Tan dog with reading glasses sitting in the library.

Are Mixed Breed Dogs Smarter than Purebreds?

Most of us want to own a clever, well-behaved dog and may wonder who is smarter — a mixed breed or purebred dog. A purebred dog may have more predictable traits, but are they any less or more intelligent than a mixed breed that comes from a varied, but rich background?

Based on the limited number of studies done on the comparative intelligence of various breeds, mixed breeds are not smarter or dumber than purebreds. Canine intelligence really boils down to genetics, environment, and the unique characteristics of individual dogs.

Keep reading to learn more about these studies and the different ways in which dogs are considered smart.

Canine Intelligence Studies

A very small study done in 2013 that compared mixed breeds to purebreds declared the mixed breeds to be smarter and better at passing certain tests. However, subsequent and much larger studies did not have the same findings. In fact, more expansive research has demonstrated that mixed dogs and purebreds can be equally intelligent depending on their unique heritage. Additionally, many factors are involved in measuring how smart a dog is. Just as humans have a variety of skills and talents, so do dogs.

White dog with a student's hate taking a test in a canine intelligence study

California State Science Fair 2013 Project–Mixed Breed Groups Tested Seemed Smarter than Purebreds

This 2013 study tested 26 dogs, which included 13 mixed breeds and 13 various purebred dogs. Four different tests were administered to measure each dog’s skill at finding treats. Each test was graded A, B, C, and D. The dogs were also given grades for the number of commands they knew and could respond to. In the end, the mixed breed group scored 463 and the purebred group scored 417.

Although this was a very well-done study, it was very limited in scope. It appears that it may have been conducted by research students who participated in a science fair. And although it was very impressive, it does not carry the same weight as a study done by credentialed scientists. Even so, the results are interesting and give more credit to mixed breeds than some may otherwise presume.

2020 Large Crowdsourced StudyCanine Intelligence May Be Tied to Genetics

According to Smithsonianmagazine.com, a large study involving 1508 dogs which included 36 breeds was done in 2020 by the dogs’ participating owners. They tested their dog’s problem-solving abilities mostly through various tests involving treats. The study compared each dog’s cognition skills and included three dozen dog breeds. This study demonstrated that breeds and mixed-breed dogs were smart in different ways. Additionally, the intelligence of dogs varied within each breed.

Tests involved three basic situations a dog’s self control by leaving a treat alone until allowed to have it; the dog’s ability to understand human communications about where to find treats; and the dog’s memory was tested regarding what bowl was hiding a treat.

Depending upon the type of test, genetics sometimes seemed to play a role. Even though breed did seem to make a difference regarding certain attributes such as self-control, dogs differed based on their individual personalities. Additionally, other factors came into play including how much a dog was nurtured, the clarity of communication, and the consistency of training.

“The researchers analyzed the scores and found that about 70 percent of the variance in inhibitory control was heritable, or attributable to genes. Communication was about 50 percent heritable, while memory and physical reasoning were about 20 percent heritable.”

But, as with humans, each dog is unique and intelligence will vary from dog to dog. And, dogs within the same breed can have a wide range of cognitive abilities. Therefore, mixed breeds may or may not be smarter than purebreds depending upon their unique heritage and individual abilities.

Individual Genetics of a Dog — Mixed Breed and Purebred Categories are Not Necessarily Markers for Smartness

A study done in 2022 published by BroadInstitute.org about dog genetics demonstrated that dog behavior and intelligence is not necessarily dependendent upon breed alone. The unique genetic make up each dog inherits is probably a bigger factor on how smart or aggressive a dog may be.

The study of 2,155 dog genomes and 18,385 owner surveys demonstrated that a dog’s breed provides more predictable information about physical abilities and appearance. Individual personality, behavior, and intelligence were less determined by breed alone:

“For the most part, pure breeds are only subtly different from other dogs,” Karlsson continued. “Although friendliness is the trait we commonly associate with golden retrievers, what we found is that the defining criteria of a golden retriever – what makes a golden retriever a golden retriever – are its physical characteristics, the shape of its ears, the color and quality of its fur, its size; not whether it is friendly. A golden retriever is only marginally more likely to be more friendly than a mixed-breed or another purebred dog, such as a Dachshund.”

Again, regarding things like behavior and intelligence, mixed-breed dogs may or may not be smarter than purebreds, depending upon their unique DNA.

Dogs are Smart in Different Ways

“Just as everyone wants to have smart kids, most people want to own clever dogs. However, whether a dog is “smart” or “dumb” depends on the specific aspects of its behavior we consider.”

Stanley Cohen, PhD

Dogs are Smart in Different Ways Like People

What makes a dog smart? Well, just as with people, there are different ways to measure intelligence.

As an example, Albert Einstein created an extremely complex mathematical formula that led to his complex and ground-breaking, Theory of Relativity. Yet, he lacked the simple arithmetic skills needed to balance his checkbook! He was a brilliant mathematician and philosopher but he did not seem to possess many practical abilities.

According to CNN Health, Human IQ tests can vary but they often measure visual, processing, mathematical, memory, and communication skills. What they do not measure is emotional maturity and stability or practical problem-solving abilities. Likewise, dogs who can more easily understand words and commands and solve puzzles may be terrible at trying to catch a rabbit or protecting your home from an intruder. And, some dogs are more intuitive than others and will be more sensitive to their owner’s moods and needs.

Happy Beagle running on a snowy path through the woods with a stick in his mouth.
A Beagle running through the woods on the trail of a rabbit.

Certain breeds are often better at some things more naturally. If you want to catch a rabbit get a Beagle that can run like the wind. German Shepherds and Labs usually make the best police dogs due to their ability to process and obey commands. They also make great search dogs and rescue dogs due to their size and ability to pick up scents and stay focused. But not all German Shepherds and Labs make the cut and only a few are recruited.

Black lab walking with a soldier
Working Dog

Sometimes all we want is to snuggle with our pooch. So, if you want a comical and entertaining lap dog, get a Pug. If you want a loyal, laid-back hunting or working dog, get a Lab. But, don’t be surprised if your mixed-breed shelter dog can do any or all of these things! Every dog has their own unique talents and is smart in their own way.

Dogs Have Different Types of Intelligences

Dog psychologist Stanely Coren, PhD describes three dimensions of canine intelligence:

  • Instinctive Intelligence — things a dog is naturally good at such as herding cattle, retrieving, or guarding
  • Adaptive Intelligence — how well a dog can learn new behaviors or skills
  • Working and Obedience Intelligence — like a kid going to school; commands and skills a dog can learn or be taught

As in the studies, Cohen points out that while certain breeds share similar traits, their abilities can vary from dog to dog within the same breed. He says, “Just as everyone wants to have smart kids, most people want to own clever dogs. However, whether a dog is “smart” or “dumb” depends on the specific aspects of its behavior we consider.”

Final Thoughts

Just remember that the phrase, “dumb mutt” is not fair when it comes to mixed-breed dogs. They can be just as smart or even smarter than purebreds. It all boils down to each dog’s unique characteristics and personality.

I once owned a Golden Retriever. We hoped he would be a big lovable, docile pup who would obey every command. Yes, he was lovable, but he was also the dog from hell! He jumped on everyone (all 75 pounds of him) and he had a very strong stubborn streak. He was challenging to train, but luckily, he did settle down over time.

So don’t pass over that sweet dog in the shelter just because he is not purebred. If he grabs your heart and you make a connection, check him out and learn more about him. He could turn out to be the smartest and most lovable dog you have ever owned. Read my post for more information about Adopting Mutts as well as how to avoid Red Flags when adopting a rescue dog.

Being smart about why and where you adopt a dog is probably more important than how smart you may think your dog will be!

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