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Are Australian Shepherds Smart? – Here’s Why They’re Intelligent

If you’re still debating on keeping an Australian Shepherd, you may already know that they’re energetic and hard-working dogs. Because they’re such excellent herding dogs, they must be intelligent too, right? So how does their intelligence compare to other breeds?

Australian Shepherds are intelligent dogs. According to Stanley Coren, they’re the 42nd smartest dog breed for obedience & working intelligence. However, what makes them truly intelligent is their natural ability to herd. Being able to instinctively push and guide sheep in the intended direction requires a special type of intelligence that Australian Shepherds have.

Many dog owners reference Coren’s list of dog intelligence. However, obedience & working intelligence isn’t always the best way to gauge a dog’s IQ, especially with the Australian Shepherd. Let’s examine why they’re smarter than people think.

RECOMMENDED: The Owner’s Guide to Australian Shepherds

Measuring the Australian Shepherd’s Intelligence

The Blue Merle Australian Shepherd is by far the most unique and beautiful Aussie color.

Australian Shepherds are smart. But Coren’s intelligence test isn’t a good indicator of their true IQ. To understand why Aussies were ranked so low, we must first understand how Coren measured dog intelligence.

Stanley Coren is a pHD and canine psychologist from the University of British Columbia. With the help of 199 obedience trial judges from North America, he had hundreds of dog breeds tested based off his criteria.

Coren’s Dog Intelligence Criteria

Coren’s criteria tested these dogs on two things: obedience and ability to learn.Though the criteria was met with criticism, it’s still the standard we have for measuring obedience and working intelligence.

Stanley Coren based his trials off these two criteria:

  1. The number of repetitions needed for a dog to learn a new command. Dog breeds that learned with fewer repetitions were seen as “more intelligent” breeds.
  2. The success rate that a dog breed will obey a known command on the first attempt. A higher rate of success meant that the dog was not only smarter, but more obedient.

Although Coren tested hundred on breeds, not every breed qualified for his final list of dog intelligence rankings. Only breed with at least 100 responses were qualified.

Furthermore, only dog breeds that were recognized by the American and/or the Canadian Kennel Club were tested in the trials. As it turns out, Australian Shepherds were popular enough to be tested at least 100 times and recognized by both clubs.

How Australian Shepherds Performed

As mentioned, Aussies were the 42nd smartest dog breed out of 138 qualifying breeds. And while that’s not exactly “spectacular,” it’s better than most dog breeds.

Consequently, Australian Shepherds were classified as ” above average intelligent dogs.” This meant that they’re able to learn a new command with just 15 to 25 repetitions.

In addition, Australian Shepherds obeyed a known command on the first attempt just 75% (or better) of the time. These numbers are pretty typical. Plus, there’s really nothing wrong with being average.

In actuality, some of the most popular dog breeds are in this intelligence class. It’s not a coincidence. For example, the Yorkie, Samoyed, Dalmatian, Giant Schnauzer, Newfoundland and Affenpinscher are all above average. Not bad company at all.

Aussies vs. “Smartest Dogs”

Australian Shepherds didn’t do too bad. But how do they stack up against some of the world’s most intelligent dog breeds?

Conveniently, the “smartest dog” category also happen to be the top 10 performing breeds. These dogs can learn a new command with fewer than 5 repetitions. This means they’re at least 5 times faster at learning commands than Aussies.

These dogs are also able to obey a known command (on the first attempt) 95% or better of the time. Not only are they incredibly quick learners, but they’re super obedient too!

The smartest dogs are your all-time most popular breeds. For reference, these dog breeds include the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Dobermann, Blue Heeler, Shetland Sheepdog and the Poodle.

Why Aussies Should Rank Higher For Dog IQ

Obviously, Coren’s trials are flawed. Although I think it’s a great reference point, it doesn’t truly capture a dog’s intelligence. Obedience & working intelligence just happens to be the most objective way of measuring IQ.

So despite so many real owners claiming their Aussie to be very intelligent, why did they rank so low on his list? There are a number of reasons, but let’s discuss the main issue.

Standardizing Dog Intelligence

Stanley Coren conducted his intelligence test based off two very specific criteria. The first was based on how quickly a dog can learn a new command. The second criterion was the percentage that the dog will obey the command on the first try.

The problem with this test is that different dog breeds and individual dogs have different motivators. Some dogs respond better to their owners. Other dogs respond better to food, whereas some prefer their favorite toy.

For these reasons, creating a standardized test based on Coren’s criteria can really skew results. And if you think about it, his “intelligence test” is really more of an obedience test.

But just because your Australian Shepherd doesn’t obey the first time around, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you were saying. Aussies just aren’t as biddable as other dog breeds.

Energetic Fun-loving Dogs

It’s no secret that Australian Shepherds are ultra-energetic and hyper dogs. Plus, they love to have fun. Give them a large backyard and you can expect them to run and play for hours at a time.

So because of their temperament and personality, Aussies probably can’t stand being still and going through hours of obedience tests. With that in mind, can you really be surprised they performed so poorly on the trial tests?

I know Australian Shepherds are high energy. But i cant even get dressed in the morning without her bouncing up and down like a pogo stick and biting my clothes.

– Juliamxc (Aussie Owner)

Like we mentioned, Australian Shepherds have different motivators than other dogs. They’re not necessarily disobedient or unfaithful dogs either – they just won’t do everything you want! You can call them free-spirited dogs.

Yes, obedience training can be hard at times. But as long as you can keep them interested in the task at hand, they’ll comply with no problems. The best method to do this is to turn obedience training into a game.

Some dog breeds like the Border Collie (the “smartest” dog) do extremely well because they enjoy working for the sake of working. Although Australian Shepherds are hardworking too, they need to be assigned to a “job” while being mentally stimulated.

Reasons Why Australian Shepherds Are Smart

So far, we’ve only discussed obedience and working intelligence. However, there’s so much more to dog IQ than just this, according to Stanley Coren.

In fact, Coren suggests that there are actually three dimensions of dog intelligence. The two others are adaptive and instinctive intelligence.

In my opinion, both of those are more important in calculating true dog IQ. It’s just that those two components of IQ are the hardest to objectively measure. Let me explain.

World-Class “Herding Intelligence” in Aussies

As you may already know, Australian Shepherds may not be the most “biddable” dogs. And as we discussed, this doesn’t mean they’re dumb (or even average intelligent) dogs.

However, there are other areas of dog expertise that Australian Shepherds truly excel at. Instinctive intelligence refers to the ability or special skill the dog breed was originally developed for. Nearly all modern dogs were purpose-bred.

Australian Shepherds were bred for herding small cattle, goats and sheep. In fact, they’re some of the best herders in the world! They herd by nipping at the heels of the animal and you’ll often notice these instincts in the home.

My Australian Shepherd is from a versatility line and he’s great normally. But when he gets excited or if i move quickly, he will try jogging alongside and nip at my heels.

– Cuddlykat (Aussie Owner)

Their ability to round up livestock, push them into formation and drive them in directions requires a special type of intelligence, that is, instinctive intelligence. All this, happens with little to no human training. Aussies were born with this ability.

Give them a herding job and they’ll thrive at it. However, not all Aussies will be excellent from the start. Those use these dogs to herd say they’re the best at herding cattles. On the other hand, Border Collies are known to be best at herding sheep.

Check out this Aussie in action:

The Australian Shepherd’s Adaptive Intelligence

The final dimension of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. It refers to the dog’s ability to learn for itself and solve problems. Dogs that can learn from previous mistakes have high adaptive intelligence.

Though most individual dogs of a breed have roughly the same instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence can vary quite a bit among individual Aussies. Still, most owners tell us events and stories that clearly show signs of high adaptive intelligence.

One Australian Shepherd owner explains:

So we’ve been trying to train our 13 week old Aussie with a bell hanging on the back door to ring when she wants to go out to potty. The puppy will now take advantage by ringing the bell to go outside to play.

– Genericmale21 (Reddit User)

The Aussie owner continues by saying, “He’s too smart for his own good.” Surely, that’s how many Australian Shepherds feel too! Learning and taking advantage of the situation is undeniably high adaptive intelligence.

Similarly, another owner tells us about his intelligent Australian Shepherd:

I feel like my 10 month old Aussie has already learned the city streets. He gets excited every time we go to the dog park. And just by observing the neighborhood in the car, he’s started to get excited 5 minutes before we even arrive!

– David Y. (Aussie Owner)

These are all great stories that show high adaptive intelligence within Aussies. And even though it’s just two stories that we shared, there are a lot more. We could continue, but the list probably would never end!

If you’re not convinced, just ask any Australian Shepherd owner. I’m positive they’ll have plenty of stories just like these.

Is Your Australian Shepherd Smart?

In order to really gauge how smart Australian Shepherds are, we surveyed 10 real Aussie owners on the popular Aussie Subreddit and other dog forums. Of course, not all individual dogs will be equal in intelligence. Here’s what they had to say to this question:

Real Owner Answers:

1. Nothinginparticular says Yes:Mine is super smart in that she’s easily trainable, knows how to get what she wants, very expressive and communicative. Also a big ditzy goofball who runs into stuff and hits her head a lot.

2. Emgerly says Mixed:We call mine the ‘smartest idiot you’ll ever meet.’ He knows so many tricks and listens to commands so well, but fake throw a ball and he goes running EVERY TIME. One time he even jumped up on my desk and couldn’t figure out how to get back down the way he came.

3. Squanchyfetuss says Yes:Mine was potty trained at 8 weeks. Probably the smartest boy ever. Maybe five or less accidents in 2 years since he was 8 weeks old…he’s great off leash because he walks right next to me. Best dog I’ve had.

4. Forest1000 says Yes:My Lexus is too smart for her own good, most of the time. She “talks” to my kids on Face Time and will perform commands over FT. She’s learned the sound for Skype and FT calls.

5. Adeniumesper says No:Is anyone else’s Aussie…dumb? I got him fully expecting this intelligent being, but my god. He’s so ditzy and goofy! Wouldn’t trade him for anything but goodness.

6. Carmen315 says Yes:Mine is so smart and so athletic but she cannot catch anything you throw to her even if her life depended on it.”

7. Winsomedimsum says Mixed:Yeah mine is probably about as sharp as a dull 4 year old human. She’ll shake your hand and she’ll play dead if you pretend to shoot her, but she’s also scared of random objects like blankets and shadows.”

8. Schlepenheimer says Yes:I’ve owned..two Aussies. My Aussies have been very trainable and intelligent, but they know how to relax as well, and really seemed to love ALL people and other dogs.

9. Becca723 says Yes:She’s adorable. She’s incredibly smart and loves to learn tricks. My Aussie does every thing she can to make me happy. She loooooves to cuddle.

10. Riansettles says Yes:Full of life these dogs are. Unlimited energy. So smart also. Sometimes we wish we bought a dumb dog. Lol. Kidding of course. Love all Aussies.

Does the Aussie’s Intelligence Matter?

Just like all dog breeds, not all Australian Shepherds may be highly intelligent. But does it really matter if they are?

The truth is, your Australian Shepherd really doesn’t need to be that smart. Nearly all dogs are smart enough to provide what most owners need, especially if you’re just looking for a companion dog.

The most important thing is that your Aussie is loving and affectionate. Instead, ask: are Australian Shepherds a good match for me (my family) and my personality?

Unless you plan on teaching your dog important complicated tasks, then it’s pointless to have a breed like a German Shepherd, Poodle or Border Collie (the top 3 breeds for canine intelligence).

Rather than focusing on a dog intelligence list published by the “experts,” it’s far better to focus on developing a dog for your own specific needs. There’s a lot of things that Aussies are highly capable of doing.


Do you own an Australian Shepherd? If so, let us know in the comments section below – is your Australian Shepherd smart? Tell us why.

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Kathleen Day Carey

Tuesday 19th of April 2022

I am 73 and have had German Shepherds, Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and a Labrador- all of them intelligent and had their own personal talents. However our present dog is a miniature Aussie, and 4 months old, and incredibly intelligent. He learns everything we teach him very quickly, and doesn't forget. He is very intuitive and is very eager to understand what we want and also for us to understand what he wants. He also knows how to manipulate a scenario to his benefit, like grabbing something he shouldn't have so that it will be exchanged with something of good value. I have always taught my dogs good manners and obedience, along with a few fun tricks. My Aussie already knows twice the commands than any of my other wonderful dogs at just 4 months of age. I would have to put this breed very high on the intelligence chart- just my personal observations over a lifetime.

Rosalyn Thibodeau

Wednesday 30th of March 2022

I am the owner of a 4 year old Australian Shepherd and am amazed how smart she is. I haven't counted all the words in her vocabulary but find it significant. I often sing along to some of the commercials and as soon as she hears my favorites come on, she comes right to my side and looks up. She loves to play ball and catches them on the fly. Although she sheds a lot, she is a wonderful loving companion.

Casey

Saturday 5th of March 2022

I have a 2 yr old Australian, she is the smartest dog I've ever had. She is very athletic and I run her on a agility course and probably learned how to do all of it in 2 tries,the one area she was slower was the stick weave and that took her 3-4 tries. She is very obedient but excitement of other animals or grandkids around she will react to them without hearing commands.I have not much patience for her not behaving so that is the one struggle we have.

Paul Dumlao

Friday 10th of December 2021

My Aussie was super smart. Sometimes I didn’t put his leash on and I would walk outside with him and he would walk alongside me. I have balance problems. If I fell he would lay down next to me. At night I would let him go outside the back door. There’s no fencing but I allowed him to pee outside. He wouldn’t go out unless I allowed him. He’d look at me and I would nod then he would go out. When he was done he would come back inside. Sadly my Aussie just passed away at the end of April 2021. He lived with us for 13 years and 3 months.

Cindi

Tuesday 27th of October 2020

I had a wonderful black tri girl for 14 of the best years of my life. Smartest dog I ever owned. Now I have a 3 year old German shepherd and 2 two year old sibling Aussies. All 3 are girls and very energetic. I have found that the Aussies learn the same things at close to the same speed as the German shepherd, just differently. They are all loving, intelligent, protective bundles of fur. We do joke that the German shepherd says hello, the black tri says hi and the blue merle says huh? Would not trade any of them for the world.