When Australia was first settled, its system of ranching was very small-scale by modern standards. Cattle farms were clustered around present-day Sidney, close to market. Taking a small herd to town was a simple affair, since the animals were quite used to attention from people and their dogs. The traditional dog used in this role was called the Smithfield, believed to be something like an Old English Sheepdog.
The grazing lands further inland were opened to stockmen in 1813. A man could now own thousands of square miles and numerous cattle. Far away from civilization, the cattle adapted to a harsh climate that demanded strong survival instincts. Their innate wildness took control. The Smithfield could no longer manage his charges, and in frustration resorted to barking and biting at the heads of the cattle, spooking them further. By the time dog and cattle arrived at the distant Sidney market, both had usually lost considerable weight.
By about 1830, drovers had decided that a new canine assistant was needed to meet the challenge of herding in Australia. One of the earliest experiments was that of a man named Timmins. In an effort to create a new breed that was hardy enough to withstand the climate and silent enough to keep the cattle under control, he crossed Smithfield dogs with dingos. Timmins achieved both of his goals, but he accidentally created a new problem—his crossbred dogs were aggressive and came equipped with a vicious bite. The name Timmin’s Biter said it all.
Thomas Hall of New South Wales started a similar experiment in 1840. However, instead of the furry Smithfield, Hall chose a pair of sleeker, more heat-tolerant Smooth Collies. These dogs were willing workers that could withstand the climate, but like the Smithfield they were quite vocal and tended to grip cattle by the head. Hall crossed their puppies with tame dingos. The results were somewhat variable at first, but Hall was evidently a skilled breeder willing to keep only the best dogs as breeding stock.
Hall’s Heelers, as the dogs were named from their instinct to nip at heels instead of noses, impressed the local cattlemen. They were tough dogs, bearing a strong resemblance to wild dingos but with a flashier blue or red merle pattern. Hall died in 1870, and his dogs were sold, making them more widely available to other breeders, some of whom had been experimenting with Smooth Collie/dingo crosses themselves.
About this time, two bothers, Jack and Harry Bagust, bought some heelers of their own with the goal of improving the new breed still further. Two new traits they desired were loyalty to the master and a love of horses. Finding both of these characteristics in the Dalmatian breed, they imported a spotted dog and crossed him to a Hall’s Heeler. The resulting offspring did indeed love their masters and their masters’ horses, making them excellent watchdogs and companions on the way to market. They also displayed the unique speckled pattern familiar in the Australian Cattle Dog today instead of a patchy merle. However, the part-Dalmatian heelers had also lost some of their herding instinct.
To restore this ability, the Bagusts next added a Kelpie to the mix. This breed is an Australian sheepdog, something like a stocky dingo with tan markings. The resulting puppies were the epitome of everything an Australian drover could want—tough, hardy, loyal, and silent, but tenacious heelers. Other crossbreeding experiments were tried after this, but all failed. The new Australian Cattle Dog (AuCaDo) was already perfected.
As the Australian Cattle Dog grew in popularity among Australian drovers, the cattle industry flourished, as well. The next step in the breed’s progress was standardization. Breeders carefully selected only breeding stock that could work as desired, but they also focused on looks as well. When a breed standard was written in 1897, it emphasized both color and dingo build. The theory behind selecting for dogs like dingos was that these were likely the hardiest and best adapted to Australian conditions. As for the focus on the unique speckled blue or red, appropriately marked with tan, the color pattern probably indicated freedom from undesirable genetic influences.
Some confusion prevailed in the early 1900s, as breeders sought to choose their direction. The Australian Cattle Dog breed originally included both dogs with tails and dogs with natural bobtails, the latter probably indicating Smithfield influence. The two were eventually divided into separate breeds, and the Australian Cattle Dog moved forward—with a tail.
The breed was discovered by American soldiers stationed in Australia during World War II and introduced to our shores at the war’s end. American ranchers were slow to accept it at first, probably since it looked nothing like the Australian Shepherds that had already become a fixture on Western ranches or like the English Shepherds that prevailed on Midwest farms. However, a few dedicated enthusiasts bred the dogs for work and pursued AKC recognition early on.
After nearly two decades of research, sufficient pedigree records were compiled to bring the Australian Cattle Dog into the AKC on September 1, 1980. The breed was originally placed in the Working Group, but was reclassified when the Herding Group was created in 1983. Since that time, most Australian Cattle Dog breeders have striven to maintain a high level of versatility within the breed, a goal they have achieved with moderate success.
Australian Cattle Dog fans of all stripes have also manged to achieve better public recognition of their breed. As of 2016, the AuCaDo ranked 54th in popularity according to AKC statistics. Many heelers, both registered and unregistered, have become indispensable hands on ranches across the country. The blue variety is more popular than the red.
The Australian Cattle Dog is a serious workaholic, making him suitable for many intense jobs. Herding is his most obvious purpose in life, and cattle are his preferred livestock. Some, however, can make the transition to working sheep or goats. But the AuCaDo is not limited to the farm or ranch for herding work. He is often found on golf courses and at airports driving away geese. Note that while dogs from show lines retain their working instinct, they are often stockier than their lean, lanky working counterparts and therefore less agile.
In addition to herding instinct, the AuCaDo has a strong protective instinct and a keen nose that comes in handy in many dangerous tasks. He excels in personal protection, police duty, and drug detection. Similarly, he can make a good showing in Schutzhund, a test involving obedience, tracking, and protection tasks originally designed to evaluate working German Shepherds. Finally, the AuCaDo’s nose has also been put to work tracking endangered wildlife for conservation purposes.
The intelligence, endurance, and loyalty of the Australian Cattle Dog can make him a good assistance dog for the disabled, but it also makes him a great companion in more casual pursuits. He frequently finds his way into the tops ranks of intense sports such as agility and flyball, and he is an ideal partner for serious hikers, bikers, and runners. For those who prefer being towed, the AuCaDo is a powerful draft dog that enjoys skijoring (pulling the owner on skis) and the similar sport of bikejoring.
The Australian Cattle Dog is among the most challenging dogs to own and train, but the challenge is incredibly rewarding to those who are firm enough to channel the breed’s instincts productively. This is a dog that will test the will power of every family member, particularly while going through adolescence. He needs firm, consistent guidance, but also plenty of love and fun. He thrives on positive training methods, particularly clicker training, which appeals to his desire for clarity and his enjoyment of a challenge followed by a reward. He is incredibly smart and learns fast, so don’t bore him with excessive repetition.
The AuCaDo is typically a one-person dog, although he will love and protect all of his family members. He is often compared to velcro, since he has a strong desire to be with his people and to help them with whatever they are doing. Finding him a job is not optional. He needs a responsibility to feel useful and to work off his abundant energy. Once he has received the requisite mental and physical stimulation, he is a calm but alert guardian, one that can be trusted implicitly.
This dog can be a little too rough in his play for seniors or very small children, but he is an excellent companion for older children. He may chase the family cat unless he has been raised with it and taught better manners. He can usually get along with a familiar submissive dog, preferably of the opposite sex. The Australian Cattle Dog is not recommended for homes with other dominant, strong-willed dogs, however, and he does not get along well with strangers, either. He is not afraid to bite, but this does not mean he is unstable or vicious. In the mind of an AuCaDo, the rules are quite simple—everything is his. That includes the yard, the toys, the food, the truck, and the people. Trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Female heelers display interesting characteristics going back to their dingo ancestors. They tend to burrow in the ground before giving birth, and they may wean their puppies as early as four weeks of age. But just because the mother has stopped feeding her puppies does not mean they are ready for new homes. AuCaDos have a strong instinct to nip in play or when taking control of a situation. Keeping littermates together until they are eight weeks of old can help temper this, since they will retaliate if bitten too hard, thereby training each other.
The Australian Cattle Dog is used to working independently, calling his own shots when herding cattle. He tends to work close to the stock, but relies on force rather than eye for control. He is a silent, serious worker. A stubborn animal just makes him more determined, and a kick that would turn other dogs off from herding for life is likely to be received with open jaws.
Most experienced owners feel that there is little if any difference in temperament between red heelers and blue heelers, contrary to popular belief. There is, however, a difference between working and show lines. Although the two are similar, the working type is even more intense and energetic than the show type, definitely not something the average pet owner is prepared to deal with but perfect for the ranch.
Overall, the AuCaDo is among the most rugged and sturdy of dogs. He usually enjoys a long, healthy life.
However, he is extremely active and has a strong belief in his own invincibility, leading to many traumatic injuries. Fractures and torn ligaments are common problems in this breed. Similarly, note that most Australian Cattle Dogs will attempt to eat literally anything.
Inherited problems that are common in the Australian Cattle Dog include:
- Progressive retinal atrophy.
- Hip dysplasia.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Various reproductive problems.
- Osteochondritis dissecans, a painful joint condition in which cartilage and bone die and crack.
Seen less frequently are other eye problems, such as cataracts and lens luxation, and slipped kneecaps (patellar luxation).
Note that AuCaDo puppies are normally born white. However, their future color can easily be identified by a quick check of the paw pads. If the pads are black or blue, the puppy is a blue heeler; if the pads are brown or red, he is a red heeler.
- Minimal grooming requirements.
- Adaptability to most climates.
- Extreme heat tolerance.
- Strong desire to work.
- Tendency to test authority.
- Aggression toward other animals, particularly dogs.
- High-pitched barking.
- Need for strenuous mental and physical activity.
- Tendency for compulsive behavior.
- Heavy shedding.