Australian Cattle Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Australian Cattle Dog

The Australian Cattle Dog was bred to satisfy the requirements for a tough, aggressive herding dog in the wilds of Australia. They rank among the most intelligent of today’s pedigree breeds, and excel as working or competition dogs. The breed tends to bond very strongly with one individual, although will become devoted to an entire family. However, because of their inherited propensity to biting, they may not be suited to families with young children, or children that do not act appropriately towards them.

This breed is not suited to an indoor-only or sedentary lifestyle. Their intelligence and huge reserves of energy require several hours of exercise each day in order to prevent problems with boredom, hyperactivity and destructive behaviour. Living in a farm setting will obviously provide the necessary stimulation, but outside of this environment, most Australian Cattle Dogs will need to engage in sport or competition to become truly well-adjusted and happy pets.

The breed undergoes two very heavy moults per year, but coat care for most of the year is minimal. They are extremely trainable, learning new commands quickly, and being very obedient once trained. Behavioural problems, due mainly to biting and aggression, are common, particularly in under-stimulated individuals, and this is not a breed for a novice owner or one without the time and dedication to commit to their dog. They are generally hardy and healthy, and have an average life expectancy of 12–15 years.

About & History

The origins of the Cattle Dog extend back to the early 19th century, with the arrival of English cattle farmers to Australia. Farmers in the new colonies discovered that the dogs brought from England, of the Old English Sheepdog and other types, were not suited to either the harsh Australian climate or the wild nature of the cattle. Writings from these early pioneers document the loss of many cattle in transit to market due to lack of control by their dogs. These journeys frequently required a journey of hundreds of miles over rough terrain in extremes of temperature, and were proving too demanding for their Old World breeds.

In the mid-1800s, some farmers experimented by crossing a blue-merle drover’s dog with the native Dingo, and were pleasantly surprised by the results. The progeny were intelligent and capable of learning commands, while also being naturally tenacious and aggressive, characteristics which were essential in dealing with the wild behaviour of the beef cattle at the time. These dogs became known as ‘heelers’ – a reference to their method of herding, whereby they would nip and bite at the ankles of the cattle. These dogs were later crossed with the Dalmation, which is believed to be the origin of the speckling now seen in the coat of the breed.

The breed standard, which was based largely on the form of the Dingo, was first published in 1903. The breed was taken up with some enthusiasm in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, where breeding dogs were crossed with the Kelpie and German Shepherd amongst others, while remaining true to the original form and function of the Cattle Dog. It was not until 1980 that the American Kennel Club officially recognised the Australian Cattle Dog with the UK Kennel Club following suit in 1985.

Appearance

Australian Cattle Dog Large Photo

The Australian Cattle Dog is a breed created for the purpose of tirelessly working for many hours on end – something which is clearly reflected in its general appearance. The breed is sturdily built without frills or faults, and is capable of explosive bursts of speed. There is a tendency in some lines for stockiness in the forequarters, which is discouraged by the breed standards as detracting from the dog’s athleticism.

The Cattle Dog has a keen and clearly intelligent expression – always alert for a command or a whistle from its owner. The head is relatively wide and strong, noticeably so in the muzzle, which is capable of withstanding a well-directed kick from an angry cow. The ears are carried upright, and are muscular and mobile, scanning the environment at all times. The mouth is strong, with ‘tight’ lips and large teeth in a neat bite.

The neck is extremely muscular and is thick even behind the skull. The breed has a well-sprung chest reflecting a large lung capacity, and the back is broad and solid. The rump is long and sloped, leading to a low-set tail, which is generally carried below horizontal when relaxed. All four limbs should be straight and true in motion, well-boned, and with strong, arched toes.

The coat of the Australian Cattle Dog is quite striking – it is short, dense, and coarse, with a thick undercoat. The colouration is speckled, with the predominant colour being blue or red speckle. Black, blue and tan markings over the face and limbs are permitted by the breed standards, but dark markings on the torso are discouraged.

In terms of size, male Cattle Dogs range in height from 46 to 51 cm (18–20 in) at the withers, and weigh between 18 and 22 kg (40–46 lb), while females are usually 43–48 cm (17–19 in) in height, weighing 15–20 kg (33–44 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Australian Cattle Dog is anything but a lapdog. Constantly enthusiastic and always alert, the breed is at its happiest when working, and will not be content to sit still for very long. They are highly intelligent and responsive, and will learn to read their owner’s mind over time. They become absolutely devoted to one person, preferring to shadow their every movement, to the extent of being ‘stuck’ to the heels of their master at every turn. Cattle Dogs do become loyal and protective towards their entire family, but it is always clear that they have a favourite!

The breed is good with older children who appreciate how they should be treated and handled, but rough handling or unpredictable behaviour from a younger child is likely to evoke a bite of displeasure. They are dependable with other pets whom they have been raised with, but cannot be trusted when outdoors not to pursue cats or other small animals. They make excellent guard dogs, and will vigorously protect their territory against intruders. Cattle Dogs tend to be suspicious of strangers, although they are not usually aggressive once introduced and handled appropriately. Because of their high energy and unusual behavioural characteristics, they are not recommended as a breed for a new dog owner.

Trainability

Photo of Australian Cattle Dog puppy

The Australian Cattle Dog ranks tenth in Stanley Coren’s seminal work, ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’, reflecting their ability to rapidly learn new commands, as well as their responsiveness to verbal direction. Cattle Dogs are not happy unless constantly stimulated and mentally challenged, and so obedience training is not difficult – the challenging part is to keep it interesting! The breed will quickly tire of learning simple commands, and outside of a farm setting, really benefits from participation in agility, herding and obedience competition.

Where training can be more difficult is in the elimination of behaviours undesirable in a pet. Many Cattle Dogs exhibit destructive tendencies if under-stimulated, such as digging, chewing, scratching and generally being a house-proud owner’s worst nightmare. These behaviours are far less likely to be seen in a well-exercised dog, but prospective owners should be aware of the consequences of having a ‘lazy’ day where the pet is neglected.

Biting is another common problem. This behaviour can easily be explained and expected in the breed, but must be consistently discouraged from a young age, as a significant number of the reported bite injuries to people each year are due to this breed. For an Australian Cattle Dog, the worst punishment is to be separated from their master, and puppies nipping at the owner’s hands or feet should be ignored until the behaviour has ceased.

Health

The Australian Cattle Dog is generally a very healthy breed, but like all pedigree dogs, some conditions are seen with enough frequency to warrant mention.

  • Cataract – A cataract is a dense body within the lens of one or both eyes which can adversely affect vision. They are most commonly seen in aging animals, and can arise as a primary problem, or secondary to other health problems such as diabetes melllitus.
  • Deafness – While uncommon in most other breeds, some Australian Cattle Dog pups will be born with congenital deafness. This is not a treatable disorder, and while some dogs may live perfectly well with it, prospective owners should take care to assess a puppy’s response to noise when choosing from a litter.
  • Epilepsy – Epilepsy is the disordered ‘firing’ of significant numbers of neurons in the brain, causing the physical sign of seizuring. Seizure activity may be seen in epileptic dogs from 6 months of age. Infrequent seizures (i.e. less than one per month) may not require treatment, but can be distressing to observe.
  • Factor VIII Deficiency – More commonly known to most people as Haemophilia A, this inherited condition results in abnormally low levels of a particular protein responsible for normal blood clotting. Signs therefore relate to a tendency to bleed heavily after minor injuries.
  • Hypothyroidism – The Cattle Dog is one of many breeds predisposed to the development of an underactive thyroid gland through the immune-mediated destruction of thyroid follicular cells. This is normally seen in middle-aged to older dogs with signs including hair loss, unexplained weight gain, and decreased activity.
  • Inguinal and Umbilical Hernia – Puppies may be born with defects in their abdominal wall, allowing abdominal fat and organs to be palpable under the skin. This generally affects either the umbilicus or groin, and can usually be corrected with relatively simple surgery. However, these animals should not be used for breeding, as they are likely to pass the problem to their offspring.
  • Lens Luxation – Weakening of the ligaments which anchor the lens of the eye in place may allow the lens to slip from its normal position, potentially causing pain and loss of vision. This is generally seen in older animals.
  • Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinosis – This is an uncommon disorder to which the breed is prone. Signs may be seen in dogs from any age, but reflect progressive accumulation of fatty and other deposits in the brain and other tissues of the central nervous system. This leads to loss of mental function, coordination, and potentially blindness/deafness.
  • Portosystemic Shunt – The presence of an accessory blood vessel which bypasses the normal circulation through the liver. Seen as a congenital disorder, with vague signs of ill-thrift, vomiting/diarrhoea, inappetence, and possibly seizures in dogs less than one year old.
  • Persistent Pupillary Membrane – A failure of the tissues around the lens of the eye to develop normally, leading to variable loss of visual function from birth.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Degeneration of the retinal tissues of the eye leading to loss of vision. An hereditary problem, which all breeding animals should ideally be screened for.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Australian Cattle Dogs have endless energy reserves, and simply cannot be treated as most other breeds. They need several hours’ vigorous activity each day, and lead walking alone is not sufficient. Games involving chasing balls, running alongside a bicycle, or engaging in herding are essential to prevent understandable behavioural problems stemming from boredom. It is often said, with considerable justification that a tired Cattle Dog is a happy Cattle Dog.

Be prepared also for the fact that, even after all this exercise, the breed does not like to sit still, and will ‘shadow’ their master endlessly around home and garden, walking close to heel and constantly focused on the owner’s every move. While this is a trait much-admired by the breed’s devotees, some people can find it tiresome, and should be aware of what to expect.

Grooming

The coat of the Cattle Dog requires very little work for most of the year. Its coarse nature means that it does not hold much dirt, and can be easily cleaned with a vigorous brush every once in a while. Bathing is rarely required. The breed does shed lightly year-round, but expect two very heavy moults over the course of the year, during which times the entire coat is renewed over a short space of time.

Good dental hygiene is as important for dogs as for humans, and it is advisable to introduce daily tooth-brushing from puppyhood. Likewise, carefully using a nail clippers to trim the ends from overlong nails from 2–3 months of age should make this routine chore less stressful to the adult dog.

Famous Australian Cattle Dogs

The Cattle Dog has appeared alongside some notable celebrities, with fans including:

  • Matthew McConaughey
  • Steve Earle
  • Owen Wilson

Cross-Breeds

Despite the fact that the Australian Cattle Dog exhibits some traits which might be undesirable in a pet, it has been used to produce some interesting crosses over the years.

  • American Lattle – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Labrador Retriever
  • Aussimo – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and an American Eskimo Dog
  • Australian Battle Dog – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Bassett Hound
  • Blue Spaniel – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Cocker Spaniel
  • Boston Cattle Dog – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Boston Terrier
  • Cattle Doodle – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Poodle
  • Shar-Cat – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and a Shar Pei
  • Texas Heeler – Cross between an Australian Cattle Dog and an Australian Shepherd

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