The Australian Shepherd — What to Expect of This Dog Breed

Many Aussies are friendly with everyone, but the breed as a whole tends to be somewhat reserved and cautious around strangers.

Australian Shepherds are a truly versatile breed. Not only are they agile working dogs, they are also extremely intelligent animals and wonderful family companions.

An endearing quality of Aussies is their intense desire to please their owners; this makes them quick learners and loyal friends. Aussies are naturally reserved with strangers, but they should never be shy or timid. They do have strong territorial instincts and are naturally possessive and protective of their owners and home.

When raised with children, Aussies love kids and quickly become a predictable and devoted family member. Aussies do not need a huge yard to run in, but they do need daily exercise and attention. They love to play ball and frisbee. It’s hard to keep most of them out of water.

And they make great foot warmers curled up at the end of the bed.

What is an Aussie?

Origin

There are several theories about the origin of the Australian Shepherd, but this one is the most common.

Despite its name, the Australian Shepherd as we know it today was developed completely within the United States. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the forerunners of today’s “Aussies” came to the western and north-western states as stockdogs for the Basque shepherds that accompanied the vast numbers of sheep then being imported from Australia.

These hard-working, medium-sized, “little blue dogs” impressed the American ranchers and farmers, who began using them as well. Breeding was done for working ability rather than appearance, and occasionally dogs of other herding breeds were bred into the lines.

However, today’s Aussie still resembles the dogs that came from Europe via Australia, and great numbers of Aussies are still working stock on ranches and farms in the United States and beyond.

Personality & Character

Those of us who love Aussies can’t imagine a more perfect breed of dog. Unfortunately, the very characteristics we value in these dogs make them unsuitable for some homes and owners. Consider carefully if your lifestyle can accommodate the exuberance of a typical Aussie.

The Australian Shepherd was developed to be a moderate-sized, intelligent, all-purpose stock dog of great character and endurance. Many Aussies today still do the work they were bred for, and even those that have never seen sheep or cattle usually have a strong herding instinct. This means that Aussies need fenced yards and leashes, as the temptation to herd dogs, children, and traffic can simply overwhelm them.

Being bred to work hard all day means that most Aussies are not content to be couch potatoes, although Aussies have individual characters and some are more sedate and quiet-natured than others. For the most part, however, these are high-energy dogs that need a purpose in their lives — a job as it were.

Owners must be committed to give these dogs the time and attention they require through play and training, for as with any dog, undirected energy can turn toward destructive behaviors, such as digging and chewing. Running, jumping, and rough-housing are all a part of being a normal Aussie.

The great intelligence of these dogs, necessary to out-think and control livestock, can be detrimental when left untrained and unused. Aussies are quite capable of out-thinking their owners. Obedience training is highly recommended as a means of teaching owners how to channel the typical Aussie’s innate desire to please into appropriate behaviors.

Aussies learn very quickly, so be certain you are willing to keep your Aussie occupied with walks, play, and training to benefit both mind and body.

Although many Aussies are friendly with everyone, the Australian Shepherd as a breed tends to be somewhat reserved and cautious around strangers. With Aussies of this nature, owners should encourage the dog to meet people but not force encounters. Aussies are often quite protective of their family and property, a desirable trait in some situations but not acceptable in others, and some dogs never accept strangers. As with all dogs, poorly socialized Aussies may become aggressive without proper training.

In general, Aussies are healthy dogs and can be expected to live up to 12 years or more, so ownership can be a lengthy commitment. Although minimal, there is some grooming required to keep the coat clean and conditioned, such as regular brushing and nail trimming. To maintain their high energy levels, typical active Aussies may eat more than other, more sedate dogs of similar size, so be prepared to feed plenty of high-quality food.

Aussies are perfect for people wishing to own a highly-trainable, versatile, super-smart dog that can work/play “’till the cows come home.” If you have the time and commitment for an Aussie, you won’t be disappointed. These special dogs deserve special owners.

Their loyalty, drive, character, and whimsical sense of humor place them in a class by themselves!

How can I find a responsible breeder?

Choosing an Aussie, or any dog for that matter, can be an emotional experience. It is all too easy to see a cute, little bundle of fluff and instantly fall in love.

Sometimes you can get lucky and fall into the right situation at the right time and take home the perfect puppy, but too often people make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons and end up with a lot of heartache in the long run.

What should I ask the breeder?

The following is a list of questions to take with you when you visit each breeder and litter. Do not feel embarrassed asking all these questions; a responsible breeder will welcome your interest and admire your knowledge and concern for the breed.

  • Ask for a pedigree on the puppies. This should include at least 3 generations of ancestry, preferably 4 to 5 generations. Make sure you get a copy you can take home with you so that you can review it later in more detail. One note here, a pedigree full of champions does not always guarantee a future champion. And vice versa, many top winning dogs have come from non-champion sires and dams.
  • Was the breeding planned or unplanned? If the litter was planned, ask why the Sire was chosen for this particular Dam. Was it a matter of convenience because they own the Sire or was it because they felt the qualities of the Sire would compliment or even improve the qualities of the Dam?
  • What are the faults of both the Sire and Dam? A conscientious breeder should be both knowledgeable and willing to talk about their dog’s faults as well as about their dog’s assets.
  • What was the goal of the breeding? For profit? To produce the ultimate show/working dog? So the kids could experience the miracle of birth?
  • What area does the breeder feel these pups will excel in? Obedience, working, show, family pet?
  • What kind of support services will the breeder offer you to help you attain your goals for your puppy? If for show, obedience, or working is the breeder willing to spend some time with you helping you to get started in these areas, and will the breeder be there if you have any questions or problems regarding housebreaking, digging, barking, etc?
  • Are both the Sire and Dam OFA certified (or certified with another registry such as PennHIP or GDC)? And, if so, what are their numbers and ratings? (OFA is the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, GDC is the Institute for Genetic Disease Control in Animals, and PennHIP is the Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program, which are organizations that evaluate and certify hip joint conformation.) Any breeder who does not know what hip certification is or who cannot provide you with copies of both parents’ hip certifications are breeders to be very wary of. Only a hip rating can provide you with proof that the parents are not dysplastic; do not let anyone tell you that they know their dog is not dysplastic because of the way it runs or lies down, etc. Dysplasia is a hereditary defect, so if you are not sure about the parents, what about that cute little puppy you are about to take home?
  • Have both the Sire and Dam had a current eye examination? GDC and CERF (Canine Eye Registry Foundation) deal with the certification of eyes just as OFA does for the hips. Some breeders will send the results of their dog’s eye exam in to CERF for an official certificate; while other breeders may just have the eye exam results signed by a qualified veterinary opthalmologist. Be sure to look at the exam report carefully to see that it matches with the correct Sire or Dam and that the vet has made a notation that the eyes are clear from any visible defects. Eye exams are normally done on an annual basis, so also check to see that the exam is current. Again, eye defects (cataracts, PRA, collie eye anomaly) are hereditary, so the best way to make sure your new puppy will not be affected with any of these problems is to verify that the parents are free from any problems themselves.
  • What type of guarantee does the breeder offer if the puppy is later found to be affected with any hereditary defect? Breeding only dogs that have been cleared free of any defects will greatly reduce the possibility of reproducing puppies with congenital defects; however, genetic throwbacks do occur. Some breeders offer different alternatives if you happen to have a puppy who ends up with a hereditary problem. These alternatives will vary depending on the breeder and depending on whether the puppy is bought as either pet or show quality.
  • Is the puppy’s health guaranteed? Most breeders will give a 7-10 day health guarantee; however, if the breeder does not offer this, find out if you can return the puppy within a day if the puppy does not pass a health examination given by your vet.
  • Will a written contract be provided to cover the above issues? If offered, ask to read the contract before purchasing the puppy to see if it covers all the breeders stated guarantees.

How do I choose my Aussie?

Make a point to look at several litters before making your final decision.

Take note of the conditions in which the adults and pups are being raised. Is their environment clean? Is there adequate room for exercise, plenty of shade and shelter? Do the older dogs appear to be happy and well cared for? Ask to see the sire and dam if possible. Do they seem to be well mannered and not aggressive or fearful?

Remember that the dam may still be a little protective if introduced around the pups, and her condition may not be the best since raising a family is quite demanding. The pups should be outgoing and eager to play.

The puppies should look well fed, their coats should be clean and healthy, their gums should be pink, their eyes should be clear of any discharge, the inside of the ears should not be red or inflamed, and the pups in general should have a healthy, happy attitude.

Spend some time playing with the puppies and get a feel for their different personalities. Ask the breeder for further background on puppies that catch your eye; sometimes a pup may have a slightly different character than the one he displays while you are visiting.

A concerned breeder will be honest and candid in discussing each puppy with you since their goal is to find the pup that will most likely match your lifestyle and fulfill your expectations.

After leaving, make notes on the puppies you liked and on your general impressions. Do this with each litter you visit. Then, when you feel like you have a good basis for comparison, sit down and go over your notes. Call back with any additional questions you might have, or go back and visit again if you need to.

Emotions are still going to play a big part in your decision, but at least with all this information at hand, you now have the basis for making an educated decision as well.

Should I get a male or a female?

Although male and female Australian Shepherds share many of the same characteristics, there are also many distinct differences between the two sexes.

The female Australian Shepherd will typically stand between 18-21 inches at the point of her withers and will on average weigh around 35-50 pounds. She does not usually carry the density and length of coat as a male, and her personality will generally be more sensitive and laid-back. Females will come into season approximately every 6 months and will need to be confined for 2-3 weeks during this time. If you are not planning on breeding your female, you should consider spaying her to avoid this inconvenience and to prevent any unwanted breeding.

The male Australian Shepherd will usually stand 20-23 inches and will weigh around 50-65 pounds. As with most animal species, the male Aussie is the showier of the two sexes, carrying longer hair, heavier bone, and a more masculine head. He typically has a very regal air about him. Males do have a tendency to be territorial and do not always take well to having to share their space with other male canines. Again, if you are not planning on using your male for stud, you should think about having him neutered to make life easier for all parties concerned.

Most of the personality differences between the two sexes are minimal or non-existent if the animals in question are spayed/neutered.

Should I get show/breeding quality or pet quality?

Pet-quality puppies are those which are healthy and happy but are less than perfect when compared to the breed standard. Often these imperfections are minimal and are things that the novice would not notice. Nonetheless, these animals would not be likely to do well in the conformation show ring, and they should not be used for breeding since they will not contribute to the improvement of the breed.

Pet-quality animals are eligible to be shown in both obedience and herding competitions, even if they have been spayed or neutered. It is important to remember that just because a puppy is termed a “pet,” it should not have any health or temperament defects.

If you have any thoughts of either showing or breeding your pup, advise the breeder of what your intentions are. In this situation you are going to want to buy the pup that comes the closest to perfection according to the breed standard.

Not every pup is a future champion, and no one can guarantee you that any puppy will grow up to be a perfect specimen of the breed. But a knowledgeable breeder can spot puppies with potential qualities and will be honest with you in evaluating their puppies as future show or breeding prospects.

What should I pay for an Aussie?

Proper raising of a litter of healthy, happy Aussie pups takes time and effort on the part of a conscientious, informed breeder and is an expensive proposition if done properly.

The breeder has invested in good nutrition, good veterinary care, showing, stud fees to a top-quality dog, along with a great deal of time and love in the hope of producing better specimens of the breed and quality dogs for the prospective buyer.

Price should be consistent with the quality of the pup and the time and expense it has taken to raise that pup. For these reasons, it is unlikely that an inexpensive puppy will be the result of conscientious breeding and careful upbringing.

Remember too that your initial investment in a puppy is going to be next to nothing in comparison to the investment you are going to make in that puppy’s future.

What should I get with my new Aussie?

When you make your final selection, make sure the following items are in order before you pay for your new puppy:

  • An individual registration application, or a registration certificate, or a written agreement signed by both parties stating the reason for not giving any registration privileges.
  • A written sales agreement outlining all terms and conditions that the buyer and seller have previously agreed upon.
  • A pedigree with at least three generations.
  • A photocopy of the hip rating certificate (OFA, PennHIP, or GDC) of both the sire and the dam.
  • A photocopy of either the eye clearance certificate (CERF or GDC), or the opthalmologist’s exam papers of both the sire and the dam.
  • A schedule of dates and types of vaccines, worms, and any other treatments the puppy has received, as well as a recommended schedule for further vaccinations and worms.
  • A feeding schedule and enough of the puppy’s regular food to last at least 24 hours, as well as recommendations on what types of food to feed.
  • Any reading material on the breed or puppy care that the breeder may have to offer.

How can I make my Aussie the best dog in the world?

Congratulations on your new pup! We feel that you will find the experience special and rewarding. To help make the ownership of this dog positive and enjoyable, here are a few things to consider that we hope will be of help.

Bringing your puppy home

It is always an exciting time when you welcome a new puppy into your home. You need to remember, though, that it can also be a stressful and confusing time for the new pup. You should provide a sleeping area, preferably near the activities of the household, but also quiet and out of the way.

A dog crate would be a good investment at this time. Let the puppy know this is his bed and a safe place to be.

If there are children in the family, they will want to play with the new puppy a lot. While puppies play and are active, they also require a good deal of sleep. Do not fall in the trap of going to the puppy to comfort him for making noise. He will learn that crying is a good way to get attention. You might take him out to play with him and tire him out just a little before bedtime so he will be ready to sleep.

Nutrition and good health

A name-brand puppy food is the best choice for your puppy until he is over a year old. It is a good idea to feed what the breeder has been feeding and not change his diet, since changes can lead to digestive problems and diarrhea.

Also, your puppy does not need table scraps, which may likewise cause problems. Never give your puppy bones or chocolate.

You may either free-feed (leave food out) or put down food for the puppy three, decreasing to two times a day as the puppy matures. Fresh water should be available to the puppy at all times.

Watch your puppy to make sure he does not get too fat. A fat puppy is not a healthy puppy and obesity is hard on developing bones and joints.

Be sure you keep your puppy’s vaccinations up-to-date. Distemper and Parvo are both killers and if your puppy should survive these (and other) dreaded diseases, they may still ruin his health for the remainder of his life. Talk to your vet about heartworm preventive. Heartgard, which uses Ivermectin, should not be used for Aussies since they are a “collie-type” breed. A brand that doesn’t use Ivermectin, such as Interceptor, is recommended instead.

Housebreaking

Aussies generally housebreak quite easily. The key to good house habits is consistency by the owner.

The puppy should, if he must be left alone, be in the yard (with shelter and water) or in an area where he is not expected to refrain from relieving himself. When the puppy is in the main part of the house, the owner should be present. When the puppy wakes from a nap, he should go outside and be praised when he relieves himself.

Watch the puppy for sniffing and circling in the house; this probably means he is looking for a place to go. Take him outside and again praise.

If you catch him too late, “in the act,” do not spank him but scold him slightly and take him outside or to a place where he is allowed to potty. Soon the puppy may go to the door and “ask” to be let out. Praise the puppy for this action.

A crate is a handy tool for housebreaking. Most dogs do not like to relieve themselves where they sleep and this teaches some control. Remember that a puppy does not have a great deal of control and use the crate only for short periods of time. When he comes out of the crate, he should be immediately let outside and, after he relieves himself, allowed to play in the house.

Crate training

To some people, a dog crate seems like cruelty to the dog. However, if presented correctly, it is just the opposite.

It gives the dog a place that belongs to him, a safe den where he can go if he wants to be left alone or rest. It also gives you a place to keep your dog at the times when you do not want him underfoot, like a dinner party or a cookout, and a safe way of traveling your dog.

If you crate your dog in the car, he can be left with the windows completely down. It is extremely dangerous to leave your dog in a closed car in warm weather or riding loose in the back of a truck. Also, if you should have an auto accident, your dog is not likely to be thrown out of the car or escape in the confusion.

To crate train your dog, first select a crate that will be large enough to fit him as an adult. The puppy should be fed in his crate, and encouraged to sleep in it with the door open. He may be left with the door closed for short periods of time once he is used to it. Avoid leaving a puppy in a crate for extended periods of time. Never use the crate as a punishment. The location should be out of the way but near family activity.

Socialization

The Aussie is by nature a one-family or one-person dog. They do not accept all people as their natural “friends” as do some breeds. They are selective. This is not a fault. It makes them a better protector of their home and their family.

Because of this part of their nature, it is a good idea to expose them to different situations and strangers often and at an early age. While they may not go tail-waggingly up to every stranger on the street, they should be taught to be mannerly and accept the presence of non-threatening people and situations.

Discipline

The Australian Shepherd is an easy dog to train. Being a working stock dog, he has been bred to learn to take directions and listen to his owner. He is also bred to be able to think on his own and make decisions for himself. It is up to you, the owner, to teach the dog what is, and is not, allowed.

When he is a puppy, he must learn to look to you as his leader or you could be in for trouble when he becomes an adult. This does not mean you need to treat your puppy roughly. If trained correctly, Aussies readily accept the authority of their masters and a harsh word is often as effective as physical punishment.

While he is eating, your puppy should allow you to be present and to take away his food. He should not growl or nip at you when you try to make him do something. A good method to show a puppy who is boss is to pick him up by both sides of the scruff of his neck and shake him gently while looking him in the eye and speaking firmly. This is very similar to the way a mother dog disciplines her pups and he will understand this far better than a spanking or a swat with a newspaper.

Aussies are very intelligent and will test you from time to time. You should be firm and let them know who is in charge. The earlier you do this, the less trouble you will have later. A dog who knows his place in the family is far happier and more secure.

Obedience

It is highly recommended that you teach your puppy some obedience. It is much more enjoyable to have a well-mannered dog that can go out for a walk than a lurching, wild dog that pulls you along or runs away when off lead. It is also a satisfying experience to train your dog and have a dog that listens to you and minds you. The Aussie is an extremely quick learner and enjoys the attention and the mental challenge of learning what you have to teach him.

Even a young puppy, if taught in a positive manner, with no force, can learn basic obedience. Look for obedience training classes in your area or read some of the many good books on this subject. For your peace of mind, and your dog’s safety, he should know at least these basics: sit, down, stay, come, and be able to walk at your side.

Are Aussies good with children?

Australian Shepherds are basically very good with children if they have been raised with children, and sometimes even when they have not been around them. One of the basic prerequisites for your children and your puppy to have a good relationship is to teach the child, as well as the puppy, what is allowed.

Babies and toddlers should not be left unattended with your dog, no matter what breed. A child should learn not to handle the dog roughly or tease him. The parent, not the child, should be responsible for correcting the puppy if he gets too rough.

Puppies and dogs have a tendency to look at children as “siblings” in the social order of the family, and the dog should never be allowed to get the upper position over the child. Something that sometimes occurs with Aussie puppies and kids is that, in play, the puppy may chase and nip at the heels of the child. This is because the dog is bred to herd and he is trying to “herd” the child because it is natural to herd something moving.

In this situation, it is a good idea to have the child stop running and tell the dog “no bite.” This should not be confused with actually trying to harm the child, but the game should not be encouraged.

Can an Aussie live in town?

Unlike many breeds, Aussies don’t need a lot of space to run or a big yard to play in. What they do need is lots of social interaction and things to do. They need to be a member of the family, as they are very pack-oriented dogs. In short, they need a job to do, whether that job is working livestock, protecting the family, or going to obedience/agility classes.

The more time you spend with them, the better companions they will be. As long as these needs are met, Aussies can make wonderful suburban pets.

Miscellaneous Questions

What are the most common genetic diseases?

  • There are many diseases that affect Australian Shepherds. The most common of these are eye diseases include:
  • Cataracts
  • CEA (Collie Eye Anomaly)
  • PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy)
  • Detached Retinas
  • Colobomas
  • Small eye
  • Other diseases that commonly affect Aussies are:
  • CHD (Canine Hip Dysplasia)
  • vWD (von Willebrand’s Disease)
  • PH (Pelger-Huet)
  • Epilepsy
  • Eye and hip problems are much more common than any of the others, so be sure that breeders have clearances on hips (OFA, PennHIP, GDC) and eyes (CERF, GDC) for all their breeding stock.

Why are tails docked?

Many Aussie tails are naturally bobbed (NBTs). NBTs can come in almost any length. Natural tails (long tails) taper at the end, whereas NBTs stop short at a stub or “bob”. Those dogs with long NBTs or with natural tails are most often docked.

Probably the most popular reason for short tails is due to working. Tails have a different coat texture and are more prone to collect burrs when working in dense brush. These burrs, if left untended, can cause extreme pain and irritation to the dog. Also, there have been many undocumented cases of tails being broken from cattle stepping on them and gates being slammed shut on them.

Another reason cited is that the short tail is a “signature,” or recognizable characteristic, of the breed. The breed standard calls for a tail less than four inches long. Docking tails lends to consistency and type within the breed.

What’s the difference between inbreeding, line-breeding, and outcrossing?

Many people look upon inbreeding as an immoral breeding practice. This is a human taboo, however, not a canine one.

There are basically three different kinds of breedings you can do when breeding purebreds; inbreeding, line-breeding, and outcrossing. A basic understanding of genetics is needed to understand the difference.

  1. Inbreeding is that of father/daughter, mother/son, brother/sister, and possibly including first cousin/first cousin and grandparent/grandchild. Inbreeding offers more consistency in type (offspring will look and act very much like the parents), and a smaller gene pool (which is an advantage if the gene pool is clean, and a disadvantage if it’s not).
  2. Line-breeding is that of more distantly related relatives. It falls between inbreeding and outcrossing.
  3. Outcrossing is a breeding of two unrelated dogs. Outcrossing will introduce new genes (increase the gene pool). This can be an advantage if it brings in desirable genes, or it can be a disadvantage if it brings in undesirable genes (like a disease that wasn’t found in the line before).

No matter which plan is used for breeding, any responsible breeder should know what phenotypical and genotypical genes or problems are in the breeding dogs’ backgrounds. This will greatly reduce the probability of genetic problems in the litter.

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