Australian Kelpie

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

The Australian Kelpie is a highly intelligent dog that has been a valued asset to livestock farmers in Australia for over a hundred years. Developed from a mix of imported British herding dogs and native dingoes, the Kelpie is an independent, highly energetic breed that needs a job to do. With sufficient exercise and mental stimulation, Kelpies make wonderful companions, and they are sometimes used to great effect as service dogs for those in need. However, like most clever working breeds, the lack of activity that often comes with being a pet is a recipe for problems, and owners unprepared for the demands of the breed may find their Kelpie to be wilful and destructive.

Biting, a normal part of herding behaviour, can be an issue in some individuals, especially those allowed to “herd” children unchecked. For those interested in getting a dog for agility, flyball, or other canine sports training, they could do far worse than choosing this breed, but they are not suited to a sedentary lifestyle, needing at least two hours’ exercise a day.

They are quite vocal dogs, always ready for a conversation with the owner, and make great watch dogs, ever ready to sound the alarm. The Kelpie must also be tightly integrated into family life, and despite its farming origins, should not be left to live outdoors. The breed suffers from several health problems common to many of the Collie breeds, but is generally healthy, and most individuals live to 13–14 years of age.

About & History

The word ‘Kelpie’ originates in Celtic folklore, being the name of a mythical water horse bearing ill will toward humans. The breed shares some common history with the Australian Cattle Dog, having been bred to satisfy the requirements of frontier livestock farmers in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. The foundation stock for the breed were black-and-white collies, of a now extinct variety, imported by their owners from England. Around the 1870s, it is believed that the unusual step of crossing some of these collies with the native dingo was taken. Then, and now, dingoes were seen as being predators of sheep, and so the idea of introducing dingo blood into a herding line seems counterintuitive. However, this gamble paid off, and even today, some farmers insist on out-crossing their Kelpies with wild dingoes every few generations in the belief that it improves the breed.

One of the earliest progeny of this breeding programme was named Kelpie by her owner, and the name has stuck through the generations. The result of these early breeding experiments was a resilient, clever dog that was well-suited to the climate of the Australian Outback, able to run for hours without even a drink of water, and that was independent enough to work a flock or herd without constant input from its owner. The breed made its way beyond Australia in the twentieth century, being used to herd a range of livestock, including cattle, goats, and reindeer, in many different parts of the world. Today, two strains of the breed exist: the working Kelpie and the show Kelpie, with the show strain being somewhat less lean and athletic.


Australian Kelpie Large Photo

As noted above, Kelpies may be considered to be of either working or show stock, with working dogs by far the more numerous. While the following description applies to the working strain, show dogs are similar in appearance, but tend to be shorter and stockier. In terms of overall appearance, the Kelpie is a medium-sized, athletic, and well-muscled dog, supple in its movement, and giving the impression of great energy. Physical soundness is of the utmost importance, and freedom from lameness or other defects is considered far more important than tightly conforming to the breed standard. In movement, the dog’s gait should be rangy and effortless with a tendency for all four paws to land on a single line when in full flight.

The head has a slightly rounded skull between large, pricked ears, and a pronounced stop before the medium-length tapering muzzle. The lips are clean and tight, with no excess flew, and the teeth should be large, within a slightly overshot bite. The eyes are medium-sized, oval in shape, and dark in colour.

The Kelpie is slightly longer than he is tall, with the neck and back being solid and muscular without being heavy. The back is not level, but rather exhibits muscular contours at the withers and loin. The chest is deep and the ribs moderately well sprung, while the abdomen is lean and tucked. The limbs are mildly angulated and well-muscled throughout, and the dog stands high on tight paws.

The breed’s coat is very variable, but an ‘average’ Kelpie has a coarse, medium length outer coat, and a slightly softer undercoat. The hair can be any colour, appearance again deferring to function, but the most common colours include:

  • Black
  • Red
  • Blue
  • Fawn

Any mixture of these colours may be seen, and many dogs will have tan markings along with their primary colour. Male Kelpies are generally around 45–50 cm (18–20 in) tall, and weigh 17–20 kg (37–44 lb), while females average 41–45 cm (16–18 in) in height, and weigh anywhere between 14 and 18 kg (31–40 lb).

Character & Temperament

Always alert and ready to work, this highly intelligent dog is a joy to be around. However, as a working dog that has been bred to labour intensively and with limited direction, the Kelpie often sees itself more as a partner than as a pet, and it requires an experienced owner and a clear and unbending set of rules to truly become a biddable companion. Without a job to do, the breed will quickly become restless and troublesome, and so anyone considering the purchase of a Kelpie needs to be prepared to put them to work from an early stage, whether that be collecting dirty washing, gathering the post, or carrying groceries from the local shop.

They are very loyal dogs, and make good watch dogs, as they are constantly alert to their environment and quite vocal. However, without adequate socialisation they can also be fearful or aggressive toward strangers, and so efforts must be made to prevent this becoming a problem. They pine if deprived of human company, preferring constant contact, and are not suited to outdoor living. Most are very good with children and smaller animals, but their instinct to herd must be curtailed when spending time with kids or other pets, as they can nip or bite at their ‘flock’ if they are not cooperating.


Photo of Australian Kelpie puppy

The Australian Kelpie is among the most trainable of breeds, and it excels at sports and demanding working roles. Many are employed as guide dogs or assistance dogs for those with special needs. They are also used in detection and search and rescue operations.

Clearly, learning the basics of obedience does not pose much of a challenge to a Kelpie, and the difficulty for most owners is to keep training sufficiently varied and interesting. Joining an agility or flyball club is ideal where possible, or at the very least one should teach the dog to perform simple chores and tasks around the home to prevent boredom.


The Kelpie is a very healthy breed generally, though it does suffer some of the ophthalmic conditions common to many of the herding breeds.

Cerebellar Abiotrophy

This is a rare condition, though it does seem to have a hereditary basis in the breed. It involves degeneration of the Purkinje cells of the central nervous system, which are largely responsible for coordination and balance. Symptoms are usually obvious in young pups from 6 to 12 weeks of age, although they may sometimes not manifest for several months.

Affected pups are uncoordinated, wobbly, and stilted in their movements. The condition is progressive to a point, and is not fatal in many cases. However, it makes the animal very prone to accidents and injury throughout life.

Collie Eye Anomaly

As the name suggests, this condition, properly known as choroidal hypoplasia, affects several of the collie breeds. Careful veterinary examination should detect the condition in pups prior to rehoming, when signs of thinning of the retina are visible. This thinning affects visual function over that particular area of the retina, and can cause blindness if severe.

Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture

The cranial, or anterior, cruciate ligament is responsible for allowing normal hinging of the knee joint, and its rupture is the most common cause of persistent hind limb lameness in dogs with Kelpies being particularly susceptible.

Though signs may appear suddenly, this is usually the result of chronic degeneration of the ligament that is suddenly exacerbated at exercise. Surgical repair is necessary to allow the dog return to normal levels of activity and to prevent the early onset of osteoarthritis.


Middle-aged or older Kelpies showing signs of lethargy, unexplained weight gain, hair loss, or skin disease should be screened for thyroid underactivity, which occurs as a result of immune-mediated destruction of thyroid tissue. Prior to these signs developing, observant owners may notice behavioural changes, such as aggression and becoming withdrawn. These are thought to be due to inflammation within the thyroid glands, located in the neck.


Occasionally, one encounters Kelpie pups born with underdeveloped, blind eyes. These eyes are usually obviously small, and may have other abnormalities, such as hair growth within the sockets. The condition may be either uni- or bilateral.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

This is yet another ocular disorder common in the collie family, in which the retina, the tissue lining the back of the eye that is responsible for vision, begins to degenerate. The process begins in affected dogs in middle age, and may first be noticed as night blindness. It may be self-limiting, but unfortunately often progresses to cause significant visual impairment.

Exercise and Activity Levels

It is extremely difficult for most owners to provide as much exercise as the Kelpie would like. Walking, running, swimming and hiking are all activities that this highly energetic breed enjoys, and as discussed above, joining a canine sports club provides an excellent physical and mental workout that the dog will enjoy. Even after all this exercise, prospective owners must be aware that their Kelpie will not simply curl up in a corner to sleep: most are constantly on the go, shadowing their owner’s every move around the home.


As the Kelpie’s coat can vary, so too can its grooming requirements. However, most shed a reasonable amount throughout the year, with heavy moults in the spring and autumn. The coat tends to retain dead hair, and so needs to be brushed twice weekly to prevent clumps building up. Bathing is rarely required unless the dog gets especially dirty.

Being so active, many do not need their nails clipped unless walked only on soft surfaces, though owners should listen out for the tell-tale clicks as the dog walks around the house that can indicate when the nails are too long and in need of attention. As for any breed, brushing will promote good dental hygiene, and is usually well tolerated if introduced when the dog is a pup.

Famous Australian Kelpies

There have been two notable Kelpies as public figures in recent times:

  • Gunner, a young Kelpie that was given the status of a member of the Australian Air Force during World War II for his ability to detect Japanese air attacks.
  • Red Dog was a well-known dog who spent much of the 1970s wandering vast swathes of Western Australia and endearing himself to local communities.


Kelpie crosses are not common, but when they are seen, are usually mixes with other working breeds.

User comments

There are no user comments for this listing.