Everyone knows German Shepherds are smart. I don't just mean their owners either. If you asked strangers to name 3 traits of a German Shepherd, intelligence will likely make the list. But what is intelligence and exactly how intelligent is a German Shepherd?
What is intelligence? In the dictionary it's described as "The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills." But not so fast. Is it really that simple to define intelligence? I don't believe so, and neither do most researchers. To truly understand intelligence you have to account for the capacity for abstract thought, logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
Imagine a dog that fit the Webster's definition of intelligence: a dog that has the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Such a dog could be trained to do skills and do them well. But if he had no logic and understanding of consequences, nor self-awareness - what's stopping him from jumping off a cliff? Such a dog, even though he's well trained and can apply the skills he's been taught, hasn't been trained in the fine art of avoiding cliffs! That just illustrates how important it is not to focus on one aspect of intelligence.
Back to exactly how smart is a German Shepherd: the average dog has the intelligence of a two and a half year old toddler. But German Shepherds are not the average dog, and therefore can be as smart as a three year old child. Let's look at a list of the top 3 most intelligent dogs. Border Collies are listed as the smartest dog on Earth, poodles come in second, and German Shepherds come in third (perhaps the researchers all have poodles).
The difference between these dog's intelligence are pretty small, and a motivated member of any of the top several breeds would perform similarly if given identical tasks and tests. Too few German Shepherds have been tested by researchers, because they're usually bypassed to study Border Collies. That, and Border Collie owners seem to be drawn to training tricks and things most other dog owners simply don't do. I think it's to keep them occupied so they don't drive their owners insane!
A Border Collie named Chaser has learned the names of 1,022 individual items — more than any other animal that has been tested, including primates and parrots. Very impressive indeed, but remember, dogs think more like humans than wild animals like primates and parrots do, because they've evolved around and with us. And part of that is that they learn from us easier than any wild animal can. That's just a little disclaimer so people don't think that German Shepherds are going to win any practical intelligence tests against dolphins or chimpanzees!
German Shepherds are capable of accepting and recognizing a wide variety of verbal, audible, and non-verbal cues. In terms of general intelligence, they can learn new commands in as few as six to eight repetitions.
During tests, a researcher would repeatedly place an object in Box A and allow the test subjects to find it. When the experimenter then switched and put the object in Box B, human babies and dogs were confused and continued to search for the object in the first box. Wolves, however, easily followed the evidence of their eyes and located the object in Box B.
It would appear that dogs and human children have a lot in common. Both get used to routines and both expect assistance from adult humans. Whereas wolves have no such luxury. So which is more intelligent? Well, wolves and dogs have 2 different lifestyles. One has to survive on its own, the other has staked its advantage on human intelligence and ingenuity. They're intelligent in two completely different ways.
German Shepherds are one of the most trainable dogs on the planet. The founder of the breed specifically mentioned "working aptitude" as a key trait of the breed. Working aptitude could best be described as motivation and drive, and a properly bred German Shepherd has plenty of both. This "working aptitude" is why German Shepherds are so versatile. The first seeing-eye dog was a German Shepherd, one of the most used police dogs are German Shepherds. One of the most used military working dogs are German Shepherds. This breed can do everything from finding landmines, to finding missing children. From leading the blind, to leading the fight against terrorism.
So just how smart is a German Shepherd? Toddler smart. Smart enough to learn and recognize many words, objects, commands, signals and places. But none of that matters if you don't train your dog and build a relationship of understanding and mutual respect to harness that intelligence into positive behaviors.
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