Because they’re so funny, it’s easy to think of Boxers as lovable clowns.
But this is a dog that has intelligence in spades.
In his definitive account of the breed, published in 1939, John Wagner singles out “remarkable intelligence” as the Boxer’s greatest asset.
He lauds the Boxer as “a fine brain in a perfect body”.
Why Are Boxers So Intelligent?
According to Wagner, Boxer dog intelligence is largely a result of good breeding.
Selectively Bred For Brains
He says from the very beginning of the Boxer’s development in Germany, breeders were prioritizing intelligence.
They selectively bred for brains, rather than just seeking dogs that were “show quality” and looked the part, but weren’t particularly cluey.
Big Brain Space
Those blocky heads give Boxers more than their distinctive appearance.
The width of the Boxer skull, with its slight dome, provides plenty of room for the cerebrum, which is the part of the brain responsible for reason, memory and will.
Other dogs have been bred, Wagner says, for “unreasonably narrow skulls”.
Not the Boxer.
“From the first he’s been supplied with a brain case which could adapt itself to increasing brain development and for years he’s been unrestrictedly increasing his supply of grey matter.”
A Long History
As one of the oldest known breeds, the Boxer has had a long period in which to develop those mental capacities.
Wagner says the Boxer has benefited from “concentrated, selective breeding for intelligence, years in advance of the average dog”.
Great Minds In The Bloodline
As it happens, the Boxer breed stemmed from a series of extraordinarily smart individual dogs.
In outlining the Boxer bloodline, Wagner describes it as a “phenomenal break” that “the five great ancestors of all Boxers, and practically every pillar of the breed that followed through, have been exceptionally smart”.
And so, intelligence has been so firmly established in the Boxer as to become a breed characteristic.
Jobs Boxer Dogs Do
No dog accomplishes the range of roles Boxers have performed over the years without being supremely intelligent.
Boxers have excelled as:
- hunting dogs
- cattle dogs
- cart pullers
- police dogs
- military dogs
- guard dogs
- seeing-eye dogs for the blind
- service and therapy dogs
- search and rescue dogs
- show dogs
- companion dogs
It’s an impressive curriculum vitae that reflects the Boxer’s versatility.
Boxers are classified by the American Kennel Club as a working dog.
Over at the United Kennel Club, the world’s largest all-breed performance-dog registry, the Boxer is regarded as a “guardian” breed.
The modern Boxer descended from the now-extinct Bullenbeisser, a Mastiff-type dog that dates to the Assyrian empire in 2500 BC.
The Bullenbeisser was used in big-game hunting, catching and holding down wild boar, bison and bear.
Like other dogs of the “bully” type, the Boxer was unfortunately used in dogfighting and bullbaiting before the “sports” were outlawed.
Boxers at one time served as butchers’ helpers, controlling cattle in slaughterhouses.
They endeared themselves to soldiers on the battlefield in both world wars, trusted as everything from messenger dogs.. to attack dogs.
One legendary war Boxer is said to have single-handedly rounded up enemy soldiers on his own initiative, a one-dog advance party ahead of advancing troops.
The Boxer was officially classified as a police dog in Germany in 1925, one of the first breeds selected for the role.
Police and war dogs have to be super trainable, with a strong work ethic. But they also have to possess great courage and have highly stable temperaments.
As guard dogs, Boxers alert on sound and are said to attack with a body slam rather than a bite.
Their repertoire as service dogs includes the ability to alert people with epilepsy to an imminent seizure.
Boxers have done themselves proud in the competition ring, winning Best in Show at Westminster multiple times.
These days, of course, the Boxer is favorite family dog, happiest around children with whom he is gentle, unfailingly patient and protective.
How Does A Boxer Dog Learn?
Boxer dog intelligence doesn’t look like Border Collie intelligence.
Trainer and breeder Karla Spitzer, who wrote The Everything Boxer Book, says Boxers are a little different in how they process things.
“The learning curve of Boxers tends to vary a bit from the sporting and herding breeds.
“Don’t be concerned if your Boxer does not learn as quickly.
“Also, don’t be surprised if his learning curve appears to take longer, only to end up doing better than many of his herding classmates.”
This means when selecting a trainer for you and your Boxer, it’s best to pick someone who has experience with Boxers and enjoys their unique style.
“Some trainers just assume that Boxers are stubborn and stupid because they are very careful in how they approach doing new things,” says Spitzer.
“Remember, the working dog was bred to watch carefully and to figure out what to do after much careful observation.
“This tendency has come down to us today in the form, at times, of what seems to be a flatline-then-spiking kind of learning curve in Boxers.
“Often, you will see no gradual improvement. Then when you’re ready to give up, your Boxer will be doing things perfectly!
“On the other hand, sometimes he’ll be the first one to get it exactly right.”
How To Train A Boxer
The Boxer temperament responds to positive reinforcement and Fun, with a capital F.
Make training a game, and you’ll have an eager pupil.
Resort to rough or punitive methods and your Boxer will shut down fast.
Avoid harsh collar corrections and refrain from physically forcing your dog into a sit or a down.
It won’t work.
And your Boxer will take it hard.
Treats and play are the way to go.
Keep things upbeat and stop before you get frustrated.
Boxer trainer Karla Spitzer has this advice:
“As a Boxer owner, you need to be as clear and fair as you can in communicating for best results in dealing with your Boxer.
“As a breed, Boxers are quite sensitive, especially to what they perceive as injustices.”
Average? A Boxer?
Stanley Coren evidently didn’t factor in the various learning styles of different breeds when he wrote The Intelligence Of Dogs in 1994.
The canine psychologist ranked Boxers towards the bottom of the “average” intelligence bracket.
He deemed them about as smart as Greyhounds and Siberian Huskies.
Brighter than Bulldogs but not a patch on the .. wait for it.. Border Collie, which he rated the smartest dog alive.
(But are they funny?)
Coren developed his list based solely on measures of “work and obedience” as observed by judges in the show ring.
The assessments were based on:
- how many repetitions a dog took to learn a new command, and
- the success rate of obeying a known command on the first try.
The Boxer could learn a new command within 25 to 40 reps …and had a 50 per cent chance of obeying a familiar command.
Every Boxer owner knows that understanding what you mean.. and actually complying.. are two very different things.
The Coren scale also overlooks emotional intelligence and intuition, not to mention adaptive intelligence which encompasses the ability to problem solve.
Rest assured, if you can teach it.. your Boxer can learn it.
After all, even a so-called average dog learns about 165 words just by being part of a human household.
That’s as big a vocabulary as a two-year-old child.
How To Exercise Your Boxer’s Mind
The intelligence of Boxers makes them great learners and easy to live with.
It also means they need a lot of mental stimulation, not just physical exercise.
Boxers can get bored quickly with repetitive routines.
It takes a creative owner to keep things interesting.
Formal activities your Boxer will enjoy include:
- obedience classes
- agility and rally
At home you can use:
- puzzles and other canine enrichment toys
- tricks (See if your pup knows these 5 Tricks A Boxer Was Born To Do)
- “Find it!” and other nosework games where your dog sniffs out hidden objects
- trips to new places with fresh sights, sounds and scents to explore
The downside to having a dog as smart and inquisitive as a Boxer is that he can be a challenge to manage.
As much as they love their people, Boxers have a strong independent streak and minds of their own.
If there’s a leadership vacuum, they are more than willing to step up and fill the void.
They can be headstrong.
Set consistent rules and stick to them, as Boxers will notice if you get lax and they’ll take it as an invitation to find other loopholes.
This is a breed that likes to stay busy.
A Boxer at a loose end can get himself into quite a bit of trouble.
All that exuberance can turn destructive if your dog is left alone for long periods, and his mental health will suffer.
The large number of Boxer rescues gives an indication of how many people take on Boxer ownership without understanding what’s involved.
But if you’re ready, there is no better dog.
The Boxer is the ultimate all-rounder.
Brains. Brawn. Beauty. And a sense of humor to boot.
As The Boxer’s John Wagner says, “Just scratch the surface and every blessed Boxer owner will tell the same story.”
Yup, the Boxer is a keeper.