The Australian Shepherd: An Intelligent and Energetic Family and Working Dog


Bred to herd livestock, the Australian shepherd is also known as the “Aussie”, the California Shepherd, the Little Blue Dog, the Pastor Dog, the Bob-Tail, the New Mexican Shepherd, the Spanish Shepherd, and the Austrian Shepherd. An athletic breed, the Aussie is highly intelligent, easily trained and exceptionally friendly.

Highlights

  • Not a dog for novice owners
  • A highly sensitive breed
  • An affectionate dog
  • Highly playful
  • High energy
  • Prone to wandering

The History of the Australian Shepherd

Despite being named the “Australian Shepherd”, the Aussie was developed in the Western United States. Bred from various sheep-herding breeds, the Aussie’s ancestors likely include both collies and shepherds. Many believe that these ancestral dogs were brought over to North America with sheep stock from Australia, hence the name “Aussie”.

The farmers of the Western U.S. honed the characteristics of this shepherd breed over generations. Not only were they intent on creating the perfect herding dog, but they wanted a dog that had intelligence, versatility and drive as well.

While the Aussie is seen more frequently as a family dog these days, at the end of World War II, they became popular for TV appearances and at rodeo shows as they accompanied cowboys and rodeo clowns. Their trainability and fondness for work made them the ideal candidate for both positions, although there was no shortage of Aussies on cattle ranches and farms either. Today, this small shepherd is still put to work on farms around the world, but a shrinking rural population has led this breed into a more domesticated role. Even in their companion role, however, it should be noted that the Australian Shepherd still maintains their high energy level, extreme prey drive, and intensity.

Appearance and Vital Stats

Breed Group

The Australian Shepherd is a member of the herding breed group.

Like all herding breeds, the Aussie demands an active lifestyle and without sufficient activity, they are prone to obesity and neuroticism.

Size

The Australian Shepherd near a lake

The Australian Shepherd stands between 18” and 23” tall with the females falling on the shorter end of the spectrum. Males are also heavier than females, weighing in between 50 lbs. and 65 lbs. where the females weigh between 40 lbs. and 55 lbs.

While some disreputable breeders advertise “miniature”, “teacup”, or “toy” Australian Shepherds, trusted breeders do not recognize these variations. The intent of the Aussie was to be a working breed and these variations stand in the way of this and therefore seen as a flaw.

Lifespan

The average lifespan of this headstrong breed is between 12 and 15 years. Bred to be healthy and “sturdy” dogs, with good ancestry, the Aussie tends to have a longer rather than shorter lifespan. With poor breeding, however, this is a breed that can succumb to a wide range of life-shortening health conditions.

Coat Colors

The Australian Shepherd muzzle

The Aussie has a medium-length dual-layer coat. The base layer of the coat is designed to protect against the cold and is often thicker in dogs that are found in colder climates. The top coat can be straight or wavy and has plenty of feathering on the legs and shorter feathering around the face. The Aussie’s coat is also developed to be water-resistant to allow working dogs to thrive on the job through all kinds of weather.

There are four recognized coat colors for the Australian Shepherd, black, red, blue merle, and red merle. Standard markings include tan points, white markings, and white markings with tan points.

Like many other breeds with merle coloration, it is important for breeders never to breed merle dogs with merle dogs. This results in the 25% possibility of a puppy having two copies of the merle gene. These dogs – referred to as “double merles” or “lethal whites” (commonly considered a derogatory term) – have a considerable amount of white pigmentation. This excess white pigmentation can lead to hearing problems, deafness, eye problems, or blindness. Not all double merle puppies will exhibit sight or hearing deficiencies, but it happens more often than not.

No reputable breeder will ever breed for double merle puppies.

Tail

The Australian Shepherd can have a naturally bobbed tail or a docked tail. With new movements against tail docking, however, more Aussies that are born without the naturally bobbed tail are left with their tails intact.

The tail of the Aussie is straight and current AKC regulations require a show dog to have a tail of 4” or shorter. It is likely that this will change in the near future.

Ears

The Australian Shepherd’s ears are a triangular shape and sit high atop the head. When something catches the Aussie’s attention, the ears will perk forward, but they will never prick up directly. Although the fur on the ears is quite soft, the ear itself is quite leathery to the touch.

Personality

Trainability

The Australian Shepherd along with the Border Collie are two of the most trainable breeds there are. This drive and determination to learn and work, however, also comes with a high level of energy.

While the Aussie is easy to teach, success depends on a good daily exercise routine. A working breed like the Aussie will fall short of your training expectations with too much pent-up energy.

A happy and well-adjusted Australian Shepherd is capable of the most advanced commands. They will excel in advanced obedience work, herding, cattle driving, agility, flyball, and even competition dancing with their owners! Perhaps most impressive, though, is the ability of the Aussie to learn and understand an intense vocabulary.

Playfulness

The Aussie can be a real joker with those he is familiar with, but he can also be standoffish with strangers which can make park playtime difficult.

When it comes to family playtime, this is a dog who will play fetch until the sun goes down. Playfulness with other dogs can be hit or miss, however, and is dependent on healthy socialization from a young age. If not properly socialized, the independent working nature of the Aussie leads him to be a rather “selfish” in play.

Apartment Living

Apartment living is not for the Australian Shepherd. While some working breeds tend to become quite settled and even lazy inside the home, the Aussie is not one of them! Given too little room to roam, the Australian Shepherd will quickly become unhappy and may develop self-harming behaviors. These behaviors are common in herding breeds when they become frustrated and include self-biting, tail chasing, foot licking, pulling out fur, and pacing.

The Aussie does best with farm life, in a home with plenty of acreage, or in the very least, in a home with a large backyard.

Compatibility with Children and Pets

The Australian Shepherds outside

The Australian Shepherd’s high energy level often leads to small children being knocked over, so they are not a breed recommended for homes with toddlers. Additionally, as a herding dog, the Aussie is frequently known to nip at the heels of children in an attempt to “herd” them. This can be distressing for the child as well as the parent and is one of the most often cited reasons for these dogs being dumped in shelters.

When it comes to older children, the Aussie is a very good family dog and thrives on the energy of a child in their life.

With other dogs, the Aussie can be exceptionally friendly, but this is dependent on good socialization from a young age. Failure to socialize can lead to guarding behavior, a stand-offish attitude, or shows of jealousy over their owner showing attention to another dog.

When matching the Australian Shepherd with canine playmates, it is important to match their energy levels. As an energetic dog, this is a breed that can quickly frustrate more laidback dogs or senior dogs.

Lastly, when it comes to smaller family pets, the Australian Shepherd simply does not do well. The extremely high prey drive of this dog will take over and smaller pets will become a target of obsession.

Care

Feeding

The Australian Shepherd will eat an average of 1 ½ to 2 ½ cups of food daily divided into two meals. Working dogs require significantly more calories as well as a higher protein content from their food.

An older Aussie or an Aussie on “bedrest” after surgery, should be fed smaller amounts of food to reduce their chance of obesity. Due to their activity level, this breed does not frequently have a problem with their weight, but once they slow down in older age it may become an issue.

Grooming

The medium-length coat of the Australian Shepherd can be maintained with weekly brushing. Although they are year-round shedders, the Aussie does tend to “blow their coat” a couple of times a year at which time brushing should be more frequent.

Working Aussies should also be brushed more frequently to ensure that they are free from burrs, parasites, and debris. More regular grooming will also prevent a buildup of dirt.

The Aussie’s coat is prone to matting so brushing should not be neglected. To avoid tugging any existing matts in the hair, spray a slicker brush with a dog-friendly conditioner or plain water before brushing.

Exercise

The Australian Shepherd exercise

The biggest reason for Australian Shepherds being left at dog shelters is their excess energy. When provided appropriate levels of exercise, however, the Aussie makes a great companion! Appropriate exercise for this working dog consists of multiple walks as well as daily play in a confined area like a backyard.

Since the Aussie is a dog that is prone to wanderlust and has a high prey drive, they should not be trusted off-leash without thorough professional training. It is also important to monitor activity with other dogs and humans to prevent or intervene in any herding behavior. A natural behavior for your dog, herding is not always appreciated by other dogs and can feel threatening to humans.

Health

When bred from healthy gene pools, the Australian Shepherd is a hardy breed bred to work in various conditions. When poorly bred, however, the Aussie is prone to a number of health problems.

Sensitivity to Anesthesia

Herding breeds are prone to drug sensitivity due to a prevalence of the MDR1 gene. New testing can detect this faulty gene, but there is no cure.

Persistent Pupillary Membranes

PPM is a condition when fetal membrane tissue remain in the eye after birth. In utero, these tissues nourished eye development, but after birth, they can cause a problem. If these strands of tissue do not dissolve naturally by 8 weeks old, they have the potential to lead to cataracts and opacities of the cornea. Fortunately, these tissues can be dissolved with eyedrops prescribed by a veterinarian.

Blindness and Deafness

Blindness and deafness are common in the Australian Shepherd, particularly dogs that carry the double merle gene.

Osteochondrosis Dissecans

An orthopedic condition, OCD happens when the cartilage of the joints does not grow properly. This improper growth causes joints to stiffen and can even prevent joints from bending completely. Some believe that overfeeding certain breeds with growth formula food can contribute to the development of OCD.

Similar Breeds

Border Collie

Border Collie

The Border Collie and Australian Shepherd are within the same height range and have similar facial appearances. The coat color of some Border Collies can also appear similar to that of the Australian Shepherd. When it comes to weight, however, the Border Collie is slightly smaller, weighing in between 30 lbs. and 45 lbs. The Border Collie can seem more stand-offish than the Aussie and is also known to bark more frequently.

Australian Cattle Dog

Australian Cattle Dog

Although frequently confused by name, the Australian Shepherd and Australian Cattle Dog are very different in appearance. The Cattle Dog has a much shorter coat that is closely held to the body. Where the Australian Shepherd stands between 20” and 23”, the Cattle Dog stands between 18” and 20”. The weight of these two breeds is also quite different with the Cattle dog weighing between 35 lbs. and 45 lbs. where the Aussie is between 50 lbs. and 65 lbs. The Cattle Dog also has a shorter life expectancy than the Shepherd, living between 10 to 13 years on average.

Shetland Sheepdog

Shetland Sheepdog

The Shetland Sheepdog and Australian Shepherd are often confused by dog novices due to their collie-shaped face and their long coat. The Sheepdog actually has a much longer and thicker coat than the Australian Shepherd and is a considerably smaller dog. The Shetland Sheepdog weighs between 11 lbs. and 24 lbs. and stands between 13” and 16” tall as opposed to the Aussie’s 50 lbs. to 65 lbs. and 20” to 23” tall.

Collie

Collie

The mane around the head is what often causes confusion between the Collie and the Australian Shepherd Dog. While both dogs hail from herding breeds, the Collie has a longer coat that is finer in texture. Of the two breeds, the Australian Shepherd has a longer life expectancy of between 12 and 15 years where the Collie has a life expectancy of between 8 and 12 years. The Collie is a larger breed, however, standing between 24” and 26” tall and weighing between 60 lbs. and 75 lbs.

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