It may surprise you, but the Australian Shepherd is actually an American breed, developed in the West in the 19th century. There is an Australian connection, however. Some of the breed’s most influential ancestors were various Basque herding dogs from both Spain and France, including the Pyrenean Shepherd. Basque dogs were originally brought to America by shepherds, some arriving directly on our shores, others coming after a brief sojourn in Australia. Hence the erroneous impression that some of the dogs involved in the creation of the Australian Shepherd were native to Australia.
But there are more than Basque dogs in the Australian Shepherd’s heritage. The sheep ranges of the West were home to several other types of herding dogs, including:
- The Border Collie.
- The Scotch Collie, the ancestor of the fluffy dog we now think of as a Collie.
- The Smithfield, a bobtailed dog something like an Old English Sheepdog.
Some experts speculate that German settlers may have introduced their own sheep-herding dogs, the predecessors of the modern German Shepherd. DNA evidence also points to the influence of ancient dogs that migrated over the Bering Land Bridge, probably dingo-like animals that lived half-wild on the fringes of Native American society.
These types were crossed and recrossed all over the West and Midwest for decades, resulting in several closely related landraces (local populations that are less uniform than standardized breeds but still genetically close enough to be distinguished from other populations). The resulting dogs were somewhat varied in appearance and made excellent all-around farm and ranch dogs, often classified together and epitomized in the name of “Old Shep.”
Both the Midwest farm variety and the Western ranch variety of “Old Shep” were largely treated as the same breed throughout the first half of the 1900s, although the Western variety did achieve more fame thanks to trick dogs popular in rodeos after World War II. When record-keeping and registration began, both were classified as English Shepherds. However, the two types had distinct purposes and came from different locations in the United States, so it was only logical that they be recognized as separate breeds. Accordingly, the Australia Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) split off in 1957 to handle the dog of the Western ranch.
Much of the Australian Shepherd’s subsequent history has involved controversy. One of the biggest quarrels was over AKC recognition of this working breed. The question came up in the 1980s, with some breeders for it and some against it. Those for recognition, along with its associated right to enter the breed into the conformation ring, separated into their own organization, the United States Australian Shepherd Association (USASA). The USASA achieved its goal when the Australian Shepherd was added to the AKC Herding Group on January 1, 1993. Not surprisingly, this led to the creation of separate show (AKC/USASA) and working (ASCA) bloodlines.
An older conflict that still causes feuds among dog breeders began with the creation of a miniature version of the Australian Shepherd in 1968. Originally, this little dog was bred by simply seeking out smaller purebred Australian Shepherds. For a time, it was treated as just a miniature variety of the same breed. However, when the AKC granted recognition to the Australian Shepherd it barred the smaller version thanks to pressure from breeders of the standard size. (The ASCA barred the miniature variety at about the same time for the same reason.) Miniature Australian Shepherd breeders did not give up hope, however, so the AKC eventually agreed to recognize their version separately—provided that the name was changed. After some debate, in 2011, the name Miniature American Shepherd was selected (which, ironically, better reflects the history of the breed as a whole than Australian Shepherd). The Miniature American Shepherd achieved AKC recognition in 2015 and is now maintained as a separate breed.
Adding to the chaos and confusion was the creation of the even smaller Toy (or Teacup) Australian Shepherd. This type is not really an Australian Shepherd, but a mixed-breed dog. It evolved through crossbreeding with a wide range of smaller dogs. While these little dogs can be just as cute and lovable as their larger counterparts, some are unfortunately bred as a source of quick cash by dishonest breeders.
The Australian Shepherd is a favorite on many ranches, but is also a popular pet, as proven by its ranking of 12th in popularity according to 2021 AKC statistics.
The Australian Shepherd displays incredible versatility. He can make the ultimate companion for an active family, always ready to go hiking, biking, or camping. For the competitive, he is an almost unrivaled athlete, nearly guaranteed to reach the highest levels of performance, whether the sport is formal obedience or a fast-paced agility championship. For those who need a little more assistance with their daily lives, he can be a devoted guide, hearing, assistance, or therapy dog.
Working bloodlines are tough enough to take on the jobs of police work, drug detection, and search and rescue. They also make excellent personal protectors. Show/companion lines are not forceful enough to serve as guard dogs, but they do make good watchdogs.
When it comes to herding, the Australian Shepherd again displays great versatility. A good specimen from working lines can readily tell whether force or tact is required in a given situation, making this breed ideal for working both cattle and sheep. Dogs from show lines must be evaluated on an individual basis. Some do not display any herding instinct at all, while others are savvy enough to work any livestock species. However, showdogs tend to be too stocky to be agile and too fluffy to be easily groomed. This disqualifies them from serious ranch work, but may make them a good choice for the backyard herder or weekend farmer.
Also note that there is now a dual-purpose type of Australian Shepherd that can excel in nearly anything required of it, whether that is work or show. This third, intermediate type is a little harder to find than the other two, but can be found among the among the AKC/USASA dogs.
Intelligence is one of the most outstanding characteristics of the Australian Shepherd. His ability to think ahead and solve problems is what helps him outsmart livestock, but it also makes him very receptive to training. While a few individuals can be domineering, most want to please and respond best to positive training methods. Keep their minds busy, or they will find their own jobs, probably in the form of demolition projects or sound- and motion-activated alarm system work.
Australian Shepherds are perpetual puppies. They never outgrow their energy, playfulness, and exuberance. However, they can still take themselves very seriously. When given a job to do, they will carry it out diligently.
These are very much people dogs that want to be an integral part of the family. They bond so intensely that over time they can seem to develop a psychic knowledge of their owner’s wants and needs. They prefer to stick to their people like glue, going wherever they go and doing whatever they do. They can also get along quite well with the children and with the other dogs in the household, although their strong herding instinct may lead to clashes with the family cat.
A working Australian Shepherd prefers to operate close to the stock. He watches his whole herd or flock loosely so that he can see where the entire group is at all times, only staring when extra force is needed. He can adapt to working at either the head or the heel of his livestock. He displays a strong instinct to gather scattered animals into groups.
It is important to note that there are striking variations in temperament throughout the Australian Shepherd breed. Working bloodlines are energetic dogs that can react and move with lightning speed. They are very guarded with strangers, and may feel the need to defend their family or territory. They display considerably more intelligence than dogs from show lines. Show-bred Australian Shepherds, on the other hand, are much calmer. They tend to take a laid-back approach to life, and rarely meet a person that they don’t like. Some (particularly those from dual-purpose lines) still retain herding instinct.
Despite the sturdy build of this breed, health problems unfortunately run rampant. The most common difficulties include:
- Hip dysplsia.
- Elbow dysplasia.
- Autoimmune thyroiditis.
- Multi-drug resistance, which can cause life-threatening reactions to some tranquilizers and heartworm medications (also a problem in Australian Shepherd mixes).
- Hemangiosarcoma, a cancer that can cause sudden death in dogs over four years of age.
Occasionally, some Australian Shepherds will develop dermatitis on their noses when exposed to sunlight. Also, the incidence of epilepsy is above average in this breed.
Fortunately, two potential problems in this breed are easy to prevent. Avoid breeding two merles together, as two merle genes will lead to white puppies born blind and deaf. Likewise, avoid mating two naturally bobtailed dogs to prevent spinal defects in the offspring. (Most Australian Shepherds are born with tails and have them docked at an early age.)
- Suitability for homes with children.
- Ease of grooming (working lines).
- Extreme versatility.
- Need for nearly constant human companionship.
- Need for mental and physical exercise.
- Heavy shedding.
- Numerous health problems.