Are Australian Shepherds intelligent dogs? Find out what real Australian Shepherd owners think.

Are Australian Shepherds Smart? – Here’s Why They’re Ranked Low for Dog Intelligence

If you’re still debating on keeping an Australian Shepherd, research is important. One of the most common questions I get about my Aussie is: are Australian Shepherds Smart? How smart are Aussies?

Yes, Australian Shepherds are intelligent dogs. They’re tied for the 66th smartest dog breed, according to pHD, Stanley Coren. Although they’re classified as a breed with “average” intelligence, they excel in many other areas of expertise among dogs. 

Many dog owners reference Coren’s list of dog intelligence. However, it may not always be the best way to gauge a dog’s IQ, especially with the Australian Shepherd. Let’s see why they’re smarter than you think.

RECOMMENDED: The Owner’s Guide to Australian Shepherds

Measuring Aussie 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 Canadian Kennel Club were tested in the trials.

Fortunately, 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 66th smartest dog breed out of 138 qualifying breeds. That’s not exactly “spectacular” but that’s better than most breeds.

Consequently, they were classified as “average intelligent dogs.” This meant that they’re able to learn a new command with just 25 to 40 repetitions.

In addition, Australian Shepherds obeyed a known command on the first attempt just 50% (or better) of the time.

There’s nothing wrong with being average. In actuality, some of the most popular dog breeds are in this intelligence class as well.

For example, the Dachshund, Boxer, Great Dane, Shiba Inu, Havanese and the Boston Terrier are all “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 are the top 10 breeds. These dogs can learn a new command with fewer than 5 repetitions.

These dogs are also able to obey a known command (on the first attempt) 95% or better of the time. They’re incredibly obedient!

The smartest dogs are your all-time most popular breeds – and it’s not by accident. For reference, these include the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Dobermann and the Poodle.

Is Your Australian Shepherd Smart?

Australian Shepherd owners answer the age-old question: are Australian Shepherds intelligent dogs?

In order to really gauge how smart Australian Shepherds are, we surveyed 10 real Aussie owners on the popular sub reddit for Australian Shepherds.

Here’s what they had to say to this question:

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. I can also call him by any name and he genuinely thinks it’s his.”

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 Facetime and will perform commands over FT. She’s learned the sound for Skype and FT calls. Runs for her Kong when someone calls to show them she can do tricks. She knows about 60 words.”

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 with finger guns, 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.”

Why Aussies Rank Low for Intelligence

There are a number of reasons why Australian Shepherds are ranked so low on the dog intelligence list.

Obviously, Coren’s trials are flawed. Although I think it’s a great reference, it doesn’t truly capture a dog’s intelligence.

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 did his standardized intelligence test based off two very specific criteria. The first was based on the number of repetitions necessary to 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 is that different dog breeds and individual dogs have different motivators. For this reason, creating a standardized test based on these criteria can really skew results.

Given the criteria, this really seems a little bit more like an obedience test than an intelligence test.

Just because your Australian Shepherd doesn’t obey the first time around, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you were saying.

Still, the trials that Stanley conducted are a great starting point – but does not tell the whole story on dog intelligence.

Energetic Fun-loving Dogs

It’s no secret that Australian Shepherds are ultra-energetic and hyper dogs. Plus, they love to have fun.

Because of their temperament and personality, Aussies probably can’t stand being still and going through hours of obedience tests. For this reason, it’s not a surprise they performed so poorly on the trial tests.

Like we mentioned, Australian Shepherds have different motivators than other dogs. They’re not necessarily disobedient dogs either – they just won’t do everything you want!

But as long as you can keep them interested in the task at hand, they’ll comply with no problems. The best way 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.

Australian Shepherds are hardworking too, but they’ll need to be assigned to a “job” while being mentally stimulated.

Why Australian Shepherds Are Smart

An Australian Shepherd may run away if not properly trained. There are many reasons they may run, such as a chase motive.

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.

World Class Herding 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 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 breed was originally bred for.

Australian Shepherds were bred for herding small cattle, goats and sheep. In fact, they’re some of the best herders in the world!

Their ability to round up livestock and push them into formation requires a special type of intelligence, that is, instinctive intelligence. All this, without much human training.

Give them a herding job and they’ll thrive at it. Owners who use these dogs to herd say they’re the best at herding cattles. On the contrary, Border Collies are the best at herding sheep.

Aussie’s Adaptive Intelligence

The final component of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. It refers to the dog’s ability to learn for itself and solve problems.

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 go to the bathroom. The puppy rings bell to go outside to play and knows humans will let her out bc she also uses it to go to the bathroom.

– Genericmale21 (Reddit)

The Aussie owner continues by saying, “He’s too smart for his own good.” Surely, that’s how many Australian Shepherds feel too!

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 that we shared, there are a lot more.

Just ask any Australian Shepherd owner and I’m sure they’ll have plenty of stories just like these to tell you.

Does Australian Shepherd Intelligence Matter?

It doesn't really matter is your Australian Shepherd is considered smart or not.

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 Aussie really doesn’t need to be that smart. Nearly all dogs are smart enough to provide what most owners need.

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 almost pointless to have a breed like a German Shepherd or Border Collie.

Rather than focusing on a dog intelligence list, 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?

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2 Comments

  • We have had the pleasure of having three Aussies. Each was extraordinarily smart. Our last learned long distance, more than 100 yards, hand signals in one day. Lots of fun, hates to be left alone in the house, loves to go with us cross country skiing and keeps up all day in spite of deep powdery snow. Goes crazy and aggressive when the door bell rings. Though there are no fences, they always stay close to us and gets a bit anncy when they can’t see us. They will stay on command for at least 30 to 60 minutes. They are very good at healing, stop at corners and ignore other dogs when on the leash. That being said, I do not suggest Ausies for anyone who doesn’t want a close friend for lots of outdoor activities. Doc says more exercise. Your Aussie will get you out of the house and enjoying long walks.

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