The German Shepherd is known for its supreme intelligence and high trainability in the dog world. Therefore, there is a curiosity surrounding the German Shepherd brain and how it compares to other dog breeds and even humans. This article takes a look inside the mind of one of the smartest dog breeds in the world, giving you 5 amazing facts most dog lovers would love to know.
1. The German Shepherd’s Intelligence Equals A Human Child’s
The German Shepherd is extremely intelligent and one of the smartest dog breeds in the world. In fact, their intelligence is equal to that of a 2.5 year old child.
This is according to Stanley Coren, a psychologist and an expert in the field of canine research. Through his years of research, studies and writing several books, he has determined that dogs have the ability to solve complex problems.
While comparing them to a two and a half year old human might not seem like much, keep in mind that their brain size is approximately one-tenth the size of a normal human’s.
However, for a brain that small, these facts are pretty impressive!
- They can remember and understand over 150 words.
- They can count up to 4 or 5.
- They can deceive other dogs and people on purpose to get treats.
They are quick learners and one of the easiest breeds to train. Their brain’s ability to memorize commands and retain information is one of the best.
This is what makes them such a popular choice by so many different professions. They are revered in the world of the military and police. Their alertness and keen sense of awareness makes them perfect for several different jobs.
They are used as K9 dogs to apprehend and chase down criminals as well as sniffing out bombs and drugs. The military uses them as mercy dogs which provide first aid to wounded soldiers.
Fun Fact: The part of a dog’s brain that is dedicated to smell is much larger than a humans. Although a dog’s brain looks like a mini version of the human brain, the olfactory bulb is much larger.
2. The German Shepherd Brain Is The Size Of A Tangerine
Compared to a human, the German Shepherd brain is a little less than one-tenth of the size and weight. It is often compared to the size of a mandarin orange.
The average weight of a GSD’s brain is 105 grams. They have one of the biggest asides from the Great Dane, which has one of the biggest brains, averaging around 120 grams. Amazingly, the Chihuahua has the biggest brain in the world relative to their body weight.
Dog Brain Comparison:
|Dog Breed||Brain Weight (Grams)||Comparable Object (Weight)|
|Miniature Schnauzer||70g||An Egg|
|German Shepherd||105g||23 Sheets of Paper|
|Great Dane||120g||4.5 AA Batteries|
Dog breeds with a very close brain size to the German Shepherd include the Doberman Pinscher, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Old English Sheepdog and Weimaraner.
To put it more into perspective, a German Shepherd brain weighs close to 1/4 pound. A human brain weighs around 3 pounds (Between 1300-1400 grams).
Fun Fact: The cerebral cortex in dogs is much better developed than other small animals similar in size, including the cat. Sorry Whiskers! This means GSDs are able to express themselves using complex social behaviors with other dogs and even humans.
3. German Shepherds Are Smarter Than 99% Of All Dog Breeds
Yes, German Shepherds are smarter than most dogs which is evident by the fact that their brain size is bigger than other dogs.
In fact, according to Stanley Corin, and his book “The Intelligence of Dogs,” the German Shepherd is ranked #3 in terms of overall intelligence compared to other dog breeds.
Of course, there are exceptions and training plays a large roll. But Corin surveyed 199 dog obedience judges to measure their intelligence. He broke down their intelligence into 6 different levels.
The GSD was in the top tier with 10 other dogs. The Border Collie and Poodle took the top spots. Here is a look at the requirements for each level.
Note: Repetitions refers to the number of times it took for the dog to remember the trick.
Intelligence Ranking Levels:
|Top Tier||Brightest Working Dogs||German Shepherd||5||95%|
|Second Tier||Excellent Working Dogs||Cocker Spaniel||15||85%|
|Third Tier||Above-Average Working Dogs||Dalmatian||25||70%|
|Fourth Tier||Average Working Dogs||Siberian Husky||40||50%|
|Fifth Tier||Fair Working Dogs||French Bulldog||80||40%|
|Sixth Tier||Least Effective Working Dogs||Basset Hound||100||30%|
Close behind the German Shepherd were the Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Shetland Sheepdog, Labrador Retriever, Papillon, Rottweiler and Australian Cattle Dog.
4. Selective Breeding Practices Alter A German Shepherd’s Brain
The main reason German Shepherds are smarter than other breeds is more complex than just their brain size alone. Research has found that the type of breed also directly affects their intelligence.
According to this study performed by The Journal of Neuroscience, selective breeding has actually changed the shape and size of dog brains over the centuries. That is why herding or working dog breeds like the German Shepherd have a higher IQ than a lot of the other breed groups.
Specifically, dog breeds like the GSD, which perform complex cognitive tasks such as herding sheep, assisting the police and helping the military, have bigger prefrontal cortexes than say hound dogs. Herding breeds are much more likely to be able to solve problems.
The study looked at the MRI scan of 62 male and female dogs consisting of 33 different breeds. It determined that the following selective breeding practices altered the brain.
Behavioral Traits That Affected The Dog’s Brain:
- Scent Hunting
- Sight Hunting
This means that the German Shepherd is smart partially due to their background and history in herding sheep for shepherds. To protect their flocks, they had to have a keen sense of awareness regarding their surroundings.
Only the most intelligent, obedient and quick to act dogs were chosen by the local shepherds to herd their sheep. Over time, this sharpened the German Shepherd already heightened senses.
5. You Can Train A German Shepherd To Be Smarter
A good example of just how much dogs are capable of learning, is Chaser, “The World’s Smartest Dog.”
He was taught by his owner John Pilley to recognize over 1000 words.
The amazing Border Collie memorized the names of over 1000 toys and could identify and retrieve them on command.
To teach Chaser, Dr. Pilley used a special training technique called “errorless learning.”
This teaching strategy uses a specifically arranged environment to limit the number of times the subject can fail.
Photo courtesy of: Pilleybianchi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In the traditional successive discrimination procedure (different than Terrace’s procedure), a pigeon, for example, is reinforced with food for pecking a disk on the wall of an operant chamber (called a key light or key) when it’s illuminated red. After many repetitions, when the pecking behavior in the presence of the red key is well established the color of the key changes to green and pecking is no longer reinforced.Clearing the Path to Reinforcement with an Errorless Learning Mindset
In Chaser’s case, Dr. Pilley would start off in one room with a toy. He would give it a specific name and then show her the toy. He would then say “catch Sailor” for instance and then throw it to her. To eliminate the chance for failure, he would put the toy in front of her and say “find Sailor.”
He would repeat this until Chaser was able to fetch the toy from another room. It would typically take about three days per toy. At this point, he would move on to the next object. Using this method, Chaser learned to memorize 40 words and could retrieve any of them based on their given name.
Unfortunately, Chaser passed away back in 2019, just a year after his owner John Pilley. But she will always be remembered around the world as the smartest canine to ever live.
The above technique would be a great method to train your German Shepherd and make them smarter. You will need a lot of toys and even more patience but the payoff will be well worth it!
Here is a training plan utilizing the above strategy:
- Gather 40-50 unique toys to use for training. They can be balls, chew toys, stuffed animals etc.
- On day one, name a toy using a common or proper noun. You can also use adjectives. For example, you can call a ball, “big red.” Show her the ball and let her get used to it. Then say “catch big red” and throw it to her. Repeat this several times.
- On day two, work on putting the ball in front of her and saying “find big red.” This only gives her one option and she will begin to associate the words with the toy. Repeat this several times.
- On day three, put the ball in another room and say “find big red.” By this point, she should be able to go and fetch the ball from the other room. Repeat this several times until she completes the task successfully. Now you can move on to the next toy.
- Repeat this process using a new toy with a new name every three days. The time may vary and it could take shorter or longer than three days depending on the dog. Continue this process until your GSD can remember all 40-50 toys by name. You can keep going if your dog reaches this point. The sky is the limit and Chaser is the example of just how smart dogs really are.
With a German Shepherd able to remember at least 150 words, you should have no problem reaching this mark if you are consistent in your training. You also want to make sure you teach them basic commands before utilizing this technique. This is more advanced training.
If you are looking for a complete brain training course to take you from start to finish with basic training your GSD, then Adrienne Farricelli has an excellent dog training system.
She is an expert CPDT-KA certified dog trainer who has helped owners train and eliminate bad behaviors in their dogs. She is a master in finding their “hidden intelligence.”
Her detailed training course uses 7 modules with specific instructions for training your German Shepherd from “Preschool” level all the way up to “Einstein” level.
Here is a look at each specific module and what your dog will learn:
- Preschool: This is the foundation. It includes “Target Training,” and teaches your dog to look into your eyes using a couple of different games.
- Elementary School: This focuses on the dog’s senses using some fun games that will stimulate his brain and keep him out of trouble.
- High School: This teaches patience and impulse control using some fun games. This will teach him how to settle down. It will also provide exercise and improve overall behavior.
- College: This focuses on motor skills and improves concentration with commands. Three specific games are used to develop calmness, dexterity, mental agility and patience.
- University: This will focus on impulse control, intelligence and patience using three unique games. They will help strengthen your bond, improve behavior and help them build confidence.
- Graduation: This is the advanced level. It will help improve motor skills and overall intelligence. It includes leg-weaving skills, a game to teach your dog to stand by your side mirror your movements, and a game that teaches them to remember and pick out toys.
- Einstein: This is considered “genius level.” It teaches advanced skills such as cleaning up after playtime, stacking rings and learning how to play the piano on cue.
It also includes 7 cool trick training videos! I highly recommend you check it out! Especially if you don’t have a specific plan for training your GSD.
The German Shepherd brain is fascinating and will probably be studied for many years to come. Dogs continue to amaze humans with the amount of intelligence and problem-solving capability that they have. Owners and trainers will most likely continue to invent new and exciting ways to make dogs smarter. The German Shepherd is one of the smartest and a great dog to teach and train. They are excellent learners and hard-working family companions.
Please leave a comment below and let us know what you think!
Do you have any experience with making a GSD smarter and the techniques you used? Let us know! We would love to hear about your personal story!