The Australian Cattle Dog — What to Expect of This Dog Breed

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The typical heeler personality is forceful, energetic, highly intelligent, and intently focused.

Australian Cattle Dogs are becoming increasingly popular these days. However, they are certainly not for everyone. As Mark Abbot says “I’m convinced that most people really don’t want one. They just think they do.”

Heelers are rather single-minded; even when socialized and trained, they may still respond quickly and efficiently to only one handler; often viewing one person as the true boss and others to be playmates or peers. They can get along with other pets and children but will often try to herd them! Exercise is a must with this breed, or you will find your most valued possessions targeted for destruction. They are born to chew and will do so, so you must provide suitable outlets for this energy.

The typical heeler personality is forceful, energetic, highly intelligent, and intently focused. Handling beef cattle takes a lot of force of will and heelers have no shortage there. They focus on whatever they’re doing at the moment as if their lives depended on it, and of course, when working a 1.5 ton steer, their lives do depend on it. You will often hear that heelers are very stubborn dogs. While they can be difficult, ‘stubborn’ isn’t quite the right description. Heelers have very strong, forceful personalities, and they are often very dominant dogs. You have to establish who is boss and you have to maintain that status. A heeler who knows his place is actually very eager to please but a heeler who thinks he’s your boss will be unmanageable.

If you try to train your heeler with force he may well just refuse to comply and actually fight back. If you train you dog consistently with positive reinforcement, ie operant conditioning, you’ll find that heelers are very quick to learn and extremely eager to please.

This same forcefulness is the one real concern with heelers and kids. They need to be carefully taught that kids must be treated gently. A heeler who lives with children shouldn’t have any trouble with this, provided he gets consistent training. Heelers tend to have no qualms about telling off a child who annoys them, though, by nipping them gently. This is not the sort of dog which is a complete pushover for kids.

Heelers tend to be very much one-person dogs, that is they latch on to one or two people very strongly and are more or less indifferent to others. They are routinely aloof or even suspicious of strangers. In fact, the standard says that a suspicious glint in the eye is expected. Heelers are often aggressive with other dogs, for pretty much the same reasons. They tend to be picky about their friends and pack and tend to distrust anyone who isn’t part of their normal circle.

And heelers tend to be very dominance-oriented. Many domesticated dogs, while they display the standard dominance-submission behaviors of wild dogs, do so sort of lackadaisically and it isn’t all that important to them. Many heelers find this posturing an essential part of meeting any new dog. Heelers also tend to be officious. They seem to have an understanding of the concept of rules and will follow them when learned. They also love to enforce the household rules on other animals in the house.

People who enjoy Australian Cattle Dogs and get one well with them are those who enjoy working closely with their dogs, who appreciate the hard working ethic of their breed and who are equally strong willed to bring out the best in their dogs. This is not a breed for the faint of heart, but there are many rewards for the well matched owner and dog.

Frequently Asked Questions

“What’s the difference between a heeler and an ACD?”

Heelers, Red Heelers, Blue Heelers, Queensland Heelers, and Australian Cattle Dogs are all the same breed of dog. Australian Cattle Dog is the “official” (AKC) breed name.

“Is this the same as an Australian Shepherd?”

No. The Australian Shepherd is a herding breed developed in the Western United States by immigrant Basque to herd sheep. They closely resemble a (usually tail-less) Border Collie in build. They look nothing like the Australian Cattle Dog, a breed developed in Australia to herd cattle.

“Why do some heelers/ACDs have their tails cropped?”

Some ACDs are used to work swine, and an uncropped tail is more easily snagged by an annoyed pig. Dogs working other livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, whatever) generally have uncropped tails because the tail is used as a “rudder” and helps a working dog make tight turns at speed. The AKC standard specifies an intact tail, held low.

“Why are they called heelers?”

They nip at the heel/hooves of horses or cows in order to drive them in the direction you want.

“Do they herd sheep?”

Not usually, although they can. Heelers generally have a more “physical” style of herding than the typical sheep-herding breeds (Border Collies, Australian Shepherds). However, even though they are optimized for herding cattle, they are quite competent at working sheep as well. Heelers have earned all breed High In Trials on sheep.

“Do they bite humans?”

They can be mouthy, as a result of their herding style. Some heelers will nip at your ankles, but with maturity and firmness on your part can often ben trained away from this. Some will take your arm in their mouth by way of greeting (as do many retriever breeds).

“Why do they look so wild?”

They are descended (in part) from Dingos, the “Wild Dog” of Australia.

“Do they need lots of exercise?”

Yes, they need lots of exercise! Both mentally and physically, the ACD is an active dog. Basic obedience is essential, and most ACDs enjoy flyball, agility, advanced obedience, tracking and other physically and mentally challenging activities.

“Are they good with kids?”

Cattle Dogs are very active, robust, agile, herding dogs. They can be very good with children because they are naturally protective and not at all fragile. But because they are herding dogs (and herd by nipping and biting) they can be frightening to children unused to active, assertive dogs. Heelers can become very excited by running children and may try to “herd” them by nipping at hands and heels. Like all dogs, Heelers need to be supervised with children and the children need to be taught that the dog is a feeling creature that cannot be abused.

Health Issues

PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy)

ACDs carry two forms of PRA according to several breeders. One is early onset, showing up fairly early in life (usually before 2 yrs). The late onset form isn’t detectable before age 6 or so, with visual problems becomming evident around 6-8 years of age.

Breeders often want to know whether the ERG (electroretinogram) performed in the CERF testing can predict at an early age whether the dog will develop late onset PRA. This is very controversial, however, some long-time PRA researchers feel that it is usually not possible to make this prediction.


Ruptured Anterior Cruciate Ligaments

Luxating Patellas

Hereditary Deafness

Recommended Toys and Activities

What to do with all that energy? Here are some suggestions for toys:

  • Almost Indestructible Ball. Many heelers love to herd these everywhere.
  • Tennis balls. Keep throwing. Don’t leave unsupervised with dogs to be eaten. Put it on a rope and you can throw it even further.
  • Kong toys. Pretty sturdy and hold up to ACDs.
  • Soft flying disc. Goes much further than balls, giving more of a workout. Dog must know “give” and “bring it here” from the onset!
  • Street hockey balls. Bright, sturdy, and easily cleaned.

As Jim Hutchins comments: “Most ACDs I have seen are nuts for any kind of ball, and you will have to be careful where and when you use it. You may think you know what ‘ball-crazy’ is, but I have never seen a dog as flat-out insane as a ball-crazed ACD.”

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