Move over, Border Collies, there’s a new contender for the title of “World’s Smartest Dog.” The Belgian Malinois has always boasted a reputation for being sharper than most dogs. Now, the Belgian Shepherd variety is staking its claim as the most intelligent dog breed on the planet.
A 2022 study showed that the Belgian Malinois topped the dog breed rankings across various cognitive tasks, revealing a well-rounded aptitude for independent thinking, communication, and problem-solving.1 As a fixture in several sectors, from law enforcement to farming, the Malinois’s intelligence has never been in doubt. The latest research adds further credibility to a long-held understanding and raises the already impressive profile of this remarkable breed.
Belgian Malinois Background
The Belgian Malinois has proven to be one of the most versatile and hardworking dogs alive. As one of four Belgian Shepherd breeds, the Malinois was traditionally a herding dog for cattle, goats, and sheep. With little regard for appearance, breeders focused on intelligent, capable dogs that would provide superior performance in the field. As it became a preferred dog for farmers, Belgians recognized the distinct breed in the late 1800s.
When it arrived in America in the early 1900s, the Belgian Malinois made a name for itself in a wholly unique way. With the addition of five Malinois dogs to the NYC police force in 1908, the breed began its storied role in the law enforcement and military sectors.
Malinois have appeared in war zones since WWI. One was even part of the operation that took down Osama bin Laden. Like the larger German Shepherd, the Malinois has also taken on roles in K-9 units worldwide. The adaptable dogs have helped in officer protection, drug and bomb detection, and human tracking.
How Smart Are Belgian Malinois?
Belgian Malinois are intelligent because breeders desired the most proficient working dog possible. They are flexible and have an intense work drive. Combined with their protective nature, that motivation has made them reliable watchdogs, guard dogs, and military canines.
The Belgian Malinois flourishes with mental challenges and has a high energy level. Apart from having a job, these athletic dogs enjoy sports, canine competitions, and obedience training.
First-time owners often find the Malinois’s bold character and activity needs challenging to handle. The dogs need a confident owner to stay well-mannered. But when they receive the proper attention, they become highly loyal and receptive to training.
The Intelligence of Dogs Ranking
Stanley Coren’s 1994 book The Intelligence of Dogs established the Border Collie as the smartest of 131 researched dog breeds. The intelligence ranking singled out working and obedience intelligence: the ability to understand and follow commands.
Much of a breed’s intelligence depends on the environment and its rearing. It makes sense that the Border Collie, one of the world’s finest herding dogs, would rank highly on that list. As a tireless working dog, the Belgian Malinois’s high ranking is also no surprise. The breed comes in at number 26, falling within the “Excellent Working Dog” range.
Although many agree on Coren’s rankings, several limitations might downplay the Belgian Malinois’s true intelligence. Perhaps most significant is that the study is relatively old.
A study from 2017 compared German Shepherds (number three on Coren’s list) to Belgian Malinois in obedience, tracking, defense, and obstacle course tests. As the authors noted, changes in experience can affect training-based rankings over time. Compared to the German Shepherd, the Malinois showed better agility, activity, and learning ability. Many consider them more physically fit for police work, but Malinois may also outshine German Shepherds in smarts.
Social Cognition, Inhibitory Control, Problem-Solving
In the 2022 study, the researchers studied 13 dog breeds in a series of tests. Like the German Shepherd, the Malinois scored poorly in inhibitory control. As part of their shared background, the two breeds are highly responsive. Police and military jobs need impulsivity and low inhibitory control for dogs to remain effective, explaining why they might lag in this area.
Otherwise, the Malinois excelled in spatial problem-solving tasks and following gestures, receiving top marks in both categories. Under the study’s overall points ranking, it came out well ahead of the Border Collie. Given the variety of the tests and the study’s recency, one could argue that the Malinois has replaced the Border Collie as the brainiest breed.
By any study or standard, it seems apparent that Belgian Malinois are smarter than most dogs. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to manage. Like the Border Collie and other intelligent breeds, the Malinois possesses a bold confidence and challenging spirit to go with its smarts.
Working with them typically takes patience, knowledge, and a strong will. Respect can be hard-earned. But with discipline and quality training, the Malinois will put its intelligence to good use, acting as valuable help around the home and a reliable source of affection for your family.