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Mixed Breed Dogs vs. Purebreds: Who Is the Smartest?

Last Updated: December 10, 2023

So, you want to own an intelligent dog but are not sure which, between a purebred and a mixed breed dog, is more intelligent? Luckily, a growing number of dog experts are focusing on issues of dog cognition and giving us insights into what shapes dogs’ smartness. So, are mixed-breed dogs more intelligent than purebreds?

Mixed-breed dogs are more intelligent than purebreds if they inherit genes that positively favor their intellectual abilities, depending on environmental factors such as training. Although there are no large studies, a small study of 26 dogs showed that mixed breeds scored much higher in intelligence tests.

If you are seeking to decide between a purebred and a mixed breed dog based on their smartness, this article will help you make an informed decision. I’ll present expert ideas on dog intelligence and use that to answer the question – “are mixed breed dogs more intelligent than purebreds?”

Let’s start by exploring dog intelligence.

Are Mixed Breed Dogs More Intelligent? A Black Mixed Breed Dog Giving a Paws Up.

What Is Dog Intelligence?

Dog intelligence is viewed differently by pet experts and dog parents alike. For most dog owners, dog intelligence can simply mean their pet’s ability to learn and obey commands, decipher human body language, discover game tricks, or put on a puppy dog’s face to emotionally blackmail their owner and get their way. 

But what do dog experts say?

Here are four things dog experts say about dog intelligence:

Dog Intelligence Has 4 Aspects With Varied Heritability Levels

Researchers in animal intelligence or cognition have used standardized tasks to test dogs in the four areas considered to be part of animal cognition and intelligence:

  • Inhibitory control: Ability to control impulse responses and use attention or ‘reasoning’ to respond to situations. 
  • Memory: Recalling information and using it in new situations.
  • Communication: Sending and interpreting verbal and nonverbal messages.
  • Physical reasoning: Ability to interpret physical realities or tasks that involve physical objects.

A study measuring the heritability of cognitive traits across dog breeds found that:

  • 70% of inhibitory control in dogs is inherited.
  • 39% of communication skills in dogs are inherited.
  • 21% of physical reasoning in dogs is inherited.
  • 17% of memory in dogs is inherited.
Brown Mixed Breed Dog Running

Our Focus Question: Do the heritability levels of these dog cognition functions vary between purebreds and mixed-breed dogs?

The mentioned study reported no variation in the heritability of intellectual functions between purebred and mixed-breed dogs based on previous studies. In addition, the study found that training history created a bit of variation in how dogs manifest these intellectual functions. 

But a different study on social cognition in dogs found that dogs are born with the ability to read human social cues to find food and that environmental factors did not determine dogs’ capacity to interpret the cues. Even as puppies, dogs will excel in reading human social cues irrespective of how long they have lived with humans.

Both findings lead us to think that the inherited abilities for these cognitive functions are consistent in both purebred and mixed-breed dogs.

In other words, both purebred and mixed-breed dogs inherit cognitive functions at similar levels and may or may not show variations depending on environmental factors such as training history.

Dog Intelligence Is Primarily About Problem Solving

Animal psychologists and behaviorists suggest that dog (animal) intelligence is about their behavioral and mental ability to solve problems in the social and natural environment. Further, advanced dog intelligence can manifest in their ability to solve problems not directly related to their natural or social environment. 

These advanced indicators of dog intelligence are seen in their ability to:

  • Store information in the memory and apply it in new situations.
  • Learn by association.
  • Adapt behavior or show behavior flexibility in different situations.

Our Focus Question: Do mixed-breed dogs show greater problem-solving skills in different contexts compared to purebreds?

There is no extensive research suggesting that mixed-breed dogs are better at problem-solving than purebreds.

However, there are isolated suggestions that this could be the case. For example, a project study on the intelligence of purebred vs. mixed-breed canines at a California State Science Fair found that mixed-breed dogs performed better at intelligence tests than purebred dogs.

There Are 3 Types of Dog Intelligence

The renowned writer on dog intelligence and mental abilities, Stanley Coren, suggests that there are three types of dog intelligence:

  • Instinctive intelligence: What the dog was bred for.
  • Adaptive intelligence: The dog’s ability to learn problem-solving from its environment.
  • Working and obedience intelligence: What the dog can learn from humans through training. 

These dog intelligence categories are built on Coren’s study on “The Intelligence of Dogs” and are used to place certain breeds, such as Border Collies, Poodles, and German Shepherds, at the top of the list of most intelligent dogs and others like the Afghan Hound, Basenji, and Bulldog at the bottom.

Our Focus Question: This ranking study focuses on purebred dogs. Would ranking both purebred and mixed-breed dogs place the mixed breeds on top of the list?

Based on the three types of intelligence– instinctive, adaptive, and working & obedience, mixed breed dogs would most likely rank in a similar way as purebred dogs, with some mixed breeds appearing on top of the list and others ranked lower. 

From an instinctive intelligence perspective, purebreds are more predictable in what they can do depending on what they were bred for. The same may not be straightforward when it comes to mixed-breed dogs. 

However, the traits of mixed-breed dogs are generally predicted based on the parent dogs. That would imply that breeding two purebred dogs that are considered highly intelligent would predict an equally or even smarter offspring.

In this regard, the Institute of Canine Biology indicates that cross-breeding entails genetic variation to create a new combination of genes that produce traits not present in the parents.

It also creates the possibility that the result of multiple genes from the parents can produce traits in the offspring that exceed those of the parent dogs. 

For example, breeding the two top-ranked most intelligent dog breeds (Border Collie + Poodle) can create a Bordoodle that is more intelligent than its parents.

From a working and obedience perspective, dog intelligence is associated with trainability.

While all dogs are trainable, a study on owner perceived differences found that mixed-breed dogs were more trainable than purebreds. However, their trainability is often obscured by unfavorable environments created by their owners compared to purebreds.

My argument in the previous section already suggested that mixed-breed dogs could be better at problem-solving, which is the key aspect of the third type of intelligence (adaptive intelligence).

In sum, mixed breed dogs can be better at all three dog intelligence types: instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence.

Dog Intelligence Is Determined by the Number of Cortical Neurons

Dog (animal) intelligence has also been qualified based on the number of cortical neurons. For example, a study suggested that dogs are more intelligent than cats because they have a larger number of cortical neurons and are, thus, better at problem-solving and other cognitive skills.

Our Focus Question: Do mixed-breed dogs have more cortical neurons than purebreds? 

There is no data suggesting that purebred dogs have more cortical neurons than mixed-breed dogs. That means both dog categories have an average of 500 cortical neurons, according to an earlier quoted study. It also suggests that both purebred dogs have similar intellectual abilities. 

In fact, the study found that the number of cortical neurons did not vary among larger and smaller dogs, despite the difference in brain size.

So, do these four expert views on dog intelligence suggest a difference between purebred and mixed-breed dogs? Let’s use them to answer the question, “Are mixed breed dogs more intelligent than purebreds?”

Are Mixed Breeds More Intelligent Than Purebreds?

Most people suggest that mixed-breed dogs are more intelligent because they do not have the limits of interbreeding in traits such as temperament and intelligence. Instead, they have the advantage of a wider variety of inherited genes. But are mixed-breed dogs smarter?

Genetic variation from different breeds can produce higher levels of intelligence in mixed-breed dogs depending on the level of intelligence in the parent breeds. This would explain why some studies suggest mixed-breed dogs are intelligent in problem-solving and trainability. 

However, it is crucial to note that both mixed-breed and purebred dogs are intelligent because they inherit intelligence functions at similar levels. 

The difference in intellectual skills among purebred and mixed-breed dogs is majorly created by the genetic variation in the dog’s parents. Nonetheless, studies suggest that environmental factors such as when and how training is done may or may not create any variations on particular inherited intellectual functions.

Learn More About Mixed Breeds vs. Purebreds In This Video…

Concluding Thoughts

Both purebred and mixed-breed dogs are smart because they inherit intellectual functions from their parents. Because mixed-breed dogs inherit from a wider set of genes, they can show higher levels of intelligence depending on their parents’ intellectual abilities.

Environmental factors such as training may or may not create variations in particular intellectual skills in both purebred or mixed-breed dogs. 

If intelligence is the key factor you are looking for in a puppy, it might be wise to research the suggested level of intelligence in the parent dogs of your puppy before bringing the pet home.

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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