The Australian Shepherd breed is an active and athletic working dog that requires a good volume of daily exercise to release all its pent-up energy (for exercise suggestions see here). They are playful and affectionate and love companionship. It is important to keep an Aussie busy and provide them with a job to do.
Failure to provide sufficient daily exercise can result in a dog that is bored and frustrated. this often leads to behavior issues developing such as nuisance barking, destructive behavior, and even escaping. It can also result in a dog that is hyper and unsettled all the time. For how to calm an Aussie see here.
However, it is just as important to provide exercise and occupy their brain just as much as their physical body. Mental exercise can tire and prevent boredom just as well as physical activities.
How smart is an Australian Shepherd?
Where do Australian Shepherds rank in intelligence? Australian Shepherds are ranked 42nd out of 138 breeds for working and obedience intelligence. In this test, dogs are measured by how many repetitions it takes to learn a new command and what percentage of the time they perform this command on the first attempt once they know it.
The Australian Shepherd learns a new command with 15 to 25 repetitions and performs it on the first attempt 75% of the time. This classifies them as above-average intelligent.
Although working and obedience tests are the most objective way to test a dog’s intelligence, it is more of an obedience test. It doesn’t truly show just how smart the Australian Shepherd is.
The two other often cited types of dog intelligence are instinctive intelligence and adaptive intelligence. These types of intelligence are more subjective and can vary between individual dogs even of the same breed.
Instinctive intelligence is a dog’s natural ability to perform the function they were bred for with little or no training. For the Australian Shepherd, this is their herding ability. The ability of the Australian Shepherd to round up livestock and push them into formation and a certain direction requires a built-in intelligence. Australian Shepherds are naturally born with this ability hard-wired into their brain making them one of the best herding breeds in the world.
Adaptive intelligence is a dog’s ability to solve problems and learn from previous experience. Australian Shepherds 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.
There are also other ways in which dogs show intelligence. This includes their emotional intelligence and their ability to read their owner’s body language. Australian Shepherds bond very closely with their owners and are very affectionate towards them.
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 an Aussie you probably have seen this in your dog.
Teach Your Herding Breed To Be A Great Companion Dog – From Obsessive To Outstanding. A MUST READ for all owners of a herding breed dog – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. View here.
Do Australian Shepherds need a lot of mental stimulation?
Australian Shepherds 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 an Australian Shepherd 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. Australian Shepherds are master escape artists and can jump a fence with no problem.
Categories of enrichment for dogs
Canine enrichment can be classified into six different types. It can be useful to be aware of the six types when coming up with interesting ways to provide a challenge for your Australian Shepherd. An activity or item can be in more than one category. For example, food stuffing puzzle toys are both food enrichment and toy enrichment.
The six categories of canine enrichment are –
- Environmental Enrichment. This can be achieved by incorporating other forms of enrichment in the home. This can include sensory enrichment, toys, and food enrichment.
- Sensory Enrichment. This is an activity that engages a dog’s senses such as sight, smell, hearing, and touch.
- Social Enrichment. This is the practice of facilitating contact with other dogs, animals, and humans. Australian Shepherds are very social and enjoy time spent with other dogs. For more on Australian Shepherds with other dogs see here.
- Cognitive Enrichment. This type of enrichment is about providing your dog the opportunity to problem-solve, learn and figure out things for themselves. It relates directly to their adaptive intelligence.
- Feeding or Food Enrichment. Feeding enrichment encourages a dog’s natural foraging and feeding behavior.
- Toy Enrichment. This is providing your dog with toys that provide enrichment. Different types of toys provide different types of enrichment. These can include chew toys, puzzle toys, etc.
Australian Shepherd mental stimulation and enrichment activities and ideas
Providing your Australian Shepherd with a variety of mentally stimulating and enriching activities will help keep them occupied and prevent boredom, keep their brain sharp, and give them a job to do. Try some of these enrichment suggestions with your Australian Shepherd.
Work to Eat Projects
Foraging is an instinctual need that is the act of working to find food. All stages of the foraging process are inherently stimulating and enjoyable for a dog – not just the eating of the food. Providing your dog’s meals as work-to-eat projects allows them to forage, search, dissect, and consume in a way that lengthens mealtime and provides emotional and mental satisfaction.
The idea behind work to eat projects is that it replaces the passive eating of meals from a bowl and becomes a more interactive activity where your dog receives mental and emotional stimulation. Work-to-eat projects are in place of regular meals and replace the bowl.
Feeding your dog from a bowl can deprive them of the whole experience of searching for and acquiring food. This means they eat their food and then need to find ways to provide entertainment. This can often result in mischievous or unwanted behavior.
There are countless ways you can provide work-to-eat projects for your dog. You could probably do a different one every day and never run out of ideas. Some ideas to get you started include
- Maze bowls. These are bowls with obstacles and ridges built into them to make it harder for your dog to access the food.
- Stuff Kongs. Just fill the Kong with their kibble and put a knob of peanut butter over the hole.
- Toilet roll tube. Fold closed one end of the toilet roll tube, fill with kibble, and put a knob of peanut butter or similar over the open end.
- Scatter feeding. Scatter their kibble on the ground and allow them to forage.
- Wrap food inside a towel. Place their kibble in the middle of a towel. Fold or roll up the towel.
- Egg carton. Put food into an empty egg carton. Close the top and give it to your dog.
- and so on …
Enrichment from the daily walk
The daily walk is not just a physical activity for a dog. It can be an excellent mentally stimulating and enriching activity. Your Australian Shepherd will get lots of sensory stimulation from the sounds, sights, and amazing smells they come across on the way.
There is also the opportunity for plenty of social enrichment with other dogs and people you meet along the way. Leaving your property and going for a walk is also like the pack going on a hunt for a dog.
There are many other ways that you can turn the walk into an even greater enrichment opportunity. Try taking different routes and new locations. Allow your Australian Shepherd to sniff as much as they want. Add in a short training session.
There are also many games you can also incorporate into your outings. These include things like playing hide and seek or changing the speed of the walk going from quick to slow or going in a completely random direction.
Learning and training
Learning is one of the best ways to provide cognitive enrichment for a dog. Teach them new commands or tricks on a regular basis.
As an additional benefit, your Australian Shepherd will become more obedient and develop a closer bond with you.
Chewing has psychological benefits and is a great stress release. When a dog chews, it releases endorphins to its brain making them feel good and relaxed. To learn more about how chewing provides mental stimulation for dogs see here.
Other benefits of chewing are that it is good for dental health, keeps them occupied, and teaches them to chew their own stuff eliminating unwanted destructive chewing.
Australian Shepherds are powerful chewers so select chew toys that are durable. Alternatively, you can feed them uncooked bones or a natural chew like deer antlers.
Licking has a similar calming effect on a dog as chewing does.
To use a Lickmat, all you have to do is spread soft food on the top surface of the mat. Food items you can use include peanut butter, wet dog food, or natural yogurt. You can even freeze the Lick mat for a cooling treat on a hot day and to make the treats last even longer.
These are also great to use in a stressful situation for your dog such as fireworks or having their nails clipped.
Puzzle and interactive toys are a great way to test your Australian Shepherds’ adaptive intelligence and challenge the brain. For a smart dog like the Australian Shepherd, it is best to select toys that are rated as intermediate to advanced difficulty so they don’t work them out too quickly.
The Cup Game
Also called the shell game you probably have seen this game before. Get three for four plastic cups. Have your Australian Shepherd sit and place a treat under one of the cups. Randomly move the cups around and then have your Aussie choose which cup the treat is under.
This is the equivalent of Christmas morning for a child. It is a box full of lots of different gifts and treats. It is ideal for a dog that is left home alone and will keep them occupied for a long time.
You will need a larger box, some smaller boxes, tubes, or newspaper to put inside. Put treats inside the smaller boxes, and toilet rolls, or wrap them in newspaper and place them inside the box.
I also recommend putting in a nice bone, stuffed Kong, or other chew so they can settle down with it after getting all the other treats. You will probably end up with a bit of a mess of boxes and paper, but well worth it for the enrichment it provides.
Every Australian Shepherd should have a Kong Extreme or Kong Classic. The Kong is a rubber hollow that looks like three different-sized balls stacked on top of each other. It has a small hole at the top and a larger hole at the bottom. This is for safety to prevent it from being stuck due to suction. The larger hole is for stuffing with food and treats.
The Kong Extreme comes in five sizes but for an Aussie, I recommend getting either the L or XL. The Kong is more than just a food stuffing toy. In addition, it is a tough chew toy that can handle the power of a Blue Heeler jaw. Plus it is a great toy for playing fetch. Due to the unique shape and being made of rubber, it bounces in unpredictable directions adding another challenge to the game.
View the Kong Extreme on Amazon.
Nose and Scenting Games
Playing nose games with your Australian Shepherd is the ultimate in sensory enrichment. A dog’s sense of smell is by far their most powerful and used sense. There are numerous games you can play from a simple “which hand is the treat in” game to laying a scent trail for them to track.
Another great nose game for an Australian Shepherd that is out in the yard is to splash around some beef or chicken stock. This will keep them busy for a long time.
Rides in the car
Take your Australian Shepherd out for regular trips in the car. For a dog, car rides provide a huge amount of sensory enrichment from the smells, sounds, and sights. Being in a moving vehicle also feels like hunting for a dog. To learn more about how car rides provide mental stimulation for dogs see here.
Socializing with other dogs
Playing with other dogs is the ultimate social enrichment for a dog. It also helps burn energy and improve their social skills.
Australian Shepherds are generally good with other dogs as long as they have been socialized. Just be aware of them wanting to herd as this can be annoying to other dogs and they may react. For more on Australian Shepherds get along with other dogs see here.
One of the best ways to provide enrichment for a dog is to tap into their instinctive intelligence – that is the job they were bred to do. For Australian Shepherds this is herding.
A herding ball is the next best thing to having actual livestock for them to herd. Playing herding games will actually reduce their desire to herd people and other dogs as herding breeds often do.
As Australian Shepherds will nip the hock of cattle or in this case the ball you need a ball that is strong. They will ruin a softer ball in no time.
These are the herding balls I would recommend for an Australian Shepherd –
The Jolly Ball is made from hard plastic and is nearly indestructible. These can also be filled with water or sand to add weight to give more resistance to the workout.
View the Jolly Ball on Amazon
The Virtually Indestructible Ball is very similar to the Jolly Ball. It comes in a range of sizes to suit your particular dog.
View the Virtually Indestructible Ball on Amazon.
Muffin Tin and Tennis Balls
This is a fun and simple DIY puzzle toy. Get a muffin tin and fill each cup with a few treats. Place a tennis ball in each of the cups. Alternatively, only put treats in a few of the cups to test their nose.
Rolled up towel
Using a towel or tea towel, lay it flat on the ground and spread some treats on it. Then roll it into a tube or fold it in different ways to provide a variety of challenges.
A snuffle mat or snuffle rug is made of fleece and you can hide treats or dry dog food. This really caters to your dog’s natural foraging instinct and provides feeding enrichment.
These are great for fast eaters that you want to slow down and make them work for their food.
View the range of Snuffle Mats on Amazon.
Frozen Dog Treats
A great idea for when the weather is hot. These are best given to them outside as they can get quite messy. Using an ice tray, fill each cube with the selected filling. You can use plain yogurt, peanut butter, or pumpkin puree.
Hopefully, you are able to find some good enrichment ideas from the list above. There are unlimited ways you can provide your Australian Shepherd with mental stimulation and enrichment. Use the list of enrichment categories to come up with new ideas.