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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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Sandy

Saturday 22nd of July 2023

Yes my boy is too smart for me, 3 years of training and I obey all commands! Tells me when to get up, likes my last bite of toast, when he wants treats in his puzzles so he can play, when a walk or outing is required. Dinner by 6 pm but he gives me amazing loyalty, love and empathy. Other anxious dog are given licks til calm, if a dog snarls he is away. Goes quietly &. steady to humans with special needs. Head on shoulder or crotch. Helps a family pet who is blind & deaf in & out of house for potty then cleans him up. Loves loves to tease me or trick me, the gleam in his eyes says it all. Just love them! They are girls and boys just wanna have fun!

Kristen

Saturday 24th of June 2023

My Australian Shephard is very intelligent. She has learned to sneak one item off an unwatched plate to avoid getting in trouble. She likes to play keep away with her ball. She will put her ball in front of you and turn her head and pretend she isn't watching. When you reach for it, she either grabs it with her mouth or moves it with her paw. She definitely has a household hierarchy of who she obeys most and who she treats as equals. She doesn't like being left alone. I tried to give her a treat before I left, usually she can't resist, she gave me a dirty look and turned around and walk away. Her herding instincts are amazing. Always stays by my side while walking. But she will nip little kids if they run around the house or yard.

CAAG

Tuesday 14th of February 2023

We have four Aussies and are Aussie breeders. Aussies are incredibly loyal and loving. Our male is the dumbest dog on the property (other than our poodle). My dog is the Houdini of the property and loves to talk, she is the smartest out of all our dogs (but she couldn't calm down if her life depended on it...!). My dad's dog, a female, is smart enough to use her extreme cuteness to get whatever she wants. My brother's dog isn't the brightest, but she loves to lick and play.

Ellen

Sunday 5th of February 2023

Yes, my dog is very smart, has a lot of “adaptive intelligence.” Example: our neighbor’s dog lives to chase the ball, which our dog, Emma has no interest in. She wants the dog to chase her! So one day, in our yard, our neighbor put the ball down, saying he was leaving, but he continued talking to us. Emma picked up the ball in her mouth, paraded it in front of our neighbor’s dog so he saw it, and proceeded to run around the yard, the neighbor’s dog pursuing her frantically! Just one example!

John Smith

Wednesday 11th of January 2023

I am a canine behavioral consultant and have had 2 Aussies work with me as partners after working with collies. I learned with both of them that it is best not to try and tell them what to do when working with other dogs. If I did, they would usually do something smarter than what I told them and make me look bad. In my opinion they are the best at problem solving. I think they are the smartest dogs because they have proved that they are smarter than me. They are just independent thinkers that don't like being told what to do. They also get bored quickly with too much repetition which is why they don't do so well with repetitive tests.