How Smart Are Dogs? The Science May Surprise You!


Intelligence comes in many forms! Whether you're teaching your dog a new trick or watching them solve a puzzle toy, it's easy to see the various ways furry friends show off their wits. So, just exactly how smart are dogs? Many factors play into dog intelligence—such as sociability and problem-solving skills—and as a result different breeds have different capabilities. But as a general guide, the average dog has the mental abilities of a 2-year-old child, according to Live Science. Let's dive in and see what science says about mutt mentality.


By the Numbers…and Words

german shepherd tilting head 

Dogs excel at reading body language, but did you know they are also great at picking up verbal language? On average, dogs can learn 165 words and "super dogs" in the top 20% of canine intelligence can master 250 words, according to the American Psychological Association. A Border Collie named Chaser even achieved the vocabulary of a 3-year-old child, recognizing the names of more than 1,000 objects, according to National Public Radio. If you've ever spelt terms like B-A-T-H or V-E-T around your furry friend, you know just how well dogs can understand spoken words!

Pups also have a solid grasp on another human subject: mathematics. A 2019 study found that dogs can perceive differences in quantity, such as when their bowl is filled with less food than usual. In the study, 11 dogs observed a series of light gray dots on a black background. The number of dots changed constantly, and the research showed the parietotemporal cortex—an area of the canine brain that deals with sensory issues—was activated in the majority of the dogs tested. The result suggested dogs and humans use a similar part of their brain to interpret numbers.


The 3 Types of Dog Intelligence

3 dogs at obedience school 

Although all dogs can think, not all furry friends have the same mental strengths. In fact, there are several methods for measuring just how smart dogs are. Here are the three types of dog intelligence, according to Psychology Today.


Adaptive Intelligence

This type of brainpower specializes in social skills and problem solving. Dogs who do well at interpreting facial expressions or finding hidden treats have high adaptive intelligence—and similar to humans, pooches can sharpen their minds' abilities. Help your dog flex their adaptive intelligence muscle by bonding with them and playing games together.

As social creatures, dogs tend to have great adaptive intelligence. Canines have been bred for millenniums to socialize with humans, so naturally most furry friends are hardwired to develop friendly qualities. Put simply, dogs just get us.


Instinctive Intelligence

At some point, most dogs were bred to accomplish a certain task. Retrieving objects, chasing prey, herding animals, and guarding homes are some of the many "jobs" pups have held over the generations. These innate skills specific to each breed represent a form of acumen known as instinctive intelligence.

While all dogs have some form of instinctive intelligence, it can't be measured across breeds. A Labrador Retriever's sense of smell, for example, shouldn't be compared to that of a Bloodhound because Retrievers were not bred to specialize in this ability. Similarly, a Bloodhound likely will not have the same fetching prowess as a Retriever. In this sense, dog breeds have their own "superpowers" that make them unique.


Working and Obedience Intelligence

Dogs who work, such as assistance dogs and military dogs, need to have robust learning skills to accomplish their tasks. Working and obedience intelligence measures a pup's ability to undergo training and carry out commands and jobs effectively, making this one of the most important types of knowledge a dog can possess.

Some dogs are easier to teach than others, but any furry friend can improve this skill with commitment and perseverance. Try working on basic obedience training with your dog or moving on to advanced dog training tricks to further hone their abilities.


Related: 10 Intelligent Dog Breeds


Activities to Sharpen Your Dog's Intelligence

beagle tracking scent 

Pups are eager to please! A little diligence can go a long way toward helping your dog's cognitive development and filling them with confidence. Work these activities into your dog's routine to keep their mind strong.


Toys and Playtime

The right toys do more than occupy your furry friend; they stimulate their mind and can inspire their imagination. Our Creative Play toys offer unique shapes and textures that encourage your dog to discover new ways to play and tap into their primal instincts. What appears to be a floppy, bouncy toy to you could look like tantalizing prey to your pup!

A stuffable chew toy is another great brain game for dogs as they work their way to the treat or spread inside. And of course, chew toys are an essential way to keep your dog focused as they satisfy their natural chewing urge. Playing with your pooch is another great way to boost their mind. Incorporate your dog's favorite toy into a round of fetch or create new games together to keep the thinking going.


Sports and Competitions

If your dog enjoys serious exercise, they are sure to love sports! Games and competitions for active dogs, such as tracking or agility, will hold your best friend's attention and encourage them to solve problems. Even a simple game of hide-and-seek can stimulate the mind and senses, making your dog use their nose and eyes to figure out where you might be hiding. Let the games begin!


Training, Training, Training!

So much of your dog's world revolves around proper training. In addition to improving their working and obedience intelligence, training will help your furry friend deepen their relationship with you and better tune themselves to your emotions. It can also help keep your dog safe, as teaching your dog to avoid forbidden areas or chewing on inappropriate objects can bolster their decision-making skills and lead to a happier, healthier pooch.


Ready to Lead and Learn?

Even though dogs are intelligent in their own right, your pup relies on you to further develop their cognitive abilities. Take some time to play with them and work on training, and they will be on their way to becoming a sharper, more well-rounded pooch. It's just as important to learn from your furry friend, paying close attention to their dog body language and observing their social cues.

Now that you know how smart dogs are, learn about some of the world's most trainable dog breeds!


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