How Smart Are Dogs

The intelligence of dogs has been a subject of fascination for centuries. While dogs’ emotional intelligence has never been in doubt, different breeds have encompassed different roles in their evolution alongside humanity. From the ancient hunters who relied on working dogs such as the Greyhound, to modern pet owners with pampered Toy Cavoodles, the question remains: just how smart are dogs?

The Science Behind Canine Intelligence

Canine cognition, or the study of how dogs think, has emerged as a growing field in recent decades. With the advent of non-invasive imaging techniques like MRI, researchers can now observe a dog’s brain in action, shedding light on their cognitive capabilities.

Stanley Coren, a recognized expert in canine intelligence, suggests that dogs’ intelligence mirrors that of a human toddler. According to Coren, most dogs can understand up to 165 words, signs, and signals, with those in the “top 20%” (like Border Collies, Poodles, and German Shepherds) recognizing up to 250.

How Smart Are Dogs?

The inherent curiosity and adaptability of dogs have enabled them to showcase a remarkable array of problem-solving skills. Over the years, various studies have shed light on the complexities of canine cognition.

Learning by Observation:

Mimicry and Imitation: Beyond merely picking up simple tasks, dogs have shown an ability to mimic human behaviours. This phenomenon, termed “Do as I Do,” involves a dog watching a human perform a particular action and then replicating it. This level of social learning was once believed to be unique to humans and certain primates. 

Emulation: Sometimes, dogs might not exactly imitate the observed action but will emulate it to achieve a goal. For example, if they see a dog dig under a fence, they might choose to jump over it instead—different approach, same end result.

Inferential Reasoning:

Means-end Understanding: Dogs demonstrate a clear understanding of cause and effect. For instance, they realise that pulling on a rope can bring a distant toy closer. 

Logical Inference: When presented with two choices and evidence that one is empty or without reward, dogs can infer the presence of a reward in the other without direct observation. This skill, often found in young human children, demonstrates the dog’s ability to make deductions based on indirect information.

Understanding Human Gestures:

Reading Facial Expressions: Dogs not only pick up on overt gestures but can also discern human emotions by reading facial expressions. They can differentiate between an angry, happy, or neutral face and often adjust their behaviour in response. 

Sensitivity to Human Attention: Dogs are acutely aware of human attention. They are more likely to perform a forbidden behaviour (like stealing food) when they believe no one is watching. They can differentiate between a person’s eyes being open or closed, indicating an understanding of human visual attention.

Problem-solving Through Trial and Error:

Tool Use: While dogs aren’t known for using tools in the traditional sense, they often use resources in innovative ways. For instance, a dog might drag a blanket closer to use as a stepping stone to reach a higher place. 

Overcoming Obstacles: When confronted with barriers, dogs tend to experiment with various approaches—digging, jumping, or circumventing—to reach their goal. Their persistence often results in a solution.

Social Problem-solving:

Collaboration: Dogs, being pack animals, have showcased collaborative efforts in problem-solving scenarios. In situations where pulling two ropes simultaneously yields a treat, dogs quickly realise the need to cooperate with another dog to achieve the reward. 

Seeking Human Help: When faced with a challenge they cannot overcome independently, dogs often turn to humans, using cues like gazing or barking, to solicit assistance.

Intelligence Across Breeds

Different breeds showcase intelligence in various ways, typically tied to their historical roles.

  • Herding Breeds: Based on trusted Border Collie breeders, Australian Shepherd breeders, Shetland Sheepdog breeders, these breeds are known for their problem-solving skills which makes them a crowd favourite. Historically, they’ve had to work independently, often at a distance from humans, to manage flocks.
  • Hunting Breeds: Retrievers, like the Labrador and Golden Retriever, and Pointers, like the English Pointer, showcase their intelligence through intricate games of fetch and their ability to mark the location of game. They’re adept at reading human cues to track down targets.
  • Guarding Breeds: Breeds such as the Doberman, Rottweiler, and German Shepherd showcase their intelligence through protection duties. They have a keen sense of their surroundings and can differentiate between friends and potential threats.
  • Companion Breeds: Breeds like the Poodle, Papillon, and Bichon Frise may not have a working history but have been bred for companionship. Their intelligence often showcases their ability to understand and respond to human emotions.

Canine Intelligence and Their Bond With Owners

The intelligence of dogs doesn’t just make them great workers or entertainers; it also cements the bond between dogs and their owners. When a dog follows a command, reacts to a human’s emotion, or even tries to “cheat” in a game, it’s a testament to their cognitive abilities. This shared understanding and connection between species create a bond that’s been revered for millennia.

A dog’s capacity to sense human emotion, to provide companionship, or to work in tandem with humans in various roles – whether that be in search and rescue, therapy, or herding – only amplifies the depth of the relationship.


Dogs, with their varied intelligence and deep-rooted bond with humans, continue to intrigue and captivate us. Their cognitive abilities, while different across breeds, showcase a depth of understanding, problem-solving, and connection that is unique in the animal kingdom.

As we continue to delve deeper into canine cognition, one thing remains clear: dogs are truly remarkable, both in intellect and in spirit.