Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog

Pippa Elliott
Dr Pippa Elliott (BVMS MRCVS, University of Glasgow)
 
Photo of adult Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog

Active and sturdy, this medium-sized dog, was bred to drove livestock and thrive on constant activity – a trait which means they are unsuited to apartment living. The Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog’s (ASTCD) unusual name derives from a genetic trait meaning they are born with very short tails.

The breed has a reputation for being able to work in extremes of heat that are dangerous to other breeds. An enthusiastic drover, the ASTCD is highly trainable, intelligent, but also prone to independence. They have a strong drive to protect and chase, which makes them good guard dogs but can result in aggression to other pets.

In the late 1990s, numbers of ASTCD fell so low that the breed nearly died out. Happily, the actions of the Australian National Kennel Club (ANKC) and breed enthusiasts saved the Stumpy from extinction. The breed also goes by the name of the Heeler (hence the confusion with the Australian Cattle Dog), Stumpy Tail Heeler, Stumpy Tail, and just plain Stumpy. The Stumpy has an average lifespan of 12 to 15 years.

About & History

The ASTCD is said to be the oldest purebred dog breed in Australia, being the result of crossing British herding dogs with the Australian dingo. However, given the Stumpy was on the scene before dog breeding records were kept, their exact origins are unconfirmed.

The Stumpy’s story starts in the late 18th century with the arrival of the first British colonists. With Australia’s young economy dependent on livestock trading, farmers needed a good droving dog. In anticipation of this, the first settlers brought with them British sheepdogs. But whilst the latter were skilled herding dogs, these canines were ill-equipped to cope with the extreme climate, and many perished from heatstroke or disease. The solution was to breed British herding dogs with a native dog perfectly adapted to the climate, the dingo. The exact details are blurry, with two different sources claiming responsibility for creating the Stumpy breed.

One claim is that of a cattle drover called Timmins, from New South Wales (NSW). He bred Smithfield dogs (a type of Old English Sheepdog) with the dingo to create Timmins Biters. As the name suggests, these dogs were aggressive, and so the dingo genes was further diluted with those of the blue merle collie.

An alternative theory is that the Halls of NSW should claim the honour. The Halls emigrated from Northumberland, England, to NSW and took with them a mix of collie-type dogs and Smithfields. They then interbred these with dingoes, to create a line of dogs called Halls Heelers, sharing many of the Stumpy’s characteristics.

Despite a similarity of name with the Australian Cattle Dog, these two breeds are distinct and just happen to share a common location (Australia) and purpose (herding cattle). There is also a superficial similarity in the appearance of both breeds, but look more closely and the ASTCD has a lighter body and longer legs than the better known Australian Cattle Dog. The Stumpy’s head is more wedge shaped, whilst those prick ears are placed closer together.

Appearance

Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog Large Photo
Wendy Hodges / Flickr.com

The ASTCD is a medium size, powerfully built but without being heavy. As a true working dog, their appearance is similar to that of the native dingo and lacks exaggerated features of many purebred breeds. The Stumpy is well proportioned, with the distance from shoulder to the ground, being equal to that of brisket to rump. The dog has a straight back, leading to the characteristic stumpy tail, with according to the breed standard may be up to four inches long.

The head is broad, with a medium length muzzles and strong biting jaws designed to nip at the heels of cattle. They have prick ears with the pinnae shaped to a point. The Stumpy’s nose should always be black. Their coat comes in two colours, blue or red, which may be mottled, merle, or solid. However, tan points are not allowed.

Character & Temperament

Key to understanding the Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog is knowing they were bred to work hard, all day long, and in hot weather. For generations, they were kept solely as working dogs, reinforcing this work ethic. Described by farmers as driven, energetic, and heat tolerant, the Stumpy excels as a drover but by default makes them a poor pet.

Their breeding means they are territorial dogs with a strong instinct to chase and nip at heels. If the object of their attention is a small child or another pet, this makes for an uneasy relationship and another reason why they are not suited as house dogs. However, these qualities do make the Stumpy a good guard dog.

When welcomed into the family home, the Stumpy is often described as devoted but aloof. For example, his love extends to being in the same room as his owner, but never on his lap. Even well-socialised Stumpies often retain a suspicion of strangers, and tolerance rather than a warm welcome is all that can be expected. Indeed, proper socialisation as a puppy is essential if the Stumpy is to live with other pets or in a family home, as they are prone to aggression when challenged.

Trainability

Qualities such as independence and initiative are highly valued when droving livestock in the outback, but make for a wilful pet. Described as intelligent but strong-willed this gives an idea of how the Stumpy may take advantage of an inexperienced owner and do his own thing.

The ideal Stumpy owner is an experienced dog handler, firm but fair, who uses reward-based training methods. An essential tool for facilitating good behaviour is plenty of mental stimulation and exercise, as these dogs bore easily leading them into mischief.

Health

The Stumpy was bred to master one of the toughest jobs a dog has to do: Droving in the heat of the Australian outback. Weak dogs simply didn’t survive, which was nature’s way of weeding out dog’s with poor health and their genes were not passed onto the next generation.

As a result, the Stumpy is regarded as a strong breed with relatively few inherited tendencies to disease. Those rare problems that do turn up often hale from the collie side of the family tree and include problems, such as:

Collie Eye Anomaly

This is a collection of abnormalities affecting the light sensitive layers of the eye, leading to progressive sight loss and blindness. There is no treatment and affected dogs should not be bred from.

Juvenile Cataracts

A cataract refers to opacity of the lens so that it blocks the passage of light to the retina. In some dogs genes acquired from their parents can code for cataract formation in early life. Untreated, this leads to blindness, but caught in the early stages a technique called phaecoemulsion can breakdown the cataract and restore vision.

Hereditary Deafness

A rare condition, the pup may be born deaf in one or both ears. Again, there is no treatment, but dogs with unilateral deafness are able to lead normal lives.

Hip or Elbow Dysplasia

Poor joint anatomy of the hips or elbows creates inflammation and pain when the dog exercises. A combination of inflammation and damage to the joint lining, leads to deterioration and premature arthritis, which can seriously impact the dog’s mobility and quality of life.

Demodectic Mange

The demodex is a parasitic mite that lives in the hair follicles, resulting in inflammation and hair loss. Demodex numbers are usually held in check by the host’s immune system. However, some dog breeds seem to have a faulty defence mechanism and the numbers of mites can breed out of control, causing severe skin disease.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Stumpy is the tri-athlete of the canine world. Extremely energetic, hardworking, and able to withstand extreme conditions, these dogs don’t just want to work, they want to work hard. In a home setting, the Stumpy may easily become frustrated and bored, resulting in all manner of antisocial behaviours, such as aggression, barking, chewing, digging, and howling.

On the plus side, the Stumpy is an ideal companion for people with a love of activity sports, such as trail riding, mountain biking, paddle boarding, camping and hiking. Given that a Stumpy requires several hours’ intense activity a day, he will also excel at dog activities, such as agility, flyball, herding, or mushing, which give the dog a sense of purpose.

Grooming

The Stumpy has a short to medium-length, thick coat made up of a harsh outer hairs and a softer undercoat. This all-weather coat needs little by way of attention other than a daily check for thorns or debris tangled in the fur. However, with the changing seasons Stumpies do shed their undercoat, raising a hair storm.

Famous Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dogs

This working dog is not suited to life as a pet, except in the hands of the most dedicated owners. It is therefore perhaps a relief that the breed has not been popularised with the stamp of celebrity ownership.

Those people interested in the breed can find fellow enthusiasts on Instagram or on the ASTCD group on Facebook.

Cross-Breeds

Having survived a near brush with the breed dying out, breeding efforts are targeted at increasing the numbers of purebred Stumpy dogs, rather than out-crossing for variety.

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