Mental stimulation and enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

Do Blue Heelers need a lot of mental stimulation

The Australian Cattle Dog, also known as the Blue or Red Heeler,  is a high-energy herding breed that is highly intelligent. They are ranked 10th for working and obedience intelligence. This top 10 ranking means their minds need to be kept active and stimulated. To learn just how smart a Blue Heeler is see here.

The activities that dogs tend to enjoy the most and provide the best enrichment are the ones that cater to their natural instinctive behaviors. For an Australian Cattle Dog, this is their instinctive herding drive. They also enjoy problem-solving tasks.

Being highly active also means they require plenty of daily exercise to burn off pent-up energy and prevent boredom. Failure to provide for their exercise needs, both physical and mental, can result in behavior problems developing. This can include destructive behavior, nuisance barking, or digging. It may also result in a dog that is hyper all the time. For tips to calm a hyper Blue Heeler see here.

For a full guide and suggestions for the Blue Heeler exercise see here.

Lack of sufficient mental stimulation can also result in a Blue Heeler that follows you everywhere. This is known as velcro dog syndrome. For more on dealing with a velcro Blue Heeler see here.

If your Blue Heeler is left home alone it is crucial to provide lots of ways to entertain and provide enrichment for them. Failure to do so may mean you come home to an unpleasant sight. For more on leaving a Blue Heeler home alone see here.

Types of enrichment for Blue Heelers

Enrichment for dogs can be categorized into six types. These categories should be used as a guideline to help you to create ways to provide your Australian Cattle Dog with mental stimulation and enrichment. For some suggestions and ideas to provide enrichment for your Blue Heeler scroll down.

An enrichment activity may fall into more than one category. Nose games can be considered both sensory and food enrichment.

Ultimately, it is not important to your dog which type of enrichment an activity falls in. They are more for your benefit to help come up with lots of varied tasks and jobs to provide your Blue Heeler with varied mental stimulation.

Environmental Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

The concept of environmental enrichment for animals originated from zoos. It describes how the environment of an animal can be changed to benefit them. In the case of a dog, this is their home.

Animals that are kept in captivity or domesticated, in the case of dogs, live quite different lives to animals out in nature. Animals in nature fill their days with challenging activities such as hunting, scavenging, foraging, and gathering food.

With our busy lifestyles, we fail to provide our dogs with the level of activity and mental enrichment they need, especially if they are home alone a lot. By enriching your dog’s environment you will see an improvement in any behavior problems you may be experiencing and they will be happier in general.

Environmental enrichment can be achieved by incorporating other forms of enrichment in the home. This can include sensory enrichment, toys, and food enrichment.

Sensory Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

Sensory enrichment is used to stimulate a dog’s senses such as sight, sound, and scent. You can provide visual stimulation by allowing them a view of the outside world by opening the curtains or giving them an elevated vantage point in the yard. Sound enrichment can be as simple as leaving the television or radio on for them.

Scent enrichment can be from playing nose games with them or providing interesting scents for them in the yard. An example of this is to make up a jug of beef or chicken stock and splash it around the property. It is best to use a salt-free stock and dilute as much as possible. It doesn’t need to be that much of a strong smell for a dog’s nose to notice.

A ride in the car also provides sensory enrichment for a dog. To learn more about how car rides are mental stimulation for a dog see here.

Social Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

Dogs are pack animals and are naturally social. Being a herding breed also means Blue Heelers work in a group of dogs with a common job to do. They also work for a handler so as a result enjoy human company, particularly their family or pack. Some Blue Heelers are not so good with other dogs and may try to herd and control them. For more on Blue Heelers and other dogs see here.

Social enrichment is the practice of facilitating contact with other dogs, animals, and humans. Provide the opportunity for your Blue Heeler to play and meet other dogs, animals, and especially people. This will help to develop their socialization skills. Learn more about Blue Heeler socialization here.

Spend as much time with your Blue Heeler as you can. This will help strengthen your bond and cater to their psychological need to be social. Dogs that are kept by themselves in the yard or chained up become mentally frustrated and can become anti-social and aggressive.

Cognitive Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

This type of enrichment is about providing your dog the opportunity to problem-solve, learn and figure out things for themselves. Blue Heelers seem to have an incredible ability to learn from previous experience and adapt as required. This is known as adaptive intelligence.

Give them tasks to do such as getting around obstacles or giving them puzzle toys. Teach new commands and tricks on a regular basis. Blue Heelers can learn new things with surprising few repetitions.

Feeding and Food Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

Feeding enrichment encourages a dog’s natural foraging and feeding behavior. Dogs are by nature scavengers and foraging and seeking out food is a very natural and instinctive behavior.

This can be achieved by using puzzle feeders or hiding their food. By hiding treats or bones they are using their natural feeding behaviors and working for their food. Chewing is an excellent mental stimulation for dogs.

It is common practice to feed a dog from a bowl. By doing this you may be missing an excellent opportunity to provide enrichment. If you currently give your dog their meals in a bowl, consider giving them some or even all of their daily food using food dispensing toys, using a snuffle mat, scatter feeding, or hiding it. This is known as work-to-eat projects. See below to learn more.

Toy Enrichment for Australian Cattle Dogs

Toy enrichment is fairly self-explanatory. Provide your dog with a good selection of different types of toys. This can include interactive toys, chew toys, or balls depending on what they like. Constantly providing the same toy and nothing else may result in waning interest over time.

Give your dog new toys from time to time. Or you can alternate their preferred toys. If they have lost interest in a certain toy you can take it away and return it in a week or two to see if they have renewed interest.

For recommended toys for Blue Heelers see here.

Work-to-eat projects

Dogs are opportunist scavengers descended from predators, so the act of seeking and acquiring food is hard-wired into their DNA. Animals tend to prefer working for food rather than eating passively.

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.

For a dog, 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.

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.

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.

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 it with kibble, and put a knob of peanut butter or similar over the open end.
  • 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 …

Suggestions and Ideas for Blue Heeler Enrichment

Enrichment of the walk

The daily walk is much more than getting a little bit of exercise. It can be an excellent mentally stimulating and enriching activity. Your Blue Heeler 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.

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 Blue Heeler 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:

Nose Games: These can be simple games like throwing a toy or a treat into the bush for them to find, or laying a trail of food.

Change: This is a good game to get your dog to focus and be more attentive. Change the speed of the walk going from quick to slow or go in a completely random direction.

Urban Agility: This is where you use the surroundings to provide obstacles for your dog to run around, jump over or on to or crawl under. For example, jumping on and off of a park bench, or walking along a low wall.

Toys: Bring some toys along for a game at the park. See here for recommended toys for Blue Heelers.

Hide and seek: Find places to hide so your dog can seek you out.

The opportunities for enriching the walk are only limited by your creativity.

Herding Balls

One of the best ways to provide enrichment for a working dog like the Blue Heeler is to provide activities that simulate the job they were bred to do. This not only provides physical exercise but taps into their instinctive intelligence providing enrichment for them.

Chances are you don’t have access to cattle for them to herd but using a herding ball is the next best thing. Blue Heelers were bred to chase and control moving objects. Teaching your Heeler to play herding games will actually reduce their desire to herd people and other dogs as herding breeds often do.

Herding large balls is an actual dog sport called Treiball. For the purposes of exercise at home, there are a couple of herding balls I recommend. Because Blue Heelers 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.

See here for recommended herding balls for Blue Heelers.

Learning and Training

Learning new commands and tricks is not just for puppies. Training is one of the best ways to provide cognitive enrichment for a dog. On average a dog can learn 165 different words or signals. Teach them new commands or tricks on a regular basis.

Another popular game is to teach your Blue Heeler the names of their toys and have them get them for you. Once they have this all figured out, add in a new toy they don’t know. Ask for that toy and see how they react. You will be surprised how they are able to get the new toy by a process of elimination.

Chewing Enrichment

Chewing is a natural instinctive behavior for dogs. It has many benefits like keeping them occupied and cleaning their teeth.

It also 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.

Blue Heelers have more chewing power than you may think, so select chew toys that are durable. See here for recommended chew toys for Blue Heelers. Alternatively, you can feed them uncooked bones or a natural chew like deer antlers.

The Kong Extreme

Every Australian Cattle Dog 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 a Blue Heeler, 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 its unique shape and being made of rubber, it bounces in unpredictable directions adding another challenge to the game.

View the Kong Extreme on Amazon.

Puzzle Toys for Blue Heelers

There is a huge selection of puzzle and interactive toys for dogs. These are a great way to test your Australian Cattle Dogs’ adaptive intelligence and challenge the brain.

Puzzle toys usually involve your dog having to figure out how to get the treat out. For a smart dog like the Australian Cattle Dog, it is best to select toys that are rated as intermediate to advanced difficulty. Otherwise, they work it out in a short time. See here for recommended puzzle toys for Blue Heelers.

The Cup Game

Also called the shell game you probably have seen this game before. Get three for four plastic cups. Have your Blue Heeler sit and place a treat under one of the cups. Randomly move the cups around and then have your Heeler choose which cup the treat is under.

Nose and scenting games

When it comes to providing sensory enrichment for a dog, nothing compares to the sense of smell. With approximately 200 million olfactory receptors, Blue Heelers have an excellent sense of smell. Blue Heelers can detect unique odors from 1.2 miles away. 

Playing scenting and nose games with your Blue Heeler is an excellent way to engage their nose. 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.

Enrichment Box

This is a good DIY enrichment activity that can keep your Blue Heeler occupied for a reasonable amount of 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.

Snuffle Mat

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.

Lick Mat

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.

View Lick Mats on Amazon.

Play with other dogs

The best way to provide social enrichment for your Blue Heeler. Provide the opportunity for your Blue Heeler to play and socialize with other dogs whenever possible. This will burn energy and improve their social skills. Some Blue Heelers may not be good with other dogs due to their desire to control and herd other dogs. Make sure they know how to interact in a way that won’t annoy the other dogs. For more on Blue Heelers and other dogs see here.

Alternatively, you can take your Blue Heeler to doggie daycare. It is important to do your research beforehand as not all dogs are suitable for doggie daycare, and vice versa.

Rides in the car

Take your dog 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.

Hopefully, you are able to find some good enrichment ideas from the list above. There are unlimited ways you can provide your Blue Heeler with mental stimulation. Use the list of enrichment categories to come up with new ideas.