I am not a dog trainer nor do I have a career in anything dog-related. I'm just a girl who did mountains of research before getting an ACD.
An Introduction to My Heeler
First and foremost, I wrote an article about my ACD entitled Australian Cattle Dogs: These Little Biters Will Drive You Crazy in 2014. That was six years ago. Yusuke is now an adult dog and one of the best that I've ever known. After my first article, I received a large wave of questions and inquiries on how my training went with him so I wanted to write another article to answer a lot of the common questions I have gotten over the years.
Yusuke is now a happy, six-year-old dog. My husband and I just celebrated his birthday on April 26th, 2020. He has lived in three different states, six different houses, and got a mini golden doodle sister named Ginger in 2016 (photo below). Adding a second dog to our family was a whole other story that I will need to save for another article. He is a well-adjusted dog with (mostly) good behavior and I credit that with his steady training as well as a wonderful, structured doggie daycare he used to attend at "The Howliday Inn" when we lived in Missouri.
Common Training Questions
Below are questions that I get emailed a lot when it comes to difficulties and training with Australian Cattle Dogs/Queensland Heelers. To be clear, I am not making up these questions, every last one of them is one that I have received via email over the years.
Q: My heeler seems to get bored with his toys really easily. What have you done to combat this? Any advice on what to do?
A: Yusuke also got bored with his toys all the time. We basically rotated toys continuously over and over again every day, all day. Additionally, we bought him new toys every few weeks to keep the spark alive (and because he was good at destroying them). I know this sounds like a pain but I actually found it quite fun to watch Yusuke's excitement come over him every time he saw a new toy. It like was a kid's face on Christmas morning each time we brought out one he hadn't seen in a while or bought him a brand new one. We also had to teach him how to fetch, he did not understand it for quite some time when we first started.
Heeler dogs also like to be kept busy with mental activities so even if you can't give him as much of a physical workout as usual one day, heelers also enjoy working their minds with tricks/games. There are lots of these on Amazon and other doggie websites. Yusuke loves when I hide his treats in another room and then tell him to find it. This obviously took a little bit of training. I taught him to stay first. Then he would stay while I hid the treat and would only break his "stay" command when I said "find."
Q: My cattle dog hates treats. How did you train him without the ability to use treats?
A: Yusuke hated any and all treats as a puppy as well. I would attempt to teach him tricks and follow with a treat and he'd spit it out and just walk away. I found that using his dog food actually worked better. I would give him one small pebble at a time in place of a treat. This also was nice because my dog wasn't getting the extra calories that are in treats—he was just getting a bit more dog food. And at one pebble at a time, it's hardly a "treat' but it was to him and that's all that mattered. If I didn't do dog food, I would simply praise him to the point of almost feeling like I was overdoing it. LOTS AND LOTS of "good boy" and "best doggy" and "yayyyyy" type of terminology in a happy sing-song voice. He ate it up! Even more so than the "dog food treats."
P.S. Yusuke still hates all hard or crunchy treats. He is a "snob" who only likes soft treats!
Q: Can I let my dog out of his crate when he is whining? How did you deal with him whining while crate training?
A: For the whining, I never took him out of his crate WHILE he whined. If you do, he will start to learn that whining = getting out of the crate. There were days he would whine for 20 minutes straight and it was hard to get through but then the second he stopped, I would let him out before he started up again. Sometimes, I would have to give him a quick "no reprimand" while he whined and then go back to ignoring him. Remember, ANY attention he is getting while whining (positive or negative) is still attention to him/her. It worked well—he learned that whining never got him out of his crate and he hasn't done it since he was less than a few months old.
I started small—first, simply having the crate in the room for him to get used to and letting him sniff/walk around and investigate it a little on his own. Then came the real work. I would crate him while I was home (not when I was leaving) and leaving him in for 30 seconds, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, etc. and kept building up over a big span of time. Then I did the same thing with me leaving the house and having him in his crate for very short then eventually longer intervals. Also, I never made getting out of the crate a big deal—I would just casually release him, sometimes even passing his crate by first and then walking back. This helped with keeping excitement down when releasing them. I didn't want him to think getting let out was the good part of his crate training.
Yusuke actually LOVES his crate as an adult dog. It's his safe place where he goes anytime he is wanting rest or is scared (he, unfortunately, hates storms and fireworks). Additionally, that crate door stays open all the time unless we were training him to get used to it or putting him in it after he starting coming around to being in his crate and we were leaving the house.
Q: But what about potty training? How did you let him out through the night when he whines to be let out?
A: When potty training, I actually set alarms for myself through the night so I could wake up before him and let him out BEFORE he started whining. I read some advice that said, "Most dogs can hold their bladder for the number of months old they are + 1" and that was super accurate for Yusuke. So having them so young (which, again, you should not be getting a puppy before they are eight weeks but I also know that there are circumstances to every situation—just like when we got Yusuke) makes that really hard because they need let out pretty often then—but it was worth it in the end!!
Q: How did you separate your dog from you without putting him in his crate? I do not want him to associate his crate as a "punishment."
A: This is very smart. I also did not want my dog to think his crate was a bad place. I would not suggest separating him from you in his crate because you want that to be a place where he feels safe. And heelers don't like to be separated from you (unless it's their choice).
I actually had a baby gate in a part of my house and would put him behind it to separate him from my husband and me as a small punishment after him biting/heeling us. I never separated him for long at all—just long enough for him to realize his action warranted that separation (a minute or two tops usually). If you keep him separated too long, he will likely begin whining and then you run into the issue of giving him attention when he's whining again.
Q: How in the absolute world did you get him to stop heeling you? My ankles are bleeding and I'm at my wit's end!
A: My cattle dog stopped biting my husband and me in the ankles when he was about 6 months old (and not even a DAY before). He may have nipped my husband or me once or twice after that but really, the only thing that broke his "heeling" of us was just consistent correction (and the same correction every time) as well as sometimes separating him from us for a very brief period of time after the offense.
We gave him no reaction when he would bite, which was very hard to do, then we would snap our fingers near his ear and sternly say "no" every single time he bit us. And I mean EVERY SINGLE TIME within .5 seconds of it happening. You need to correct him when he is in the act or else he will not know what you're correcting him for and may accidentally associate punishment with you rather than the action. Heelers are "Velcro dogs" so being separated from you is a harsh punishment for them. So I hate to say it but keeping at those corrections is going to be your best bet.
If it continues on, I would suggest finding a dog trainer that has experience with heelers—they are definitely not like other dog breeds so finding someone who's dealt with them before is going to be best.
Q: Do you regret getting a heeler?
A: The short answer: not in a million years. When my heeler was at the three to four month mark, I had a moment or two where I feared my husband and I were in a little over our heads on getting him for a puppy just because he was so crazy and he bit us SO hard and so much and...well, he was insane, for lack of a better word. But after time, he mellowed out (a little haha) and he is seriously one of the best dogs I've ever known. Yes, they are more work than other dogs but they are so incredibly smart, energetic, full of life/love, have such goofy personalities, and insanely loyal.
Exercise is definitely key, as well as making them feel they are a part of your life. It sounds funny but my heeler literally just loves to be doing whatever I am doing. He wants to be a part of it the same way a younger sibling or child would. Even if I'm outside just doing yard work, he just wants to be out there with me while I do it. Or better yet, I have never seen him happier than when we go hiking as a family.
Q: What training did you do with your dog that you now think has made the biggest impact?
A: One, diligent potty training. Two, crate training. Three, it's going to sound strange but one of the best things I did with Yusuke was actually an accident. I didn't realize I'd done it until years later, but before asking something or doing something I would always say, "Alright" before I started my sentence. It had no meaning/intention—just a weird habit I have.
"Alright, what's for dinner?"
"Alright, let's go outside."
"Alright, that's enough."
"Alright, are you ready for bed?"
I had no idea I was doing it—but then one day I noticed I would just say, "Alright" to my husband or a friend in answer to something, and Yusuke would stop in his tracks and give me full attention. This actually became his "settle/attention" word. So now when he is acting a fool or being rambunctious, all I have to do is say, "Alright!" And he will stop what he is doing and listen to me. Again, it was a great accident.
Long story short, teaching them a "settle down" word while training is huge. Although this word works pretty well, there are still times I wish I would have actually trained him more specifically in this way.
Q: Are there any problems that you still have with your heeler after all these years?
A: 100% yes. Don't get me wrong, I trained and trained but I'm nowhere near perfect and Yusuke isn't either, which I mean in the best way. I do not claim to know the answer to some great mystery behind training a cattle dog. For example, I have no idea why but he still hates going potty on a leash. He will be a good boy until AFTER he's gone to the bathroom. Then he will suddenly freak out and start pulling hard on the leash and whipping it around as if he's trying to break free of it. And if I walk away, he wraps his front legs around my legs and keeps pulling. I cannot break him of it.
He is fine on a walk or being attached to a tie-off that's staked in the ground. It's just something about being on that leash when he's doing his business. When it happens, I have found that the best solution is remaining calm. Telling him no (firmly but not angrily) and refusing to move until he has stopped. It's annoying and I do not like having to do it but he does eventually always stop every time.
Another thing that Yusuke struggles with is when he mouths, he can be a little rough. And he doesn't know that yelping means "ouch." I attribute some of this to the fact that we got him before eight weeks so he never got to play with his littermates and learn from his mama that biting elicits a yelp and that means to stop. What helps in these situations is that "alright" word I mentioned above. If I say it, he always stops mouthing my hands immediately. And then usually licks me because licking intensely is his favorite past time—I think this is a byproduct of our training when stopping him from heeling. He would lick us instead sometimes and we'd praise it lavishly because anything was better than those razor-sharp teeth of his.
Q: Sometimes, when my heeler has spotted something or someone, he barks like crazy and nothing I do stops him. Does this happen to you?
A: Heelers have an extremely strong natural prey drive—this is the "dingo" in them that makes them super alert to all noises/movements/sounds and likely to chase those things—a trainer that we sometimes consulted for help with our heeler told us that most dogs can be redirected when this drive is "activated" but that once a heeler is activated to a certain point, you've basically passed the point of no return unless you remove them from the situation completely.
The most helpful tip we were given in these situations (they do happen to us from time to time) is to catch your dog before they begin barking by watching the action of their ears. It sounds funny but once you notice it, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about
Ears tilted back = docile, relaxed
Ears straight up = alert, possibly about to react to a stimulus
Ears straight up and tilted forward = "point of no return"
The key was to redirect his attention before the third ear description. If we did not catch it, we were told that the best course of action is to physically separate his line of vision from whatever has activated this shift of attitude/focus. So I would literally stand in front of him, between Yusuke and whatever he was barking at, and he would actually stop and look up at me instead. Sometimes, he will try to look around me but I just keep moving to obscure his field of vision to whatever he is barking at and he eventually stops or we take him elsewhere so he can calm down.
Q. I read your article. Should I get a heeler puppy if I live in a "X," and have "Y" amount of time to play with him, etc?
A. I get this question all the time from people asking me if they should get a heeler puppy and then telling me what square foot their house is or how close they are to a dog park. I always tell them the same thing—research the breed. Decide if the lifestyle they will need fits your own. Unfortunately, someone saying they have the time and energy for this type of dog may very well not actually have that time. Saying you will do something and actually doing it are two very different things. It's best to just evaluate your own needs and wants and decide if this particular dog breed fits into that or not.
When it comes down to it, it all depends on what you are willing to put into it. Someone in an apartment that has plenty of time to play, walk, hike, fetch, etc. with their heeler may do just fine. Having a house with a fenced-in backyard or a farm in the country with acreage are factors that could make taking care of a heeler easier. But if the person on those properties is a couch potato whose only activity is pausing Netflix to grab more popcorn, then that type of lifestyle doesn't work with a heeler either.
So the real question is, are you willing to put in the work? If yes, then who am I to say differently? You know yourself better than some random person on the Internet.
I hope this article was helpful. I am also hoping it will save the time of so many of you sending me emails with the same questions. Please feel free to read my original article if you happen to stumble upon this one first! The link is just below here.
Original Article About ACDs
- Honesty From an Australian Cattle Dog Owner: These Little Biters Can Drive You Crazy
ACDs are a lot of work and commitment. I knew this when I got my ACD, but none of the books prepared me as well as I'd hoped. Our dog's bite-fueled personality is a mainstay.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Katherine Shaffer
Peggy on July 27, 2020:
What you’ve said in your article is spot on! I have a 6 month old Border Collie/Blue Healer mix and our experience has been almost identical. He’s is finally settling down, but months 3 to 6 were extremely rough. Murphy was six weeks old when we got him and I’ve definitely learned the importance of waiting until they are at least 8 weeks old before they are removed from the litter. We started private training classes when Murphy was 5 months old. They were expensive, but worth every penny. We learned that we needed the training on how to meet his needs just as much as he needed training on how to be a good dog. We still have a long way to go, but Murphy’s transformation has been amazing! He’s a great dog and a very important and loved part of our family.
Laura1984 on July 17, 2020:
Totally agree regarding the apartment vs. house. We got our heeler while living in an 800 sq foot apartment. While we are moving into a house with a yard soon, the point is are you willing to walk, exercise or hike with your dog? Then it doesn't really matter where you live. Unless you live on an acre + no yard is going to suffice for a heeler. The only inconvenience of having an apartment for us was not opening the door to let him potty. That meant every time he had to potty taking him down a flight of stairs and a half a block away to a patch of grass, which does get annoying after a while when you could just open the door to your yard instead (something we are greatly looking forward to as we are moving into a house next month). Getting a heeler involves a MINIMUM of 4-5 miles of exercise per day, so unless you have several acres, house vs. apartment is kind of moot, and even with that acreage heelers need direction from their owner. Our heeler doesn't really go out and play by himself like some other dogs do. We actively play with him (he loves tug of war) and has learned fetch, I think because he is part lab.
Our best training seems to involve some type of agility. No other dog I have ever owned learned and enjoyed tricks as much as our heeler. With his reactivity (which is high - he is intelligent and wants to "guard" the herd) we have used redirection making circles moving in the direction away from the distraction.
We DO NOT use distractions, such as random dogs or people walking by, for the purpose of "socialization", as many naive dog owners do. If you do that, you are failing as the pack leader to "protect" him from THREATS. For socialization, I would recommend guided introductions to family and friends, or group training classes with other dogs, where the trainer is guiding the interaction and monitoring it closely.