How Smart Are Pitbulls? 5 Dog Intelligence Facts

Last Updated: January 21, 2024

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Smart Pitbull

Pitbulls are among the most popular strong-breed dogs in the United States and beyond. Despite a less-than-stellar reputation, these dogs have largely overcome their dark past to emerge as happy-go-lucky family members.

Ask any Pit owner, and they'll have lovely stories about this breed's intelligence, dedication, and loyalty.

But have you ever wondered just how smart these dogs are?

While certainly not the most intelligent breed in the world, what a Pitbull's capable of may shock you.

About the Pitbull Breed

Before we get into canine smarts, let's talk about the Pitbull and breed classification. Most people are aware of this dog's sordid history.

Pitbulls got their start as bullfighters before getting the unfortunate task of being at the center of planned dogfights. They were purposely bred to have certain traits, including strength and endurance.

Today, Pitbulls include several breeds. The moniker is more of an umbrella term to describe four specific breeds. These include:

  • American Pitbull Terrier
  • American Staffordshire Terrier
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • American Bulldog

All of those breeds are considered Pitbulls. However, most would call any mixed-breed dog with a lineage of those breeds the same thing. Even dogs with similar build, strength, and face shape typically fall under the Pitbull category.

That's important to remember because specific breeds' intelligence matters.

Some types of Pitbulls may be more adept at particular tasks than others, and these dogs' history of haphazard breeding with no regard to DNA preservation makes it tough to determine what traits a dog will have from birth.

Pitbull Intelligence: More Than a "Dumb Dog"

As a whole, Pitbulls are considered to have average to above-average intelligence. They're in the middle of the canine intelligence range. Some breeds display more impressive signs of intelligence than the Pitbull, but these dogs are certainly not bottom of the pack.

It's important to remember that all dogs are different. 

Every Pitbull has its own quirks and personality traits. There's no way to fully understand a dog's intelligence, and Pitbulls are one of the more difficult to gauge due to their history.

How you raise a Pitbull comes into play, too. Life experiences, socialization, and exposure to mental stimulation can affect what they know and how they learn.

Pits are also notorious for their stubborn streaks. So when your pup overlooks your commands, it's not necessarily because they're dumb. They could just be in the mood to ignore you!

Current Understanding of Dog Intelligence

So how do we figure out canine intelligence, anyways?

Currently, canine experts rely on a study conducted by Stanley Cohen, a famed psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher. In 1994, Cohen published a book titled, "The Intelligence of Dogs."

To create this book, he conducted tests on 130 different breeds, ranking them from 1 to 79. He also made groups, assigned multiple dogs to a single ranking, and created categories to judge intelligence.

survey data for dog intelligence test

Survey Data

He created his rankings using survey data from roughly 208 obedience trial judges across North America. He compiled his data using two core criteria. These include:

  1. 1
    How many repetitions it took to take a dog to learn a new command
  2. 2
    How successful dogs obeyed a known command on the first try

For the first factor, dogs that needed the least number of repetitions to understand a command ranked higher. Meanwhile, those with a higher success rate obeying a known command ranked higher.

As you can imagine, there was some controversy upon the release of "The Intelligence of Dogs" in 1994.

Only breeds recognized by the American and Canadian Kennel Clubs were used, and each breed had to have at least 100 responses to qualify. That presented some issues with the Pitbull; more on that soon.

But despite the controversy it caused, it's become one of the most accepted ways to gauge dog intelligence.Another testing method used many years later found similar results to Cohen's rankings.

He later released a second edition of the book with updated studies in 2005.

How Pitbull Intelligence Ranked

Before we get into where Pitbulls fell on Cohen's ranking, there are some caveats. Cohen only tested two of the four Pitbull breeds.

Only the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier were part of the study, leaving the American Pitbull Terrier and American Bulldog out of the equation. He also treated those two breeds independently, so you won't find any "Pitbull" on the rankings list.

The Staffordshire Bull Terrier ranked 49th out of 79 positions.

It falls into the "Average Working/Obedience Intelligence" group. This group consists of dogs that could understand new commands with 25 to 50 repetitions and obey known commands the first time at least 50 percent of the time.

The American Staffordshire Terrier fared a little better, ranking 34th out of 79. It shares the 34th position with Field Spaniels, Newfoundlands, Australian Terriers, Gordon Setters, and Bearded Collies.

This Pitbull breed belongs to the "Above Average Working Dogs Group." These dogs understand new commands in only 15 to 25 repetitions and obey a known command the first time at least 70 percent of the time.

The two included Pitbull breeds did surprisingly well, given their reputation for being dumb aggressors. They're a far cry from the top five dogs like Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers. But they do better than many other dogs labeled "smart" by the masses.

Going Beyond Intelligence Rankings

Pitbull ranked 49th out of 79 positions. in the intelligence tes

It's important to note that while Cohen's findings give you a good idea of how intelligent breeds are, it's not perfect. Intelligence is a complex trait, and Pitbulls are complex creatures!

They can be stubborn, and stubbornness doesn't fare well in obedience tests like Cohen's. Obedience and working intelligence are excellent indicators of canine smarts, but they're not the end-all-be-all of the conversation.

Stanley Cohen himself recognized that there are two other critical factors to consider, and they happen to be where Pitbulls shine the brightest!

1- Instinctive Intelligence

Simply put, instinctive intelligence is a dog's ability to perform the skills and tasks it was initially bred for. When you look back on canine history, you'll notice that all dogs had a purpose.

Our ancestors first domesticated wild dogs to be our companions, hunting partners, and protectors. But as humanity evolved, so did our relationship with dogs.

Some dogs became master cattle herders, like the Border Collies. Others became sled pullers like Siberian Huskies! Over time, those skills become instinctive.

Put a Border Collie in front of a herd of cows, and it'll know what to do. Even if they've never seen a cow in their life, their instincts take over to get the job done. It's an amazing thing to witness, and all dogs have those natural instincts from the past.

What About Pitbulls?

Pitbulls have a dark past. Originally bred as bull-baiters and fighters, Pitbulls got a second chance at life much later.

Breeders turned them into multi-purpose athletes. They became go-to protectors, guard dogs, athletes, and workers.

Modern Pitbulls have surprisingly high instinctive intelligence. They can handle a lot more than people realize, and they often excel at whatever you train them to do.

Train a Pit to become a guard dog, and it'll be the best guardian of your property it can be. Train it to be a protector, and those dark roots of aggression can come out to keep you safe.

These dogs do well with instinctive intelligence, and many consider them to be good at whatever you train them to do. While not part of Cohen's rankings, it's a crucial factor that proves Pitbulls are more intelligent than they get credit for.

2- Adaptive Intelligence

Adaptive intelligence refers to how well a dog can learn from past experiences and observations. It's not how well they obey your commands or learn a new training technique. It's about how they learn on their own.

This intelligence factor can vary from dog to dog, and it's not as universal for all Pitbulls as instinctive intelligence. However, Pitbulls have a reputation for having impressively high adaptive intelligence.

Think about the last time your dog surprised you. Maybe it learned how to open cabinet doors to get its treats or wait until you're out of the room to sneak a piece of your food while you're not looking.

Your dog learned that without any training from you! They did it by observing your behavior, putting two-to-two together, and acting of their own volition without any guidance whatsoever.

As you can guess, adaptive intelligence can get Pitbulls into a lot of trouble! But it's one of the more impressive traits they have. They can learn independently and will only get smarter with newer experiences.

Being obedient is always a good thing, but high adaptive intelligence is something that sets Pitbulls and other dogs like it apart from the pack.

What About Emotional Intelligence?

Another piece of the puzzle is emotional intelligence. This factor refers to how aware dogs are of their emotions and how it responds to them.

For example, a dog with high emotional intelligence will know when you're sad and try to comfort you. Meanwhile, dogs with low emotional intelligence will act more aloof.

Pitbulls are one of the most emotionally intelligent dogs you'll encounter. They develop strong bonds with owners, and experts believe it's due to their early history as working dogs.

These animals spent a lot of time with humans in the past and continue to do so, resulting in an emotionally intelligent breed that shows empathy and understanding.

There are a few ways to tell that Pits have high emotional intelligence. They often tilt their heads as you speak to them, indicating that they're trying to understand you.

Many will also exhibit signs of shame or fear when they know that they've done something wrong. Pits also show a knack for reading facial expressions, distinguishing different tones of voice, and mimicking human actions like yawning.

Related: Why Do Pitbulls Like To Cuddle So Much?

Making the Most Out of Your Pit's Intelligence

There's a lot to love about Pitbulls. Cohen's rankings show that American Staffordshire Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are more intelligent than most people think. But all Pitbulls show impressive signs of high instinctive, adaptive, and emotional intelligence.

Despite what some non-Pitbull owners believe, these dogs are highly trainable. They're always looking to please and thrive in environments with strong leadership. The best thing you can do for your Pitbulls is to challenge its mind.

Take time to teach them new commands and take advantage of their instinctive intelligence by giving them a job to do.

Whether guarding your home or dominating an agility course, activities that put your dog's intelligence to great use will put their smarts on full display.

There some dogs are smarter than Pitbulls, but these canines are far from the dumb dogs some people believe them to be. They continue to learn as they grow. While that can get them into trouble sometimes, good training and plenty of opportunities to stimulate the mind go a long way.

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About the author 


Steve is a writer with over 10 years of experience in dog training and nutritiion.

His goal is to educate dog owners about the ins and outs of canine behavior as well as keeping up with the latest scientific research in the field.