Information about the Australian sheep dog

The Australian shepherd is a breed of a herding dog that was developed on ranches in western United States. Despite its name, the breed, commonly known as an Aussie, did not originate in Australia and is American. They acquired their name because some of these dogs were used to herd Australian sheep. The breed rose gradually in popularity with the boom of western riding after World War I. They became known to the general public through rodeos, horse shows, and through Disney movies made for television.

For many years, Aussies have been valued by stockmen for their versatility and trainability. They have a similar look to the popular English Shepherd and Border Collie breeds. While they continue to work as stockdogs and compete in herding trials, the breed has earned recognition in other roles due to their trainability and eagerness to please, and are highly regarded for their skills in obedience. Like all working breeds, the Aussie has considerable energy and drive, and usually needs a job to do. It often excels at dog sports such as dog agility, flyball, and frisbee. They are also highly successful search and rescue dogs, disaster dogs, detection dogs, guide, service, and therapy dogs.

The Australian shepherd is a medium sized breed of solid build. The ASCA standard calls for the Australian shepherd to stand between 18-23 inches at the withers, females being 18-21 inches and males measuring 20-23 inches, however, quality is not to be sacrificed in favor of size.

Aussie colors are black, red (sometimes called liver), blue merle (marbled black, white and gray), and red merle (marbled red, white and buff); each of these colors may also have copper (tan) points and/or white markings in various combination on the face, chest, and legs. A black or red dog with copper and white trim is called tricolor or tri, a black or red dog with white trim but no copper is called bicolor or bi. White, rather than pigment, on or around the ears is an indicator of increased risk for white-related deafness. Excessive white on the face and ears can place an individual dog at greater risk for sunburn and subsequent skin cancer.

The wide variation of color combinations comes from the interaction between the a color allele, which is either black (B) dominant or red (b) recessive, and the dominant merle allele (M). Together, these provide four coat-color aspects that can appear in any combination:

  • Black, with tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Solid black dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Red (Liver) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Either white or tan points are required. Solid Red dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Blue Merle (a mottled patchwork of gray and black) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Neither white nor tan points are required. Solid Merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Red Merle (a mottled patchwork of cream and liver red) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Neither white nor tan points are required. Solid Merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.

The merle allele, which produces a mingled or patchwork combination of dark and light areas, is the coat pattern most commonly associated with the breed. This merle (M) is dominant so that unaffected dogs (Mm) show the pigmentation pattern; however, when two merles are bred, there is a statistical risk that 25% of the offspring will end up with the two copies of the merle gene (homozygous). These dogs usually have a mostly white coat and blue irises, and are often deaf and/or blind. In this case, the deafness and blindness are linked to having two copies of the merle gene, which disrupts pigmentation and produces these health defects.

All black and blue merle dogs have black noses, eye rims, and lips. All red and red merle dogs have liver or brown noses, eye rims, and lips.
Red merle with copper points and one brown eye and one blue eye. Blue merle with copper points with blue eyes

There is also great variety in the Aussie’s eye color. An early nickname for the breed was “ghost-eye dog”. Aussie eyes may be any shade or hue of brown, or blue; they may have two different colored eyes, or even have bicolored or “split eyes” (for example, a half-brown, half-blue eye), which appear to be linked to the merle coloration. Merled eyes occur as well, where one color is mixed in and swirled with another. Any combination of eye color is acceptable in the breed standard, so long as the eyes are healthy. In general, however, black Aussies (self, bi-color or tri-color) tend to have brown eyes, while red (self, bi-color or tri-color) Aussies tend to have amber eyes, though these Aussies may also carry the blue eyed gene.

A hallmark of the breed, some Aussies are born with naturally bobbed tails (NBT). Others have full long tails, and others with natural partial bobs, where the tail is midlength and appears stubby. Breeders have historically docked the tails when the puppies are born. Even without a tail, the wagging movement of the hind end still occurs. In the United States and Canada the standard calls for a natural bob or docked tail not to exceed four inches as a defining characteristic, however some long tailed examples have been successfully shown and been given recognition despite having a longer tail. Any natural tail length is permitted when showing in Europe, where docking has been banned in some countries.

The breed is typically highly energetic, requiring a great deal of exercise and attention. Sometimes they can be calm and easy-going. An Australian shepherd enjoys working, whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in dog agility, or engaging in any other physically and mentally involving activity.

Dogs may show reserved and cautious guarding behaviors. They are kind, loving, and devoted to those they know. They are very loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well. Because the breed was developed to serve on the ranch, a job which includes being protective of its property, it is inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity. It is not inclined toward obsessive barking.

The Aussie is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie may invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity: for example, an Aussie may go from being at rest to running at top speed for several “laps” around the house before returning to rest. Without something to amuse them, Aussies can become destructive. Aussies also do best with plenty of human companionship: they are often called “Velcro Dogs” for their strong desire to always be near their owners and for their tendency to form intense, devoted bonds with select people.

The Australian shepherd has a reputation as a highly intelligent and versatile stock dog with a range of working styles. A good working Aussie is quick, thoughtful, and easy with its stock. The ability for the breed to adapt to the situation and think for itself makes it an excellent all-around worker. For this reason the Aussie is often chosen to work unusual livestock such as ducks, geese, and commercially raised rabbits.

Australian shepherds can become extremely destructive if their energy is not directed in a positive way. These dogs require a minimum of 2-3 hours a day of play, exercise, and attention. The dogs thrive in rural, ranch like conditions, and need space to run and play in an urban setting. The Australian shepherd is a high-spirited dog, that requires much attention and work. Teaching them tricks keeps them focused and happy, which also keeps their minds working. The breed also has great stamina and can live in a variety of terrain. That’s why they are a popular pick as trail dogs and working dogs.