The Australian Shepherd is a working dog that was developed — despite its name — in the United States in the 19th century. The dog, commonly known as an Aussie, is popular in its native California and is growing in popularity in countries across the world.
Like many working breeds, the Aussie has considerable energy and drive and usually needs a job to do. It often excels at dog sports such as frisbee and dog agility.
Australian Shepherd Appearance
The coat comes in several colors — blue merle, red merle, solid red, or solid black; all can occur with or without white markings, tan (copper) points, or both. Dogs with tan and white along with the primary color are usually called tricolor. Similarly, there is great variety in the breed’s eye color: Aussie eyes may be green, hazel, brown, or blue, they may have two different colored eyes, or even have bi-colored eyes (for example, a half-brown half-blue eye). All are acceptable in the breed standard.
The breed’s general appearance also varies greatly depending on the particular line’s emphasis. As with many working breeds that are also shown in the ring, there are differences of opinion among breeders over what makes an ideal Australian Shepherd.
Reflecting the great variation that still exists in the breed, an Aussie can stand between 18 and 23 inches (46 to 58 cm) at the withers and weigh between 35 and 70 pounds (16 to 32 kg). For show dogs, females should fall in the lower heights and males in the higher ranges.
A hallmark of the breed is a short bobbed or docked tail in countries where docking is permitted. Some Aussies are born with naturally short bobbed tails, others with full long tails, and others with natural partial bobs, where the tail is midlength and appears stubby. Most breeders dock the tails when the puppies are born.
Australian Shepherd Temperament
Because of the dog’s origins, this breed is not for everyone. It is an energetic dog that requires exercise and needs a job to do, whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in dog agility, or any other physically and mentally involving activity. It needs to run, full out, regularly. It is usually a sweet and affectionate dog who is faithful to its owners and is good with children, although its overwhelming instinct to work may subvert its ability to function as a family dog, including chasing and nipping at running children to herd them if not properly trained. Its protective instinct and behaviors can be frightening to children, strangers, and small animals. It was bred to guard stock and can be sometimes annoying with its inclination to bark warnings about neighborhood activity, but it is not generally an obsessively barking dog. It is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie will invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity in the house around fragile furnishings or involve the destruction of yard and property.
Australian Shepherd History
The Australian Shepherd’s history is vague, as is the origin of its misleading name. Most of the breed’s antecedents most likely originated in the Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France.
Early European settlers took many of their herding dogs with them as they emigrated to the eastern United States in the 19th century. Breeds included some that are now extinct or that have merged into other breeds. These probably included the English Shepherd, Dorset Blue Shag, Cumberland Sheepdog, Scottish Collie, Glenwherry Collie, and Bouvier des Flandres, as well as dogs from Germany and Spain. For many centuries, shepherds had more interest in dogs who performed well when helping to manage flocks of sheep than they had in the specific appearance of the dogs. As a result, over time, shepherds interbred dogs that they believed would produce better workers for the given climate and landscape. Terrain and weather conditions in the eastern U.S. were similar to that of Europe, however, so the existing imported breeds and their offspring worked well there.
In the western states, conditions were quite different. In the primarily arid and semiarid areas inhabited sparsely by early Spanish settlers, temperatures reached extremes of hot and cold, and fields varied in altitude from sea level into the higher, rougher Sierra Nevada and similar mountain ranges. A few Spanish and Basque shepherds, their flocks, and their herding dogs came to California with the Spanish missionaries and other settlers in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
With the 1849 California gold rush, a massive migration occurred from the east coast to the west coast, and along with the people came flocks of sheep and the eastern herding dogs. But it was just as effective to bring sheep in by ship, and in they came, including flocks from Latin America and other regions. Shepherds came along with the flocks and also independently, from Latin America, Europe, and Australia, along with their own herding breeds.
Dogs from Australia had already begun to be selected and bred for climates and terrains that were often similar to California.
As shepherds worked to develop dogs who could handle stock in harsh storms, high arid heat, and chilling cold, and who could think on their own in challenging terrain, reacting instantly to the movement of sheep and to their handlers’ commands, the type that became the Australian Shepherd was born.
The name remains somewhat of a mystery, however; the largest influx of shepherds from Australia arrived in the early 20th century, well after the breed had been established as a distinct type. It is possible that many of the imported Australian herding dogs had merle coloring, which was also common in the American Australian Shepherd breed, and so all merle herding dogs were simply referred to as Australian. This remains conjecture.
Australian Shepherd Recent History
Selective breeding for many generations focused on aspects of the dog that enabled it to function as an effective stockdog in the American west. It had to handle severe weather; have plenty of speed, athleticism, energy, and endurance; and be intelligent, flexible, and independent while remaining obedient. The Australian Shepherd remained more of a type than a breed until the 1950s, when they became popular as performing dogs in rodeos. Their stunts and skills earned them places in several Disney films, including Run Appaloosa Run and Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West.
The Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) was founded in 1957 to promote the breed, and the National Stock Dog Registry became its official breed registry the same year, which it continued until ASCA took over in the 1970s. In the late 1970s, ASCA created a breed standard, which described exactly how a dog should look and be constructed (its conformation). This was the first step in becoming a breed rather than a type.
In the United States, the AKC is the primary breed registry for purebred dogs. However, many Aussie breeders felt that AKC put too much emphasis on conformation and not enough on performance, so ASCA declined to join the AKC. Those breeders who felt that AKC membership had its advantages split off from ASCA to form their own Australian Shepherd club, the United States Australian Shepherd Association, created their own breed standard, and joined the AKC in 1993. The decision about affiliation with the AKC remains controversial, as it does with many performance breeds.
Australian Shepherds excel at many dog sports, especially herding, dog agility, frisbee, and flyball.