Skip to main content?

wa li fb pin tw in tum red sms call

German Shepherd Temperament: Intelligent

 Reviewed 31 December 2018 share-a-picture Or go to discussion?join-the-discussion dogphoto

From German Shepherd temperament you know that being rather intelligent was a desirable dog personality trait for the "breed founder" Max v. Stephanitz, and so intelligence was one of the many dog personality traits that he and his successors selected breeding stock for.

But let's first make sure you understand the meaning of dog temperament:

German Shepherd temperament is the sum of only inherited breed characteristics that may shape behavior.

And so let's be clear right away:

smelly-matty-dog-puzzleHow intelligent a particular dog is at say age 2 years or whatever, has more to do with upbringing than with inherited traits: playing brain games with dogs and with puppies improves their respective intelligence.

On the right you see one such dog brain game to improve intelligence beyond what the dog inherited as German Shepherd temperament.

That dog brain game there is a great crossover to think about what actually is dog intelligence?

Dog intelligence compared to humans

For people, this view of human intelligence is one of the most sensible IMHO:


But you realize immediately:

  1. the split of intelligence into 9 types of intelligence doesn't explain what is intelligence, only: "in what areas of life is intelligence useful and might show up?"
  2. the split of intelligence is a human concept, not biological fact
  3. and: the there proposed 9 types of human intelligence clearly don't apply to dogs!

And that's because it's a human concept, not biological fact of what is intelligence.

So putting our biologist hat on let's look deeper:

What actually is "Intelligence"?

Intelligence is the inherited greater ability to form new neuronal connections, and the acquired actual use of that ability.

As always at MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG this is a great definition because it is disjunct: clear, precise, and consistent.

You notice there is no artificial differentiation between "types of intelligence", nor between "areas in the brain that are active when solving different kinds of problems".

In fact:

This definition here applies to people as well as to dogs without exception - making it unambiguous and consistent, yes.

Why does it not discuss HOW the greater ability to form new neuronal connections works in the offspring?

Because this is not yet understood: Today we still don't know why in the intelligent dogs or people new neuronal connections form with ease, while in the ... they don't.

It clearly is not only "practice", thus the acquired personality trait: intelligent. Part of it does get inherited as German Shepherd temperament: intelligent.

nerve-axon-facilitationEither way you see here: You may be born intelligent like hell, or your German Shepherd temperament: intelligent may be very pronounced, and yet if one or both of you don't make use of the greater ability to form new neuronal connections then all of this inherited personality trait went to waste.

In my experience, many people don't even know how smart they are because school and uni don't reveal intelligence.

Only when you actually start doing things different and doing new things, you start to realize the greatness slumbering in yourself.

Temperament: intelligent -vs- Personality: intelligent

This again shows why I and other thinking academics always say:

Upbringing is everything!

In terms of your German Shepherd: Nurture this greater ability to form new neuronal connections, challenge already your puppy's mental capabilities during puppy socialization and adult dog socialization, during training, and play the right way with your dog and puppy.

Because, what your dog inherited as temperament: intelligent will only show its full potential as acquired dog personality trait: intelligent if you nurture the inherited temperament.


How to improve dog intelligence

Making your pet dog your personal robotSo what can we do to awaken the German Shepherd temperament: intelligent?

To have a smarter dog? Not necessarily smarter than ourselves mrgreen but smart enough to be our personal i-robot?

Well, allowing the dog's brain to actually form many new neuronal connections as the individual dog's temperament trait: intelligent provided for!


  1. Provide the dog with ample socialization of huge variety
  2. Behavior training inherently nurtures intelligence while obedience nurtures mere compliance
  3. Play the right games with your dog and puppy
  4. Take new paths on dog walks, go hiking and seek out adventures for both of you or all the family.

Because, taking always the same path, doing always what we've done before, this obviously doesn't allow for new neuronal connections, neither in the dog brain nor in our brain.

Likewise, we wouldn't be taking our favorite way today nor be doing our favorite pastime today, had we not sometime earlier decided: "JUST TRY IT OUT". wink

Playing the right brain games

Point 3 above was: "play the right games". So what are the right games to play with our dog or puppy?

It is tempting to think: "I have Kyra Sundance' 101 Dog Tricks book, that will also do the trick in my dog's brain!"

Yes, it will absolutely form new neuronal connections (in both of you), no doubt it will improve intelligence. Nonetheless that's just coincidental.

To truly nurture your German Shepherd temperament: intelligent, getting the fundament right is more effective, and even more fun.

IMHO, great books to getting the fundament right, playing the right games with the dog and puppy alike, are these:

The last one particularly helps to form new neuronal connections in the German Shepherd because our dog breed is no scent dog!

Note though that everything will work so much better and easier, if you train your own observation skill first. Because if we cannot read canine body language we misinterprete the subtler nuances what the dog is communicating: do we play right?

An addictive new way to train your own observation skill I have found is doing these dog picture puzzles. It's for adult dog owners, oh yes.

Now let's get back to my earlier question.

What is dog intelligence?

Traditionally, canine intelligence was thought to be the "ability to learn and obey commands" because for anyone working with dogs the Obedience Training mindset was the only existing mindset.

intelligence-of-dogs: consciousnessThen came Stanley Coren who questioned this old human perception of dog intelligence. Coren suggested a different human concept that splits dog intelligence into three "major dimensions" as he called it in his easily readable book The Intelligence of Dogs: Consciousness:

  1. instinctive intelligence: do well what the dog was bred for
  2. adaptive intelligence: do well what benefits the dog in his current living situation
  3. working and obedience intelligence: responding well to commands

Instinctive intelligence

The intelligence to do well what the dog was bred for.

For German Shepherds as herding dogs: to manage (= organize, lead, control, and protect) a herd of livestock (= group of individuals).


But Coren rightfully points out: Different breeds obviously have different types of instinctive intelligence, and so it doesn't make sense to compare different degrees of breed specific intelligence.

This is German Shepherd temperament as defined there.

Note though that even under Coren's human concept of canine intelligence it does make sense to assess different degrees of breed specific intelligence, of dog temperament.

Both among dogs within the same breed and among dogs of different breed: "How flawless is the breed's instinctive intelligence?" as per Coren's concept. And this can be measured using an appropriate German Shepherd temperament test or another dog temperament test.

Also note that Coren's view that eg "all Golden Retrievers have the same instinctive intelligence" deserves revision: Even the instinctive intelligence as per Coren's own definition of course is not "the same" across all offspring of one breed:

I remember German Shepherds that even as puppy or adolescent dog naturally started to manage a herd of sheep when coincidentally the opportunity arose. Without any human guidance at all, neither at that point nor before.


Conversely, for example my current German Shepherd Miguel does not even find the opening in the fence! And neither sees nor remembers where he went in, such that he can get back out!

In other words: even the inbred instinctive intelligence as per Coren's concept (obviously, IMHO) is oh so different among dogs of the same breed!

If you've had several dogs or observed several dogs since puppyhood, you may have made the same experience, right?

Adaptive intelligence

The intelligence to do well what benefits the dog in his/her current living situation.


For example:

Thus the better your dog can "perform" - in your opinion - in the dog's current living situation, the more "intelligent" you will consider your dog. In Coren's concept: adaptive intelligence.

And yes, adaptive intelligence also can be measured using an appropriate German Shepherd temperament test or another dog temperament test.

Working and obedience intelligence

working-and-obedience-intelligenceThe intelligence to respond well to your commands and signals.

In Coren's words: "A dog responding appropriately to his master's commands and signals tends to give us the impression that we are viewing the peak of dog intelligence."

Now you see that Coren's adaptive intelligence and working and obedience intelligence are not disjunct:

  • If your dog does well in what benefits the dog in his/her current living situation (adaptive intelligence) then more often than not the dog does well thanks to your training, thanks to your socialization efforts, and thanks to your overall guidance. Right?
  • Well, that's also Coren's working and obedience intelligence: responding well to your commands and signals - whether or not you give them now, or you gave them months ago and your dog has learned them.

You may have noticed that Coren's "third dimension" working and obedience intelligence matches the traditional view of canine intelligence: the "ability to learn and obey commands".

This is because Coren too grew up and studied at the time of the obedience mindset towards dogs. Well, it STILL is the dominant mindset, and in both meanings... rolleyes

Yet Stanley Coren improved dog owners' understanding of The Intelligence of Dogs not only with the human concept of instinctive intelligence and adaptive intelligence. His book provides a LOT more wisdom than that.

intelligence-of-dogs: emotionsIn fact he then published a "companion" book on the topic of canine intelligence that is about what goes on in the dog's mind in terms of intelligence?

While the former is about how dog intelligence appears to us.

Inherent dog intelligence

Now, here's the real problem with both the traditional view of dog intelligence - "ability to learn and obey commands" - and Coren's "third dimension" working and obedience intelligence:

Both is based on the human mindset of obedience, which does not apply to dogs.

What for people is obedience, for dogs is acceptance.

Dogs either accept you as Pack leader and then inherently follow your (earlier) guidance or instructions without the need for anything else(!), or they don't accept you:

  • If a dog accepts you as Pack leader, the dog will inherently behave as well when left alone as when you are there.
  • Because acceptance raises intrinsic motivation!

  • If a dog doesn't accept you as Pack leader, you will need some kind of enforcement to get the behavior you want (whether withholding a treat, or worse), and the dog will routinely only behave well when you are there: else the dog knows there is no need to obey!
  • Because obedience raises extrinsic motivation!

pt-rt-gr Without some kind of enforcement the human concept of "obedience" fails.


And so, what is actually being measured in the "traditional" German Shepherd temperament test or indeed any dog intelligence test is NOT intelligence, but compliance!

Dog intelligence research?

You will agree that it is wrong to confuse compliance with your commands as intelligence!?

That's why I suggest you think in terms of inherent dog intelligence, not in terms of:

  • compliance with human instructions
  • and the inherent human bias whether that was "well done!" and so the dog is "intelligent"!??

There is no "intelligence" involved in fearing your enforcement, and that's regardless how you enforce "obedience" and how big the fear is.

So then, what is real canine intelligence, what is inherent dog intelligence?

Inherent dog intelligence is how well and how quickly does a dog learn anything without human intervention and human bias!


Where I currently live there are a LOT of stray dogs: wild dogs in today's urban settlements.

And what has always fascinated me is to observe how these dogs KNOW how to avoid cars racing by!


No person showed them or even taught them traffic training! Nor did they watch another stray dog die from crossing a road without looking. They just know.

They learn it autonomously by watching "something" coming (car!) and deciding: "It's better I wait on the kerb". Like a kid!

Like a kid??

No better: Most kids, you know, need to be taught how to be safe in traffic, and many, many times. Right?

And even so, every day a kid gets injured in traffic, and every so often one dies!

Maybe not even the local press(?) but insurance companies would have the records if "a stray dog caused me to crash!" - But there are no such reportings.

Some afloat research institute should undertake dog temperament testing and dog intelligence testing of stray dogs.

That would be dog intelligence research. Right?

Yes, this example is adaptive intelligence in Stanley Coren's terminology. And given that so very few of today's dogs have a chance to, and are expected to, demonstrate their instinctive intelligence, Coren's adaptive intelligence is the only that makes sense to be measured and compared.

Wondering about My German Shepherd Miguel?

Miguel was not able to navigate city traffic without my traffic training, no. He needed a LOT of it as you can WATCH in My New Puppy Diary.

Today at age 4 years, the occasional refresher is all that he needs.



adult GSDIf ever you appreciate the immense work to maintain this uniquely helpful house, feel free to donate a meal.
As .ORG we depend on your (rare!) donations: however small it helps, THANKS SO MUCH!


PLEASE SHARE with your circle what we share with you:

wa li fb pin tw in tum red sms call

MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORGAny problem with the social share buttons, PLEASE say here to help everyone.

Start the discussion


Jonathan: Thank you for your period advice. It is excellent! My GSD puppy is now 8 months and we read your advice regularly.

Dwayne: I love this site and the info you post onto it. Thanks again!!!!

Penny: Thanks for making your great articles available to all of us. it's nice to know that a recommended product is actually available in my country.

Stay with us and your dog will stay with you, both of you healthy and well-behaved.
If you are ever unhappy with anything we write, do or don't do, we want to be the first to know, thanks.

Disclaimer: Always apply your own common sense when you follow anyone's suggestions. As much as your dog is special (s)he may react different too. Note that for privacy reasons we do not use the everything infiltrating Google Analytics scripts. For a trial period we do currently use a Pinterest pixel to monitor ad spend versus referred visitors from Pinterest only: You can control your Pinterest privacy settings here. If you click through to a vendor and buy something, the vendor may share a commission with us or may not, only Amazon links always should.

© MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG - All content is protected. You must not copy or spin or otherwise change our content to republish it in your name, another one's name or without a name. If you wish to make use of our Intellectual Property Rights contact MYGERMANSHEPHERD.ORG. Thank you.

There's nothing quite like a healthy and well-behaved dog who freely guards every corner of your home, who brings you peace, who brings you joy
Welcome to The Cynology Hub MyGermanShepherd.Org Saves Health, Cost, Lives!
Devoted to serving all well-meaning dog owners, fosterers, and trainers
We help YOU that YOUR DOG does not end up in a(nother) shelter - Nor at a costly incompetent vet
62 database queries, 0.27 seconds, 17MB