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Are German Shepherds Smart? How GSDs Outsmart Other Breeds

Last Updated: December 10, 2023

German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds in the world, known for their loyalty, courage, and versatility. But what about their intelligence? Are German Shepherds really as smart as many people claim?

German Shepherds are incredibly intelligent and can learn new behaviors quickly. They also have a strong desire to work and cooperate with their human companions. This makes them highly trainable and popular working and companion dogs.

In this article, we’ll explore the science behind German Shepherd intelligence and examine the many ways in which these dogs use their intelligence to excel in various fields.

We’ll also cover:

  • The true meaning of German Shepherd intelligence.
  • How German Shepherds are smarter than the average dog.
  • Little-known drawbacks of owning a clever pooch.

Ultimately, you’ll know what to expect when getting a German Shepherd and just how intelligent he’ll be.

Two German Shepherds wearing glasses. Are German Shepherds Smart?

Why Are German Shepherds So Smart?

German Shepherds are so smart as intelligence was required for their original purpose as a guarding and herding breed. They needed high adaptive intelligence to herd and protect their flocks. They have great instincts and a keen sense of smell, can quickly follow commands and are eager to please.

They will do anything to be recognized.

The consensus among experts is that German Shepherds are among the most intelligent dogs, if not the most intelligent dogs. But how do experts know that? You can trust the consensus because several tests have been constructed to demonstrate a dog’s intelligence, and German Shepherds ace most of these.

Even within a breed, the intelligence of a dog can vary. So it pays to know how you can test how smart your German Shepherd is. A dog’s intelligence is measured based on his ability to solve tracking puzzles, differentiate between close matches, learn new commands quickly, and communicate his state and needs.

Here’s what each of these means.

Ability To Solve Tracking Puzzles 

Dog IQ tests often involve hiding a treat and seeing how long it takes the dog to find it. In some cases, one tests whether the dog can find a treat in the first place. This demonstrates the presence and the speed of German Shepherd’s problem-solving (information processing) center.

Learn More About The German Shepherd In This Video…

Differentiation Capabilities 

It is easy to tell apart an apple from an orange, but it is harder to differentiate between two things that look alike in every aspect except one or two details. Tests designed to check how quickly a dog can pick the odd thing out engage his detail-oriented observation similar to “find the differences” puzzles for humans.

Learning New Commands Quickly

This is the equivalent of street smarts. While picking the odd thing out is cerebral, the ability to pick up new commands over a short period shows the connection between a dog’s IQ and his practical performance. This isn’t a test you can conduct in a short period; it is more like a longitudinal study on your dog’s intelligence.

Ability to Communicate

A dog that can quickly pick up new commands is excellent at receiving information, but how good is he at communicating? This is a rarely explored and mostly vague area of intelligence that one can pick up qualitatively. 

Only you can rate how well your German Shepherd communicates with you. It doesn’t help if you’ve never had a dog before because you cannot compare the quality of a GSD’s communication to any other dog’s ability to express.

Not to worry, though, as my article on how to read a German Shepherd’s body language will genuinely help.

Still, most experts and breeders would agree that a German Shepherd can communicate his needs better than the average dog.

Learn Why German Shepherds Are So Intelligent In This Video…

How To Tell If My German Shepherd Is Smart

Now that we have established that German Shepherds are smart and looked at aspects factored into this consensus let’s look at how you can tell (and prove) that your German Shepherd is smarter than the average canine. Dogs’ cognitive skills can be tested quickly, like those of people, as found in this study of a general intelligence factor in dogs.

Test 1 – Escape Time

In this test, you will assess your German Shepherd’s ability to solve the problem of freeing himself from a large sheet of cloth, such as a bedsheet. However, you must keep him from panicking so his information processing centers are functioning at their best.

For that, you’ll get him to be familiar with the sheet by keeping it close to his bed for two days and having him smell and explore it. Here’s the test:

  • Ask your German Shepherd to sit. 
  • Place the sheet over the dog’s face.
  • Wait for him to free himself while you check your stopwatch.
  • Give him a treat regardless of when he frees himself.

Score: Give your dog 6 points for getting free within 15 seconds, 3 points for taking up to 30 seconds, and 1 point for taking more than 30 seconds.

Test 2 – Find the Treat

This test will help demonstrate your German Shepherd’s ability to track and solve problems simultaneously. Use a towel for this and make sure the treat you use is large enough to be easily visible. Don’t use multiple tiny treats. Here’s the test:

  • Command your German Shepherd to sit. 
  • Place the treat in front of him, on the floor.
  • Put a towel over the treat.
  • Wait for the dog to pick up the treat and track the time.

Score: Give your dog 6 points for figuring out his way to the treat within 15 seconds, 3 for taking up to 30 seconds, and 1 for taking longer than 30 seconds.

A Black German Shepherd. Why Are German Shepherds So Smart?

Test 3 – The Invisible Odd One Out

This is one of the best tests that demonstrates your German Shepherd’s intelligence and improves it with practice. And all it takes is a treat and a few cups, which also doubles as a party trick. Here’s the test:

  • Instruct your dog to come over. 
  • Place a treat on the floor.
  • Place an upside-down cup over it.
  • Place two similar cups next to it, also upside-down.
  • Shuffle the cups by dragging them on the floor and mixing positions.
  • Wait for him to go for the treat.

Score: Give him 6 points for going directly to the cup with the treat, 3 for going on the second attempt, and 1 for finding the treat in the last cup.

Test 4 – Functional Treasure Hunting

This test is one of my favorites but is not possible in all homes. If you have a bed or a table that your German Shepherd’s head cannot fit underneath but his front limbs can, you can conduct it. But in the absence of such a structure, this test is difficult. But here’s how you do it:

  • Stand next to a low-elevation furniture item. 
  • Instruct your dog to come over.
  • Once he is nearby, take a treat and place it under the furniture item.
  • Track how long it takes for the dog to get his treat.

Score: If the dog reaches under the furniture with his paw only and gets the treat in under a minute, give him 6 points. Give him 4 if he reaches with his paw, but it takes over a minute. If the dog tries to reach with his head, give him 3 points, and only 1 if he gives up.

Note: This test works only if the furniture is too low for the dog to get under with his head/mouth. This test is nullified if he reaches underneath with his mouth and gets the treat.

Calculating IQ

This is the stage where you add up the score from each test and get a consolidated average that gives an approximate idea of how intelligent your German Shepherd is. The reason for averaging the scores is to offset improperly conducted tests, serendipity, and other nuances. Here’s how you calculate IQ from multiple tests:

  • Add the points from all the canine intelligence tests. 
  • Divide the number of points by the total number of tests.
  • Mark your dog as a genius for scoring 5 or 6 points.
  • Mark your dog as smarter than average for scoring 3 or 4 points.
  • If your dog gets 1 or 2 points, acknowledge that he needs patience and support to figure his way around.
  • Multiply the average score by 33** to get an approximation of the dog’s actual IQ.

**Derived from reconciling a point scale from the average IQ of dogs being 100.

A German Shepherd running through an agility tunnel. German Shepherd Agility

German Shepherds and IQ: A Deeper Dive

The tests above will help you see whether your German Shepherd fits in the genius category or the “smarter than average” category. But given that he is a German Shepherd, the likelihood of him getting an average of 1 or 2 is extremely low.

An average German Shepherd is smarter than the average dog, and an average dog is as intelligent as a 2.5-year-old human. This leads to two conclusions:

  • German Shepherds are not smarter than humans. They do, however, have the intelligence of a two-and-a-half-year-old child based on the average IQ and comprehension. No dog is smarter than humans, who have better arithmetic and logic processing and expression.
  • German Shepherds are so smart because of their genetics as their high IQ is consistent across various types of German Shepherds bred in different countries with different upbringings and attention to potential. So, you can have a smart companion even if you don’t fancy yourself as an intellectual trainer.

What I find interesting is this more recent study on the perceptions of dog intelligence. Researchers found that 45.7% of 565 dog owners surveyed believed that a dog’s mental ability equals a 3-5 year old child.

The Advantages of Having a Smart Dog

Nuanced Understanding

German Shepherds’ intelligence helps them pick up the nuances other breeds overlook. They are among the few types of dogs that can tell the difference between the word “walk” being used in a sentence context and as an indicator for an actual walk.

That said, German Shepherds are also smart enough to ignore the difference and display excitement over the word regardless of the context to communicate that they would like to go on walks. 

More intelligent dogs not only pick up on the nuances of words, facial expressions, and tone of voice but can use the aforementioned to convey their feelings. 

Easy Trainability

If you’ve read my post on how to train a German Shepherd, you already know that a bulk of the dog’s training is based entirely on your ability to communicate a command and have it overlap an action. Remember, German Shepherds can understand words and differentiate them as correlating to an action. 

“More importantly, they can understand the connection between the command, the action, and the reward, at an unbelievable pace.”

Of course, this has positive consequences in both convenience and practical results. For starters, you can adopt a German Shepherd puppy and train him to be a guard dog well before he is a fully grown adult.

The easy trainability of German Shepherds is one of the reasons why they are used in working roles such as law enforcement, military, search and rescue, and as service or therapy dogs.

German Shepherd Search and Rescue Dog
GSD Search and Rescue Dog

Moreover, you get to teach him tricks far more advanced than an average dog can manage to comprehend and execute.

More Party Tricks

One of the best things about having a dog is that they are social beings who like to entertain and be admired. However, not all pups are blessed with the same range. Though German Shepherds aren’t seen as the classic party dog, they can be the center of attention if they’re trained to perform tricks. 

Almost all dogs can do a handful of tricks, but when a dog belongs to one of the most intelligent canine breeds, he can observe and internalize a broad range of tricks.

German Shepherds are among the few dogs that can learn tricks by watching videos of other dogs performing them, albeit with a degree of trainer intervention. 

Tricks aren’t just entertaining; they’re a way for your pet to feel admired, which is great for his self-esteem. Even though German Shepherds can have separation anxiety, they don’t have self-esteem issues if socialized well.

In that context, party tricks are a safety measure as they maximize domestication and optimize your German Shepherd’s self-image and consequent friendliness.

Balance Friendliness With Menace

Insecure dogs can be dangerous as they perceive everything as a threat. But when it comes to intelligent dogs, the likelihood of insecurity decreases because they are smart enough to see their worth. 

However, a German Shepherd who is smart enough to know he is loved and valued is also intelligent enough to realize when he is an afterthought. Such a German Shepherd may start acting up to get attention.

Given that German Shepherds almost always double as family guard dogs, their ability to differentiate between family, friends, and strangers is crucial to their duties. A GSD’s intelligence allows him to recognize you as his guardian and your family as your loved ones.

Because of this intelligence, the German Shepherd can be the friendliest dog for your children yet be an outright menace to intruders.

Fewer Problems (Like Chewed Up Homework)

A German Shepherd that can pick up on a human’s discomfort can also detect a human’s disappointment. Yes, your doggo might chew up your furniture or be the organic paper shredder to your office paperwork, but this will be far from a routine occurrence. 

Given that you display your disappointment at the right time, he will understand that what he did was wrong. However, if you take too long to discipline him, he will be confused. Even though German Shepherds are intelligent, they only have a short memory and learn by association.

Can Understand Your Emotions

German Shepherds are intelligent enough to understand your emotions. The fact that we hate being ignored or having our feelings overlooked proves that we yearn to be seen, acknowledged, and validated. 

German Shepherds are smart enough to fulfill that role to a great extent. Having one truly feels like having a friend who isn’t intellectually limited. If you have a bad day, you’ll find a GSD trying to cheer you up. The dog is smart enough to pick up on what works when comforting you. 

Drawbacks of Having a Smart Dog

You Won’t Be Satisfied With Other Dogs

The key drawback of having a German Shepherd is that the experience raises the bar of what you expect from a canine companion. This leads to some breeds, like the Bulldog or Afghan Hound being entirely off your list. After having a German Shepherd, you’ll not be able to find dogs with average intelligence as appealing.

As a German Shepherd owner, I don’t personally see this as a drawback, as I love all dogs, no matter how clever they are.

The German Shepherd Can Get Sneaky

The German Shepherds learning potential can lean towards the negative. A GSD can learn to get away with things that displease you if he feels like the punishment is tied to getting caught and not the action. The best way to avoid this problem is to use positive reinforcement only and never be harsh with your punishments.

GSDs Can Develop Long-lasting Defense Mechanisms

An extension of the previous drawback manifests itself as follows: a mistreated German Shepherd learns from his experience of human nature and develops trust issues. Because the dog is smart, he cannot be “fooled” into having faith in a new owner, and it takes much longer for him to get over bad experiences completely. 

The only way to avoid this is to adopt a puppy when he is young and make sure you give him the best experience of living with humans. They’ll bring joy into your life if you give them a wholesome experience because they have a deeper capacity to appreciate good things than other dogs because of their mental superiority.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Other Dogs

German Shepherds are smarter than most other dogs as they are ranked 3rd for intelligence. Intelligence is measured by working and obedience intelligence, i.e., the dog’s trainability. Border Collies and Poodles are the only breeds that are more intelligent than the German Shepherd.

Check out the below rankings of the brightest breeds from The Intelligence of Dogs by canine psychologist Stanley Coren. These breeds needed fewer than five repetitions when understanding new commands and obeyed the first command 95% of the time or better.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than:Yes/NoRanking
Border ColliesNo1
German ShepherdsN/A3
Golden RetrieversYes4
Shetland SheepdogsYes6
Labrador RetrieversYes7
Australian Cattle DogsYes10

FAQs on GSDs Smartness Based on Color

Are White German Shepherds Smart?

White German Shepherds are known for their intelligent, energetic, protective, and loyal nature. Their temperament also makes them easier to socialize and train over time. Their smartness is the reason for their constant lookout for various forms of stimulation.

Are Black German Shepherds Smart?

Black German Shepherds are known for their smart, loyal, and intelligent attributes. Known for the rare color, they’re easy to train and quite social. They possess the same IQ level as a regular German Shepherd.


Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Dobermans?

German Shepherds rank two positions ahead of Dobermans in terms of smartness. For instance, GSDs rank 3rd in the list of breeds assessed for their intelligence levels and this is due to their trainability and obedience to commands.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Rottweilers?

German Shepherds rank at the 3rd position in terms of intelligence level compared to Rottweilers, who ranks at the 9th position. While both look aggressive, GSDs are smarter in terms of trainability, energy levels, and overall temperament.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Belgian Malinois?

German Shepherds are smarter than Belgian Malinois as they are ranked 3rd for intelligence, whereas the Belgian Malinois is ranked 22nd. GSDs can obey first commands 95% of the time and understand new commands in less than 5 repetitions compared to the Belgian Malinois’ 85% and 5-15 repetitions, respectively.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Australian Shepherds?

German Shepherds are smarter than Australian Shepherds, being ranked 3rd for intelligence, compared to the Australian Shepherds’ ranking of 42. German Shepherds are categorized in the “brightest dogs” section, whereas Australian Shepherds are in the “average intelligence” category.

Are German Shepherds Smarter Than Siberian Huskies?

German Shepherds are smarter than Siberian Huskies as Huskies are ranked 45th for intelligence, whereas the GSD is ranked 3rd. GSDs can follow first commands 95% of the time and comprehend new commands in less than 5 repetitions compared to the Huskies’ 50% and 25-40 repetitions, respectively.

Final Thoughts

Owning an intelligent dog leads to a deeper experience of companionship. It makes your life easier as you don’t have to repeat the same command multiple times before it is followed. German Shepherds are among the top three most intelligent canine breeds, so training is comparatively easy.

However, you cannot choose a breed based on intelligence alone. German Shepherds make great pets and are good first dogs. However, remember that they come with a lot of work due to their high energy so ensure the breeds’ temperament and personality are a good fit for your lifestyle.

Sharon Waddington
Sharon Waddington is the founder of World of Dogz. With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, this former Police Officer has seen it all. But it’s her trusty German Shepherd, Willow, who steals the show as the inspiration behind this website. As Sharon’s constant companion Willow has played a pivotal role in shaping her passion for dogs. Recently, Sharon has become deeply passionate about the plight of rescue dogs and is an active advocate for dog rescue, striving to make a difference in the lives of dogs in need.

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