Are Great Danes smart dogs?

Great Danes are known for being loving, docile, and excellent family pets – with goofy and stubborn streaks woven in for some extra pizzaz.

great dane eating cake
Great dane turning 8

Notoriously good with children, they are affectionately known as “nanny dogs” for their gentle and protective instincts with tiny humans. Taken together, this profile describes a breed high in high in adaptive intelligence, which is one of the three metrics used to measure breed intelligence.

What constitutes a “smart” dog?

great dane standing on person
A young woman with a Great Dane.

Renowned professor of canine psychology Dr. Stanley Coren is predominantly referenced for his work developing a means of measuring and ranking canine intelligence. In his 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, he details research conducted in partnership with 208 obedience trial judges from the Canadian Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club (AKC) to develop criteria for dog intelligence. This research was survey-based and the results elicited a lot of media attention and social commentary.

According to Coren’s ranking, the Great Dane ties for 48th with the Boxer out of 130 breeds tested on this list, which puts them squarely in the bottom of the top 35th percentile. In other words, they’re generally considered more intelligent than about 65% of the other dog breeds included in the research.

In the study, Great Danes were found to be capable of learning new commands within 25-40 repetitions. They were also found to respond correctly to a known command on the first try with a 50% success rate. 

Limits of Coren’s assessment

great dane and owner in a cage
Great Dane in a kennel with little girl. Focus is the dog with only 1/2 of the little girl visible.

One thing to keep in mind with regard to Coren’s study is that he placed an outsize emphasis on obedience and working intelligence, using this as his guiding metric for determining the final list. It is also worth mentioning that his book, though well-read and well-known, is now nearly 30 years out of date and therefore may not be the most reflective of those operating in the professional canine psychology industry today.

Criteria for obedience and working intelligence according to Coren

Since Coren’s work is still the most frequently cited research on the topic, it’s worth examining the aspect of intelligence he chose to emphasize in his research: obedience and working intelligence.

Obedience and working intelligence can be exemplified by the number of repetitions it takes for a dog to learn a new command, and the success rate that a dog will obey a known command on the first attempt. This metric naturally serves dogs classified as herders by the AKC, such as Border Collies and German Shepherds.

Additionally, while Coren’s assessment evaluated breeds based on how quickly they picked up commands and retained them, it’s worth remembering that Great Danes have a few key breed characteristics that may have inhibited their ability to perform.

For example, while considered an agreeable breed, Great Danes can also be stubborn and goofy. They have a prolonged maturation period, meaning that adult dog motivators may not work on a Great Dane even if it’s over the age of one. (The breed isn’t finished maturing until around 18-24 months of age.) Finally, Danes can be independent, resistant even to their beloved owner’s commands, meaning that strange judges may have encountered blank stares in response to commands due to the Dane’s lack of familiarity with them rather than a lack of obedience training.

So where does the Great Dane fall in intelligence?

Great Danes are classified as a working breed, meaning that they generally have a higher adaptive intelligence. However, they are considered about average when measured against Coren’s preferred metric, obedience and working intelligence. They are also considered average in instinctive intelligence. Just like humans, there are different types of intelligences to consider when evaluating a dog breed.

Where Great Danes shine is in their adaptive intelligence. Adaptive intelligence refers to the ability to differentiate between scenarios and modify behavior based on perception of what’s happening. This proclivity can be traced back to the Great Dane’s boar-catching roots in medieval Germany – hunts were notoriously dangerous, and the circumstances were constantly evolving meaning that the Great Dane’s survival hinged on its ability to think on its feet – in other words, to adapt. If you want to test your Great Dane’s adaptive intelligence, there are several “tests” you can do that also function as fun and stimulating mental exercises.

As Great Danes’ purpose evolved into protecting nobles and their families, this change also benefitted its natural adaptation skills. Life with humans provides dozens of different situations and circumstances daily, especially when families with children are involved.

Having a naturally high adaptive intelligence requires high levels of socialization so that the animal is able to differentiate between a range of different scenarios. For example, the natural guarding instinct of the Great Dane is considered a reassuring bonus in a family dog, but socialization is key in helping it learn to differentiate the difference between your child’s friend coming up the driveway for a playdate and a stranger snooping around your backyard.

How to anticipate how smart your Great Dane will be

Like all dogs, Great Danes have the cognitive skill of roughly a human toddler and their vocabulary typically maxes out at around 200 words. While this places the Great Dane’s intelligence potential well above the average dog’s capacity to learn 165 words, it’s unlikely that your Dane will become an Einstein – breeds with the largest capacity for learning vocabulary top out at 250+ words. This can perhaps be attributed to the strong influence of the English Mastiff in the Great Dane – Mastiffs regularly appear on top-10 lists of least intelligent breeds.

Great Danes are a highly sensitive breed, meaning that they’re liable to be especially responsive to the tone and volume of a verbal command or correction. Although no dog should ever be physically struck or harmed during training, this approach can be particularly detrimental to Great Danes due to their tendency to become skittish or ornery when mistreated. Given the fact that a full-size Great Dane is larger than most humans and far stronger, a harsh approach to training is guaranteed to erode the bond between owner and dog over time, resulting in a distrustful dog that feels it has no one to look to for reassurance or guidance. This result is particularly detrimental to Great Danes, who crave novel stimuli but also need to be confidently and gently led through new experiences.

Are female Great Danes or male Great Danes smarter?

If you’re determined to try and game the system and snag a Great Dane with the potential to be on the higher end of the spectrum, you may be thinking that the sex of a Great Dane puppy plays a role. While it has been noted that female Great Danes tend to be slightly more loving and gentler with children, as well as easier to train, there is no concrete answer with regard to whether one sex is smarter than the other.

If you base your criteria directly off trainability, then perhaps a female Great Dane could be a better match for you, but this will also depend on whether or not you intend to sterilize your Great Dane. While males are more commonly cited in discussions around neutering due to their increased aggression and roaming during mating season, intact females also undergo behavioral changes influenced by their hormones that can make them moody and prone to roam too – in other words, not easily corrected behavior. It should be noted that this is not a breed for beginners, for many reasons, but including training.

Fun and stimulating mental exercises for Great Danes and dogs with high adaptive intelligence

  • Without surprising them and in a calm environment, gently place a towel or small blanket on their head so they can’t see. The point is to let them realize they need to shake their head to remove the towel and restore their sight. Praise them when they do this correctly.
  • Show them a treat, and then place it underneath or behind something. Let them find it.
  • Repeat the above exercise but attempt to distract them for a moment before allowing them to seek out the treat.

What determines whether or not your Great Dane will be good at something?

If you want to set your Great Dane up for success and raise an intelligent and well-adjusted animal, the most important factors that will influence your Dane’s trainability are socialization and obedience training.

As discussed earlier, socialization related directly to the Great Dane’s predisposition to high adaptive intelligence, which is the ability to evaluate a situation and modify behavior to fit what’s happening. Socialization is absolutely crucial to fostering and nurturing this inherent ability so that your Great Dane is regularly given opportunities to learn – think of it as a necessity on par with talking and reading to a baby.

Great Danes can’t talk, but learning how to socialize in different situations, such as at the dog park, in a neighbor’s backyard with their dog, during a child’s birthday party, when meeting a friendly stranger on a walk, when encountering a person delivering a package on the front step, and so forth – these situations provide the fertilizer necessary for a Great Dane’s brain to grow and evolve.

Basic socialization training to provide your Great Dane:

  • Slowly introduce them to family and friends from the time they are a puppy. Pay close attention to their body language and be prepared to end the get-together when you notice your puppy becoming a little tired or drained from the interaction.
  • Encourage family and friends to pet your puppy all over, playing gently with paws, tugging gently on ears and tail, and pulling a little on the scruff of their neck. These are all activities that simulate encounters they will likely have with children and at the veterinarian.
  • Introduce your puppy to other dogs in the neighborhood by going on walks or to backyard playdates. Encourage them to interact with the other dog and ensure that they see you playing with the other dog so that they learn not to become jealous and to differentiate between dog-human play and dog aggression to human.
  • Take your puppy to the dog park and let them meet the local doggy community. Keep these sessions short when they’re little so that your puppy does not become overwhelmed.
  • Expose your puppy to water – take them swimming, play with them in a plastic pool and a hose out back.
  • Play with your puppy’s toys – throw a tennis ball, a frisbee, or a squeaky toy

Equally important as socializing your Great Dane is providing a strong foundation of obedience training from the time it arrives home and joins your family. While important for all breeds, obedience training is especially important for large and giant breeds due to their imposing adult size.

While they aren’t particularly small as puppies either, it is surely much easier to train a 30 pounds puppy than correct and retrain a 140-pound runaway Dane. Basic commands such as “sit,” “down,” and “come,” are crucial building blocks. You will also find lots of overlap between socialization and obedience, such as reinforcing commands like “drop it” during a game of fetch.

Improving your Great Dane’s training Being aware of your Great Dane’s natural strengths and weaknesses as a breed will help you learn how to effectively train and manage your gentle giant. While not considered the geniuses of the canine world (that accolade belongs to Border Collies), Great Danes have the capacity to be exceptionally emotionally intelligent and attentive companions due to their high adaptive intelligence. Thus, repetition, consistency, and patience are key for this goofy, stubborn, and sensitive breed.

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