The Australian Shepherd
These medium sized dogs are highly skilled in herding and obedience but they excel in a variety of other dog sports as well such as agility and disc. If you are looking for a smart, active breed and you have a great deal of time to devote to training and exercise, the Australian Shepherd is a breed worth considering.
Australian Shepherd Dog Breed Information
AKC Breed Group
Merle, Black, Tri-Color
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Given the name of this breed, you might think that it was developed in Australia but you would be wrong. In fact, the Australian Shepherd was developed in the Western United States as a farm dog during the 19th century. It is unclear how the breed came to be associated with Australia as it was bred from dogs that came from Western Europe, not from the Outback. Though there are numerous theories regarding the name, the breed is primarily known for its intelligence, its working ability, and its versatility.
Fun Facts About the Australian Shepherd
- Before being known as the Australian Shepherd, this breed was known by many other names including Aussie, Pastor Dog, Spanish Shepherd, Bob-Tail, California Shepherd, Austrian Shepherd, and New Mexican Shepherd.
- This breed is highly intelligent and can be trained to do everything from performing tricks to doing chores around the house.
- These dogs are unique in appearance from other breeds, commonly sporting a marbled (merle) coat of black, white, and red.
Coat and Appearance
What many people don’t realize about the Australian Shepherd breed is that there are actually two types – one bred for herding and another bred for show. Dogs bred for herding are typically smaller and thinner than their counterparts and they also have slightly shorter coats. The herding variety needs to be able to make quick movements to keep a herd under control and the shorter coat is less likely to get caught in brush and brambles. Both types have lithe, agile bodies with a balanced appearance. Generally speaking, males tend to stand 20 to 23 inches tall while females stand 18 to 21 inches tall. The average weight for this breed is 35 to 65 pounds.
According to the AKC breed standard, the Australian Shepherd has a solid build that is well-muscled but not stocky. The muzzle tapers from base to nose and the bite is scissors or level. The expressive is intelligent and attentive with a friendly gaze and the eyes may range in color from brown to blue to amber and everything in between, often with flecks or marbled color – it is also not uncommon for this breed to exhibit eyes of two different colors. These dogs have straight backs with a deep chest and well sprung ribs. The legs are straight and strong and the tail is straight and either docked or naturally bobbed, not longer than 4 inches.
The Aussie’s coat is medium in length and weather resistant. It ranges from straight to wavy and the undercoat may change in texture and thickness according to the climate. The hair is shorter and smoother on the head, forelegs, and ears with feathering on the britches and the backs of the forelegs. Most specimens of the breed exhibit a mane and frill, though it is more prominent in males than females. Colors include black, blue merle, red merle, and red – any of these may include white markings or tan points.
History of the Breed
As it has already been mentioned, the Australian Shepherd is not an Australian breed but an American one. The exact origins of the breed are unknown, but it is commonly thought that it was developed during the 1800s when the Basque people of Europe moved to Australia, bringing their herding dogs with them. Many of those dogs were imported to the United States shortly thereafter where they were used to develop a breed talented in herding and general stock work. Because the climate and landscape was so different in the United States, the breed was developed and adapted to the new conditions.
For the most part, the Australian Shepherd flew under the radar until the 1950s when it became known for its work as trick dogs in circuses and rodeos. The Australian Shepherd Club of America was formed in 1957 but it wasn’t until 1993 that the AKC accepted the breed for registration. Though the breed is ranked 16th in popularity according to AKC statistics, this number may be misleading in terms of the breed’s popularity since many specimens are used for herding and are not registered. In addition to its herding ability and general farm work, this breed is also popular for dog sports and can be kept as a family pet as well.
Temperament and Personality
Developed as a herding breed, the Australian Shepherd tends to be a little pushy with livestock. If you don’t present yourself as a firm and consistent leader for your dog, he may take advantage. There is no need for punishment or harsh treatment with this breed, but you should start as early as possible with socialization and training to ensure that your puppy grows into a well-adjusted and obedient adult. As is true for many herding breeds, the Australian Shepherd is loyal and affectionate with family but they can be a little aloof around strangers – another reason why early socialization is so important.
Generally speaking, the Aussie is an energetic and adaptable breed that likes to be a part of the action. These dogs thrive on routine, but they will never say no to an impromptu game or ride in the car. If you plan to keep your Aussie as a family pet, be sure to buy your puppy from a breeder who raises his puppies in a home-like setting rather than leaving them in a barn. Socialization is extremely important for this breed and should be started before you even bring your puppy home. This breed can be a little territorial and protective of family, but he is not inherently aggressive. He may be a little wary around other dogs, however, so be sure to supervise interactions.
The Australian Shepherd is a highly intelligent breed that responds very well to training. Not only can these dogs be trained for herding and farm work, but they excel in a wide variety of dog sports and can be taught to do tricks as well. Because this breed is so smart, it may only take a few repetitions for him to learn a new command – try not to let your training sessions become too long or repetitive because your dog might get bored. These dogs aim to please and they love having a job to do so, when they do something right, make sure to be generous with praise and rewards so your dog continues to do the things you want him to do.
As a herding breed, the Australian Shepherd sometimes brings his work home with him. These dogs herd cattle and other livestock by nipping at their heels to change the direction of their movement. Sometimes this behavior carries over into the dog’s home life, so you’ll need to teach your dog not to chase or nip at children and other pets. Fortunately, most dogs adjust to family life very quickly and they make excellent household companions. Just be sure that you teach your children how to properly handle and interact with a dog.
Developed as a working breed, the Australian Shepherd is a highly active dog. This breed requires at least 30 but ideally 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day. This can be accomplished through a long walk or a jog, though some active playtime will be appreciated as well. These dogs also enjoy having a fenced yard in which to run and play. Another way to give your dog some extra exercise is to train him for dog sports. If you must leave your dog alone, it is recommended that you give him an interactive toy to keep him busy, both mentally and physically, so he doesn’t become bored and destructive.
The Australian Shepherd has a medium-length coat that has a water-resistant quality and a somewhat harsh texture. It is also worth noting that the breed’s undercoat changes in thickness and texture depending on the climate – it is thicker and heavier when the dog lives in a cooler climate. The texture of the coat ranges from straight to wavy and most dogs have feathering on the backs of the legs and the tail as well as a thick main around the neck. Although their coat is fairly long, this breed generally doesn’t need to be trimmed. You should, however, brush the coat at least once a week to reduce shedding and to prevent mats and tangles. The dog should be bathed only when needed to avoid stripping the coat of its natural moisturizing oils. Additionally, you should trim your dog’s nails once or twice a month, brush his teeth daily, and clean his ears once a week or as needed.
Nutrition and Feeding
The quality of your Australian Shepherd’s diet is important for maintaining his health and energy. These dogs are highly active and energetic, so they require a diet that provides for their energy needs. Generally speaking, this means a diet that is rich in protein and fat. A protein-rich diet will ensure that your puppy grows up with strong muscles and, as an adult, it helps to maintain lean muscle mass. Fat is the most highly concentrated source of energy for dogs, so your Aussie’s diet should have plenty of fat – just make sure that it comes from high-quality, animal-based sources to maximize bioavailability. When it comes to carbohydrates, limit your dog’s intake and make sure any he does eat come from highly digestible sources (preferably not grains).
The easiest way to make sure that your dog’s energy needs are met may be to feed him a diet that is specially formulated for active or working breeds. These formulas are typically high in protein with moderate to high fat content and limited carbohydrate content. Just make sure that the first ingredient is a high-quality source of animal protein and that you follow the feeding recommendations. These recommendations are made according to your dog’s weight and age, so follow the instructions as a general guideline. You should still keep an eye on your dog’s bodyweight and condition to make sure he isn’t getting too much or too little food. Your veterinarian can help you to determine a healthy weight for your Australian Shepherd.
Common Health Problems
For the most part, the Australian Shepherd is a healthy breed with an average lifespan of 12 to 16 years – this is fairly high for a dog of its size. Though many specimens of the breed are perfectly healthy, dogs with two copies of the merle gene (referred to as double merle) have an increased risk for developing vision or hearing problems. Not all double merle dogs go blind or deaf but it is common enough that you should be very careful when purchasing from a breeder to ensure that they follow responsible breeding practices. Dogs should also be screened for other inherited conditions like musculoskeletal problems, eye problems, and congenital defects.
Though the breed is largely healthy, all dogs are prone to certain diseases. Here is an overview of some of the conditions most commonly seen in the Australian Shepherd breed:
- Hip Dysplasia – Generally an inherited condition that many dog breeds display, hip dysplasia affects the hip joint – it occurs when the head of the femur slips out of the hip socket. Over time, this can lead to arthritis in the affected joint and even lameness if left untreated.
- Elbow Dysplasia – Similar to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia affects the elbow joint. The condition can be treated with pain meds to manage pan or surgery to correct the problem.
- Cataracts – A cataract is simply an opacity that forms in the lens of the eye and obstructs the dog’s vision. This condition generally isn’t painful unless the cataract luxates (slips out of position) and slides down to block the tear ducts, leading to an increase in intraocular pressure.
- Epilepsy – Though this condition cannot be cured, it can be managed with anti-seizure medications. It is generally an inherited condition though it can also be triggered by head injury.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy – A degenerative eye condition, PRA occurs when the photoreceptors in the back of the eye degrade, leading to a progressive loss of vision. This condition is not painful and there is no cure, but many dogs adapt well to a loss of vision.
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans – An orthopedic condition that is caused by improper growth in the cartilage that surrounds the joints, this disease occurs most commonly in the elbows and shoulders. OCD causes the affected joint to stiffen painfully and may prevent the joint from bending.
- Collie Eye Anomaly – An inherited condition, collie eye anomaly can develop as early as 2 years and it can lead to blindness. There is no treatment for this condition but it can be detected with DNA testing.
- Persistent Pupillary Membranes – This condition occurs when remnants of pupillary membranes (strands of tissue in the eyes that provide nourishment to the eyes before birth) fail to disappear after the puppy is born. In most cases, these fibers naturally break down by 2 months of age but, if they don’t, it can lead to the formation of cataracts.
- Hypothyroidism – This condition is characterized by abnormally low levels of thyroid hormone. Signs of hypothyroidism may include infertility, mental dullness, a tendency toward weight gain, drooping eyelids, and low energy levels. This condition can be treated with daily medication.
- Nasal Solar Dermatitis – This condition is common in dogs that have little to no pigment in the skin on their nose. Dogs with this condition are super-sensitive to sunlight and may develop lesions with prolonged exposure.
In addition to these health problems, Aussies are also prone to allergies and drug sensitivity. In terms of allergies, these dogs can be sensitive to certain foods or they can develop a contact or inhalant allergy to environmental allergens like dust, mold, and pollen. Drug sensitivity may affect your dog’s ability to tolerate flea and tick preventives as well as heartworm medications. There isn’t a treatment for this, but you can have your dog DNA tested to see if he has a sensitivity.