The Australian Shepherd is a herding breed native to the United States. It is known as the Australian Shepherd because it may have been descended from dogs brought to the United States from Australia, although it is unclear. The Australian Shepherd was developed to herd cattle and sheep, but has also become known as a rodeo participant and family companion. The Australian Shepherd is commonly referred to as the Aussie, but is also known as the North American Australian Shepherd, American Shepherd, California Shepherd, New Mexico Shepherd, Rodeo Dog, Spanish Shepherd, Pastor Dog, Wigglebutt, Velcro Dog and Bob-Tail.
There are few breeds with as disputed a history as the Australian Shepherd. The Australian Shepherd was largely developed in a time before written records were kept of dog breeding. Additionally, this dog was developed by working ranchers and stockmen who only cared about a dog’s working ability, not its pedigree. Even the origin of the breed’s name is disputed, as it was entirely developed in the United States, not Australia.
It is widely believed that the origins of the Australian Shepherd trace back to the 16th or 17th century when the Spanish first established a presence in what is now the American West. These Spanish missionaries and ranchers brought their livestock with them to places such as Texas and California; animals such as Spanish sheep, horses, and cattle that were already well-adapted to life on the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain, Portugal and Andorra), which has a climate very similar to many parts of the American West. As is the case around the world, the Spanish needed herding dogs to work with their stock, especially sheep. To do so, the Spanish brought their herding dogs along as well. These dogs were adapted to their new environment through both natural selection and deliberate breeding.
The Spanish are known to have favored more aggressive herding dogs that were capable of defending their charges from predators in addition to herding them. Some of the Spanish settlers are thought to have been Basques, a people native to Northeastern Spain and Southwestern France in the area of the Pyrenees Mountains who speak a language unrelated to any other known tongue. Since time immemorial, Basque shepherds kept a small herding breed known as the Berger Pyrenees or Pyrenean Shepherd. This breed is one of the oldest known herding breeds, and is many hundreds, and perhaps many thousands, of years old. Many have come to believe that the Pyrenean Shepherd formed the basis for the Australian Shepherd, as the breeds share many of the same physical characteristics, including being frequently found in blue merle and the gene mutation for a natural bobtail.
Because of the relative scarcity of herding dogs in the early American West, the Spanish would have crossed different varieties together to create a breed with the desired characteristics. It is highly likely that they also crossed their dogs with those owned by Native Americans as well. This may have resulted in herding dogs that were better adapted to local conditions. Recent genetic evidence has indicated that a substantial portion of the Australian Shepherd’s ancestry comes from dogs that crossed the Bering Land Bridge with the first Native Americans, meaning that crosses between Spanish and Native dogs were probably commonplace.
Unfortunately what we know about the dogs of early Native American societies is very limited. We know that dogs differed from one region to the next, the dogs of the Northern Tribes, the Hare and Sioux type native dog was very wolf-like in appearance and in the Western Regions, tribes like the Navajo and Comanche developed the smaller and more dog-like Plains Village Dog. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought horses and other domesticated animals in the mid 1500′s, dogs were the only beast of burden utilized by Native Americans and played a vital role in their lives and cultures. We also know that the relationship between Indians and dogs was already so old and so well established by the time the Spaniards arrived that the Indians already had oral legend to describe how the dog came to accompany man. From the Pact of Fire- A Lakota Sioux Legend:
When the world was created, First Man and First Woman struggled to stay alive and warm through the first winter. First Dog struggled also. Deep in the winter, First Dog gave birth to her pups. Each night, she huddled in the brush of the forest,longingly watching the fire which kept First Man and First Woman warm.
First Winter was severe, so cold that First Dog dared not leave her pups to search for food to fill her own belly, fearing that her pups would freeze to death in her absence. She curled around them, but the wind was bitter. Her belly shrank with hunger, and soon she had no milk. The smallest pup perished, and First Dog felt her own life draining away as she struggled to care for the remaining pups. Fearing for the fate of the others, she knew she had no choice but to approach the fire and ask First Woman and First Man to share their food and the fire's warmth.
Slowly, she crept to the fire and spoke to First Woman who was heavy with child. "I am a mother," said First Dog, "and soon you will be a mother too. I want my little ones to survive, just as you will want your little one to survive. So I will ask you to make a pact."
First Woman and First Man listened. "I am about to die. Take my pups. You will raise them and call them Dog. They will be your guardians. They will alert you to danger, keep you warm, guard your camp, and even lay down their life to protect your life and the lives of your children. They will be companions to you and all your generations, never leaving your side, as long as Mankind shall survive. In return, you will share your food and the warmth of your fire. You will treat my children with love and kindness, and tend to them if they become ill, just as if they were born from your own belly. And if they are in pain, you will take a sharp knife to their throat and end their misery. In exchange for this, you will have the loyalty of my children and their offspring until the end of time.
First Man and First Woman agreed. First Dog went to her nest in the brush, and with the last of her strength, one by one, she brought her pups to the fire. As she did so, First Woman gave birth to First Child, wrapped her in Rabbit skins, and nestled First Child among the pups by the fireside. First Dog lay down by the fire, licked her pups, then walked away to die under the stars.
Before she disappeared into the darkness, she turned and spoke once more to First Man, "My children will honor the pact for all generations. But if Man breaks this pact, if you or your children's children deny even one Dog food, warmth, a kind word or a merciful end, your generations will be plagued with war, hunger, and disease, and so shall this remain until the pact is honored again by all Mankind." With this, First Dog entered the night and returned in spirit to the Creator.
Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, the Spanish would establish New Spain (Spanish: Virreinato de Nueva España), a viceroyalty of the Spanish colonial empire that at its peak included nearly all of North America south of Canada: all of present-day Mexico and Central America (except Panama), and most of the United States west of the Mississippi River and also the Floridas. Throughout the remainder of the 15th century up until the beginning of the 19th century Spanish settlers would continue to arrive in and influence the America west. It was at this time that direct Spanish influence on the American west was severed through the Mexican War for Independence (1810–1821) resulting in the formation of the new country of Mexico from much of the individual territory that had previously comprised New Spain. This conflict would be followed by the Mexican–American War (1846-1848), as a result of the decision by the United States to annex the Republic of Texas (which Mexico still considered to be a part of its territory) in 1845, on the heels of the Texas Revolution whereby Texas claimed its independence from Mexico.
The conflicts would end in 1848, with the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and resulted in the United States acquiring or eliminating all competing claims on the land from Louisiana in the East to the Pacific Ocean in the West. Most of this land, although it was not densely populated, still contained thousands of Spanish and Mexican settlers who would continue to breed their dogs, many of which were highly sought after by American settlers due to their herding abilities and suitability to the region.
It should be noted the Mexican herding dogs of this time not only excelled in their given profession of herding and protecting their charges, they were also larger, and considerably more aggressive than their English counterparts, and in many ways were viewed as far superior to the herding dogs of English descent in use by American westerners. William Youatt, a 19th century veterinarian by trade and probably one of that centuries most knowledgeable and respected authors, lecturers and authorities on domestic animals wrote in his work The Dog-A nineteenth-century dog-lovers' manual, a combination of the essential and the esoteric (1852) that:
“In the care of sheep, each dog not only supplies the place of two or three men, but .…renders such assistance as cannot be obtained from any other source.
“The shepherds of Mexico lead a life not unlike the patriarchs of old, shifting about from day to day, watching their immense flocks, attended only by a few dogs, who have the entire control of the sheep, keeping them from straying away, and not only defending them from the blood-thirsty wolf, but even attacking, if necessary, the skulking savage.
“These dogs of Mexico are represented as being much larger than the English variety, and no doubt are the descendants of the Spanish shepherd dog, so highly prized in protecting the Merino flocks from the wolves that infest the mountainous parts of Spain, most frequented by the herds during the summer season.
“These dogs are the same breed as those engaged by the philanthropic monks of St. Bernard in hunting up the benumbed traveler when sinking from exhaustion, or already overwhelmed by the sudden rushing of an avalanche into some one of the mountain passes.
“The original Spanish shepherd dog is a very powerful animal, and even those of Mexico, when armed with spiked collars, are a sufficient match for the largest wolves. Mr. Kendall mentions having met on the grand prairie with a flock of sheep numbering seventeen thousand, which immense herd was guarded by a very few men, assisted by a large number of noble dogs, which appeared gifted with the faculty of keeping them together.
‘There was no running about, no barking or biting in their system of tactics; on the contrary, they were continually walking up and down, like faithful sentinels, on the outer side of the flock, and should any sheep chance to stray from his fellows, the dog on duty at that particular post would walk gently up, take him carefully by the ear, and lead him back to the fold. Not the least fear did the sheep manifest at the approach of these dogs, and there was no occasion for it.’
“This account coincides with the remarks of Mr. Trinner upon this dog in old Spain; and Mr. Skinner very justly remarks, that the Mexican sheep-dog has not his equal in any part of the world, except, perhaps, in his native country, and that the Scotch or English dog sinks into insignificance when compared with him.
“A flock of a thousand sheep in Spain requires the attendance of two men and an equal number of dogs, who never for a moment quit their charge, watching them without intermission day and night. The great inferiority of the English dogs, may be attributed, perhaps, to their want of care in training and bringing up, which is considered the most essential, and actually the foundation of all their future usefulness with the Mexicans. The pups when first born, are taken from the bitch, and put to a sucking ewe, already deprived of her own lamb. For several days the ewe is confined with the pups in the shepherd's hut, and either from force, or an instinctive desire to be relieved of the contents of the udder, she soon allows the little strangers to suck, and in the course of a few days more, becomes quite reconciled to the change, and exhibits a great degree of affection for her foster children, who, knowing no other parentage, becomes thus early engrafted into the general community, and returns their early kindness , would likely think of nothing else than filling his belly with the cream.
Not so his initiated brother: he is bred at home to far higher principles of honour. I have known such lie night and day among from ten to twenty pails full of milk, and never once break the cream of one of them with the tip of his tongue, nor would he suffer cat, rat, or any other creature to touch it. While, therefore, the cur is a nuisance, he is very useful in his way, and we would further plead for him, that he possesses a great deal of the sagacity and all the fidelity of the choicest breed of dogs."
At this time, the vast majority of American herding dogs in the west, often called shepherds, were old-fashioned Collie-type dogs that had accompanied flocks from the Midwest and East; their forefathers having arrived in America with settlers from the British Isles. It was not at all uncommon for these early western Collies and shepherd dogs to arrive as imports directly from Britain as well. Originating hundreds or even thousands of years ago in the British Isles, Collies first arrived in American east in the 17th Century with the first English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish colonists. These dogs eventually became an entirely new breed, colloquially known as Collies or English Shepherds. The collie of this time was a strong, multi-purpose working dog with an ‘upright’ working posture that relied on body positioning and bark (their voice) for stock control. This as opposed to the intense silent working style of breeds like the Border Collie which typically work with their front shoulders low to the ground while maintaining constant eye contact with the stock. These original working collies were usually blue merle or black with white and/or tan markings. In her book The Popular Collie (1957), Margaret Osborne provides insight into the coloration of these early dogs:
“. . . the blue merle colour is one of the very oldest in the Collie breed and blue dogs were frequently seen on farms as companions and workers. Possibly this was the reason -- because they were considered ‘common’ -- that merle Collies almost entirely disappeared from the show-ring . . . and if it had not been for the efforts of a few stalwarts who, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, set about resuscitating this colour, we should almost certainly have no blue merle Collies today.”
After their arrival in the American west these early Collie-type dogs were surely crossed with existing Spanish/Native American dogs. These early crosses, along with the later arrival of other pure Collie-type dogs, would form the foundation of the Australian Shepherds ancestry. There is considerable disagreement as to whether the Australian Shepherd should attribute the majority of its ancestry to the earlier Spanish herding dogs or the later American Collies, but both almost surely played a major role. Partially as a result of this uncertainty, the Australian Shepherd is sometimes classified as a member of the Collie family, but not always.
In 1849, the California Gold Rush enticed thousands of people from all over the world to immigrate to California creating a huge demand for mutton (sheep meat) and wool. Sheep that were previously worth a dollar a head in the Golden State rose to fifteen dollars a head a few months after gold was discovered. At that time, the Trans-Continental Railroad had not been finished and it was exceedingly difficult to transport anything, especially livestock, across the Rocky Mountains to California’s gold fields. The two thousand plus mile journey from the American Midwest to California would typically take four to six-months to complete. The cost just in food for four people for six months was about $150. The cost of other supplies, livestock, wagons etc. per person could easily double this cost. In the 1840s, $150.00 represented about 150 days worth of work or half a year’s typical salary so most of the poor were excluded from travel unless they got a job herding and guarding the livestock or driving a wagon.
Not only was it expensive an expensive undertaking, it was a dangerous one as well. Sheepmen on the trail had to worry about flooded rivers, stampedes in storms, bandits, Indians, poisonous weeds, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and bears. Their job was made more difficult because sheep are often easily panicked temperamental creatures; easy going one minute, obstinate the next. To drive these bands of sheep, which often totaled three to seven thousand head, experienced hands and droving dogs were required. Many of the men were Basques from France and Spain that had arrived originally in hopes of striking it rich with gold and were instead forced to turn to ranching as initially foreigners were not allowed to mine; others were of Portuguese or Mexican origin. The dogs which undoubtedly contributed heavily to the Australian Shepherds ancestry were typically Collie-type dogs from the American east, Shepherding dogs of Spanish descent or crosses of both.
The difficulties of the overland route meant that it was often cheaper and easier, to import sheep, people and other goods into the area by sea rather than by land. Shipping boomed and the amount of vessels entering the area skyrocketed from 25 vessels a year between 1825 to 1847, to 793 ships in 1849, and 803 ships in 1850. Consequently during the 1840’s and 1850’s, San Francisco was the recipient of a large influx of imported sheep from Australia, which at this time was already one of the world’s major sheep and mutton producers. Many of these vessels also brought along herding dogs, used to control the sheep during the often difficult loading and unloading procedure on both sides of the Pacific.
In the April 21, 1858 issue of the Alta California newspaper , a notice appeared:
“The ship Eli Whitney, recently arrived from Sydney, brought two dozen well trained Australian shepherd dogs, whose valuable services will be henceforth applied to tending sheep in some of the ranches in this section of the country. They have sustained the voyage without accident, and landed in fine condition. The Australian shepherd dog is celebrated for his courage, sagacity and powers of endurance. He has long curly hair, is of medium size and resembles somewhat a year old Newfoundland dog, but with a head rather more like the cur than the latter. They attracted considerable attention as they were driven up town in charge of two or three English sailor boys. Wonderful stories are related of the faithfulness of these dogs, and their almost human intelligence.”
In September 24, 1859, the San Joaquin Republican newspaper reported:
“Australian Shepherd Dogs – A number of these shaggy and intelligent creatures, says the San Francisco Times, lately arrived from Australia, to be employed in the southern country to tend sheep. They are remarkably sagacious and powerful and hardy, but not handsome. Their powers of endurance and faithfulness are the theme of numerous anecdotes.”
The importation of additional dogs is mentioned in the March 31, 1860 issue:
“Australian Shepherd Dogs -- The Alta of Tuesday says: 'A gentleman of this city [San Francisco] has recently imported a couple of shepherd dogs from Australia, which are to be used hence forth in tending sheep in the interior. They are celebrated for their strength, docility, courage and intelligence; and as the rearing of sheep is becoming a great business in California, the services of these animals may come into general requisition.'”
These imported Australian dogs, many of which were of the Collie-type, would have been the ancestors of the modern Australian Kelpie and Australian Cattle Dog. Additionally some of the Australian stock men that arrived were Basques who had settled Australia from Spain generations earlier. These men likely brought additional Pyrenean Shepherds with them. The working qualities and toughness of both types of sheepdog, the Basque and the Australian, almost surely impressed Western stockmen, who certainly would have crossed these dogs into the existing American herding lines.
It is almost universally agreed that the Australian Shepherd got its name around this time, but there are substantial disagreement as to why. Some say that in the American west the descendants of dogs bought from Australia were such excellent workers that they became known as Australian Shepherds. It is also theorized that in the American west, the name was applied broadly to describe any Collie-type or shepherding breed imported from Australia; similarly in the eastern U.S., shepherd-type dogs arriving from England and other areas of Britain came to be called “English Shepherds,” although there was no actual breed in England with that name. Others claim that since so many of the Australian herding dogs had merle coats, that merle colored dogs then became known as Australians irrespective of the actual background or breed of the individual dog. As merle came to predominate the entire breed, the name Australian Shepherd would in turn come to identify the entire breed, not just merle dogs. A final theory posits that the dog is not named for Australian dogs at all, but rather the Australian sheep. This theory holds that the ranchers used the dog to herd the sheep imported from Australia, and that it became so closely associated with them that it became known as the Australian Shepherd.
It is also around this time that the trait for a naturally short tail (bobtail) began to be favored in the breed. The natural bobtail is the result of a natural mutation of the T-box transcription factor T gene (C189G) and is responsible for the natural bobtail in 17 modern dog breeds. It is estimated that 50-75% of modern Australian Shepherd litters are born NBT (Natural Bobtail.) It is theorized that the mutation was introduced into Australian Shepherd and all modern herding breeds without tails from crosses with, and the ancestors of, the Pyrenean Shepherds of the Basque people. Although most of the historical record has been lost to time it is believed that the ancestors of the modern Pyrenean Shepherd developed alongside those of the Merino Sheep of Spain. Noted for its fine wool as early as the 12th century, Spain built up a wool monopoly around the Merino that would last into the 16th century, with wool commerce to Flanders and England being a source of income for Castile in the Late Middle Ages. So precious was the Merino to Spain that prior to the 18th century the penalty for exporting them was death.
The Spanish cultivation of sheep would create a need for the ancient Molosser type protection dogs of the area to be adapted to both herd sheep from one location to the next and protect them predators such as wolves. The Basque who inhabited the western Pyrenees Mountains (an area that spans the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast) are believed to have been one of the first to begin serious sheepdog breeding efforts resulting in the eventual creation of the Pyrenean Shepherd. As the breed became more established, Basque shepherds wanting to further improve and refine it began to selectively breed dogs based on eye color, coat and taillessness. The belief being that a bobtailed dog with one blue and one brown eye made the best herding dog, and they selected for the double coat which made them more weather resistant and hardy. The result being that these traits became firmly imprinted into the breed. With the fall of the Spanish wool monopoly, Merinos having become well-known around the world for their hardiness and quality wool were rapidly imported by other countries and wherever the sheep went so went the Basque Shepherd with their dogs. Some went to England, but it was in Australia where they would really take hold, the first arriving in 1797. Thus the bobtailed mutation was introduced into, and would influence the creation of dog breeds in these countries; dog breeds that would later find themselves on American shores through immigration along the east coast of America and as a result of the aforementioned California Gold Rush and resulting flood of imported Australian Merino Sheep.
By the time of the American Civil War the mutation had been implanted into a number of herding breeds such as the then known English Shepherd and was not uncommon in the early Rough and Smooth “show” Collies. Originally published in Washington in 1924, The Collie, co-authored by O.P. Bennett and C. H. Wheeler states:
“At these early shows [in the 1860s] it was by no means an uncommon sight to see placed for competition specimens that were tailless, and others with half-tails; but the Old English Sheepdog was rarely presented.
“A fact that is little known by the younger generation of Collie fanciers is that at the period afore-mentioned there existed quite a large number of sheep dogs exact representations of the Collie, except that some were tailless, and others half-tailed.
“In breeding from dogs of this stamp tailless, half-tailed and full-tailed puppies frequently appeared in the same litter.”
Over the next few decades , the Australian Shepherd would be bred almost exclusively for working ability by working stockmen. They developed a breed that was highly intelligent and trainable, as well as being hardy and rugged. In particular, dogs bred in the vicinity of Boulder, Colorado came to be especially prized for their working abilities. The resulting breed, while highly skilled in its given profession, was more variable in appearance than is common for modern dogs, although the Australian Shepherd was probably never as variable as the Border Collie or English Shepherd. The breed would eventually gain widespread acceptance while becoming the primary working stock dog of the American West.
As the breed gained acceptance references to the Australian Shepherd would begin to appear with some regularity in various publications. In 1881, a newspaper article tells the story of a shipwreck off the coast of Oregon in which a number of the crew perished and found among the bodies washed up on the beach was a half-grown Australian Shepherd puppy. There is reference to an 'Australian Shepherd' making an appearance in a dog show in Idaho in 1905. In 1911, among the lost and found ads of Woodland, California there is a plea from a desperate owner hoping to find a lost stub tailed blue Australian Shepherd dog ; that same year an article posted in Reno, Nevada hopes to find a missing black and white Australian Shepherd puppy. Breeders also begin posting ads, and in the first quarter of the 20th century Australian Shepherd puppies can be found listed for sale in various newspapers from California to Alberta, Canada.
Because the Australian Shepherd was so skilled at working with cattle and horses, rodeo operators began to use the breed both to herd and control the livestock when it was not in the arena and to drive broncos and bulls that had bucked off their riders back into a corral. Eventually, Australian Shepherds began to participate directly in rodeos themselves, and would often perform tricks or herding demonstrations. Aiding the breeds rise in popularity was a blue merle Australian Shepherd with a long tail named Bunk, (also called Bunkie and Bunky Bean); owned by cowboy movie star Jack Hoxie, Bunk would appear in over fourteen movies from 1924 to 1932. Bunk, born on ship while being imported from Australia was the only pup to survive the journey. When asked about Bunk for an interview in 1963, Hoxie said “Those sailors took care of that pup, and he came in to San Diego and was delivered to me at Universal Studios. Well, I took the pup and put a good trainer on him. That pup was old Bunk.”
Bunk would gain a lot of attention and soon found himself being featured in newspapers and magazines as well. The June, 19th, 1924 issue of the Los Angeles Times features a picture of Bunk holding a sheaf of letters in his mouth, with the caption: “Dog Stars of Filmland – First Annual Film-Stars’ Dog Show will be held at Germain’s, June 23-24-25. Two of the entries are ‘Omar,’ a Harlequin Dane, shown with his owner, Norman Kerry, and ‘Bunk,’ an Australian Shepherd Dog, owned by Jack Hoxie.” Just over a year later the August 8, 1925 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Bunk would appear again, this time in an article titled, “Dogdom Royalty Welcomed Here,”. This article hailed the arrival of famed Belgian Sheepdog, Count Muro, who like Bunk had been imported to the U.S. to work in the movies. The article features a photograph of Bunk greeting the Belgian dog with a large key in his mouth (the “key to the kennel,”) while two other movie dogs of the era, German Shepherd dogs, Rex and Old Dutch, look on. Count Muro, actually a Belgian Tervuren, was described in the article as having belonged to the King of Belgium, although this was not true as he was actually bred by a Belgian army officer. Bunk would live to be 18 years old, finally passing away while on the road with Hoxie; he was buried in Beaver Creek in Texas.
Although the owners of early to mid 20th century Australian Shepherds had no interest in breeding their dogs for looks or entering them in dog shows, they did see the benefit of keeping an organized registry and stud book to validate the ancestries of individual dogs and to promote the breeding of the highest quality working dogs. From the 1940’s to the 1990’s, a number of Australian Cattle Dog registries were founded, among the most prominent were the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), the National Stock Dog Registry (NSDR) and the American Stock Dog Registry (ASDR). In 1979, the Australian Shepherd was granted full recognition with the United Kennel Club (UKC). The UKC which focuses primarily on working dogs, has long been favored by breeders of working, herding, and hunting dogs over the American Kennel Club (AKC) which is primarily dedicated to conformation shows. Because of its use in rodeos, the Australian Shepherd was featured in several Disney films, including Run Appaloosa Run and Stub: The Greatest Cow Dog in the West. The breed’s appearance in these films, as well as its many appearances in rodeos, would serve to further increase interest in the Australian Shepherd.
In 1968, Mrs. Doris Cordova of California began a breeding program to create a miniature version of the Australian Shepherd, which she intended to become an entirely separate breed. Her program was successful, but the resulting dogs have caused confusion ever since. To this day the relationship between the Australian Shepherd and the Miniature Australian Shepherd is still very confusing and has yet to be entirely sorted out. Some claim that the two dogs are simply different varieties of the same breed. Others claim that they are different breeds entirely. There are also those who don’t even consider them to be different varieties. For a number of years, both the UKC and the AKC treated both as the same breed with no distinction between varieties, although this is beginning to change. The issue has been further complicated by substantial disagreements among Miniature Australian Shepherd fanciers as to the correct name for the dog, as well as the recent development of Toy and Tea Cup sized Australian Shepherds.
In the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s, the AKC became interested in granting full recognition to the Australian Shepherd. Breeders and fanciers were greatly divided on the issue, as were the different Australian Shepherd registries. Many feared that AKC recognition would do irreparable harm to the working abilities of the Australian Shepherd, as breeders of AKC Australian Shepherds would focus on conforming the breed to meet an appearance standard rather than the dog’s original working purpose. There was also great fear that AKC recognition would lead to increased popularity and poor quality commercially bred (puppy mill) Australian Shepherds. The majority of Australian Shepherd fanciers were probably against AKC recognition and the ASCA openly opposed the measure. The club issued several objections to the AKC. However, the AKC granted full recognition to the Australian Shepherd in 1991. At which point the United States Australian Shepherd Association (ASASA) became the official parent club with the AKC. Some other registries and breeders decided not to participate, and there remain a large number of purebred Australian Shepherds that are not registered with the AKC.
Since AKC recognition, some of the fears of those who had opposed it have been realized. Over the past two decades, the Australian Shepherd has risen dramatically in popularity, both in the United States and abroad. Beginning in the early 2000’s, the Australian Shepherds became one of the trendiest breeds among suburbanites looking for a family companion. Almost every year saw substantially more Australian Shepherds being recognized than the year before. By 2010, the Australian Shepherd ranked 26th out of 167 total breeds in terms of AKC registrations, ahead of such well known breeds as Basset Hounds, Collies, and Weimaraners. During this time, a number of commercial and inexperienced breeders began breeding Australian Shepherds. Many of these breeders had either no idea how to improve the breed or no interest in doing so. Their primary motivation was the profit to be made by selling valuable purebred Australian Shepherd puppies. These dogs often suffer from health problems and have severe behavioral problems, especially ones that come from factory breeding operations known as puppy mills. Additionally, there is evidence that breeding for conformation and companionship has done substantial damage to the Australian Shepherd’s working abilities. Most working ranchers will not use Australian Shepherds from AKC lines, instead preferring those dogs from purely working registries. There is also some evidence that the Australian Shepherd is being replaced by other dogs, especially the Australian Kelpie (a true native of Australia) and working Border Collies (whose breeders were so opposed to AKC recognition that most registries kick out dogs that achieve AKC recognition).
In recent years, the Australian Shepherd has become known as a family companion, and is increasingly found in that role. Additionally, the dog is one of the top competitors at a number of canine competitions, including agility and obedience trials, fly ball, and Frisbee. Some Australian Shepherds have also found employment as police dogs, sniffer dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, therapy dogs, and service dogs for the handicapped. Additionally, a large number of Australian Shepherds are still working stock dogs. There currently appears to some separation between AKC registered Australian Shepherds and ones from working registries, although nearly the extent as has happened with the Irish Setter, Border Collie, and Jack Russell Terrier. It is very possible that the two may eventually separate into distinct breeds, but there does not appear to be a strong sentiment to do so at this time. There is also a growing movement to formally separate the Miniature Australian Shepherd and the Australian Shepherd into two distinct breeds. Many registries (although not all) already do so, and the AKC has taken the first steps towards doing so as well, placing the Miniature American Shepherd in its Foundation Stock Service category.
The Australian Shepherd is generally similar to other Collie-type herding dogs, but has a distinctive coat and tail. The Australian Shepherd is among the few truly medium-sized dogs. Most males stand between 20 and 23 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 50 and 65 pounds. Most females stand between 18 and 21 inches tall at the shoulder and weight between 40 and 55 pounds. The Australian Shepherd is slightly longer than it is tall but is otherwise very well-balanced. This breed is very sturdy and is somewhat more heavily-built than most similar breeds. An Australian Shepherd should never appear thick or stocky, however. Most of the Australian Shepherd’s body is heavily obscured underneath its coat, but this is a very muscular and athletic breed. The tail of the Australian Shepherd is one of the breed’s most important characteristics. In order to be shown in the United States, Australian Shepherds must have a bob tail. Many breed members are born with a very short tail, and those that don’t are almost always docked. If left undocked, the tail of an Australian Shepherd can be quite long and covered with long hair.
The head of an Australian Shepherd is proportional to the size of the dog’s body and either flat or slightly rounded. The muzzle of the Australian Shepherd is of average length. The muzzle tapers slightly from base to tip, and is rounded at the end. Australian Shepherds usually have dark noses but the exact shade and color vary depending on the dog’s coat color. The triangular ears of the Australian Shepherd are of moderate size and are slightly rounded at the tip. According to breed standards, the ears should fold down to the sides when the dog is at rest and face forwards when it is at attention. Many Australian Shepherds, especially those from working lines, are born with semi-prick or fully prick ears, and some dogs have ears of two different types, for example one folded ear and one prick ear. The eyes of the Australian Shepherd are famously beautiful and expressive. Australian Shepherds may have brown, amber, or blue eyes, and many dogs have eyes of different colors or multiple colors in the same eye. Sometimes the blue eyes are called glass eyes. The overall expression of the Australian Shepherd is one of great intelligence and intensity.
The coat of the Australian Shepherd has two layers, a softer denser undercoat and a longer, weather resistant outer coat. The Australian Shepherd’s coat is moderately long and of medium texture. The coat is either straight or slightly wavy. The hair is considerably shorter on the head, face, ears, the fronts of the forelegs, and the back legs below the hocks. The backs of the forelegs are moderately feathered, as is the tail if left natural. This breed does have a slight mane and rough, which are more pronounced on males. Australian Shepherds come in four colors, blue merle, red merle, black, and red. These colors should be quite bright and distinct. All four color varieties may or may not have white markings and/or tan points. Merle dogs usually darken with age. Occasionally, Australian Shepherds are born in other colors or patterns. Such dogs are severely faulted in the show ring but are no different in the field or as a pet.
Although they are very different breeds, the temperaments of both the Miniature Australian Shepherd and Australian Shepherd are in many ways identical, but individual dogs of either size may exhibit substantial differences in temperament. Australian Shepherds are very people-oriented dogs. They want to be around their families at all times, and are a breed that can exibit destructive tendencies if not properly trained and acclimated to long days alone, which can manifest itself in the form of separation anxiety. Some Australian Shepherds are fawningly affectionate with those that they know well while others are fairly reserved. Some breed members, especially those from working lines, tend to become one person dogs. They will follow their owner everywhere not letting them get out of sight and dismissing all others, which has led to this breed affectionately becoming known as a velcro dog. Most breed members, however, will form equally strong bonds with all members of a family.
Almost all Australian Shepherds are reserved with strangers, and many are quite guarded. Australian Shepherds are known for being very selective in their social interactions, not tending to seek contact with strangers, or easily accepting a stranger as a friend. In many cases an adult Aussie will ignore a stranger or their attempts at affection entirely, making the dog appear arrogant or rude. Do not take Aussie indifference and their desire to, in many cases have nothing to do with a stranger as a sign of them being a broken dog; it's just who they are. With proper socialization, most breed members will become polite (if not exactly friendly), but many others will remain uncomfortable around new people. Without proper socialization, this breed frequently becomes shy and timid around strangers, occasionally aggressive. While most breed members will eventually warm up and make new friends with a new person in their lives such as a spouse or roommate, some never fully come around. As the owner of an Australian Shepherd, treasure their undying loyalty to you and your family members. Do not allow others to force unwanted affection on them and don't expect the dog to reciprocate the strangers affection or become upset when they don't . Respect the breeds nature, and allow them their dignity. It is important to remember that an Aussie can become quite annoyed with an overbearing stranger and this breeds threats usually aren’t bluffs. As a dedicated working breed, if an Australian Shepherd is trying to make a cow or sheep move, he is going to back up his threat with a bite. This holds true in a watchdog situation and in situations where the dog is being forced out of his comfort zone to interact with a stranger or having its personal space violated. Do not put your Aussie into a situation that will cause the dog, in its mind, to “need” to bite someone.
The Australian Shepherd is a dedicated guard dog who will almost always alert its owners to the approach of a visitor. This breed is fairly territorial, and many make an effective and challenging guard dog. Watchdog tendencies may vary from one dog to the next but most especially those from working lines have both the independence and confidence to back up a bark with a bite. Some Australian Shepherds have been protection and Shutzhund trained, with mixed levels of success.
Australian Shepherds generally do quite well with children. When full-grown, most breed members are quite gentle with children, although also eager to play with them. Many Australian Shepherds are quite tolerant of a little rough-housing, but others are unwilling to put up with it at all. These dogs do have strong herding instincts, and may attempt to round up children by nipping at their heels. This can be corrected with training. Young Australian Shepherds may not be the best housemates for very young children because they have a tendency to bowl them over accidentally in their excitement.
As a breed, Australian Shepherds are average when it comes to other dogs. This breed is not known for having dog-aggression issues, and when properly socialized most breed members do not have major problems with other canines. Some Australian Shepherds do develop territorial, possessiveness, resource guarding and dominance issues, especially males, but these issues are usually but not always correctable with training. The territorial nature or resource guarding behavior of an Australian Shepherd can be exhibited in their behavior towards objects as well as people; jealously guarding a toy, territorially protecting their food or water bowl, growling or snarling at housemates or other dogs in the home that interfere with a petting session between them and their human. It should be noted that Aussies, though classified as a herding breed are courageous and brave dogs that will in most cases not back down from an altercation with another dog. Physically and mentally speaking a good working Australian Shepherd is both capable of getting kicked in the teeth by a cow and getting right back up ready for more, ready to dive right back into his job without the slightest apprehension. In the eyes of an Aussie, a similarly sized or even much larger dog is not much to be feared. Their natural athleticism, strength and speed also mean that if provoked they can, and in many cases will cause relatively severe injuries to another dog in a matter of seconds, most often to the ears and forelegs; whilst their double coat and thick mane act as armor in their own defense.
In spite of their exceptionally high prey drive, as a herding breed, Australian Shepherds are generally very good with non-canine animals. This prey drive is rarely if ever converted into the need to seriously hurt or kill other animals, and provides them with the drive to work, it is also what makes an Aussie a motivated ball-player or Frisbee addict. These dogs are considered among the most adaptable to different types of stock and are regularly selected for use with atypical species such as ducks and rabbits. However, these dogs have an incredibly strong urge to herd, and will chase virtually everything that moves. The chase ends with the dog attempting to round up the animal or drive it somewhere, usually by nipping at its heels (children, cats, other dogs and cars are often the target of this drive). Many animals are frightened by this, and many others do not appreciate it. Owners must work with their Aussie to channel this drive into appropriate activities which will help their Australian Shepherd to control their herding urges, in particular with horses, cats and other dogs who are often willing to express their displeasure with scratches, kicks or initiating a fight.
This breed is extremely intelligent, and most Australian Shepherds learn extremely quickly. These are some of the most capable of all dogs, and with the possible exception of a few tasks that require immense strength and advanced scent trailing, there is probably nothing that any dog can learn that an Australian Shepherd cannot. Australian Shepherds regularly compete at the highest levels of obedience and agility competitions, and are regarded as among the most adaptable of all herding breeds. However, many Australian Shepherds pose serious training difficulties. This breed is more than intelligent enough to figure out exactly what it can and cannot get away with, so consistency is a must. While many Australian Shepherds live to please and will do anything just because their master wants them to, some are largely self-serving and may be stubborn. All Australian Shepherds have a tendency to bore easily, and they may get so tired of training repetitions that they refuse to do any more. Australian Shepherds are take charge type of dogs, and in a environment where leadership is weak, the Aussie will insert himself into the role of leader. Although once an established owner/dog, alpha/beta relationship has been established this breed does not usually constantly challenge for authority, they can easily tell when their owner is not in command of the situation and may become obstinate or attempt to assume the leadership role. To maintain obedience, it is imperative for their owners to constantly remain in a position of authority.
As a compliment to the intelligence of this breed, is an immense ability for problem solving. Aussies are in many ways the chess experts of dogdom, constantly planning and thinking three moves ahead. It is important to remember that as "the premiere herding breed of the west", the Aussie is not simply reacting to the movements of its charges, but planning, guiding, and setting them up to move in the desired direction; dedicated forethought, manipulation and meticulous planning are not foreign concepts to the Australian Shepherd and in many cases come as naturally as breathing. Fences which other dogs may see as an insurmountable obstacle, will for an Australian Shepherd, pose a puzzle to be solved. The dog will then set about figuring out numerous ways to defeat this obstacle, and in most cases will be successful; many owners are utterly amazed at this breeds ability to escape an apparently secure enclosure and many Aussies are killed each year due to vehicle strikes after escaping. If they can't dig out, they may climb out, if they can't climb, they may use their phenomenal jumping ability (a standing four foot vertical) to jump out, if they can't jump out, they will surmise how gate latches work, or chew out. This author once had a high separation anxiety Aussie that figured out how to work door handles in the home by pawing at them with his feet and pushing them down to escape, even after replacing the handles with round door knobs, the Aussie figured out how to crush them flat with his mouth and turn them that way. The battle was temporarily won by placing a locking hasp at the upper most reaches of the door, that is until the dog figured out how to chew through the interior door and escape. Luckily I owned my own business, I finally submitted to taking my little Velcro dog with me to work where he was perfectly well behaved and napped peacefully under my desk throughout the work day. Aussies, which are usually very food-motivated, will also use their problem solving ability to find food or treats about the home. If this requires them to open a cabinet, jump on the counter, unzip a backpack, paw open the fridge, or flip over the bin holding dog food, the Aussie will find a way. Aussies do not submit to roadblocks, they figure out ways to get around!
Australian Shepherds are very high energy dogs. Although some breed members are more active than others, all of these dogs need a great deal of vigorous exercise. Most experts recommend that an Australian Shepherd get a minimum of two hours of vigorous exercise every day, with three or more being ideal. Australian Shepherds are a breed that will go as long their owners allow them to, and these dogs are capable of running down even the most active and athletic family. It is absolutely imperative that owners of Australian Shepherds get their dogs the exercise that they require. If this breed is not provided an outlet for its energy, it will find one of its own. The vast majority of behavioral problems experienced by breed members are the result of inadequate exercise, and this breed often becomes so bored that it develops severe mental and emotional problems as well. It is also important to note that Aussies are stoic and tough to the extreme, traits that when combined with their prey drive and desire to work are great for a working dog, but can cause problems for the Aussie under the supervision of an inexperienced owner. Be it 50 degrees or 100 degrees, be he injured or not, the Aussie will continue giving 100% of itself to the game at hand (Frisbee, agility, or just throwing the ball). The inexperienced owner can quite easily work or play their Aussie into a case of heat exhaustion or even heat stroke, as the dog may give no other signs than an undying desire to keep playing. The same holds true for pulled muscles, injuries to joints, ligaments or other parts of the body, the Aussie will in many cases stoically push right through to keep on playing. It is up to the owner to put "the governor on the dog so to speak" to keep them from overexerting themselves and to closely observe them for signs of injury or pain while playing. If an Aussie is showing pain, it is worthwhile to investigate right away.
A bored Australian Shepherd will bark constantly for hours on end, hyperactively bounce around, and destroy every piece of furniture in a home. Because of their supreme intelligence, Australian Shepherds need more than just a jog. These driven dogs need to work out their minds, and crave activities such as running through an agility course, herding sheep, or being trained as a search-and-rescue dog. Although extremely burdensome to many families, the boundless energy and drive of the Australian Shepherd are highly desirable to many families. This breed competes at the highest levels of virtually every dog sport and type of stock work. Extremely hardy, the Australian Shepherd is always willing and able to go anywhere at any time and do anything once there.
The Australian Shepherd does require some special attention be paid to its coat, but not as much as must be paid to many similarly-coated dogs. This dog needs a regular and thorough brushing. Potential tangles and knots must be carefully removed. However, this process only needs to be done a couple of times a month, and most (but not all) Australian Shepherds never need to be professionally groomed. The Australian Shepherd does shed, although the amount tends to vary from dog to dog. Most of these dogs are average shedders who will leave hair on carpets, furniture, and clothes but not cover them. Some other Australian Shepherds are very heavy shedders who leave an almost constant trail of hair behind them. Even those breed members that tend to shed lightly will become heavy shedders two or three times a year when the seasons change.
Australian Shepherds are known to suffer from a variety of health problems, many of which are quite serious. In particular, the Australian Shepherd suffers from very high rates of a number of visual problems and hip dysplasia. Breeders of working Australian Shepherds often claim that their dogs are healthier than those dogs bred for conformation shows, but it is unclear whether or not this is the case. Many fanciers also claim that the Australian Shepherd is considerably healthier than the Miniature Australian Shepherd, which is also largely unproven. Life expectancy studies conducted on the breed have come to drastically different conclusions. While most place the breed’s longevity at roughly 12 years, others place it at 9 or 10. Although dog health studies are fraught with complications, it appears that the life expectancy of this breed has been decreasing in recent years.
Some of the biggest problems experienced by the Australian Shepherd are the result of peculiarities involving the genes responsible for the merle coloration. The same genes that influence coloration also influence a number of other features such as eyesight and hearing. Merle colored dogs are highly susceptible to a number of severe visual and auditory problems, ranging from mild impairment to total deafness and blindness. Although not a hard and fast rule, the more white is present on the coat the greater the likelihood for problems. Blue-eyed dogs are also more likely to suffer disabilities. Most of the health problems found in merle dogs must be homozygous to take effect, meaning that both parents have to be merle colored to pass the condition (but not the gene that carries it) onto their offspring. Heterozygous dogs, those with one merle parent and one non-merle parent, rarely suffer these problems. With this knowledge, the vast majority of breeders now refuse to breed merle dogs together. Unfortunately, a few ignorant or disreputable breeders still do and accidents always happen (especially in a kennel) so it is of the utmost importance that those interested in acquiring a merle Australian Shepherd puppy make sure that only one of its parents is merle.
In addition to those problems specifically experienced by merle Australian Shepherds, all breed members are highly susceptible to eye problems and hip dysplasia. Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring. It is highly advisable to request that breeders show any OFA and CERF documentation that they have on a puppy or its parents, which essentially all reputable breeders will have.
Some of the health problems most commonly suffered by Australian Shepherds include: