How smart is an Australian Cattle Dog – Heeler intelligence

The Australian Cattle Dog, also known as a Blue Heeler or Red Heeler depending on coat color, is an extremely hard-working active cattle dog. They while a large amount of daily exercise, both physical and mental. For a guide to Australian Cattle Dog exercise see here.

Are Australian Cattle Dogs intelligent?

Yes, the Australian Cattle Dog is a highly intelligent and smart dog. They are ranked 10th out of 138 breeds tested for obedience and working intelligence. Blue Heelers are able to learn a new command in as few as 5 repetitions. Blue Heelers also excel in instinctive intelligence being one of the best cattle herding dogs in the world. Their ability to solve problems and be adaptive is also good. In addition, they have emotional intelligence with their ability to read your emotions and body language.

Types of dog intelligence

There is more to dog intelligence than just the ability to learn new commands and be obedient. Obedience is just one type of intelligence. The three main types of dog intelligence are working and obedience intelligence, adaptive intelligence, and instinctive intelligence.

Obedience and working intelligence 

This is the most objective of the three types of canine intelligence making it easy to test and quantify.

According to obedience and working intelligence tests, the Australian Cattle Dog is ranked 10th out of the 138 breeds tested. Blue Heelers are able to learn a new command in 5 repetitions. They are then able to obey a new command they have learned in 95% or more attempts. The Rottweiler is ranked 9th but also learns a command in 5 repetitions with a 95% success.

To get a feel for how smart they are compared to the “average” dog, on average a dog requires 25 to 40 repetitions to learn a new command and obeys the newly learned command on only 50% of occasions.

We will take a look at how the test of obedience intelligence is conducted below. To get a feel for how smart certain breeds are compared to the “average” dog, on average a dog requires 25 to 40 repetitions to learn a new command and obeys the newly learned command on only 50% of occasions.

Instinctive intelligence

This relates to the skill and purpose the dog was bred for. It is an innate ability that doesn’t need to be taught. For example, a herding breed instinctively knows how to herd usually with little or no training required. Australian Cattle Dogs are exceptional at this job.

Blue Heelers were originally bred as cattle herding dogs. Their duties included herding cattle on huge Australian cattle stations. As the name suggests Blue Heelers are a heeler type of herding dog. A herding dog like a Border Collie is bred to herd livestock by bringing them towards the handler. This is referred to as fetching. A Blue Heeler is bred to move livestock over long distances so is required to herd the cattle away from the handler. This is referred to as droving.

In addition to herding duties, Blue Heelers are excellent livestock guardians providing protection for the herd against predators. They are naturally protective and alert and make excellent guard dogs for the family and home. For more on Blue Heelers as guard dogs see here.

Adaptive intelligence

This refers to a dog’s ability to solve problems and to learn and figure out things for themselves. This can be hard to measure but there are some tests you can do with your Blue Heeler to see how good they actually are at adaptive intelligence.

Blue Heelers are real thinkers and usually do very well with this type of challenge. They seem to have an incredible ability to learn from previous experience and adapt as required. Adaptive intelligence can vary from dog to dog even of the same breed.

How is working and obedience intelligence measured?

The list of dog breed intelligence was created by Stanley Coren who is a dog psychologist. Coren worked with 199 North American obedience trial judges to help with his study.

Only pure breed dogs from the American Kennel Club and Canadian Kennel Club participated. This meant that mixed breed dogs and breeds not recognized by the kennel clubs were not tested.

The test used to measure dog intelligence had two parts. They first measured how many repetitions it took for a certain dog being tested to learn a new command. Secondly, they measured what percentage of the time the dog obeyed the command on the first attempt. Dogs with a high percentage of obeying the command were considered to be obedient.

Other types of dog intelligence

The three types of dog intelligence ( Obedience/Working intelligence, Instinctive intelligence, and adaptive intelligence) are usually what people are referring to when discussing how smart a dog is. However, there are other types of intelligence that are mentioned much less but are truly a sign of how smart a dog is.

Emotional intelligence

This is how well your dog is able to read you and your emotions. Blue Heelers are very people-orientated and love being with their owner and family. Being a working breed they were bred to work for a handler.

They can be very empathetic. If you own a Blue Heeler you will be very aware of how in touch they are with body language. They will often know what you are thinking or about to do before you even do it.

This ability to read body language also shows itself in a Blue Heelers’ natural guarding instinct. They know when someone is friendly or a potential threat. Although they are not known or bred to be guard dogs they are very protective of their owner and family.

Strategic manipulation

Another type of intelligence, if not a little sneaky, is strategic manipulation.  This is when a dog will deceive you deliberately to get something they want. If you own a Blue Heeler you probably have seen this in your dog.

A researcher named Marianne Heberlein did a study into this when she realized her own dogs were doing this to her.

She would take her dogs out to the toilet each evening before bed. She would give them a treat when they came inside. One day she realized that one of her dogs would pretend to go toilet just to get the treat. This made her curious and prompted her to research the behavior.

With a research team at the University of Zurich, 27 dogs were tested. They paired each dog with two human partners. A cooperative one who allowed the dogs to eat treats, and a competitive one who withheld the treats.

The researcher took each dog to one of three boxes. One had a tasty sausage, another had a less appetizing dog treat and the last one was empty.

The dogs in the test quickly learned if the handler was cooperative or competitive and led the cooperative handler to the box with the premium treat more often than the competitive partner.

The dogs quickly learned that by leading the competitive partner to the incorrect box they had a chance to keep the premium treat for themselves later on. When the experiment was repeated with a cooperative partner they knew they would get the sausage.

How to improve your Blue Heeler’s intelligence

There are ways to keep your Blue Heeler’s brains sharp and improve their minds. These can include:

Exercise: Ensure your dog gets sufficient daily exercise. A healthy and fit dog is less stressed and burning pent-up energy avoids boredom. For a comprehensive guide to Blue Heeler exercise with suggestions see here.

Enrich their environment: make their living environment more interesting and engaging. Most dogs are very curious so providing items and activities that satisfy their curiosity is crucial. For more on enrichment for a Blue Heeler see here.

Socialization: provide plenty of opportunities for your Blue Heeler to socialize with people, other dogs, and animals. Also, take them to new places and provide new experiences. Dogs are pack animals and usually carve interaction with other dogs. However, it is crucial that your dog is well socialized and knows the rules of how to interact and greet other dogs. Learn more about Blue Heeler socialization here.

Learning: ongoing learning is a good way to provide enrichment and mental stimulation to increase brain power. This can be teaching them new commands or tricks or learning new games.

Quality diet: diet is crucial to keeping a dog healthy and functioning at its best.

Reward intelligence – give your Blue Heeler praise and rewards for showing signs of intelligence.

Provide enriching activities: Give your dog interactive and puzzle toys and provide other challenges. For recommended puzzle toys for Blue Heelers see here.

Play with toys:- playing and engaging with their toys is a good way to keep the mind active.

Are Blue Heelers easy to train?

When it comes to learning commands and tricks, Blue Heelers are very easy to train. With the ability to learn a new command with an average of only 5 repetitions they know what you want them to do quickly. They will perform that command on 95% of occasions.

Having said that, Blue Heelers are real thinkers and can be strong-willed and a little independent. If they don’t want to do something they probably won’t. However, Blue Heelers want to work for and please their owner so will generally be very obedient.

Do Blue Heelers need a lot of mental stimulation

Blue Heelers require lots and lots of mental stimulation and enrichment. They are smart and real thinkers. They require an outlet for all this mental energy. Mental exercise can help tire a dog as much as physical exercise. Mental stimulation will also keep their brain sharp and help with focus.

If a Blue Heeler is not given the opportunity to challenge their brains they can become bored. Boredom can be one of the main causes of behavior issues such as destructive behavior and chewing, barking, and digging. They may even look to escape and find adventure for themselves.

For more on Blue Heeler mental stimulation and enrichment with suggestions see here.

Is a Blue Heeler smarter than similar breeds?

As you can see, the Australian Cattle Dog is extremely smart. But how do they compare to similar breeds of dogs?

Is a Blue Heeler smart than a Border Collie?

The Border Collie is considered the most intelligent dog breed in the world. They are ranked number 1 using the Cohen working/obedience intelligence test. They can learn a new command in less than 5 repetitions and perform that newly learned command 95% of the time.

Comparing any dog breed to the Border Collie is probably not a fair fight. However, this in no way means the Blue Heeler isn’t one smart cookie.

Is a Blue Heeler smarter than a German Shepherd?

German Shepherds are ranked 3rd for working and obedience intelligence compared to the Blue Heelers 10th ranking. German Shepherds are also extremely skilled at adaptive and instinctive intelligence being a true utility breed. They are also very good a slowing empathy. You would probably have to give this one to the German Shepherd.

However, that is not to take anything away from how smart the Australian Cattle Dog is.

Summary – Australian Cattle Dog intelligence

Australian Cattle Dogs are very smart and intelligent dogs. They are ranked at number 10 out of the 138 breeds tested for obedience and working intelligence. They also have high instinctive intelligence when performing the tasks they were bred for.

The Blue Heeler is considered one of the best cattle herding dogs in the world. Their ability to solve problems and be adaptive is also good. In addition, they have emotional intelligence with their ability to read your emotions and body language often knowing what you are thinking.