A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

How Smart Is Your Dog? Here’s How to Tell

Updated: Aug. 04, 2021

Is your dog an escape artist? Can he find the treat bag, no matter where it's hidden? Don't be mad—be proud of his high intelligence!

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Dog sitting on hind legs begging with paws in praying gesture

He can remember a command from a year ago

How smart are dogs? Well most pups can be taught to obey some commands, but a really smart dog will remember those commands over time, even if they haven’t been used in a while, says Robert Cabral, a professional dog trainer and behavior expert. “For instance, if I taught a dog to walk backward on command and haven’t done it with him in a year, if he’s smart, he will still remember how to do it when asked,” he says. But be warned: Giving bad commands is one of the 53 mistakes all dog owners make.

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She can solve a treat puzzle

Smart dogs are innately great problem solvers, Cabral says. So to test your pup’s problem-solving abilities, get her a food puzzle (a toy that has to be manipulated in a certain way to get to a treat). If she can solve it without your help, she’s smart, Cabral says. Want a cheaper option? Make your own food puzzle using a treat in a box, or hide a treat somewhere around the house. If you want to see some true cuteness, check out these fluffy curly-haired dogs.

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A Jack Russell Terrier dog looks out the barred window of a house.

He can find the open door

Some dogs are master escape artists. While that can be frustrating for owners, it’s actually a sign of high intelligence, Cabral says. One way to test this skill is to let your dog out one door, close it, and then open a different outside door to your house. Smart doggos will be able to find their way back in even if their original or usual point of entry is closed, he explains. Find out the 14 things you may be doing that your dog actually hates.

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A german shepard playing tug of war
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She starts a game with you

Lots of dogs will play tug-of-war when you hold out the rope toy, but smart dogs will initiate games by communicating their desires to you, Cabral says. For instance, does your dog “speak,” pat you, bring you a toy, or spontaneously use another behavior you’ve taught her to get you to pay attention to her? (This is different than barking wildly or jumping all over you, as those are not skills you’ve taught her.) “The dog’s desire to work as a team shows me that her intelligence is ripe,” Cabral says. “Remember, wisdom is only wisdom if it’s shared—and that’s true of dogs as well as humans.” Here’s how to keep your dog happily occupied while you’re at work.

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Pit Bull Shepherd Dog Wrapped in Blanket Cozy Nap in Bed Holding Owner's Hand
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He snuggles with you when you’re sad

Intelligent dogs are very good at sensing and interpreting your emotions, says Katie Nitti, dog behavior expert and owner of Dog Walk NYC. Had an awful day at work? Fight with your spouse? A smart dog will read your sadness and take steps to comfort you, such as cuddling up with you or refusing to leave your side until your tears dry, she says. Make sure you’re taking care of him too! Try these 19 things your dog really wants from you.

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Small dog maltese sitting in the suitcase or bag and waiting for a trip
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She understands what your suitcase means

Being highly observant is another characteristic smart pups share, Nitti says. For instance, when you pull out your suitcase, does your dog recognize it’s a sign that something is about to change (you going on a trip)? She may show her understanding by trying to jump in or hide your suitcase, or stick unusually close to you, Nitti says. Check out the 13 signs you need a new pet sitter.

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He bumps your hand for scratches

“All dogs love attention, and smart dogs know the best way to get it,” Nitti says. Intelligent dogs will place their head under your hand and “bump” it to prompt you to give them a scratch behind the ears, or they may even “pet” you as an example of how they want you to pet them. Did he used to do this and now doesn’t? Avoiding you is one of the 15 signs your dog is secretly mad at you.

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Poodle dog close together to owner walking with leash
Vjacheslav Shishlov/Shutterstock

She takes safety precautions

Dogs must be taught how to safely navigate situations, like crosswalks, but a smart dog will take the initiative and look for safety risks on her own, like a speeding car heading toward that crosswalk, and react accordingly, says Yvonne Brandenburg, a registered vet tech and founder of Internal Medicine For Pet Parents. Has your pet ever stepped in front of you to prevent you from walking into a busy street? Or does your dog show caution before going into a new place? If so, that’s a sign that she’s smart. Interested in seeing more cute dogs? Check out these dogs with pointy ears you need to see.

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Young female training labrador retriever dog on the beach at sunset

He can learn a new trick in just a few tries

Most dogs can be taught to follow commands—it just takes some of them a lot longer than others. You might wonder, “how smart are dogs,” while you try and teach them new tricks. The faster your dog learns a new trick and the more commands he knows are sure signs of his intelligence, Brandenburg says. For example, if you only have to tell your dog “no” to jumping on strangers a handful of times, he’s pretty darn smart. If you only have to tell him once, sign him up for doggy Mensa. Don’t miss these dogs with long noses that are just so lovable.

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Funny pug dog bite stainless bowl wait to eat dog food on concrete floor.

She can make you do her bidding

“No one likes to hear this, but our pets also train us,” Brandenburg says. “Do we jump up when they run to the back door? Do we get out the food when they bring us their bowl?” How well trained you are is a sign of how smart your dog is, she says. It’s not just dogs that manipulate humans; cats do, too. Here are the 15 signs your kitty is mad at you.

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Scarred dog at backseat

He knows the way to the vet’s office

If your dog gets excited on the way to his favorite dog park or anxious on the way to the vet, it not only means he can recognize his surroundings but can also remember the route to the destination. Recognizing locations and direction is a clear sign of animal intelligence, Brandenburg says. These are the 50 things your vet won’t tell you.

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hungry dog looking for food in the refrigerator
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She learned how to open a door after watching you do it

How easily trained your pup can be an indicator of their intelligence, and one way to judge this is whether or not they pick up skills simply by observing, says Jeff Franklin, a professional dog trainer who oversees the selection and instruction of all elite canines assigned to the U.S. Military. “Dogs that can watch either humans or other dogs doing certain tasks, such as opening doors or gates, and learn from their example are certainly more trainable and may be smarter,” he explains. Here are 15 secrets your dog trainer won’t tell you for free.

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Labrador poodle puppy looking at owner
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He looks to you for instruction first

How much a dog naturally looks to his owner for direction can be a sign of intelligence, Franklin says. “A smart dog will not only follow direction but will look to you for cues for what to do,” he says. Now that you can answer, “how smart are dogs,” read on for the 50 secrets your pet wishes you knew.