Red Australian Shepherd
|Nicknames||Aussie Shepherd or little blue dog|
|Country of origin||United States|
The Australian Shepherd is a breed of herding dog that was developed on ranches in the Western United States. Despite its name, the breed, commonly known as an Aussie, did not originate in Australia. They acquired their name because of association with Basque sheepherders who came to the United States from Australia.
Australian Shepherds rose rapidly in popularity with the boom of western riding after World War II. They became known to the general public through rodeos, horse shows, and through Disney movies made for television.
For decades Aussies have been valued by stockmen for their inherent versatility and trainability. While they continue to work as stockdogs and compete in herding trials, the breed has earned recognition in other roles due to their trainability and eagerness to please, and are highly regarded for their skills in obedience. Like all working breeds, the Aussie has considerable energy and drive, and usually needs a job to do. It often excels at dog sports such as dog agility, flyball, and frisbee. They are also highly successful search and rescue dogs, disaster dogs, detection dogs, guide, service, and therapy dogs. And, above all, they can be beloved family companions.
The breed's general appearance varies greatly depending on the particular line's emphasis. As with many working breeds that are also shown in the ring, there are differences of opinion among breeders over what makes an ideal Australian Shepherd. In addition the breed can be split into two distinct lines - working and show dogs. Working dogs tend to have shorter coats (utility coat), and can have small, medium or heavy bone structures, while both are bred according to the breed standard the show lines tend to have longer, fuller coats (show coat), more white, and a heavier-boned structure.
The Australian Shepherd is a medium sized breed of solid build. The standard calls for the Australian Shepherd to stand between 18-23 inches at the withers, females being 18-21 inches and males measuring 21-23 inches.
Aussie colors are black, red (sometimes called liver), blue merle (marbled black and gray), and red merle (marbled red and silver or buff); each of these colors may also have copper points and/or white markings in various combinations on the face, chest, and legs. A black or red dog with copper and white trim is called tricolor or tri, a black or red dog with white trim but no copper is called bicolor or bi. White should not appear on the body of the dog from topmost point of the shoulder blade to the tail. The ears should be covered by and completely surrounded by pigment other than white to decrease the risk for white related deafness. Eyes should also be surrounded by color, including the eye rim leather. Excessive white on the face and ears can place an individual dog at greater risk for sunburn and subsequent skin cancer. The wide variation of color combinations comes from the interaction between the a color allele, which is either black (B) dominant or red (b) recessive, and the dominant merle allele (M). Together, these provide four coat-color aspects that can appear in any combination:
The merle allele, which produces a mingled or patchwork combination of dark and light areas, is the coat pattern most commonly associated with the breed. This merle (M) is dominant so that affected dogs (Mm) show the pigmentation pattern; however, when two merles are bred, there is a statistical risk that 25% of the offspring will end up with the two copies of the merle gene (homozygous). These dogs usually have a mostly white coat and blue irises, and are often deaf and/or blind. In this case, the deafness and blindness are linked to having two copies of the merle gene, which disrupts pigmentation and produces these health defects.
All black and blue merle dogs have black noses, eye rims, and lips. All red and red merle dogs have liver or brown noses, eye rims, and lips.
There is also great variety in the Aussie's eye color. An early nickname for the breed was "ghost-eye dog". Aussie eyes may be any shade or hue of brown, or blue; they may have two different colored eyes, or even have bicolored or "split eyes" (for example, a half-brown, half-blue eye), which appear to be linked to the merle coloration. Merled eyes occur as well, where one color is mixed in and swirled with another. Any combination of eye color is acceptable in the breed standard, so long as the eyes are healthy. In general, however, black Aussies (self, bi-color or tri-color) tend to have brown eyes, while red (self, bi-color or tri-color) Aussies tend to have amber eyes, though these Aussies may also carry the blue eyed gene.
A hallmark of the breed is a short bobbed or docked tail in countries where docking is permitted. Some Aussies are born with naturally short bobbed tails (NBT), others with full long tails, and others with natural partial bobs, where the tail is midlength and appears stubby. Breeders have historically docked the tails when the puppies are born. Even without a tail, the wagging movement of the hind end still occurs.
Some Australian Shepherd breeders try to keep the tail on the dog for the natural look, which can still be shown in the breed ring.
The breed is an energetic dog that requires exercise and enjoys working, whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in dog agility, or any other physically and mentally involving activity.
Dogs with strong working instinct may show more reserved, guarding behaviors along with a tendency to chase or nip at strangers. Its protective instinct and behaviors can be frightening to children, strangers, and small animals. They are kind, loving, and devoted to those they know. They are very loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well. Because the breed was developed to serve on the ranch, a job which includes being protective of its property, it is inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity, but it is not an obsessively barking dog.
The Aussie is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie will invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity: for example, an Aussie may go from being at rest to running at top speed for several 'laps' around the house before returning to rest. Without something to amuse them, Aussies often become destructive. Aussies also do best with plenty of human companionship: they are often called "velcro" for their strong desire to always be near their owners and for their tendency to form intense, devoted bonds with select people. Recent studies have also shown that shepherds work well with special-needs children and babies.
The Australian Shepherd has a reputation as a highly intelligent and versatile stock dog with a range of working styles. A good working Aussie is quick, thoughtful, and easy with its stock. The ability for the breed to adapt to the situation and think for itself makes it an excellent all-around worker. For this reason the Aussie is often chosen to work unusual livestock such as ducks, geese, and commercially raised rabbits.
The Australian Shepherd, though a great dog for a family with an abundance of time, can become extremely destructive if left alone, or in small spaces. They are known for digging holes, tearing up lawns, and chewing anything in sight if they become restless. These dogs require a minimum of 2-3 hours a day of play and exercise and need constant attention. The dogs thrive in rural, ranch like conditions, but would be a nightmare for any busy group of people living in a city or suburb. When restless, they will often try to "herd" their owners which may include excessive jumping, snapping, and biting.
There are many health problems that an Australian Shepherd can acquire, including back and hip problems, vision problems, and pancreatic problems. Also, an Aussie can develop bladder problems and urinary infections over time. Many can be epileptic. Thyroid problems are also appearing.
Results of a 1998 internet survey with a sample size of 614 Australian Shepherds indicated a median longevity of about 12.5 years, but that longevity may be declining. A 2004 UK survey found a much shorter median longevity of 9 years, but their sample size was low (22 deceased dogs).
The median life spans for breeds similar in size to Australian Shepherds are mostly between 11 and 13 yrs, so, assuming the results of the UK study are not representative of the population there, Aussies appear to have a typical life span for a breed their size. Leading causes of death in the UK survey were cancer (32%), "combinations" (18%), and old age (14%).
Based on a sample of 48 still-living dogs, the most common health issues noted by owners were eye problems (red eye, epiphora, conjunctivitis, and cataracts). Dermatological and respiratory problems also ranked high.
Collie eye anomaly (CEA) and cataracts are considered major health concerns in Aussies. Other conditions of note include iris coloboma, canine hip dysplasia (CHD), Pelger-Huet syndrome, hypothyroidism, and nasal solar dermatitis. Prior to breeding, the Aussie should be checked for Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, DNA tests performed to show the dog to be free of the MDR1 mutation, cataract mutation, and CEA. Tests should also include those for thyroidism and clearances for other known eye diseases like colobomas, PRA and retinal folds. The Australian Shepherd (as well as Collies, German Shepherds and many other herding dogs) are susceptible to toxicity from common heartworm preventatives (anti-parasitics) and other drugs. This is caused by a genetic mutation of the MDR1 gene. The most common toxicity is from the heartworm medicine Ivermectin found in products such as Heartgard. (Only at very high doses. Most dogs will not have problems with Ivermectin found in products such as Heartgard Plus.) A test is available to determine if a particular dog carries the mutated gene. Read here for more information.
Double merling or homozygous merle occurs when the resulting offspring of two merled parents inherit two copies of the dominant merle gene. Double merles are often mostly white and can have resulting hearing and vision problems as a result of having two copies of the merle gene. Homozygous merles can be deaf, blind, express iris colobomas and microphthalmia. Not all homozygous merles are affected, but most are, making the breeding of two merles a very touchy subject. Breeders will either euthanize mostly white pups or in the case of poorly qualified breeders, sell them as "rare" white Aussies without disclosing the potential for health defects. A large percentage of homozygous merles sold eventually end up in rescue and shelters as the average family is ill prepared to take on a deaf and/or blind pet. However, deaf and/or blind Australian Shepherds can make wonderful pets given a home prepared for their special needs.
This term is incorrectly used when referring to Australian Shepherds that are born double merle, it is actually a term referring to the Lethal white syndrome that paint horse foals can be born with and never survive.
Many diagnostic tests are available for concerned Aussie owners, to check the overall health of an Aussie. Also, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) has an extensive database to track results and provide statistics for the following concerns: hips, elbows, heart, patellar luxation (knees), and thyroid (autoimmune) disease. The OFA database also includes the results for eye exams performed by a Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) veterinarian, but only if the owner of the Aussie submits the results. This database is a great resource to investigate the lineage and related health of the progenitors of some dogs, at least regarding hip ratings.
Many tests have been developed by, or are processed at, laboratories to check for the 11 health concerns that plague the Australian Shepherd breed. Some of those labs are Optigen, Animal Health Trust, Endocrine Diagnostic Center, Animal Health Laboratory, Washington State University Veterinary Clinic, Vet DNA Center, and HealthGene. These labs might perform one or many of the tests that have been developed.
Tests or evaluations have been developed for:
Hip and Elbow Dysplasia,
Patellar Luxation (knees),
Collie Eye Anomaly (CEA),
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) ,
Thyroid (Autoimmune) - Multiple labs perform this test-check OFA application for list,
Congenital Cardiac (heart),
Multi Drug Resistance Gene (MDR1),
Hereditary Cataracts (HSF4), and
Other areas that are currently not health concerns, but tests have been developed for, are:
Coat Color (red carrier/red factored) - Vet DNA Center and HealthGene process this sample,
Dilute Gene Carrier - Vet DNA Center and HealthGene process this sample
DNA testing to either certify parentage (CP) or to verify parentage (VP) for Australian Shepherds is also another test that can be performed and as of January 2010 all adults producing a litter will be required to be DNA tested to allow a breeder to register a litter with the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA).
There is a list of costs, labs, applications, and samples required for the above tests at Pure Stock Aussies
The Australian Shepherd's history is vague, as is the reason for its misleading name. It is believed by some the breed has Basque origins in Spain and was used there by shepherds. What is known is that it developed in western North America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Breeds as we know them today did not exist before Victorian times, but local variations of the ancestors of current breeds came into America along with their owners and livestock. Included are some that are now extinct or that have merged into other breeds. These may have included British herding dogs, as well as dogs from Germany and Spain. For many centuries, shepherds had interest in dogs' working abilities rather than their appearance. As a result, over time, shepherds interbred dogs that they believed would produce better workers for the given climate and landscape. In the eastern U.S., terrain and weather conditions were similar to that of Europe, however, so the existing imported breeds and their offspring worked well there.
In the American West, conditions were quite different. During the early introduction of sheep into America, the Spanish dogs that accompanied the flocks proved well suited for their job in the new, wild and dangerous land. They were highly valued on the open range for their ability to herd and protect their charges from predators. In the arid and semiarid areas inhabited by early Spanish settlers, temperatures reached extremes of hot and cold, and fields varied in altitude from sea level to the higher, rougher Sierra Nevada and similar mountain ranges. The ranchers in these areas often pastured livestock on remote ranges. They preferred more aggressive herding dogs that served in the capacity of herder and guardian.
With the 1849 California Gold Rush, a massive migration occurred to the west coast, and along with easterners came flocks of sheep and their eastern herding dogs; from the southwest came people and Spanish. But it was just as effective to bring sheep in by ship, and in they came, including flocks from Australia and other regions, along with shepherds and their own herding breeds.
Dogs from Australia had already begun to be selected and bred for climates and terrains that were often similar to California.
It is not clear where the name "Australian" came from, although it is possible that many of the dogs coming from Australia were blue merle and the adjective "Australian" became associated with any dogs of that coat color.
Development of the breed began in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. The breed's foundation bloodlines are depicted in the Australian Shepherd Genealogy Chart showing the relationship between the early families of dogs.
Selective breeding for many generations focused on aspects of the dog that enabled it to function as an effective stockdog in the American west. It had to handle severe weather; have plenty of speed, athleticism, energy, and endurance; and be intelligent, flexible, and independent, while remaining obedient. The actual foundation for the Australian Shepherd was established between the 1940s and the early 1970s, when the Australian Shepherd Club of America was formed and the registry was started. They became popular as performing dogs in rodeos. Their stunts and skills earned them places in several Disney films, including Run Appaloosa Run and Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West..
Like other herding breeds, these dogs excel at many dog sports, especially herding, dog agility, frisbee, and flyball. The dog has a stride in which its front and back legs cross over, making for an appearance of "on the edge" speed. The dogs instinctively use a "pounce" position to deal with cattle trying to kick them. They also have strong hips and legs, allowing for fast acceleration and high jumping, sometimes as high as 4 ft (1.3m).
An Australian Shepherd named Pockets is credited as being the oldest dog to earn a title in AKC history, having earned the Rally Novice title at the age of 15 years, 5 weeks.
The Australian Shepherd Club of America ASCA was founded in 1957 to promote the breed. The National Stock Dog Registry became its official breed registry, which continued until ASCA took over in 1972.
In 1975, ASCA created a breed standard, describing exactly how an Australian Shepherd should look and be constructed (its conformation to the Standard). It developed more uniformity in the breed and standardized the type.
In the United States, the American Kennel Club is the primary registry for purebred dogs. However, many Aussie breeders felt that AKC put too much emphasis on breed conformity and not enough on performance, so ASCA declined to join the AKC. Those breeders who felt that AKC membership had its advantages split off from ASCA to form their own Australian Shepherd club, the United States Australian Shepherd Association, created their own breed standard, and joined the AKC in 1993. The decision about affiliation with the AKC remains controversial, as it does with many performance breeds.
The Fédération Cynologique Internationale recognized the Australian Shepherd for international competition in 2007, in Group 1 Sheepdogs and Cattle Dogs as breed number 342. An Australian Shepherd Dog from Latvia competed in the Fédération Cynologique Internationale Agility World Championships in Helsinki, Finland in 2008.
In addition to the Miniature Australian Shepherd, the western United States are now seeing the emergence of an even smaller version, referred to as the Toy Australian Shepherd, with adult males tipping the scales at a mere 12 to 15 pounds (5.5 to 7 kg). The genetic consequences of breeding the standard Australian Shepherd down to one-quarter size remain to be seen. Many breeders and owners of Australian Shepherds consider the Mini and Toy to be separate breeds; others consider them to be downsized versions of the same breed. ASCA and AKC considers all such variants to be separate breeds.
Selectively bred shepherding dogs mainly of European stock, misnamed from some interbreeding of Australian dogs imported to California during the Gold Rush.