Australian Shepherd

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

The Australian Shepherd is a medium-sized working dog that, despite its name, originated in the western United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Aussies, as they are often known, are highly intelligent and very energetic dogs that excel at canine sports, and are widely used throughout the emergency services in roles, such as search and rescue, drugs and explosives detection, and as therapy dogs.

The breed is extremely common in its homeland, where it is currently ranked as the 16th most popular breed by the American Kennel Club. This popularity is a reflection of the Aussie’s qualities as a pet, for they are responsive and charismatic dogs that can be very rewarding to own. Their gentle nature and loyalty mean they are wonderful family dogs, but they have very strong herding instincts that need to be channelled around young children and other pets.

In common with other high energy working breeds, for example, the Border Collie and Australian Cattle Dog, they need to be kept very active, and preferably given a job to do, to be at their best. An under-stimulated Australian Shepherd will develop a range of undesirable and potentially problematic behaviours. Compulsive tail chasing, nuisance barking, and destruction of property are just a few of these problems commonly seen in pet Aussies. Anyone considering the breed as a pet needs to allow a minimum of two hours exercise per day.

In addition, they are not ideal for novice owners, as they are strong-willed and need a capable owner to provide direction and leadership. The merle colouration that runs through the breed creates some specific health concerns, and a joint Kennel Club/British Small Animal Veterinary Association report in 2004 suggested that the median life expectancy for the Australian Shepherd was only 9 years. However, this finding was based on a small sample size of only 49 dogs, and my experience in practice, suggests that most live to be 11–13 years.

About & History

The breed as we know it today first emerged in the western United States, particularly in Colorado, around the time of the Gold Rush of the 1840s. The reasons for its name remain unclear to this day, with some suggesting it relates to the merle coat colour, often seen in cross-bred and other pedigrees commonly found in Australia. Another theory is that Spanish migrants to the US brought their native dogs with them, but followed a circuitous migratory path through Australia; hence the misnomer. To add further confusion to the debate, genetic analysis indicates that the Australian Shepherd is in fact most closely related to the Border Collie, and was derived from British collie stock by selecting dogs that were most tolerant of the harsh climate and high altitude of the Rocky Mountains. Whatever the case, the Aussie has long been a favoured farm dog in these regions for its obedience and skill in herding a wide range of livestock. Its innate cleverness allows it to herd cattle, sheep, and even farmed rabbits with equal skill.

Long after the breed was well established in its working role, a surge in its popularity in the entertainment industry, from rodeo riding to appearances in Hollywood blockbusters, brought it to the attention of the general public, and Australian Shepherd numbers have climbed steadily in the United States since the 1940s as a result. It is now the 16th most popular breed in the US, and although it is less numerous in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it has a growing fanbase and is sure to become a much more familiar sight on these shores in the coming years. Despite its long history, the breed was only officially recognised by the major kennel clubs in the 1990s.

Appearance

Australian Shepherd Large Photo

The Australian Shepherd is a nimble, athletic dog that is well-built without being bulky. Many individuals have striking markings, extending even to the colouration of their eyes. They are ever alert and keen, and marked sexual dimorphism exists, with bitches being clearly more refined in build and character.

The breed has a very “natural” head, without exaggeration of any feature. The skull is slightly rounded, with a moderate stop between forehead and muzzle, which are of approximately equal length. The lips sit close to the teeth, and are variably pigmented, as are the nasal cartilage and eyelids. The eyes are almond-shaped and sit somewhat obliquely. The pigmented irises can be any one or a combination of brown, blue, or amber. The eyes may be different in colour to each other, a feature known as heterochromism, and they may also be flecked or “marbled” with pigment. The triangular ears sit high on the head, and are usually held semi-erect and forward facing.

The neck and back are strong and muscular, not overly broad, but with a flat and firm lumbar region. The forelimbs are angular and well laid back, and the breed has reasonably heavy boning. The hip and stifle of the hindlimb are also well angulated, and the overall shape of the body exudes agility and power. The Australian Shepherd sometimes has a natural “bob-tail”, the equivalent of a docked tail, though since the banning of tail-docking, many should have a full tail with a fine plume of hair. Anyone buying an Aussie puppy without a tail should satisfy themselves that this is a natural feature, and not a mutilation by the breeder.

The coat can vary in thickness in response to climatic variations, but is generally quite dense, with a coarse outer layer of medium-length hair, and a denser, soft undercoat. The breeds colouration and markings can vary widely, with the following patterns accepted by the Kennel Club:

  • Black
  • Red
  • Blue merle
  • Red merle

All colours may feature white or tan markings, though excessively large white patches, particularly around the face and ears, are not encouraged.

Males average 51–58 cm (20–23 in) in height at the withers, and should weigh between 27 and 30 kg (59–66 lb). Females are usually 46–53 cm (18–21 in) tall, and weigh 21–25 kg (45–55 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Australian Shepherd is a highly intelligent dog that longs to work. Deprived of a job, it will invent one for itself, whether it is chasing passing cars or herding the children. Aussies will “glue” themselves to their owners as much as possible, twisting and winding their way around their feet. A well-exercised Aussie is a joy to spend time with, as he has an innate understanding of his owner’s emotions and intentions, and is highly responsive. The breed is endowed with a strong territorial instinct, and is aloof or suspicious in its dealings with strangers, so most individuals make very good guard dogs. They can tend to be nervous around those they do not know, and may bite when unsettled, so should be socialised as much as possible. They are usually very good with children, though as with most dogs, may resent rough handling by the very young.

Without adequate exercise and stimulation, a rather different dog emerges, showing signs of frustration and hyperactivity that are often very difficult to manage. If an Aussie feels his owner is either not providing the opportunities for exercise or confident leadership that he requires, he may attempt to assume the position of top dog for himself, and this can lead to very unpleasant situations within the home. This is a wonderfully rewarding breed to own, but only on the understanding that it needs time and energy in return for its loyalty and affection.

Trainability

Photo of Australian Shepherd puppy

Australian Shepherds are very quick to learn, and will happily and easily pick up new tricks and commands. Again, exercise is crucial to their ability to focus and commit to training, and flyball and agility classes provide ideal settings to stimulate body and mind. They will find repetitive training dull and uninteresting, so owners must be prepared to provide variety and ample praise when attempting to teach new behaviours.

An Aussie will enjoy being given chores to do, and with a little imagination and a small amount of effort can even contribute to keeping a tidy home. Dogs displaying herding behaviour toward children or other pets need to be taught this is not acceptable, as nipping is a normal part of herding, and may eventually result from such unimpeded behaviour.

Health

Genetic disorders are, unfortunately, quite common in the breed, and anyone considering buying an Australian Shepherd should, at a minimum, insist on ophthalmic certificates for the puppy and hip scores for the parents.

  • Blindness – Pups born as a result of the mating of two merle-coloured dogs have a 25% risk of being born either blind or deaf, or both. In addition, some of these pups will have other less obvious but more serious genetic defects and do not survive into adulthood.
  • Cataract – Congenital eye abnormalities are very common in the breed – one of which is the presence of an opaque cataract in the normally clear structure of the lens. This will cause varying degrees of visual impairment, and may occur in combination with other ocular abnormalities (see choroidal hypoplasia).
  • Choroidal Hypoplasia – Commonly known, particularly by breeders, as 'collie eye anomaly', this is a congenital problem in which the light-sensing tissues of the retina are underdeveloped, causing loss of sight. All pups should be screened for this anomaly by a veterinary ophthalmologist, and affected individuals should not enter the breeding pool as adults.
  • Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture – This is a common cause of hindlimb lameness in the breed. This ligament normally maintains stability in the knee joint during exercise, and may eventually weaken and tear. Surgical repair is required to prevent further damage and osteoarthritis because of instability.
  • Deafness – Usually the result of merle-to-merle matings, best prevented by careful breeding.
  • Discoid Lupus Erythematosus – Some Aussies lacking pigment around the nasal cartilage will develop this condition, which is exacerbated by exposure to sunlight. Ulceration and infection at the junction between the cartilage and skin on top of the nose occurs, and may require high doses of steroids. Recurrence is best prevented by the use of doggy sunblock.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This inherited disorder of hip development is quite common in the Australian Shepherd, and breeding animals should be screened by radiographic examination.
  • Ivermectin Sensitivity – Ivermectin is a drug used by farmers and veterinarians to control a wide range of parasites of farm animals. Because it is readily available, it has often been used in the past to treat farm dogs for fleas and worms. Unfortunately, the Australian Shepherd, along with several other breeds, is prone to developing severe reactions to this drug, including blindness, coma, and death. Ivermectin is best avoided in all dogs, but especially in herding breeds.
  • Lysosomal Storage Disorders – The breed can rarely develop one of several degenerative neurological disorders, which often manifest in young pups, and are generally progressive and ultimately fatal.
  • Osteochondritis Dissecans – Another potential cause of lameness in young dogs, due in this case to the development of poor-quality joint cartilage that develops fissures and tears. There is a genetic predisposition to the condition, which may also be triggered by poor diet and excess exercise during growth.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – This is a degenerative retinal condition, distinct from choroidal hypoplasia, which may manifest in dogs from 4 years of age, and results in blindness in severe cases.
  • Retinal Detachment – Even in Australian Shepherds without any discernible retinal disorder, relatively minor trauma, such as a bang to the head, can result in intraocular swelling that separates the retina from its vascular and neurological attachments, causing blindness.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – A hereditary clotting disorder seen in several pedigree dog breeds. Caused by reduced function of a particular type of white blood cell called a platelet.

Exercise and Activity Levels

An Australian Shepherd will happily exercise from morning to night – this is what they have been bred for over the past two centuries. Outside of a farm setting, it is difficult to provide this kind of physical stimulation, so owners must be prepared to devote several hours daily to walking, running, and playing. Failure to do so is to deprive this working breed of an essential need, and it is understandable that inactivity often leads to behavioural problems.

Grooming

Despite the quite dense, plumed coat, the Aussie does not require a lot of grooming, with weekly brushing sessions sufficing for most of the year. It does shed heavily in the spring and autumn, at which times it may require more work, but bathing is seldom necessary. With adequate exercise, most dogs will wear their nails to an appropriate length, but these should be checked periodically to ensure they do not grow into the pads. Daily tooth-brushing is advisable to prevent tartar build-up and periodontal disease in later life, but is best introduced to young puppies as a matter of routine.

Famous Australian Shepherds

Aussies have starred in many on-screen roles, being easy to train to a high standard.

  • Coffey, played Timmy in a recent film version of The Famous Five
  • Jay Sisler, famous trainer of Australian Shepherds, whose dogs starred in films including Run, Appaloosa, Run
  • Harlow, owned by Steven Spielberg, who became a fan of the breed through his work

Cross-Breeds

As an extremely popular breed in its own right, the Aussie is often crossed with other pedigrees:

  • Aussiedoodle – Cross between an Australian Shepherd and Poodle
  • Australian Retriever – Cross between a Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd
  • Baussie – Cross between a Boston Terrier and Australian Shepherd
  • Sheprador – Cross between a Labrador Retriever and Australian Shepherd

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