How Smart is a German Shepherd? 

Did you know that the German Shepherd Dog has won the Award for Canine Excellence (ACE) 13 times? It’s one of the smartest dog breeds. In fact, it’s their intelligence that makes them so popular with the military and police force. 

These “working dogs” are known as such, due to their high intelligence, which allows them to, well, work! 

Do you know what they have in common with war veterans? Read on and find out! 

How Smart are Dogs in the First Place?

Dogs are the seventh smartest animals in the world. They rank seventh after Chimps, Dolphins, Elephants, Cephalopods, Crows, and Squirrels, according to NBC News

History of German Shepherds

You obviously know where they originated, but did you know when that was? Read on to find out how the OG German Shepherd was recognized and how it led to one of the most popular dog breeds.  

German, Shepherd
@rrinna at Pexels

Intelligent from the Start

The German Shepherd (GSD), also known as the Shepherd Dog, was first recognized for herding sheep. The most impressive part? He was not even trained to do so, according to the German Shepherd Dog Club of America. This shows just how smart they inherently are.  

The World’s First German Shepherd

In the late 19th century, German officer Captain Max von Stephanitz was captivated by a certain dog; he was amazed by how clever the dog was as a herder. He realized that with the least amount of guidance, the dog followed orders well. 

Stephanitz bought this dog, naming him Horand von Grafrath. He became the first official German Shepherd dog. He admired Horand for his brilliance, not just his beauty. His motto was “utility and intelligence.”

The German officer became devoted to breeding the perfect dog, so he bred Horand. He founded the first German Shepherd club and dedicated 35 years of his life for a sole purpose: perfecting the ultimate intelligent breed. 

From Shepherd to War Dog

German Shepherds entered the military world in World War I when they were used by German soldiers as fighting dogs. 

After the war, Americans were impressed by the German Shepherds and took many with them back home. They recognized the breed’s striking intelligence and the breed became popular in America. The American Kennel Club recognized this fact in 1908. 

The German Shepherd Stars

Another career shift for German Shepherds was when Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin became movie stars. 


Strongheart’s artistic talent was discovered by a well-known animal trainer, Laurence Trimble. While he and his screenwriter wife, Jane Murfin, were looking for the perfect dog to star in a movie, they found Strongheart. 

In 1920, Trimble met the three-year-old police dog and knew he’d found what he’d been searching for. His only problem was that Strongheart was an incredibly instinctive and highly disciplined police dog, which meant that he wasn’t super friendly with humans, or strangers in general. 

After months of rewarding good behavior, Trimble was able to bring to the fore the playful side of Strongheart. His ability to spot people with low-morality, however, stayed with the German Shepherd Star. 

Strongheart is widely known for his roles in “Brawn of the North” and “White Fang.”

His career was, unfortunately, how he met his end. A tragic accident on set where he was burnt by a studio light led to a tumor and Strongheart passed in 1929, at the age of 12. His movies live on to show how special he was. 

Rin Tin Tin 

Rescued from the battlefield of WWI by US Air Corporal Lee Duncan, the puppy grew into an actor dog and starred in movies like “While London Sleeps” and “Land of the Silver Fox.”

His first scene was shot in a single take, which shows how special Rin Tin Tin was. His talent was inherited by his descendants, who also joined the acting business.

This prompted the breed’s popularity to skyrocket. The demand for German Shepherds rose and they were bred extensively. 

Back to the War

Once again, German Shepherds were on high-demand with the start of WWII. Both sides, the Allies and the Axis were using them. They were working as guard dogs, mine detectors, and messengers. 

Why is this Relevant?

This demonstrates how this breed is incredibly unique and intelligent. From guiding sheep to guarding humans, they can do it all. 

The ability to herd sheep displays their sharp sense of direction, which demonstrates intelligence. 

Their physical strength is what enables them to take part in the police force, search-and-rescue and the military; but it wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t observant, alert and canny.

Being guide dogs and therapy dogs reflects how instinctive they are; they make up for what we, as human beings, lack and even make us better.  

Just How Smart are They?

In his book The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren ranked the most intelligent dog breeds. He is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and has a Ph.D. in Psychology. 

He has written several books about dogs, including How to Speak Dog and Why We Love the Dogs We Dog.

Coren divides intelligence into three categories: Instinctive Intelligence, Adaptive Intelligence, and Working and Obedience Intelligence. 

Instinctive Intelligence

This goes back to the dog’s breed; for example, German Shepherds are bred for herding. The extent of their ability to do so is their Instinctive Intelligence. Each breed has its own Instinctive Intelligence. 

Adaptive Intelligence

This is based on the dog’s problem-solving skills; how capable are they of solving their own problems without any guidance? They use their past experiences to adapt. 

While a breed has the same Instinctive Intelligence, different dogs within a breed might have different Adaptive Intelligence. There’s always this one person who can never learn from their mistakes, right? Well, it’s the same for dogs.  

Working and Obedience Intelligence

This is where German Shepherds excel. A dogs’ ability to understand orders given to them by humans and follow them is their Working and Obedience Intelligence. 

The Test

In his blog at Psychology Today, Coren explains how he sent questionnaires to all the judges of the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel Club to evaluate the intelligence of dog breeds. 199 Judges provided the information and they ranked 133 dog breeds.

German Shepherds were the third smartest dog breed, after the Border Collies, who can learn up to around 1000 words, and Poodles respectively. They were evaluated on their ability to learn commands taught to them less than 5 times and obeyed no less than 95% of their commands. 

But What About Their Personality?

Their intelligence reflects how eager to please they are; obedience is their forte.   

German Shepherds are loyal to the extent that they’re considered as a one-man dog. They’re also known to be gentle and loving towards other pets and children. However, their protectiveness could turn into aggressiveness when they sense stranger danger. 

Sometimes you can reduce aggression through getting mixes such as a German Shepherd Lab Mix.

According to the American Kennel Club, “their high trainability and extreme loyalty and commitment make them an excellent choice for any agenda.” 


German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds in America, based on American Kennel Club statistics, and have been since 2012. Preceded only by Labrador Retrievers, the breed is extremely popular as pets in addition to being working dogs. 

Is This the Reason to Get German Shepherds?

If you need a German Shepherd as a working dog then definitely. They’re the dog for the job. But what makes these dogs special is their loyalty and gentleness. 

Many people nowadays opt for getting the world’s smartest dog, or Poodles, even though they outranked German Shepherds in Coren’s test.

 A German Shepherd’s personality is unique and reason enough why one should choose this breed. Coren himself says in an interview with Fanny Kiefer that their intelligence should not be the reason for which you decide to get one. 

Is There a Downside to Their Intelligence?

The answer to this question is another question. Do you have enough time to dedicate to your furry friend? 

If the answer is yes, then there’s no downside to their intelligence. If it’s no, however, then you might want to reconsider getting one of the smartest dogs. 

The problem you might face if you can’t spare enough time for your German Shepherd is that their intelligence, coupled with their inherent urge to work, makes them want to, you guessed it, work all the time! 

Whether it’s having a certain task at paw, or simply playing with the kids, they need to have something to do. They need an outlet for their eagerness. 

As a result, you need to dedicate the time to properly train your dog and make sure that they are mentally, emotionally and physically cared for. Otherwise, you might end up with a dog that acts out rather than an obedient one, due to frustration and unfulfillment. 

Bottom Line

German Shepherds are tailored for intelligence. Bred specifically for that reason, their abilities are impressive. They saved lives in war and facilitated the lives of the disabled. They light up the world of kids and provide them with a companion, a buddy to play with. They even make the world a safer place by protecting us, with the police force. 

What started out as a herder dog in Germany became the second most popular breed of dogs. Whether you want a dog for companionship, protection, or guidance, a German Shepherd has what you’re looking for.  

For details on how to train your herder puppy, the German Shepherd Dog Club of America provides detailed instruction.