How Intelligent Is the Maltese Breed?

Any loving, doting dog owner is partial to their breed. “My Maltese is so smart!”, you say, “she’s well-trained and listens to me.” Some owners are so convinced of their dog’s supposed intelligence that they can often carry this observation forward as a blanket statement for all dogs in that particular breed. Sometimes they’ll even be offended if another person’s experience doesn’t line up with their own – “how dare they insinuate my Maltese is dumb!” So is it? How “smart” is the Maltese?

Your Maltese is fairly intelligent. From a commonly referenced book “The Intelligence of Dogs” by psychologist and author Stanley Coren, the Maltese ranks 59 out of 79 under the working or obedience type intelligence. The breed is considered as “only fair in their obedience and working ability.” 

The Maltese shares an equal ranking with the Brussels griffon in this regard. An online version of this can be viewed at the Wikipedia article of the book, which can be accessed at this link, where it is listed in position 111 instead. What does this mean, and is this an accurate gauge of the intelligence of your Maltese? How can even we quantify canine intelligence accurately?

Types of Intelligence in Dogs

In “The Intelligence of Dogs,” Coren makes mention of various types of intelligence in dogs and explains in depth each category with examples. Coren concludes from his readings that intelligence in all sentient, living beings have traditionally been viewed as a “broad general characteristic was only partly supported.” As an example, we can generally agree that the intelligence of the average human specimen is relatively high.

It is our intelligence that allows us to learn and adapt to our world, harness tools, and technologies, and perform complex tasks considered far beyond our physiological capabilities. But is the average person good at math? At literature? Language? Science? Politics? Dogs, like humans, are generally considered very intelligent, but they have a genetic predisposition to be a natural performer of certain tasks and duties.

From our unique intertwined history between man and dog, we have selectively bred these canines over hundreds of centuries to be companion dogs, animals of burden, farming animals and so on. It is due to this reason that there is such a vast range of breeds considered under “domesticated dogs,” with breed possessing its own merits and downsides. Coren categorizes the multiple types of intelligence as follows:

  • spatial intelligence – the mental ability to model and store information the surrounding world in terms of geometry
  • kinesthetic intelligence – the ability to coordinate and move the body skillfully to perform tasks
  • intrapersonal intelligence – self-knowledge, and awareness on the dog’s sense of capabilities and limitations
  • interpersonal intelligence – the ability to connect, communicate and interact socially between other dogs, humans or otherwise
  • musical intelligence – an appreciation and sense of rhythm and coordination with external stimuli (e.g., pacing their walk with their owners)
  • logical-mathematical intelligence – quantitative and rational ability to solve novel problems
  • linguistic intelligence – ability to understand language – commands given by humans

Additionally, Coren proposed what he calls the “three different manifest dimensions” of dog intelligence. That is, these are three readily measurable aspects that make up the totality of the dog’s intelligence. They are:

  • adaptive intelligence – the ability to learn and the ability to solve problems
  • working or obedience intelligence – ability to execute learned exercises under the guidance of human leadership and direction
  • instinctive intelligence – skills, and behavior that genetically predisposes certain behaviors or traits

The Maltese Ranking Explained

As noted earlier, the Maltese ranks 59 out of 79 in the working or obedience intelligence results (Table 10.1 in the book). This is only one aspect of canine intelligence, and the best contenders in this category are the working dog breeds, i.e., Border Collie, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, etc. The ranking is based on their ability to understand and remember simple new commands, and also have the highest reliability of following these commands.

Conversely, the breeds in the lowest rankings come off as stubborn, sometimes “untrainable” by their handlers, i.e., the Bulldog, Basset Hound, Basenji, etc. The Maltese is lumped under the “second worst” category of “fair obedience and working ability,” taking up to 25 repetitions on average to understand the new commands, and requires “extended practice” to master the commands.

If you think about this, this makes complete sense. The Maltese, like any small companion breed, has been selectively raised to court human attention in the comfort of their homes. They were not bred to shepherd livestock, hunt vermin (though they will happily chase sometimes), or serve as watchdogs or guard dogs. It is natural for them to underperform in the duties commonly associated with other, arguably more “reliable” work breeds.

The writers at’s list of “A List of the 100 Smartest Dog Breeds” describes:

  • The test did not include an evaluation of two of Coren’s theories of intelligence: instinctive and adaptive. Again, this means that the list is skewed to favor dogs that are good at obeying repetitive commands and doesn’t account for the intelligence of canines that are better at problem solving on their own.
  • The evaluation does not include emotional intelligence, language skills, memory skills, and perception.

All in all, does this make your Maltese relatively stupid compared to other dog breeds? Not at all! Like humans, dogs rarely ever reach their maximum capabilities, and a large factor of this is how they are reared and trained by humans. There is a common saying that the terrible, “useless” habits of smaller breeds (e.g., Small Dog Syndrome) come about due to the owner, not the dog.

Examples of Maltese Intelligence

Maltese as a Service Dog

Maltese are not usually selected to be service dogs, but of course, there are always exceptions. See the video below for ‘Peanut,’ the Maltese service dog who faithfully retrieves the owner’s possessions, and keeps watch over her during her time at the mall. Although it is not shown in the video, they can be trained to respond (or pre-emptively react) to medical complications, such as providing warning of an imminent seizure attack.

[AUDIO WARNING: it can get a bit loud at some parts of the video]

Maltese in Dog Sports

There is a good compilation by the American Maltese Association who showcases examples of Maltese dogs performing in dog sports. It can be accessed at this link.

Obedience, Rally, Agility, Lure coursing, Barn Hunt, Trick Dog, Nose Work, Weight Pull and
Freestyle are just to name a few! If you want to find something to do with your Maltese, there’s
something out there for you.

I’m particularly impressed by the example they give in the “weight pull” category. Just look at the little thing go!

Below is a video of ‘Rudy’ who completes an agility circuit at an AKC event in 2011.

Here’s another example of ‘Daisy’ completing her very own circuit and showing much potential!

An Obedient Maltese

Despite their reputation as a stubborn, difficult to train breed, the Maltese are perfectly capable of listening to your commands (with a bit of discipline). Watch ‘Max’ the Maltese (energetically) do what he’s told to below.

Any Conclusion?

Sadly no, there exist no such studies that give any reliable indicator of the true potential or intelligence of any dog breed. It appears we provide a reasonable guess on how “trainable” a breed might be in relation to one other, though this doesn’t necessarily mean one breed is dumber than another. These studies were also conducted on purebreds only, so it becomes even more unpredictable for mixed breeds or mongrel dogs.

Ever think your Maltese can weasel things out of you, seem to be able to sense certain things are about to happen and react before it has even happened? It certainly has for me – be it running to the car when we let her out after she hears the sounds of car keys, subtle intonations in our voice indicating when it’s time to play, or a shift in our demeanor when we want to take her for a bath (which she desperately hated!)

Did we train her to do any of this? Not at all! But she was able to learn, adapt, and figure it out all on her own, and therefore, is a “smart” dog in my eyes. Yes, she was stubborn to housetrain. Yes, it took many repetitions to get her to respond reliably to commands. But so long as the Maltese dog is well trained, they’ll go far with enough patience and good daily habits. If you are not getting the results you want, seek out a professional dog trainer if you need help.

Further Reading

Spoiled Maltese Forum – “Intelligence?” –
Culture Cheat Sheet – “The 21 Easiest Dog Breeds to Own” – Link:
Science Daily – “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-year-old Human, Canine Researcher Says” – Link: