Sometimes it's tough to get past that pretty face.

Poodles often get stereotyped as frou-frou or ditzy, and it's often just because of their elaborate haircuts. In reality, they are highly intelligent dogs.

In his bestselling book, "The Intelligence of Dogs," neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, Ph.D., asked more than 200 professional dog obedience judges to score 110 breeds based on working/obedience tests. "The degree of agreement among the judges was amazingly high," Coren says. Border collies were ranked the smartest, followed by poodles, then German shepherds.

"Poodles are brilliant," certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga of Atlanta Dog Trainer tells MNN. "They look prissy but boy, they're rugged. They're not scared. They like to investigate."

Aga says poodles typically make good family pets, can be good service dogs and excel in all kinds of activities. She has poodles enrolled in her agility, scent work and dock diving classes. She says poodles are smart and like to be active.

"They have to have attention," she says. "They're like border collies. If they aren't trained and kept busy, they'll find a job. It just might not be the one you want."

Excellent problem-solvers

poodle doing agility jump Poodles are often very athletic and can excel at agility. (Photo: Margo Harrison/Shutterstock)

Heather Clarkson competes in dog sports and is the founder of a herding breed dog rescue based in North Carolina. She owns poodles, border collies and Australian shepherds.

"Border collies are brilliant, they're machines. But that also makes them a bit robotic," she tells MNN. "Poodles are very independent thinkers and need more motivation. If they're playing a game, they're playing it for themselves. I think they're much more challenging than your typical herding breed, but worth it."

Clarkson believes they're sometimes misunderstood because of the haircut.

"And it's silly! Poodles are tough dogs with a lot of grit, and they're also amazing family pets. Poodles are as versatile as Labs, goldens and spaniels, and they come in three sizes."

The sizes are standard, miniature and toy. The standard can weigh 40 pounds or more, while the toy can weigh as little as 5 pounds. The miniature is in between the two.

"All three size varieties are really bright dogs," says Clarkson. "They're excellent problem-solvers. We definitely consider them the 'masterminds' of the house."

History and haircut

Siba, a standard poodle, competes to win Best in Show at Westminster in February 2020 Siba, a standard poodle, competes to win Best in Show at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in February 2020 in New York City. (Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Although many people associate the poodle with France, the breed is believed to have originated in Germany where the dogs were trained to hunt ducks, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). The name comes from a German word meaning to splash around in puddles.

The dog's swimming talent and thick, curly coat made it a natural in the water — and this skill led to the breed's iconic haircut.

Hunters wanted their dogs to be able to move about easily in the water, but they also wanted to protect key areas of their body from the cold. So, they shaved most of their legs, neck, underside and rear end, but left their leg joints and chest covered to keep them warm. The result was a functional hairdo that certainly turns heads. The AKC says these rounded tufts of hair are called pompons (not to be confused with pom-poms).

toy poodle on bed Some owners choose a 'puppy clip' or 'lamb clip' for their poodles. (Photo: Lim Tiaw Leong/Shutterstock)

Because poodles don't shed, they need regular grooming and clipping to keep their coats from getting matted. Some owners might choose more traditional clips, while others might just have the hair cut close to the body in what's known as a "lamb clip" or the "puppy clip," shown above.

"I keep mine cut shorter and they're very little maintenance other than a bit of brushing," says Clarkson. "There's such a wide variety of clips that look great, and if you're like me you can have fun experimenting with different styles. While I think the traditional cut is gorgeous, I know I personally can't keep up with it and that's OK."

Poodle popularity

Labradoodle with ball Labradoodles are a cross between poodles and Labrador retrievers. (Photo: Achan Sumire [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

It's no surprise that these smart and pretty dogs are also very popular. According to the AKC, poodles are the seventh most popular breed in the U.S. For comparison's sake, border collies are way down the list at No. 35. Labrador retrievers top the list.

But perhaps more interesting, poodles are valued for what they bring to the table when combined with other breeds. The incredibly popular doodle dogs are mixes of poodles with other breeds like Labs (labradoodles), golden retrievers (goldendoodles) and everything from schnoodles (schnauzers) to whoodles (soft-coated wheaten terrier).

Although they seem like designer breeds and often have hefty price tags to match, doodles aren't recognized by the AKC and have no pedigree.

The poodle, however, was recognized in 1887 by the AKC, which calls it "active, proud, very smart."

The poodles popularity is due in part to its all-around versatility and it's good-natured personality, writes VetStreet.

"No breed has a more highly developed sense of humor than the poodle. Good thing, too, because no breed has been the butt of more jokes. Humor aside, all the sniping is unfortunate. Many a family overlooks the smart, funny poodle, thinking him prissy. Still, it is one of the more popular breeds in the world. Poodle lovers know the dogs for their intelligence, ease of training, low-shedding curly coat, and love of family."

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Why poodles are so often misunderstood
Get past the haircut and remember this: Poodles are incredibly smart and athletic.