How Smart Are Dogs?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 17, 2020

Most people would agree that dogs are a fairly intelligent species. They can be easily trained, adapt well to living in our homes, are naturally curious, and can be extremely clever. In a survey conducted of dog owners, about 50% of individuals believed that a dog’s mental ability is comparable to a 3-5-year-old human child. In the same study, a quarter of the respondents agreed that dogs were smarter than most people (Howell et al., 2013). But how do we measure the intelligence of dogs? How can we figure out what is going on in their heads if they cannot speak to us?

What Is Animal Intelligence?

The study of animal intelligence is difficult. It is subjective and the tests we use to measure intelligence can be extremely biased. Dutch biologist, Frans de Waal (2016), famously published a book titled “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” in which he explored the complexities of animal cognition. The book discusses how we might be underestimating how smart animals are due to our own inability as humans to design appropriate tests of intelligence. While there are shortcomings to how we measure how smart animals are, there are some well established cognitive tests that researchers have employed to understand what cognitive abilities animals have such as whether they have self-awareness or the ability to create and use tools to solve complex problems.

How Smart Are Dogs?

Dogs are often perceived as having higher-level cognitive skills than other animals. This is thought to be due to the strong personal relationship that humans have formed with dogs. One researcher found that owners that were more attached to their dogs perceived their dogs as being smarter (Serpell, 1996). Stanley Coren (2006) believes that intelligence can be classified into three categories: instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence, and working and obedience intelligence. Instinctive intelligence is the intelligence that dogs are born with. These are genetic differences that make some dogs better at hunting, some better at guarding, and others as great loveable family dogs. Adaptive intelligence is the dog’s ability to learn. This category of intelligence would include things such as ability to perform certain tasks and comprehend language. Finally, working and obedience intelligence is what we would consider ‘school-learning’ ability, that is, what the dog can learn to do through instruction by people.

In What Ways Are Dogs Intelligent?

There are many dimensions to cognitive ability in dogs. The following are a list of abilities that we can study and measure to gain insight into the inner workings of a dog’s mind (Garcia, 2015).

  • Communication with humans

Dogs are incredibly talented at reading gestures provided by humans to locate hidden food. Few animals instinctively pick up on the meaning of human pointing gestures without training. Dogs are one of them. Seals, dogs, and cats are very skillful at understanding pointing gestures, while somewhat surprisingly, wolves do not seem to make the same connection (Miklósi and Soproni, 2006). It has been argued that domestication has allowed for the selection for animals that are better able to comprehend human communicative signals.

  • Understanding human attentional focus

It has been shown that dogs have the ability to discriminate between attentive and inattentive humans. By reading the orientation of the body, the head, and the visibility of the eyes dogs can deduce whether the human is watching them or not. Across different situations, dogs have been shown to be more flexible at recognizing human attention than chimpanzees (Gácsi et al., 2004).

  • Problem solving learning and memory
Studies have shown that dogs, similar to young children, understand the physical properties of occluded objects (Pattison et al., 2010). In other words, they understand that a dog bone, for instance, could not physically pass through another object such as a screen.
Another study has provided evidence that dogs are able to perform what is called “fast mapping”. Fast mapping is the ability to form a quick hypothesis about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure. In this study, a border collie was able to learn the labels of over 200 different objects. He was able to correctly remember these object labels 4 weeks after the initial exposure (Kaminski et al., 2004).
  • Social learning

Social learning is the ability to learn through observation of other individuals. There are many studies showing dogs with the ability to learn in this way. In one example, dogs were able to learn the detour around a V-shaped fence after observing an unfamiliar human or a dog demonstrator (Pongrácz et al., 2008). Dogs have been shown to develop food preferences through social learning (Kubinyi et al., 2009). Another study showed that young Dachshund puppies were able to learn a food-obtaining task through object manipulation by observing one of their littermates successfully perform that task (Adler and Alder, 1977).

  • Means-end awareness

Means-end awareness is tested by giving an animal several options, with one having a physical connection to a reward. This is often performed using a string-pulling task, where one of the strings is tied to a piece of food out of reach. The animal must pull the correct string in order to obtain the food. Research has demonstrated that dogs are able to complete this task (Range et al., 2011).

  • Tool use

Another common indicator of higher cognitive functioning is the ability to craft or use tools. There are a few observational studies suggesting that dogs are capable of tool use. In one observation, a dog learned (without training) to move objects around its enclosure in order to obtain objects out of reach. A second observation involved an adult male dog that learned to open a gate to gain access to a female (Smith et al., 2012).

  • Deception

Research suggests that dogs are not great at picking up on deception from humans (Petter et al., 2009). Think of how easy it is to trick a dog by pretending to throw their ball. However, there is research indicating that dogs have the ability to deceive humans and other dogs. It is thought that by deceiving others, more subordinate individuals can gain a competitive advantage (Heberlein et al., 2017).

  • Mirror self-recognition

A famous measure of cognition is the mirror self-recognition test. If animals are able to connect that they are the ones in their reflection, we conclude that the animals are self-aware. Results of the mirror test in dogs have been mixed. This test’s accuracy has been questioned for use in dogs, mainly since dogs are more focused on olfactory cues, as opposed to visual cues which are heavily relied on in this test. When dogs were tested in a scent-based (urine) self-recognition test, evidence showed that dogs did indeed recognize themselves (Bekoff, 2001).

  • Empathy/emotional recognition

This might seem like a no-brainer to dog owners, but scientific studies have been conducted that show dogs have empathy towards human emotions. In one study, dogs were found to match their emotional state to the emotional sounds of humans and other dogs (Huber et al., 2017). Another study found that dogs showed comforting behaviors towards people that were crying or upset (Custance and Mayer, 2012).

How Do I Test My Dog’s Intelligence?

There are many ways that you can gauge your dog’s intelligence at home. These mainly consist of presenting our dog with small challenges and seeing how they manage. Keep in mind that dogs, just like people, will likely perform excellent in some areas, and struggle in others. Being great at a single test does not necessarily mean that that dog is smarter than a dog that struggles in the same area. Additionally, while these tests can often be a fun challenge for our dogs, they can be mentally taxing – so limit how much testing you do in a day!

  • Test their problem-solving ability – Give your dog a puzzle feeder with a treat in it. See how long it takes your dog to get the treat out.
  • Test their memory – Get two or three cups and place them upside down. Place a treat under one and shuffle the cups while your dog watches. See if they can remember which cup has the treat.
  • Test their ability to learn – Try teaching your dog a new trick and count how many repetitions it takes for your dog to successfully perform the trick.
  • Find a dog IQ test online – There are plenty of fun IQ tests available online with scoring systems to determine how “smart” your dog is. Many of these tests can also give you information about what areas your dog is best at and areas in which they struggle.

What Can Dogs Be Trained To Do?

Since dogs are inquisitive and adaptable animals, they can be effectively trained to perform numerous tasks. Most people begin by teaching their dog basic obedience. From there, they may start to teach their dog some fun tricks. More advanced dogs may be taught the names of objects and can fetch them on command. Dogs can also be trained to perform specific services for society. Since dogs have such a strong sense of smell, many dogs have been trained to aid security and police in the detection of bomb or drugs. Of course, there are also service dogs. Service dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks, such as guide dogs, to aid individuals with disabilities. Dogs can also be trained to assist us with hunting or herding livestock.

Are There Some Dog Breeds That Are Better At Certain Tasks?

As previously discussed in this article, there are different classifications of intelligence – instinctive, adaptive, and working/obedience intelligence. This means that there are likely to be differences between breeds in their perceived intelligence. For instance, terrier breeds are generally going to be better at hunting small animals, while bloodhounds might be better at finding things using their noses. Dogs specifically bred for hunting are likely to be better at detecting prey and assisting their owners. Breeds bred to be service dogs might be more willing to please and easier to train. Whereas breeds bred to be companion animals may be more sociable and possibly more attune to communication from their humans. Since breeds vary so much, it is impossible to compare their intelligence. Many rankings of intelligence by breed that is available online are biased because they only examine a single facet of intelligence.


Dogs are incredibly smart animals and it is one of the reasons we love them so much as companions. Their close relationship with humans as they have evolved have helped them become attuned to our communication styles and our emotions. They are also incredibly adaptable animals which helps them be great learners and problem solvers.

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Works Cited

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Coren, S. (2006). The intelligence of dogs: A guide to the thoughts, emotions, and inner lives of our canine companions. Simon and Schuster.

Custancered, D., & Mayer, J. (2012). Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: an exploratory study. Animal cognition15(5), 851-859.

De Waal, F. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?. WW Norton & Company.

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Garcia, Jennifer L,D.V.M., D.A.C.V.I.M. (2015). Canine intelligence from the pet owner's perspective-and why we need to care. Veterinary Medicine, 110(3), 74. 

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