All About The Aussie: The Australian Shepherd Dog
Often simply known as an Aussie, the Australian Shepherd was actually not originally from Australia. They were bred on American ranches during the early 19th century.
The beginnings of the breed are somewhat of a mystery, as are the origins of the misleading name. Many breeders believe that their ancestors were some type of British herding dogs that came through New York City via immigration along with their owners. They may have been bred purposely with wild native North American dogs.
For most of the history of herding and working dogs, the owners were significantly more concerned with their talents and abilities than their lineage, so there is not a much-written history about Australian Shepherds.
They slowly made their way across the United States to the desert. The descendants of the original Australian Shepherds were mixed with Spanish herding breeds that made the line stronger. The following litters proved to be useful in the tough terrain, capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and working in varying altitudes.
The ranchers in the American West often took their herds and flocks out to very remote areas with little water and no shade from the sun. The dogs they used needed to be bred to be aggressive, diligent, and fearless, as they were often used as a herder and a guard dog.
After World War I Australian Shepherds were introduced to the rodeo scene, where they were trained to jump high ropes, run through and around barrels, and perform a dozen other tricks. People fell in love with them and Aussies were featured in a number of shows and movies during this time.
Their popularity surged and registration numbers went through the roof.
In the 70s, a man named Eldon McIntire and his Australian Shepherd dog Hyper Hank traveled around the country competing in frisbee contests. They won contests and were known around the world, and were even invited to The White House for a reception!
The AKC began to recognize the Aussie as a formal breed in the early 1970s. As of 2016, it was the nation’s 17th most popular dog.
They are highly intelligent, consistently ranking in the top few smartest dog breeds, and are easy to train.
They have a considerable amount of energy combined with speed and endurance, which makes them the perfect outdoor enthusiast. They do best with plenty of space to run and jobs to do to keep their brains and bodies busy.
Because of their diligence and work ethic, Australian Shepherds make great search and rescue dogs, guide and service animals, and detection dogs for drugs and human remains.
Aussies look very similar to Border Collies. They are medium-sized, standing not quite two feet tall at the shoulder. They get to be as heavy as 70 pounds or so, but it is primarily muscle, making the Australian Shepherd stocky and strong.
They have a thick double coat that keeps them warm and protected from the elements; it has a long, fuzzy, shaggy undercoat and a top coat of coarser, shorter fur known as guard hairs. They do not need trimming, but they will need regular grooming.
Their hair can pick up dirt and debris and it will need to be brushed out. They can also form knots and tangles in their undercoat they will need to be carefully cleaned up.
The Australian Shepherd coat comes in many colors, but AKC standards are solid black, solid red, and blue merle. Many dogs have tan markings on their faces and body. White hair on the face is very common but be advised: white faces can sunburn more easily than other colors.
Merle coloring is a pattern of mottled patches of different colors in a dog’s coat. Merle coloring often affects the toes and foot pads and forms splotches of color on their skin. Their eyes are affected, too- it modifies the dark pigmentation, causing the eyes to become speckled with blue.
The gene that carries merle coloring can also carry those for some genetic health conditions as a recessive gene, so it is potentially disastrous to breed two merle coated dogs together.
Australian Shepherds can have heterochromia, which means one eye is a different color than the other. It does not change their ability to see and is fairly common in a number of breeds. Usually, Aussie eyes are blue or brown.
The Aussie tail is naturally a long, full tail. Many breeders in the United States dock the tail, and the show standard is no more than four inches. Tail docking is banned in most of Europe, where it is considered painful and cruel for no benefit, so the standard is the full tail.
Some puppies are even born with a naturally bobbed tail, which is a sign of their heritage as a working breed. Having a long tail was a liability when herding large heads of cattle so many breeds evolved to have a shorter one.
The Australian Shepherd was bred purposely to serve as a ranch hand, so they are spunky and tough and loyal. They will spend their lives protecting their homes and their land. While not prone to excessive barking, they will warn their humans of any potential trouble.
Aussies need a constant outlet for their energy. If they do not have work to do, they may be found creating their own games involving running and digging. This may look like hyperactivity or even destructive tendencies to the owner but it is just a cue that the dog is not being properly exercised.
Australian Shepherds are naturally disposed toward being in constant human company. They crave companionship and are often known as “Velcro dogs”. They form very intense bonds with their people.
If an Aussie has children in his house, it is essential that he understands the rules and has firm boundaries. He may attempt to herd the young kids by nipping at them and leaning on them to round them up, especially if he gets tired and they are still running.
Capable of successfully adapting to any situation and making decisions for itself, Aussies are an excellent all-around worker.
The Beautiful Blue-Coated Australian Cattle Dog, The Blue Heeler
The Australian Cattle Dog was originally developed in 1840 in Australia to herd cattle across the rough, rocky terrain. A purposeful cross between wild dingoes and Old English Sheepdogs, which lacked in natural endurance and were only helpful for herding large cattle over very short distances, Thomas Hall introduced a new breed called the Hall Heelers.
The Hall family had an advantage over other cattle ranchers in the area, as they could reliably shift their herds to different grazing areas more readily than those without a Heeler. They kept their breed to themselves for around 30 years until the last of the Hall family properties went to auction, dogs with them.
The Cattle Dog Club Of Sydney fell in love with the breed and named their descendants Australian Cattle Dogs to differentiate from the original line of Hall Heelers.
Through the late 1800s and early 1900s breeders quickly latched on to the breed derivations.
During World War II, many American and European soldiers were stationed in Australia (most concentrated in Queensland) and fell in love with the Australian Cattle Dog breed. They went home with a number of soldiers after their duty tour was finished.
In the 1950s an American veterinarian in California bought several dogs and began experimenting with breeding them with various other breeds. He called his stock Queensland Heelers.
Australian Cattle Dogs have been an AKC-acknowledged breed since the 1930s. There are two primary color deviations, which are both white with the secondary color interspersed: brown hair (or Red Heelers) and black hair (Blue Heelers).
Chocolate and cream-colored coats are also common, but they are considered non-standard colors and are not admissible in the show ring.
Interestingly, all Australian Cattle Dogs are born pure white. They begin to develop their colored hair at around four weeks old. The colored spots are the result of a ticking gene (which is purely color) versus a merle gene, which can also cause several genetic health conditions.
Breeding a merle dog too a merle dog is a very bad mistake. It can cause dogs often referred to as ‘lethal whites’ which causes large spots of white or all white coats. These dogs often have vision issues that may include blindness and they are often genetically deaf or hard of hearing. Don’t interbreed merles!
They are fast, light on their feet, and highly independent. They are capable and competent in the field, influencing reluctant cattle to change direction by nipping at their heels, or ‘heeling’, and rounding them into smaller and tighter spaces.
As with most herding breeds, Australian Cattle Dogs are energetic and intelligent. They respond best to highly structured training routines that enable them to use their skills every day. They enjoy being busy and having work to do and are happiest with plenty of activity built into their day.
Blue Heelers may not do well in an apartment setting. They would be better suited to an active, outdoor lifestyle. If you do wish to keep one in an apartment, you’ll need to be someone who is an avid runner and takes your dog with you, or does other daily activity that will accommodate your dog’s physical need for activity.
They are loyal and form very strong bonds with their humans and their turf. They make great family dogs, but need to be trained to not herd children and other animals!
While you are training your dog to sit, stay, and lay down, you may want to train him to respond to an emergency recall word and a so-called ‘kill’ word, which means your dog immediately stops any behavior and sits in front of you.
Training your dog will not only require you to instill positive behaviors, like waiting for the command to take a treat, but also eliminating negative behaviors like digging, escaping, and chasing.
Australian Cattle Dogs are naturally cautious going into new situations, particularly those that involve new people. They make great guard dogs when properly trained for the task.
When they are socialized at an early age, they are affectionate and friendly. They are never very far from their favorite human!
It is important to socialize them very early though because this breed is notorious for developing naughty traits if they are not taught young. This comes from their natural tendency to be cautious and herding dogs that will nip.
They are inquisitive and may get into trouble when left unattended. It is essential that you prepare your home and yard for an Australian Cattle Dog. Make sure they can not jump the fence, dig underneath it, or get out of the yard at all. If they do not have work to do, they may get restless and become an escape artist!
Short-haired and naturally clean, Blue Heelers are easy to groom and shed relatively little compared to some other breeds. They do shed though and it will be bad in spring, like many breeds.
They do not need bathing very often unless they get dirty or covered in debris, and they need only occasional brushing. They are what is known as a “wash and wear” breed, which is great because they are very athletic and like to get dirty every opportunity that they are given.
While you are grooming your dog, make sure you check in his ears, take a look around his mouth at his teeth, and check his feet, including his nails and paw pads. Regular attention to these parts of his body can help ensure he stays healthy for longer.
You should make it a habit to massage the daily and feel them all over so that you know what is baseline normal for your dog. Cancerous growths, knots, cuts, and splinters will be found this way before they get worse. It’s essential to really know your dog’s body well because he cannot tell you when he’s got a bump that he needs you to look at for him.
Australian Cattle Dogs are sturdy, muscular, and compact, and their appearance is similar to that of a small wild dog (clearly pointing to their dingo genes). They are agile and powerful, traits that were bred into them to enable them to survive in the midst of fearful cattle.
Blue Heelers stand between 15 and 20 inches at the shoulder and weigh 40 or 50 pounds when fully grown. They are short and stout dogs with a low center of gravity. They are quick on their feet and can cut and turn very quickly without losing their footing. This is an attribute of their height and shape.
Their faces are sharp and angular, with a pointed deep muzzle. Their ears are pointed and pricked and set wide on their heads. They tend to be show-quality. They have a very regal silhouette and can often be seen depicted on cards, stationery and artwork.
Their eyes are dark and appear to express emotion. They are alert and intelligent, always ready for anything. This is definitely a breed that can go from zero to one-hundred miles per hour in two seconds flat.
The typical Blue Heeler tail is undocked, long and graceful, often with a colored spot and tip. Sometimes they have a docked tail though it is becoming more and more unusual as people feel strongly about cosmetic surgeries such as tail docking and cutting ears.
They may have had a tail docked if there was an issue or if they are working with livestock they may grab them by the tail and ‘toss’ them, which does happen with cattle sometimes. A non-working, pet-only, dog will likely have his or her tail intact.
They have a natural lifespan of 12 to 14 years and are naturally fairly robust and healthy. The most common health concern Blue Heelers experience is injury due to the energetic physical nature of their work.
Australian Shepherd Blue Heeler Mix
Hybrid breeds are unpredictable. They carry genes from both blood lines, and the physical characteristics and personality traits expressed may be from either (or neither) parent breed. Personality is very much hereditary and when you choose a puppy it is an added benefit if you can meet both parents to see how social and amicable they are with humans.
Your Australian Shepherd Blue Heeler mix will likely be very energetic and athletic. He will need hours of vigorous exercise a week, so it may be necessary to plan your day around long hikes, walks through the neighborhood, and early-morning marathon training runs. He will also probably do better with a safe fenced-in yard.
Not allowing your dog to get the proper activity may mean he is destructive and difficult to handle. He could also be unable to maintain a healthy weight, chronic health conditions, and develop joint or spine problems down the road.
Because your Aussie Heeler mix will be moving constantly, he will need high-calorie food. Buy a good-quality dry kibble meant for your dog’s active lifestyle. Supplement from there with people food and canned food. Green beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and carrots are all foods that dogs often welcome as an addition to their food dish.
If you are cooking chicken for the family, don’t be tempted to add the skin or fatty pieces to their dish. It’s just as bad for them as it is for us! A little fat in the diet is necessary and essential for healthy skin, nails, and coats. Too much can lead to heart disease and other cardiac issues.
Your dog will need a fair amount of grooming. A mix of these two breeds will potentially have the thick double coat of the Australian Shepherd or a mix of both coats. This will be thick and potentially hard to bathe and keep clean unless you brush them daily.
Brushing them regularly will help keep tangles from getting started. It will also encourage natural oil glands to release essential oil that keeps their skin and coat soft and shiny. This helps to shed water and debris.
Some people like to take their dogs to the groomer where they can be professionally bathed, brushed and have their coats blown out at least once per year, usually during the big spring shed. This will save you from a mass of fur blowing through your home.
The groomer will use a large blower designed with little to no heat, unlike a human blow-dryer, and it will remove the loosened and dead hair from their coats.
Your dog will be active and incredibly intelligent. You’ll find that it feels as if they are reading your mind. They are quite adept at interpreting your moods and your behaviors because this is what herding breeds excel at.
Their intelligence, in addition to their observation skills, will make them feel like they are smarter than you at times. Indeed, they may seem one step ahead of you at times. You will benefit from taking some training classes with your dog and it is likely that you’ll learn as much as they do. They are incredibly skilled at obedience, once trained.
The Australian Shepherd is an eager-to-please sort of breed. The Heeler can be more independent thinking at times, but both breeds are extremely intelligent and ready to go at all times. They do well at activities such as fly ball, agility, rally obedience, and things of this sort.
They also love to accompany you on trail rides and if they are socialized will be great around horses. Make sure that the horses are also well-socialized around dogs. Cattle dogs are known to be protectors from things like snakes, wild dogs, and coyotes.
They will protect you, your horse, and your family on camping trips. They can carry their own packs and go on hikes with you and will thoroughly enjoy that time with you and it will satisfy their need for exercise. If this mix doesn’t get enough exercise, he’ll be a very hard dog to live with at times.
Make sure that you spend the time to do foundation training with your puppy right away – things like sit, stay, down, and heel are very important. If your dog is under good voice control, he’ll be a much better companion on the hiking trail and anywhere in public if he understands these basic commands. People will remark on how wonderfully trained and well-mannered your dog is if he simply knows these basic skills.
“Anybody who doesn’t know what soap tastes like never washed a dog.” – Franklin P. Jones