The Australian Shepherd originated in the Western United States around the 1840s and is a very active herding dog which was used to herd livestock. Although today more and more people are acquiring this breed of dog the Australian Shepherd remains a strict working dog and does not do well in low activity environments.
People are often amazed at the agility of this breed of dog when they see them work for the first time. These dogs show complete sure footedness coupled with athletic movement. With these manoeuvers this type of dog can quickly and dominantly control his flock. This is accomplished by the Aussie’s nips, barks, and dominating eye contact with his flock.
This is an intelligent, versatile, and hardworking dog which needs a home where the owner will allow the dog to put its brains and energy to good use. In other words, this is not a dog for inactive people. The Aussie needs a very energetic and athletic family that will engage the dog in a variety of activities to keep him entertained.
Being an energetic dog with plenty of energy to burn you need to provide the Aussie with plenty of exercise. A home with a good-sized back yard will allow the Australian Shepherd to work off some of his energy. Lacking the necessary activity this type of dog has a tendency to become destructive as well as developing the habit of constantly barking. Sometimes they will start herding the family, especially children, which is not a good idea.
Being an agile, medium-sized dog with either a docked or naturally bobbed tail it is great at all obedience, dog sports, agility, and herding activities. They have also been successfully used as career animals in the areas of assistance dogs, hearing dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, and as guide dogs for the blind.
The Australian Shepherd is a gorgeous animal with looks that make it stand out in any crowd with a medium-length coat and eyes that are either blue, green, amber, dark brown, or mixed in color.
If you lead an adventurous life then this type of dog is for you. The Aussie has a very active life and is constantly on the go from morning till night. They also have a very loyal and loving persona. This is the type of dog that will keep you very active.
History of the Australian Shepherd
Contrary to popular belief, the Australian Shepherd does not come from Australia. Instead, it was originally developed to herd livestock in the western United States. A job that some still hold today.
There is an ongoing controversy as to what breeds were initially used to create the Australian Shepherd. But by the looks of the dog there seems to be a combination of a collie and other shepherding type of dog. It is possible that this dog was developed after the initial arrival of Australian ranchers and farmers who brought their own herding dogs to America back in the 1840s. Hence the name for the dog breed.
Although around for over a hundred years, The AKC (American Kennel Club) did not recognize this breed of dog until 1993. This was mainly due to a popularity boom in the years after World War II when the interest in Western-style horseback riding developed a renewed interest among ranchers and farmers in the United States.
Today you will often see these dogs performing at dog shows where they show off their talents and skills. There are even competitive dog shows that are specifically for the Australian Shepherd.
The Australian Shepherd is not a large dog but a small medium-sized one. The average male of this breed stands approximately 20 to 24 inches (50.8 to 60.96 centimeters) tall at the shoulder. Females are a little smaller at 18 to 22 inches (45.72 to 55.88 centimeters).
The weight of these dogs range from 45 to 65 pounds (20.41 to 29.48 kilograms) for the male and 40 to 55 pounds (18.14 to 24.95 kilograms) for the females.
There are even teacup, toy, and miniature Australian Shepherds but they are not recognized as true Australian Shepherds by breeders of this breed. These dogs are meant to be working dogs that can herd larger animals. I really don’t see how one of the smaller variants can do the same job as the larger ones.
There are eight general characteristics of all Australian Shepherd dogs. They are:
- Being an active dog the Australian Shepherd requires roughly 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day. Also, having a job to do on a daily basis is a necessity. This daily job can be anything from agility trials to obedience training to picking up the dirty laundry in the house. Mine has been trained to put things away when I leave them out.
- Australian Shepherds can be very destructive. They can even become constant barkers. This is usually a result of a lack of exercise and not being able to get the mental stimulation that they need.
- Aussies don’t normally trust people outside of their owner family. This can result in aggressive behavior towards people they don’t know. To combat this behavior it is necessary to provide your Aussie with plenty of contact with people you know. The more contact they have with a variety of people, the more they will become accustomed to being around a variety of people.
- Australian Shepherd dogs shed the most during the spring when the weather begins to warm up. They do, however, shed throughout the year so it is important to keep their coats maintained with daily brushings which includes one full brushing period each week.
- Aussies prefer to stick close by their human families. They should never be left alone for long periods of time in the backyard. They will get bored and look for a way to escape the yard and explore their extended territory.
- Aussies are very protective of their homes and will protect the property with extreme fierceness. They are also very protective of their human families and make excellent guard dogs.
- Australian Shepherd dogs can and do live in the city but they need constant stimulation and exercise in order to be happy. They don’t, however, make very good apartment pets. (See List of Dogs Not Well Suited to Apartment Living.)
- Aussies need a strong owner. Inexperienced owners will find themselves being dominated by this breed. That is a strong characteristic of all herding dogs. They assume the dominant role when they are herding and inexperienced owners have often found themselves being herded by their own dog. (See List of Dogs That Are Good For Experienced Owners.)
Personality of the Australian Shepherd
This particular breed of dog has a natural dominant and pushy personality which are absolute requirements for a herding dog. This is why they often take a dominant role within the home if you don’t take control with a firm hand and confident leadership. Because of this trait they are not recommended for the first-time dog owner.
Most herding dogs are very loyal to their families and the Australian Shepherd is no exception. They are very wary and timid when it comes to strangers and need to be properly socialized at a very young age.
A great way to socialize these dogs is to enrol them in a puppy kindergarten class when they are about three or four months of age. Bringing them around with you to visit friends and family is another great way to reinforce their social skills.
Health Factors to Consider
Although the Aussie is a generally healthy breed of dog, they are prone to a variety of health conditions that tend to crop up in this breed. As an owner of this breed it is important to be aware of the potential health problems than may arose.
Qualified breeders of the Aussie do their best to either eliminate or minimize the appearance of any associated diseases within this breed. That is why you should never buy an Aussie from a puppy mill, pet shop, or kennel. These places are only interested in making money through the sale of an animal with little regard to their health. Qualified breeders want to improve the breed by making the breed sturdier and healthier.
The following list should be considered if you are thinking about getting an Australian Shepherd or if you already own one:
- Epilepsy: This is a general hereditary disorder which causes seizures and the Australian Shepherd is prone to this condition. It is treatable with medication although not curable. With the proper management of medication therapy a dog that suffers from this condition can live a normal and healthy life.
- Deafness: This is a fairly common problem with this breed. It poses many challenges for owners of this breed. Certain forms of hearing loss can be treated with medication and/or surgery in which the dog can regain some or all of its hearing. Owners of a deaf dog must possess an enormous amount of patience as the difficulty level for training such dogs is high.
- Cataracts: This is an opacity of the lens which causes loss of vision. When a dog has this condition their eyes become cloudy. Being a condition of old age there is not much that can be done for a dog that develops cataracts. However, on occasion it is possible to remove the cataracts through surgery but this is often only a temporary fix as the cataracts will come back.
- Hip Dysplasia: This is an inherited condition of many breeds of dogs and not just the Australian Shepherd. This condition results when the femur nub doesn’t fit snugly into the pelvic socket in the hip joint. It is possible for a dog to have hip dysplasia and not show any signs. Usually a dog with hip dysplasia will show signs of stiffness or lameness in one or both rear legs as well as exhibit signs of pain in their back legs. If you have a dog with this condition you should not breed them as they will pass the condition on to their pups. Aside from that it can be a very expensive condition to treat in dogs.
- Elbow Dysplasia: Another form of inheritable dysplasia can occur in elbow joint of dogs. This condition occurs most commonly in large-breed dogs. This condition is can be corrected with surgery. The same rule applies here as with hip dysplasia. Do not breed a dog with this condition as it will be passed on to the pups.
- Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA): This is an inherited condition which may lead to complete blindness in some breeds of dogs. This condition usually occurs in dogs at the age of 2. This condition is currently untreatable and usually results in blindness for the dog. Dogs that have this condition should be spayed or neutered to prevent the gene that causes the condition from being passed on to pups.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): This is a degenerative eye disorder which eventually results in blindness for the dog. This condition is detectable many years in advance of the dog showing any signs of blindness. Although not a genetic disease it is still recommended that owners of Aussies not breed their dog if they have this condition.
- Allergies: This is a common ailment of dogs and not just the Australian Shepherd. They can be caused by almost anything and the process of determining the cause is a slow process of elimination. Dogs that suffer from allergies are usually treated by eliminating the source of the reaction and sometimes by medication.
- Cancer: Dogs can suffer from many different types of cancer. Treatment may include drugs, surgery, or both. The dog’s responsiveness to cancer treatment depends a great deal on the type of cancer involved as well as biological factors.
- Nasal Solar Dermatitis (Collie-nose): This condition often occurs in dogs who lack sufficient pigmentation on their nose to block out the sun. Lesions may occur on the nose and around the eyelids. Protecting the nose with doggie sunscreen is one method of protection. Tattooing the pigment deficient areas is another method of protection.
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD): This is an orthopedic condition which is caused by the improper growth of the cartilage in the joints. It often occurs in the elbows of dogs. It is an extremely painful condition which causes stiffening of the joint. In severe cases it can prevent the animal from bending its elbow. Detection can occur as early as nine months of age and is often attributed to overfeeding the pup with “growth formula” puppy foods. High protein foods may also contribute to this condition. In severe cases the shoulders may also be affected with this condition.
- Distichiasis: This is a condition in which an additional row of eyelashes can be seen growing on the oil gland in a dog’s eye. They eventually protrude along the edge of the eyelid and cause noticeable irritation of the eye which will cause the dog to rub its face on rough surfaces to relieve the itch. This condition is treatable through surgery with general anesthesia. When the dog is asleep the veterinarian will apply nitrogen to the affected areas and then remove the resulting crust. Much like the way warts are removed in humans.
- Persistent Pupillary Membranes (PPM): This condition goes back to before birth. These strands of tissue are remnants of the fetal membranes which nourished the lenses of the eyes before birth. Normally they will disappear by the time the pup is 4 or 5 weeks old. Sometimes, however, they will persist. When these strands do not break down they can lead to cataracts and corneal opacity. Your vet will prescribe eye drops that will aid in the breaking down of these fibers.
- Detached Retina: This condition is often caused by an injury to the face of the dog. There is no definitive treatment and the condition will result in visual impairment or even blindness. Dogs can lead normal lives when they suffer from blindness as they will begin to rely on their other senses.
- Hypothyroidism: This condition is causes when the thyroid gland produces insufficient amounts of the thyroid hormone. Symptoms include infertility, mental dullness, lethargy, obesity, droopy eyelids, irregular heat cycles in females, and low energy levels. Treatment involves the daily ritual of giving your dog medications. There is no cure and the dog will have to remain on its medication for life.
- Drug Sensitivity: Herding breeds tend to be sensitive to certain drugs. It is genetic in nature and can be passed on down to the pups in a litter. Symptoms may include tremors, depression, incoordination, hypersalivation, coma, seizures, and even death. There is no known cure for this condition. All Australian Shepherds should be genetically screened for this condition.
Feeding the Australian Shepherd
Australian Shepherd dogs can overeat when left to their own devices so their diet needs to be constantly monitored. It is recommended that you feed your Aussie between 1.5 and 2.5 cups of dry food per day depending on his level of activity. The food needs to be of high quality for optimum health. The amount of food given will depend on his size, build, metabolism, age, and activity level. Don’t overfeed.
Always use high quality foods when feeding. In the long run it will be less expensive to feed your dog as he will need a lesser amount than lower value foods.
Also, Aussies should never be left to become self-feeders. It is better to divide the food evenly into two meals than to leave it out and let the dog eat when he feels like it. Doing so can lead your dog to become overweight and lazy as they will try to eat all their food in one sitting.
Caring for the Australian Shepherd
The Australian Shepherd is a medium-high maintenance dog. They are very active and require an owner or family of the same quality. They don’t do well in apartments or with casual families or first-time dog owners. A firm hand and good command skills are a necessity.
The first thing that you need to realize is that this is a herding dog and the herding instinct can overcome any timidity or shyness the dog may have. It will also cause him to escape (and they are quite good at it) in search of something to herd. Because of this the use of an electric invisible fence is of no use. Aussies do not mind getting a mild electric shock when they get the urge to herd so they will pass right through these types of fences.
To make sure that your dog is secure you will need to have a fence that is at least five feet high so that they will not jump over it The fence will also need to go below ground level by at least four feet as they are avid diggers and will try to dig under to find something to herd.
Since this is an active dog it will require approximately an hour a day of vigorous and stimulating exercise. They also need to use their brains so giving them doggie puzzles, obedience training, or agility exercises is a definite asset. An assortment of challenging toys should be on hand for the dog to play with when they are not exercising is a good idea. They will keep him occupied and busy so that he doesn’t herd the family which they have been known to do.
For puppies the amount of exercise required is not important. They are active enough to just let them have their way until they are about seven or eight months old. That is usually the best time to start doing more vigorous training. Just allow them to develop their basic skills and the rest will be easy.
Aussies have a habit of nipping and chasing which is a herding skill. Although this behavior may be good for herding it is not so great with people and other pets. Curb this behavior it is recommended that the Aussie be enrolled into an obedience class when training begins.
As a training dog the Australian Shepherd responds very well to training. They are actually quite easy to train as it is their nature to work hard and please their owner. So when training the Aussie it is important to use positive reinforcement. This can come in the form of praise or small treats. It is important during the training sessions that you remain in control. If not you will find yourself becoming one of his herds and he will take total control. So be firm.
These dogs do quite well in the house and should never be left alone in the yard. They don’t require any special beds, blankets, or outfits. However, if you really need to spoil and embarrass your Aussie go for it.
The Australian Shepherd’s Coat and Grooming
Australian Shepherd’s come with a medium-length coat that is water resistant to keep him comfortable in wet climates. Aussies that live in a colder climate will have a thicker undercoat than those that live in warmer climates.
They also come in a variety of colors and not just the black and white that is often seen in pictures. The most common colors for Aussies are blue merle, red merle, red, tri-color (tan, black, and white), and all black.
The hair (yes hair) itself can be straight or wavy. The hair on the head and ears, on the front of the forelegs, and below the heels or hocks will be shorter and smoother than on the rest of the body. There may also be feathering on the forelegs and the britches. The hair on the neck and chest is usually long and profuse.
Because of the variety of hair types in this dog breed they are prone to developing mats. To solve this problem it is recommended that the Australian Shepherd be brushed every couple of days for about ten minutes. Once each week or two you will need to give them a thorough brushing which should take about thirty minutes minimum. They will also need more frequent brushings during shedding time which usually occurs in mid spring when the weather starts to warm up.
A regular brushing routine will keep the Aussie clean. This will limit the number of times you will need to actually give him a bath to only two or three times a year. When bathing him it is recommended that you only use shampoos and conditioners that are made for dogs. Human shampoos and conditioners will dry out the skin and remove the protective skin oils causing dermatitis or flakey skin. If your Aussie does have flakey skin you should use an oatmeal-based shampoo and conditioner to aid healing of the skin.
Also keep the dog’s nails properly trimmed. A good indication of long nail is when you can actually hear the clicking on the floor when he walks.
Trimming the hair around the ears and between the toes will help to keep your Aussies looking neat and tidy. If doing this makes you uncomfortable it is recommended that you take your Aussie to a professional groomer at least once a year for a trimming. A professional groomer will also advise you on the necessary brushes and combs that you will need to groom your dog.
Controlling Behavior with Children and Other Pets
Australian Shepherd’s tend to see children and other pets as their flock and because of this they will nip and chase them. You must teach your Aussie to this is unacceptable behavior. Once the Aussie learns this they make great companions for families with children and other pets.
It is also important to teach children and other pets not to approach them, or any other animal, when they are eating or sleeping. Aussies are very protective of their territory and will bite when disturbed while eating or sleeping.
Another important thing to teach children is how to approach a dog safely. They should never approach a strange do even if the dog is with its owner. Always ask first and if allowed they should extend their hand in a closed fist from a safe distance so the dog can smell them first. Also teach children not to pull on a dog’s ears or tail. The dog will interpret that as an aggressive approach and will defend himself if threatened.
Best Places to Get an Aussie
If you are not into dog show and just want a companion the best place to go first is to your local humane society. Many dogs need adoption every year and you will be doing a great service. If you can’t find one there you can try these online resources:
- The Australian Shepherd Rescue Page
- Aussie Rescue Canada
- Aussie Rescue and Placement Helpline, Inc.
- Second Time Around Aussie Rescue, Inc.
If you would like to obtain a show-grade Australian Shepherd you can contact a local breeder or one of these online resources:
Australian Shepherd Puppy Pics
Australian Shepherd Puppy Pics