Black Labrador wearing glasses

How Smart Is My Labrador?

You hang your head and breathe a long sigh.

Yep. He drank out of the toilet again. And now he’s barking at the “other dog” on TV. Sometimes our Labrador’s behavior would lead us to believe they’re no smarter than a bag of rocks.

Oh well. They’re just dumb dogs, right? Think again.


So, how smart is your Labrador? Studies show that your Labrador is about as smart as a small child. Hard to believe, but true. You may be caring for a canine Einstein in your home and not know it. Keep reading.


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We already know Labs are loving, mild-mannered, affectionate members of our family.

In fact, on Mar 21, 2017, for the 26th year in a row, the American Kennel Club awarded the Labrador Retriever 1st place in a list of 189 most popular breeds. This is a world record for consecutive wins for a breed. [1]


These results would come as no surprise to any lab owner.
But did you know they’re actually quite brilliant as well?


When we call our furry companions brilliant, however, what are we comparing them to? Another dog? A cat? A person?


Not surprisingly, scientists evaluate a dog’s intelligence differently from their owners.


Canine behavior expert, Dr. Stanley Coren, is currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. Throughout his many years of studying canine behavior, he has discovered some remarkable things about the intelligence of our four-footed friends.


He asked 208 professional dog obedience judges to rank a given list of over 100 dog breeds in the order of their intelligence. According to Coren’s findings, based on the expert evaluations of these industry pros, Labradors ranked within the top 10 in a group of 110 breeds. [2]


According to several of Coren’s behavioral measures, he says that a dogs’ mental abilities are equivalent to that of a 2- to 2½-year-old human child.


Here are 4 ways your Labrador is among the most intelligent of house dogs.


#1. Bred to Be Intelligent Fishers and Hunters

Intelligence is in a Labrador’s genes.


Labs are hard-wired with a unique acuity and instinct that was sought after in the early days of their breeding.


The modern Labrador’s ancestor was a breed known as the Lesser Newfoundland dog or the St. John’s Dog. This dog had been in Newfoundland as early as before the 1700s. The breed’s natural affinity for the water allowed it to thrive within the local fishing trade of those who had originally settled the area as early as the 16th century.


St. John’s Dogs were tireless workers who loved pleasing their masters. They were naturally adept at retrieving any fish that came off the fishermen’s hooks and had the instinctive ability to help the men haul their nets in from the water.


Reportedly, these dogs would spend the entire day working with the fisherman in the cold waters, and then still have the mental and physical energy to play with his children when the dog was brought home.


It was also discovered that this breed’s unique instinct for retrieving made them excellent sporting dogs. They eventually became cherished hunting companions whose retrieving abilities made them ideal for hunting birds and small game. These dogs would break into the ice of a frozen pond or lake to retrieve a fallen bird, then return and wait dutifully for the next bird to fall.


Their skill for retrieving anything both within the water and on land became internationally renowned.  In the 1830s the St. John’s Dog was eventually brought to England and bred into the modern Labrador we know today.


#2. Legit Language and Math Skills

Yes, you read that right.

Your Labrador has the intelligence for proficiency in both language and math.


Gab with Your Lab

It’s remarkable that an animal without the ability to speak can recognize more spoken words than the average 12-month-old child.

According to Dr. Coren, Labradors are among the breeds that can learn as many as 250 words, as well as visual and auditory signals. That’s about 85 more words than the average dog.


This is an example of a dog’s working intelligence.


In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Dr. Coren identified three distinct types of dog intelligence: instinctive (the intelligence a dog inherits from its breed), adaptive (its ability to learn and solve problems from its environment) and obedience or working intelligence (it’s ability to be ‘schooled’ in new things).


Coren stated, “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ’fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes.”


Have You Seen My Math Lab?

According to Coren’s studies, Our canine friends have a basic understanding of arithmetic as well. They can count as high as five, and can even recognize errors in simple mathematical equations.


In one of Coren’s arithmetic tests, dogs were shown a treat that was then hidden behind a screen. A second treat was then shown to the dog and again hidden. When the screen was finally lifted to reveal the hidden treats, the dog showed no surprise when they saw a total of two treats.


You might be saying, “So what? That doesn’t prove anything.”


But in a second phase of the test, unbeknownst to the canine test subject, the researchers would then either add or remove one of the treats from behind the screen. “Now we’re giving him the wrong equation,” Coren remarked, “which is 1+1=1, or 1+1=3.”


Unlike the dog’s indifference to the results of the first phase of the test, it now showed a visible reaction when the screen was lifted to reveal either one more or one less treat than it expected to see.


Coren describes the noticeable difference in the dog’s response; “The dog acts surprised and stares at it for a longer period of time, just like a human kid would.”


You can now officially brag about your Lab’s math skills!

Spatial Problem Solvers

In four separate studies Dr. Coren discovered that, by observing the behavior of other canines and humans, dogs can learn the location of cherished items, like doggie snacks; better routes within their environment (such as the quickest path to their favorite couch); and how to operate mechanical objects (like simple machines and latches).


Sneaky Scoundrels

High doggie intelligence also has its mischievous side.


In order to win treats and other rewards for themselves, our innocent-looking companions have the capacity to deliberately deceive other dogs and even humans during play time. Coren also noted, “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”


#3. We Trust Our Lives to Their Intelligence

Labradors are among the top 3 breeds most often used as guide dogs for the visually impaired, along with German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers.


Not only does a Labrador’s size lend itself to walking comfortably alongside a human being, their quick intelligence enables them to maneuver around obstacles, and even put themselves between their handlers and dangerous oncoming obstacles like a bicycle or car.


According to Guide Dogs of America, “The Labrador Retrievers make up the majority of our dogs because we have found them to be the most successful breed used for guide dogs. In fact, the Labrador Retriever is the dog most often used for guide dog programs throughout the world.


#4. Perfect Balance of Smart and Dumb

It’s a sad reality that the smartest dogs are not always that wonderful to live with.


Did you ever have that friend in high school who was super brilliant, and they knew it?
Yeah, some intelligent breeds are kinda like that.


As any parent can tell you a know-it-all child can be as much a curse as a blessing.


Many of the smartest dogs can be somewhat troublesome to live with. Their heightened mental activity results in their becoming more easily bored and restless, which leads them to get into all kinds of trouble.


Labs, on the other hand, have that perfect measure of intelligence without being obnoxious know-it-alls.


Like Canine Columbos

I’m kind of old, so I fondly remember a TV show from the ‘70s called, Columbo.


It featured a bumbling Los Angeles homicide lieutenant who, most of the time, gave the impression that he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. But at the climax of each episode, his hidden brilliance would allow him to solve the murder case, to the amazement of both his colleagues and the bad guy.


Like the unassuming lieutenant, Labradors don’t let their intelligence get in the way of a lovable personality. They’re born with natural smarts that can shine in those special moments, but their mild-mannered demeanor and easy-going nature leaves them content and not looking for trouble in times of idleness.



So how smart is your Black Lab?


Much of the time our lovable labs are a mystery to us.

We want so much to understand what’s going on behind those kind, soulful eyes.
We watch with perplexity and wonder at their seemingly nonsensical behavior.


But it’s in their moments of brilliance that we are reminded that, though they may not be as smart as humans, they are closer than we first thought.







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