BaxterBoo Blog
July 13, 2013

Smart Dogs In Shelters: Too Smart For Their Own Good?

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After posting about the importance of puzzle toys based on my friend's theory that dogs are getting abandoned when they act out from lack of mental stimulation, I decided to do a little research to see what kinds of dogs are frequently found in shelters. 

Could it be that the brightest breeds are the ones getting into creative mischief and even being destructive due to boredom? 

What dogs have the highest intelligence? 

Stanley Coren is a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher is considered an expert on dog intelligence. He compiled a list of the most intelligent breeds, based on their ability to understand a new command and obey it. He says that there are three categories of canine intelligence: Adaptive intelligence (a dog's ability to figure out new problems on their own), Instinctive intelligence (the ability to perform the tasks a breed was bred to do) and working intelligence (being able to perform what humans require of them.) The following list from his book The Intelligence of Dogs, is based on working intelligence:

Brightest Dogs

  • Understanding New Commands: Fewer than 5 repitions
  • Obey First Command: 95% of the time or better.
  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle Dog

Coren states there are differences in adaptive intelligence that varies from dog to dog within a breed. He also says this list is biased against hounds and terriers. Terriers and hunting dogs often display more adaptive intelligence because they were bred to work independently of humans, making their own decisions and solving problems in the field. He also notes that having a smart dog isn't always easier:

"While a smart dog will learn everything that you want it to know, it will also learn everything that it can get away with. This means you may have to spend much more time "civilizing" your clever dog so that it learns the limits of behavior in your household."

This is the crux of the matter with regards to the types of dogs that are flooding our animal shelters. Sometimes we humans just don't want to take the time or have the knowledge to train our dogs well and provide them with what they need to be well-adjusted canine citizens. 

To test my theory that brighter breeds are more likely to be found in shelters, I browsed through various shelter populations to see the predominant breeds that were listed for adoption.

Here in Denver, chihuahuas seem to be the most prominent. I suspect this may be due to their recent popularity in the media. They've been featured in movies and are often found looking like accessories draped over a celebrity's arm. Chihuahuas are also notoriously independent and difficult to housetrain, so these factors may be contributing to their abundance in our shelter. 

Once the Chihuahuas are factored out of the mix, the most prominent breeds are labs, lab-mixes, boxers, Australian Shepherds, Australian cattle dogs, Rotweillers, German Shepherd mixes, Border Collies and a variety of terriers. All of these fall into the high-intelligence breed categories as listed by Stanley Coren.


This is true for Denver, but what about other geographic regions? For the west coast, I checked a shelter in Sacramento, California. First of all, I just want to say that I was pleasantly surprised with how these guys have worked so hard to photograph their dogs well to make them look their best. Their dogs are mostly pitbull mixes and chihuahuas. You won't find the pitbull on any formal lists for intelligence, though. Why? Because they aren't a standardized breed. There are lots of variations from dog to dog but, in general, we can say that working dogs (and the pitbull terrier was bred for working a very tough job - baiting bulls) have to be smart to survive. They are quite trainable and adaptable. Just look at the dogs rescued from fighting that get their canine good citizen certification.

Other dog breeds listed at the Sacramento shelter are Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, shepherd mixes, Boxers, and terriers.

What about the South? I checked a shelter in Atlanta, Georgia where, again, the predominant breeds were German Shepherds, Border Collies, various terrier mixes (including pitbulls), Labrador Retrievers, and Australian Cattle Dogs. These folks have also done a really nice job of photographing their adorable adoptable dogs. They look happy and smart... just waiting for you to take them home!

What can be done to save these smart dogs?

Make sure your own smart dog has creative outlets.

Every dog has the ability to learn. For some, it takes longer, but investing in basic training helps every dog understand what is expected of them. This also helps establish the pack order. Get books for training or attend a local class. 

Beyond basic training, teach your dog new tricks. The old adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks simply isn't true. And just as in humans, learning new things regularly will keep your dog mentally in shape. This mental enrichment can also be stimulated through puzzle toys. 

By all means, adopt a shelter dog!

There are plenty of smart dogs just waiting for their forever home where someone will invest the time into them to help them reach their potential. There are very few truly stupid dogs. Most just need an educated handler who has taken the time to learn to speak dog. Again, don't be afraid to ask for help! Shelter workers want to see these dogs succeed and will offer resources to help new pet parents learn how to be the best they can be and form great bonds with their pets.

DeAnna on July 13 at 6:56 PM said:

I think it's very true that the smarter dogs may be found at an animal shelter. Just like the article states, the dog finds ways to entertain himself ... unfortunately, it may not be the most favorable method. With the correct training and outlet for the dog, everyone will be amply rewarded.

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