are an all-purpose working breed known for their courage, loyalty, and intelligence. They like being included in family activities and are usually friendly with (well-behaved) kids.
Black Russian Terrier
Bred to be part of the Russian military, Black Russian Terriers are both vigilant watchdogs and loyal companions. They are calm, reliable, and playful dogs—and also prepared to protect their home and family.
German Shorthaired Pointer
German Shorthaired Pointers are enthusiastic hunting partners and happy family pets. With no shortage of energy, these pups do best with active, outdoorsy people who will include them in all aspects of family life.
Intelligence is only half the battle
Natural intelligence is helpful to have, but even the smartest dogs still need consistent, ongoing training. It’s also important to understand that dogs may have other characteristics that impact their trainability. For example, a particular dog breed can be very smart, but if they are also strong-willed, they may be resistant to following commands.
Lastly, just because a dog didn’t make our list of smartest breeds doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent or trainable. With proper obedience training and patient humans, most breeds and mixed breed dogs can develop into well-mannered pups.
Find the dog breed that’s right for you
Are you looking for a brainiac or a cuddle buddy (or both!)? The more you know about a breed, the better. Browse our breed library to find the perfect fit for your pack.