Are Maltese Smart?

By John Martin - September 28, 2022

Maltese dog at a photo shoot with bubbles

Quite unfairly, small dogs often seem to be labeled dumb—possibly because of how stereotyped they are, often designated as lap ornaments and living toys, as opposed to big dogs that are trained for more serious tasks.

While you shouldn’t be judging a book by its cover, it is a fact that not all dogs are built equal, especially when it comes to their intelligence. No dog parent will ever want to admit that their furbaby is less intelligent than another dog, but science may make them swallow some hard pills.

Maltese parents, it’s the moment of truth—are Maltese smart?

How Is Canine Intelligence Measured?

Obviously, dogs can’t be held to or measured by the same standards as humans—an IQ test would not only be unfair but also inaccurate.

A dog’s intelligence is based, instead, on certain other parameters laid by author and canine psychologist Stanley Coren.

Coren’s method is widely used and accepted and it is his rankings, published in the book “The Intelligence of Dogs” that is commonly referred to for a breed’s intelligence.

According to Coren, these are the capabilities that must be measured in dogs to understand their overall intelligence:

  • Kinesthetic Intelligence: The capability of coordination and body movement to achieve the quick and efficient completion of a task.
  • Spatial Intelligence: The ability to capture and save information about the world around in geometric terms.
  • Musical Intelligence: A sense of rhythm and timing and the appreciation of both, as well as the ability to coordinate their own rhythm and timing with an external impulse (such as keeping pace with their owners while walking or running).
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence: An awareness of its own limitations, strengths, and abilities.
  • Linguistic Intelligence: The capability of understanding commands and key phrases in one or more languages (based on the training).
  • Interpersonal Intelligence: The capability of communicating and interacting with humans and other animals.
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: The capability to solve problems using rationale and logic.

While these may seem like high standards, that’s often just an indicator of how dogs are underestimated. Through the centuries, humans have bred dogs to possess and showcase all of these abilities.

It should be noted that not all dogs possess all the above types of intelligence; just like humans, dogs, even if they are extremely intelligent, can perform some tasks more naturally and effortlessly than other tasks.

This may be a result of genetic information. However, with training, you can improve their performance in weaker sections.

In addition to the above types of intelligence, there are also “three different manifest dimensions” that Coren has laid down, which are:

  • Working/Obedience Intelligence: The capability to learn and execute exercises as directed by humans.
  • Adaptive Intelligence: The capability to learn solutions and apply them to problem-solving.
  • Instinctive Intelligence: Behavior and skills defined by genetic predisposition.

How Is the Maltese’s Intelligence Measured?

Using the standards laid out above, the Maltese were evaluated and ranked based primarily on their working and obedience intelligence. Two main criteria were used as parameters:

  • The number of attempts it took for a dog to learn new commands (the lesser the attempts, the more intelligent the dog).
  • How successfully a dog could obey a command it already knows on the very first try.

The dog breeds that scored the highest made it to Coren’s final hallowed list of smartest dogs. It should be noted that mixed-breed dogs and breeds unrecognized by the American Kennel Club and the Continental Kennel Club were not considered.

How Did the Maltese Fare?

According to Coren’s test, the Maltese have below-average intelligence, as they ranked 59th out of 79 in their given work and obedience intelligence tasks, and overall, 111th (out of 138) on the list of smartest dogs.

The Maltese needed 25-40 attempts to pick up a new command out of 80 given attempts (the smartest dogs only needed 5) and exhibited only a 30% success rate in performing a known command on its first try (the smartest dogs aced it with a 95% success rate).

So, does this mean that the Maltese are dumb?

Why Maltese Are Deemed Dumb

What wasn’t taken into consideration during Coren’s tests were the difficulty of the command itself, as well as the stubbornness that is inherent in Maltese.

Therefore, while some commands were difficult to learn, some were just disobeyed due to stubbornness—Maltese only work with rewards and can mulishly play dumb until rewarded!

Unfortunately, stubborn dogs are often wrongly labeled dumb.

The fact that they’re highly independent dogs doesn’t help their cause. They’re not going to do something just because they’re told to, even if they understand you, instead preferring to do something only when they want to.

Not wanting to do something and not being able to do something are two vastly different topics that are often confused.

Additionally, only one parameter was used to judge the Maltese—working and obedience intelligence—probably as this was the easiest to measure objectively. However, the fact that the Maltese didn’t ace this isn’t a testament to their intelligence (or its lack).

Lastly, unlike some other breeds that were bred for specific purposes, such as retrievers and Border Collies, Maltese were only bred to be companions—and very pampered ones at that!

Considering this, it’s completely natural that they would underperform in tasks they weren’t raised to do.

Therefore, a dog’s position on Coren’s list may not be a true representation of its intelligence.

Also Read: Are Maltese Aggressive?

Why Maltese May Actually Be Smart

Maltese are actually intelligent dogs because of their keen learning ability and their capability of understanding human emotions extremely well. These qualities are what make them such excellent companions.

Though they didn’t perform well in obedience tasks, Maltese exhibit high instinctive and adaptive knowledge. While these parameters are included in Coren’s methods, they’re often not used since they can’t be accurately, objectively measured.

Instinctive Intelligence

Either from their supposed role as hunters at one point, used to hunt down vermin and rodents, or just by virtue of their being canines, Maltese have a high prey drive.

These tiny dogs carry this instinct in their genes, displaying their prey drive very instinctively.

Adaptive Intelligence

Maltese display extremely high adaptive intelligence, learning quickly from past experiences and applying these lessons to the current scenario (such as recognizing objects and people by their characteristics and actions, identifying walk and meal times, and so on).

It should be noted that though instinctive intelligence is pretty much standard across all dogs in the breed, the case isn’t so for adaptive intelligence—some Maltese may have more adaptive intelligence than others.

There are several shining examples of a Maltese’s intelligence, with some dogs being used as therapy dogs, acing dog sports, or even just obediently performing tasks.

Much of this depends on how well the dog is raised and trained. A lot of patience and rewards are required, but give your Maltese loads of these, and you’ll definitely see results.

Bear in mind—just as good behavior in a Maltese will be attributed to its rearing and training, so will bad behavior!

Also Read: Are Maltese Dogs Expensive?

The Verdict

Unfortunately, there are no objective ways to efficiently measure any dog’s intelligence. While some breeds may seem more intelligent because they’re obedient, it should be remembered that obedience is not the only sign of intelligence.

Small dogs acquire a bad rep as dumb dogs simply because they’re too full of personality, independence, and wilfulness to always do their owner’s bidding. This doesn’t make them dumb, nor does their ranking on a list.

Maltese are loving, caring dogs, so instead of stressing too much about whether or not your Maltese is intelligent, simply make the most of its joyful company.