How Smart Are Dogs?

Virginia LaMon, DVM
By Virginia LaMon, DVM on Mar. 2, 2023
sitting dog giving his human his paw at the park

Every dog parent has bragged about how smart their fur baby is. In fact, scientists have suggested that dogs can be as smart as a 2-year-old child, and research on dog intelligence has demonstrated that our four-legged friends can learn in more complex ways than previously known. But how smart are dogs, really? And what are the signs of a brilliant pup?

Signs of a Smart Dog

Dogs can take in information from their environment through their senses, especially smell. Using this information, they can make informed decisions or store information for later. Here are some signs your dog is smart.

1. They Learn Tricks and Cues Quickly

Training a dog to do tricks and learn basic cues is vital for keeping her brain stimulated. Dogs learn through positive reinforcement and classical conditioning. For instance, when training a dog to sit on cue, reward her with a tasty treat and attention/praise. A particularly bright pup will quickly realize, “If I sit when my human tells me, I get a reward!”

2. They (Cutely) Manipulate You

Dogs can learn how to use cues to their benefit. For instance, your dog may try to convince you that she hasn’t received her dinner yet, even though someone else fed her already. Don’t fall for those puppy dog eyes!

3. They Can Learn Language Skills

Dogs have demonstrated that they can learn the names of objects—and some dogs will retrieve the named item. That said, intelligence varies among breeds and individuals. The average dog can learn around 165 words, while certain brainiacs can learn upwards of 200.

In one study, a remarkable Border Collie named Rico knew the names of more than 200 items and could remember them for weeks. He also showed he could learn new objects by exclusion—in other words, he was able to infer the name of a new object just by recognizing the object as one for which he didn’t have a name.

4. They Understand Human Gestures and Social Cues

Puppies learn many behaviors by following the examples set by veteran dogs. But what’s even more remarkable is that dogs can learn from observing humans as well.

Having spent thousands of years interacting with humans (roughly 15,000, in fact), dogs are quite adept at understanding human messages even without training. There are a few scientifically proven ways dogs read our body language, including:

  • Dogs respond to pointing and gesturing. As early as 8 weeks of age, some puppies are able to determine where a treat was hidden based on a human pointing.

  • Dogs respond more to gestures than verbal commands in most cases, which is important for training.

  • Dogs can even follow a person’s gaze. When dogs do not know where to go or what to do, they often look to their owners to see where they are looking or pointing.

5. They Easily Figure Out Spatial Problems

Dogs can learn the physical environment easily and use that knowledge to navigate the world more efficiently. For example, dogs can learn the location of a valued object, like a toy or treat, and will remember it for an extended period. They easily figure out puzzle toys, and their spatial perception also allows dogs to find the best route to a desired location, like a favorite bed or feeding station.

Dogs may even be aware of their human’s position in space. For example, they may protect a human from walking into a wall.

6. They Feel Emotions

Dogs and humans have similar brain structures and hormones (like epinephrine and oxytocin). Therefore, we have some of the same emotions. However, the range of emotions will likely not exceed that of a 2-year-old child; this means they can at least feel joy, disgust, fear, and anger.

Some research suggests that dogs may also feel more complex emotions, like jealousy and empathy. In one study, dogs became agitated when they saw another dog be rewarded for a behavior when they were not.

What Are the Smartest Dog Breeds?

Some dogs have a reputation for being especially bright. Though there are always exceptions to rules, some of the smartest dog breeds include:

How To Test Your Dog’s IQ

Many people wonder how smart their dog is. While scientists don’t always agree on the best way to evaluate intelligence, there are a few at-home tests you can perform to determine your pet’s brilliance.

  • Puzzle toys: Offer a toy that must be handled in a certain way to release a treat. Dogs who do not take long to figure out how to get the treat are generally smart dogs.

  • Blanket escape: Test how long it takes your dog to remove himself from a blanket thrown over his head. The faster he removes the blanket, the smarter he is.

  • Teach a new trick: How quickly does he learn to follow a new cue? Just like with the blanket, the faster he learns, the smarter he is.

  • Take out your suitcase: Does your dog’s behavior or mood change? This may indicate that he understands the meaning of this object: His person is leaving!

  • Treat trick: Hide a treat under a cup while your dog is watching. Does he know it’s there, or does he think it disappeared?

  • Name knowledge: Call out random words that have no meaning to a dog, like “refrigerator” or “toothpaste” in the same tone as how you say his name. If he ignores the unknown words—but responds to his name—he’s smart.

Regardless of how your dog does on any of these tests, we know he’s a good boy!

Featured Image: iStock/franckreporter


Virginia LaMon, DVM


Virginia LaMon, DVM


Dr. Virginia LaMon graduated from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. She completed her clinical year at Auburn...

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