How Smart Are Pitbulls? 5 Intelligence & Emotional Facts


Pitbulls can get a bad rap in more ways than one. Oftentimes the media will mislead the public to believe these dogs are mindless menaces and dangers to society. The “dumb pitbull” moniker is both misplaced and inaccurate when talking about how smart Pitbulls really are.

How smart are Pitbulls? As a whole Pitbulls fall in the above average to average range of intelligence. The American Staffordshire Terrier scores above average with a 34 out of 79. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier scores a 49 of 79, falling into the mid range of dog intelligence by breed.

These intelligence rankings are based on a large study conducted by Stanley Cohen, a professor of canine psychology. In Cohen’s 1994 book “The Intelligence of Dogs” he conducted testing alongside some of the top obedience performance judges to establish a ranking of various breeds.

Though the tests conducted score the responsiveness to commands, and general obedience comprehension, this is not the end all be all of intelligence in dogs. The Pitbulls ranked middle of the pack compared with 130 other breeds. But there is more to dog smarts than just willingness to obey commands.

In this post I will go over the various aspects of the Pitbull’s ability to learn, adapt, and empathize through it’s high level of cognitive intelligence as well as their emotional intelligence. Let’s dig in.

What Is The Intelligence Of A Pitbull?

Before we go any further I need to clarify what is being discussed when using the term Pitbull. Yes there is a breed of dog recognized by the UKC as the American Pitbull Terrier, but other “Pitbull type” dogs that fall under the term Pitbull include the American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bully, and by some the American Bulldog.

The various breeds of Pitbull have an average to above average intelligence when using the Stanley Cohen test. The methods used in this test measure a dog’s ability to understand new commands and ability to respond to commands the first time. This is a good test, but not without some room for interpretation.

Though the Pitbull breeds are average to above average in these tests, they can also possess a stubborn streak. The delay in responding to a command is not always a sign of misunderstanding, but could be a hesitation to obey due to the Pitbull breed’s strong will at times.

When working with my Pitbulls I find their eagerness to please, paired with positive reinforcement techniques eliminates this stubborn streak most days. Pitbulls show a strong ability to learn, and understand their owners when approached correctly and given the right leadership.

Obedience is also just one measure of a Pitbulls intelligence. We must also consider the emotional intelligence of these dogs. In this realm, the Pitbull is highly intelligent.

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Are Pitbulls Emotionally Intelligent?

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As a whole a well balanced Pitbull is one of the more emotionally intelligent breeds of dogs you will come across. Because of the Pitbulls strong connection with people, especially their owners, they have extraordinary levels of emotional intelligence.

The Pitbull is very human oriented. This trait stems from their early history as working dogs and fighters. The relationship between humans and dogs has been ingrained in their DNA to be very eager to please and attentive to the mood, non verbal communication and facial expressions of their leader.

Here are some of the trademark qualities you will see in an emotionally intelligent Pitbull.

Understanding When They Did Something Bad

pit bull under table

Dogs are said to have the intelligence both cognitively as well as emotionally as a human toddler. Though dogs develop the various emotions they can display much sooner than we humans do. Some of these emotions include their ability to show what some perceive as guilt when they have done something wrong.

Research has shown the dogs can’t actually have feelings of guilt, but they can show signs of fear in anticipation of upsetting their owner.  

Has your Pitbull ever cowarded, avoided eye contact, approached you with their head very low after they have torn up the couch while you were gone? This is them showing anticipation of your reaction to what they have done.

Although this reaction is fear based and not guilt, your Pitbull still has an understanding that they have done something wrong. This alone is a sign of emotional intelligence. And trust me when I say, very few dogs can show they have been naughty while you were gone like a Pitbull can.

The Curious Head Tilt

pit bull big ears

One of the most adorable signs of emotional intelligence in your Pitbull is the head tilt. Have you ever noticed that sometimes your Pitbull will tilt their head when you are speaking with them? That means that they are both trying to fully understand what you are saying, as well as show you they are listening intently.

This display of attentive listening and signalling to their owner is a sign of high emotional intelligence. My Pitbulls will do head tilts anytime they recognize a word or tone of voice when I am speaking with them. They are really trying to understand exactly what I am trying to communicate.

Empathy Yawning With Owner

Pitbulls will yawn for a variety of reasons. The obvious one is when they are feeling tired, but yawning can also be a sign of indifference or stress in dogs. One of the more interesting yawns however is the empathy yawn or contagious yawn that your Pitbull will do.

We all have witnessed one person yawn which causes us to yawn as well. Studies have shown this is a sign of better social skills in humans. This phenomenon is not exclusive to just people however.

A study by Dr. Brian Hare let him to reasonably conclude that dogs that yawn with their owners show a level of emotional connectedness with their owner. This is something we see almost exclusively with dogs. Other animals including great apes don’t share this level of understanding with.humans.

I have witnessed on more than a few occasions that my Pitbulls will yawn along with me. Though it doesn’t occur on a regular basis, the fact that it does occur with your Pitbull will show a high level of emotional intelligence and connectedness with you.

Read Owner’s Facial Expressions

pit bull laying on owner

One of the more fascinating studies that has been conducted is with dogs recognizing human facial expressions. Typically understanding positive and negative expressions only happens within the same species, but for emotionally intelligent dogs, they can comprehend whether you are happy or angry based on your face.

Along with the head tilt my Pitbulls are constantly giving me eye contact and looking at me to try and understand things. Without saying a word my Pitbulls can understand if I am disappointed, upset, happy or playful with them. They are very sensitive to my facial expressions and show a high level of emotional intelligence because of this understanding.

Related ArticleIs A Pit Bull A Good Family Dog? 8 Things To Know

What Is The Smartest Pitbull Breed?

Based on the study conducted by Stanley Cohen the smartest Pitbull breed is the American Staffordshire Terrier. The AmStaff is considered an above average working dog with regards to intelligence ranking 34th of 79. By understanding new commands within 15 to 25 repetitions and obeying first commands 70% of the time or better.

Are Pitbulls Smarter Than Most Dogs?

As a whole Pitbulls are not smarter than most dogs. They sit somewhere in the middle of the intelligence spectrum as measured by the Stanley Cohen study. American Staffordshires are above average, while the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is average. The American Bully and American Pitbull Terrier however are not included in this study.

When it comes to emotional intelligence I would argue that Pitbulls are among some of the smarter breeds. Smarter than most dogs in fact. The Pitbull breeds show a high level of connectedness to their owners and are extremely eager to please. This makes these dogs very sensitive and empathic which is a sign of high emotional intelligence.

Are Pitbulls Easy To Train?

pit bull amstaff in harness smiling

As a general rule Pitbulls are easy to train under the right leadership. Pitbulls are looking to please their owners and have a very high working dog mentality. Giving a Pitbull a job is an area where they thrive. Pitbulls can however have a stubborn side. Positive reinforcement and calm, strong leadership is needed.

Related Article – Are American Pit Bull Terriers Easy to Train? – 20+ Tips

Final Thoughts

pit bull touch flower

When it comes to the standard testing Pitbulls fall middle of the pack or just slightly above when it comes to average intelligence. Pitbulls do however show high levels of emotional intelligence, which I believe is important to include when taking into account how smart Pitbulls can be.

Though even the smartest Pitbulls won’t be as smart as some breeds such as the Lab, they are an intelligent and clever group of dogs. Under the right leadership and within a loving home the emotional intelligence of the Pitbulls will lead to high levels of obedience training and skills.

Using the natural empathy and connectedness of a Pitbull can bring out their full potential. Giving your Pitbulls a job, proper mental stimulation, and lots of one on one interactions will keep them learning for years to come, and show you just how smart a Pitbull really is.


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