August 19, 2017

Introduction to the Australian Shepherd

Although they are called “Australian” Shepherds, this breed actually has its origins in the Pyrenees Mountain range between France and Spain.

Basque shepherds brought the dogs to Australia when they immigrated there in the 19th century. They later brought the dogs to the United States where they have been immensely popular.

Versatile and intelligent, the dogs are still used for herding on ranches today. When the dust settled, the Australian Shepherd was actually developed in the United States. This is an energetic breed and they like to have a job to do so they are not a good fit for everyone, but they can make a wonderful companion for the right person.

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History of the Australian Shepherd

There have long been many herding breeds in the Pyrenees region of France and Spain, where the Basque people live. Little known breeds such as the Catalonian (or Catalan) Sheepdog and the Pyrenean Shepherd (known as the Berger des Pyrenees in France) have herded sheep and other livestock in this region for centuries. There is even a Basque Shepherd Dog, considered one of the oldest breeds in central Europe. These dogs are still used for herding today. It seems likely that many of these dogs contributed to the dog that would become known as the Australian Shepherd.

When Basque people immigrated to Australia in the 1800s, they took some of their herding dogs with them. Later some of these same Basque shepherds moved on to the United States, bringing their dogs. Australian Shepherds have been on American farms and ranches for well over 100 years. By the time the dogs became popular in the U.S. the name “Australian Shepherd” was already attached to them, whether because they came from Australia with their owners, or because their owners were Australian, it’s not clear. Over the years the dogs had a number of other names such as the Bob-Tail, the Blue Heeler, the Spanish Shepherd, the Pastor Dog, the New Mexican Shepherd, and the California Shepherd, but “Australian Shepherd” is the one that stuck.

With their versatility and herding ability, Australian Shepherds were in demand on farms and ranches, especially in the American west. After World War II the breed became even more popular when Western horseback riding was popularized through films, television, and rodeos. Disney even made a movie called Stub: The Best Cow Dog In The West  which featured Stub, Queeny, and Shorty – Australian “cow cutter” Shepherds.

The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1991. In Australia the breed is not recognized as a native Australian breed. Although the name is confusing, this is an American breed.

The Australian Shepherd is still used for herding livestock on ranches and for work as an all-around farm and ranch dog today. Today the breed is the 18th most popular breed in the United States.

Australian Shepherd Health-Related Issues

The United States Australian Shepherd Association, the AKC breed parent club for Australian Shepherds*, lists the most common problems for the breed as hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, hereditary eye defects, MDR1 (Multi-drug sensitivity), thyroid disease, cancer, and epilepsy. There are tests for most of these issues which breeders can utilize for dogs prior to breeding so they can screen dogs. The club encourages testing and research into these problems.

In the United States most owners report that Australian Shepherds have a lifespan between 12 and 15 years.

One issue in the breed that is problematic is the merle allele. Merle refers to the patchwork or mingled coat pattern that some Australian Shepherds have. When two dogs with this coat pattern are bred together their puppies have a one in four (25 percent) chance of having two copies of the merle allele (an allele is a variant form of a gene). Puppies that have this “double” merle allele are more likely to be blind or deaf. Many Australian Shepherd breeders avoid breeding merle dogs to each other for this reason.

*There is another breed club for Australian Shepherds called the Australian Shepherd Club of America. This club registers more Australian Shepherds than the AKC. This club is older, having formed in 1957. However, the ASCA did not wish for the breed to join the AKC and there was a split, with the new club forming and joining AKC. Traditionally, the Australian Shepherd Club of America is said to place more emphasis on the breed’s working ability, though they do show dogs in dog shows and other events. Australian Shepherds registered through the AKC, with the United States Australian Shepherd Association, may not have as much focus on being a working dog. People looking for a good pet will often choose one of these dogs because the dogs can be less intense about needing to work. Obviously, these are generalizations and you can find gorgeous dogs that are working dogs; and showdogs that have great working ability. For more information about the differences in the two types of Australian Shepherds you should contact the different clubs.

Australian Shepherd Temperament

Australian Shepherds are typically described as intelligent, loyal, adaptable, exuberant, and agile. They love having a job to do. Like many other herding breeds, such as Border Collies, they love to work and especially to herd. Australian Shepherds require lots of activity and they like to have a purpose. Nothing makes one of these dogs happier than having a real job and being able to do it well. The breed is very versatile so they can learn to succeed in many activities and they are always happy doing things with their owner. One thing they don’t enjoy is being left alone at home all day with no outlets for their minds or energy. They are smart enough and energetic enough to get into a lot of trouble if you leave them alone too much. With strong herding and guarding instincts, Australian Shepherds want to be busy. They also need plenty of daily exercise. It’s not enough to take one of these dogs for a walk several times each day. Australian Shepherds need vigorous exercise.

This is a dog that also wants to spend time with his family. They tend to be a little reserved with people they don’t know which is usually a good characteristic in a dog that guards a farm. The Australian Shepherd is known for being a loving, affectionate, loyal dog with people they know and trust. They often form an intense, close bond with one or two members of the family. Your Australian Shepherd will probably be very playful at home. Some of these dogs can even “smile” when they draw their lips back and show their teeth.

Most Australian Shepherds are easy to train and they learn quickly. They only get into trouble if they are left alone too much or if they are left untrained. In these cases a smart dog can entertain himself and become destructive in the home. The same is true if your Australian Shepherd doesn’t get as much exercise as he needs. Otherwise, this breed is usually a pleasure in the home. They are natural performers and they love to learn tricks. They are usually good at getting along with other pets, including other dogs. They are also good with children. One thing you may notice about Australian Shepherds is that they may try to herd your kids and your pets. They are not usually quite as intense or bossy as Border Collies, but they can still try to keep you and your family organized.

Australian Shepherd Grooming

Australian Shepherds are a medium-sized dog and they are usually solidly built. Males are 20-23 inches tall and females are 18-21 inches tall. Males typically weigh 50-65 pounds with females weighing 30-45 pounds. Many dogs are born with a tail that is naturally bobbed. Other dogs have their tails docked just after birth. The breed’s eyes are brown, blue, amber, or a combination or variation of these colors. They can include marbling and flecking of colors. The coat has a medium texture and it can be straight or wavy. It is weather resistant and a medium length, though some dogs have a shorter coat than others. The breed comes in a wide range of colors including black, blue merle, red merle, and red with or without any white markings.

There is some range in appearance among Australian Shepherds that you don’t always find in breeds. This is probably due to the fact that historically farmers and ranchers selected dogs for breeding based on their herding ability and not how they looked. Consequently, you can see some Australian Shepherds that look a little different sometimes. They are no less members of the breed than any other Australian Shepherd.

While Australian Shepherds are usually very eye-catching with their flashy colors and thick coats, their grooming is not really very complicated. They do need to be brushed well several times per week. Australian Shepherds shed quite a bit and regular brushing helps keep the shedding hair under control. You can use a slicker brush to go over your dog’s outer coat and a pin brush to groom the hair on his legs. Check your dog’s ears regularly and keep his nails short. Your dog’s outer coat should protect him from getting too dirty as long as you keep it free of tangles and mats. Bathe as necessary – usually about once a month.

Australian Shepherd Fun Facts

  • There is a breed called the Miniature Australian Shepherd that was developed to be smaller than the Australian Shepherd. In 2010 the breed was renamed the Miniature American Shepherd and in 2012 the breed was accepted into the AKC Miscellaneous class. This means the breed is in the process of expanding and gathering more interest from breeders so it can prove that is is viable for the future. Once the breed appears to be permanent it will be placed in one of the seven regular AKC groups and receive full recognition.
  • There is an even smaller breed called the Toy Australian Shepherd. Males only weigh 12-15 pounds and stand 14 inches tall or less. Some breeders consider these smaller dogs to be small Australian Shepherds, though some do not. According to breeders, the Miniature American Shepherd could be bred by breeding small Australian Shepherds but the Toy Australian Shepherd could only be bred by crossbreeding with other Toy dogs.
  • Because of their athleticism and energy, the Australian Shepherd excels at sports such as flyball, agility, and frisbee, as well as herding.
  • Don’t confuse the Australian Shepherd with the Australian Cattle Dog. The Australian Cattle Dog really is an Australian breed. They were used for driving cattle long distances over rough terrain.

Common Australian Shepherd Mixes

Here are some Australian Shepherd mixes we found online:

  • Augi – Australian Shepherd x Pembroke Welsh Corgi Mix
  • Aussiedoodle – Poodle x Australian Shepherd Mix
  • Australian Retriever  – Australian Shepherd x Golden Retriever Mix
  • Australian Shepterrier  – Australian Shepherd x Australian Terrier Mix
  • Baussie  – Australian Shepherd x Boston Terrier Mix
  • Border-Aussie  – Australian Shepherd x Border Collie Mix
  • Miniature Schnauzzi  – Miniature Schnauzer x Australian Shepherd Mix
  • Sheprador  – Labrador Retriever x Australian Shepherd Mix

Australian Shepherd FAQs

What is an Australian Shepherd’s life expectancy?

According to a 2004 health study conducted in the United Kingdom by the Kennel Club, the median age of death for Australian Shepherds was 9 years with the oldest dog reportedly living to be 15 years. The most common cause of death for the breed, as it is for most dogs, was reported to be cancer (31.8 percent). However, the sample size of Australian Shepherds in the study (forms returned by the owners) was very small, with only 104 living dogs reported and 22 deceased. (Some of the 2004 breed health survey results collected by the Kennel Club were more representative than others.) In the United States Australian Shepherds are commonly reported to live 13 to 15 years. They are considered to have a somewhat longer lifespan than many breeds. Whether there is some difference in the gene pool between the UK and the U.S., or the 2004 UK health survey was not very representative, it’s hard to say.

Are Australian Shepherds easy to train?

Australian Shepherds are very smart and they are considered to be very easy to train. They are natural herders so if you are looking for a dog for herding, your dog should have some natural ability. Depending on how serious you are about herding, you might want to talk to a breeder of working Australian Shepherds. If herding is something that you would like to try as a hobby, then many pets will have some basic abilities. Experts say that Australian Shepherds are a “loose” or “medium”-eyed dog in the way they work livestock, as opposed to some dogs that stare at animals very intensely. The dog’s “eye” is the way they control the animals with their gaze.

Australian Shepherds are very versatile dogs and they can learn to do just about anything you would like to do. They have been hearing dogs for the deaf, guide dogs for the blind, search and rescue dogs, and drug detection dogs, for example.

Do Australian Shepherds shed a lot of hair?

Yes, Australian Shepherds do shed a lot. They have a heavy, weather resistant outer coat and a soft undercoat. They are usually shedding some hair all the time. As with most dogs that have a big double coat, you can expect even more shedding in the spring. Brushing your dog’s coat will help keep the shedding under control as much as possible but you will still have to deal with dog hair in your house. If that’s a problem then this probably isn’t the right breed for you.

Do Australian Shepherds make good apartment pets?

If you are very dedicated you could probably keep an Australian Shepherd in an apartment but it’s not really a good fit for most people. Australian Shepherds need 2-3 hours of exercise per day. They are very athletic, energetic dogs. They are not small dogs. They do have good manners and they can learn obedience commands, so you could train your Australian Shepherd to be a good neighbor. But this is definitely not a breed that would enjoy staying home alone in an apartment all day. If you leave this dog alone too much there will be a price to pay. Expect this smart, energetic dog to destroy your house.

Are Australian Shepherds good with Children?

Yes, Australian Shepherds are usually good with children. They are more intense than some breeds and they are very energetic – perhaps too exuberant for very small children. But most children should enjoy these dogs and the dogs are very affectionate with kids. They are not aggressive and high strung dogs.

It’s always important to teach all children how to play gently with a dog so they don’t pull on tails and ears or do things to provoke a dog into biting. Thousands of children are bitten by dogs every year and most of those cases could be prevented with a little education. Take normal precautions.

Carlotta Cooper

Carlotta Cooper is a freelance writer and a long-time contributing editor for the weekly dog show magazine, Dog News. She is the author of The Dog Adoption Bible, the Dog Writers Association of America Adoptashelter.com award-winner for 2013. Additionally, Carlotta is the author of Canine Cuisine: 101 Natural Dog Food & Treat Recipes to Make Your Dog Health and Happy, as well as other books about pets. She is a guest writer for numerous website and blogs and a frequent pet food reviewer.

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