Australian Shepherd | A Complete One-Page Breed Guide

Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM

Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds are beautiful and not too big, here I’ll help you decide if this is the right breed for you.

If you have a family with small children, are an avid outdoor hiker, or own a small ranch, the Aussie might be a right fit.

Using my experience as a veterinary doctor, I’ve put together this one-page guide for Australian Shepherd owners. Read on to learn more about this breed and what you can expect from living with these beautiful dogs. Here’s all the information you need to ensure a successful friendship!

1- Brief Introduction

Many dogs like the Australian Shepherd were bred for specific purposes, so how can you tell if the Aussie is the right fit?

The Aussie is a good dog if you are active, self-assured, and willing to put in lots of time in training, providing mental stimulation and exercise.

You will have a beautiful but intense dog that will not want to be a cuddle-bear for all of your buddies. Australian Shepherds are good with kids.

Your decision about a dog is life-altering. You want to find out all you can to ensure your pet will love your family as much as you love her.

To this end, it is crucial to find honest and thorough answers about any dog breed you consider, including the Aussie, which is highly popular but has some challenges.

2- About the Australian Shepherd

 The Australian is a medium-sized dog belonging to the herding class of the AKC.

Originally bred to herd sheep and later proving proficient as rodeo performers, the Australian Shepherd is a popular family companion that gets along with kids and other dogs.

Ideal for active lifestyles, you will commonly see Aussies performing in competitive venues such as agility, flyball, and Frisbee.

Australian Shepherds are most often merle but can also be black or red, usually with prominent white markings. They are smart and enthusiastic, with a strong work ethic.

3- The extraordinary history of the Australian Shepherd

 Many dog breeds have a murky history. Others give their origins away in their names.

You look at the Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd, Dutch Shepherd, and Australian Cattle Dog and say, “Mystery solved.”

And the Australian Shepherd? Not so fast. Although origins are not clear-cut, experts agree on one thing. Australian Shepherds did not hail from down under. Or did they?

Conquistador, Basque, and British Influences on an American Dog

Spanish migrants to America brought their sheep and dogs after a stint in Australia.

Australian Shepherd walking

One theory says Australian Shepherds had the same ancestors as the Carea Leones from Northwestern Spain.

Although evidence is still lacking, the conquistadors may have brought these dogs over as early as the 1500s.

The occasional appearance of merle coats and blue eyes makes the dog’s link to Australian Shepherds seem at least possible.

Other historians argue the Spanish used another type of small herding dog, which would infuse future Aussies.

Regardless, much like the generic herding dogs that gave rise to the GSD in Germany, the Southwest saw a surge of the medium-sized generic sheepdog from California to New Mexico.

Another small to medium herding dog that became prominent in the US in the 1800s was the British herding dog.

Just as generic as the Spanish dogs, the British derivatives were a loose group whose ancestors were working landrace Collie types from the motherland.

Many dogs were merle with blue eyes. Interestingly enough, some of the British brought the dogs with them from Australia. Others had already settled earlier in the Eastern US.

Scientists have proven the genetic link between the British collie descendants, English shepherds, and the Australian Shepherd.

The other roaming groups, like the Spanish herders, also may have had an influence.

There is yet another piece of the puzzle that complicates the heritage matter further. Many people have long believed Aussies originated from the Basque region dogs in the Pyrenees valleys between France and Southwestern Spain.

Historians surmise a large influx of Basques during the labor shortage during The Gold Rush, Civil War, and after World War II.

Australian Shepherd

Some herding operations contracted exclusively Basque crews. These sheepherders brought their dogs, which were descendants of the Berger de Pyrenees.

Despite the prevalence of tales to the contrary, there is little evidence these populations ever detoured to Australia.

The dogs were proficient herders and flourished in Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, and California.

It seems likely these so-called “little blue dogs” entered into the Australian Shepherd bloodlines from the 1870s to the 1960s.

The Magic Happened in the Western US

 Australian Shepherds began development in the Western United States in the late 1840s.

States such as California, Colorado, and Idaho needed good herding dogs as their sheep populations expanded.

Migrants were on the move from the Eastern United States as well as the UK and Europe.

Ranchers also looked to improve their livestock with imports of high-quality sheep from Spain, Germany, and later Australia, and dogs often came with the deal.

Colorado had a particular interest in the Aussie because the breed was resistant to the effects of the high altitudes near the Rockies.

Australian Shepherds would become a type that could withstand the Western mountains and desert plains’ unpredictable weather conditions.

Aussie enthusiasts resisted indoctrination into national registries for a long time, wanting to emphasize function over conformation.

While the Australian Shepherd Club of America first assembled in 1957, it did not take control as an official registry until the ’70s and would not cement a breed standard until 1977.

A separate organization, the United States Australian Shepherd Association, was responsible for finally entering the Aussie into the AKC in 1993.

4- Interesting facts about this furry friend

Australian Shepherd with another dog
  • Queenie, Stubbie, and Shortie were rodeo performance Aussies responsible for jumpstarting the breed’s popularity. They also featured in Disney movies, including Run, Appaloosa, Run.
  • A champion Frisbee dog of the 1970s was an Australian Shepherd named Hank, who performed at the Super Bowl XII pre-show.
  • Legend says Native Americans nicknamed the Aussie “Ghost Eye” or “Phantom Eye” because of the prominence of the breed’s blue-eyed trait. Blue-eyed dogs were sacred.
  • There is a small variety, but it has become a separate breed, the Miniature American Shepherd. Other than size, the breed standard is identical to that for the Australian Shepherd. 

5- Australian Shepherd Characteristics

 An Aussie should impress you as a dog of balance and utility, medium in height, weight, and bone. They are without any evidence of shyness.

Like everything else, the head is medium-sized with a slight roundness of the top of the skull.

Eyes are almond-shaped and medium, colors ranging from brown to hazel to blue depending on coat color.

Ears are also medium, vaguely triangular, and set high and to the sides of the head.

The Aussie’s body is only slightly longer than tall. The gait is springy and fluid, efficiency prized way more than power.

An Aussie’s tail is sometimes a natural bob, and breed standards call for less than four inches long. In the United States, natural long tails are docked.

Colors

 Aussies can exhibit a range of colors, but the official breed standard only recognizes four basic patterns.

  • Blue merle – Merle gene marbles black and white, making the dog appear blue or gray; Can have tan points and is merle tri-color.
  • Red merle – Liver with merle patches: Note merle only affects black and white colors.
  • Red – Can have minimal or lots of white.
  • Black – Can have no white or a lot of white; Some dogs have tan markings as well as white and are tri-colors.
Australian Shepherd

Red dogs usually have amber, while black dogs have dark brown eyes. Blue merles quite often have ice blue eyes.

– How adaptable your little friend is

 Australian Shepherds are cautious, high-energy, and intense. While they can adjust quickly in the pasture or on a job, they do not adapt readily to sudden changes in routine or living conditions.

They adapt to harsh weather conditions. However, their role as household companions makes them much less suited for climate extremes than their ancestors.

+ Good for novice owners – No

 Aussies possess a natural caution and extraordinary intelligence that requires extensive and proper socialization.

Moreover, they have a pronounced herding instinct that Aussie breeders developed into a forceful and dominant presence in the field.

For the above reasons, Australian Shepherds can be incredibly challenging for first-time owners.

Training Australian Shepherds requires confidence and finesse from their owners.

An Aussie may develop unacceptable shy social behaviors or may try to outsmart you or push you around if training and socialization are lacking.

+ Adapts well to apartment living – No

 Aussies are not very big, but they are incredibly active and high-energy. They may adapt to urban life, but an apartment is usually too confining. 

+ Sensitivity level – High

 Australian Shepherds are very smart and emotionally sensitive to harsh words and actions.

They respond to praise and other acts of positive reinforcement. Abuse can make them anxious and high-strung.

+ Tolerates being alone – No

 Aussies can tolerate being alone for a few hours, but they are mostly Velcro dogs who like being attached to your hip.

Australian Shepherd with a person

Without the mental stimulation of a job and you being there, Aussies can become quite destructive.

They will chew, dig, and run through the house. Your dog may also take up an incessant barking and howling.

+ Tolerates cold weather – Well

 Aussies, believed to be products of the Pyrenees Alps and the Western US, are designed to work in the sometimes unfavorable outdoors.

Australian Shepherds have a thick coat with dual layers, but it is not as weatherproof as some of their close relatives.

The outer coat is straight or wavy and does not repel moisture very well. However, the inner fur is an insulating layer.

An Aussie will do fine in cold, dry conditions as long as she is active.

Once the temperature starts dipping below 30 degrees Fahrenheit or winds pick up, your pet can become uncomfortable with prolonged exposure.

Snow melting on her coat or cold rain are also situations you want to avoid.

+ Tolerates hot weather – Well

 Your Aussie’s double coat will insulate him against the heat, cooling air through circulation between inner and outer fur.

However, the temperature limit is about 95 degrees if arid and 80 to 85 degrees if the humidity is above 30%.

Again, your Aussie’s ancestors worked hard outdoors in all types of conditions, and they adapted to herd in the summer as well as winter.

However, you may not have acclimated your dog, so exercise him in the cool of the early morning or late at night.

Australian Shepherd on a bed

Moreover, do not allow your Aussie to play unattended in the heat.

6- Friendliness of the Australian Shepherd

 The breed is good-natured but can be reserved and aloof with strangers. They bond with their families and are very loving.

+ Affectionate with Family

 The Aussie is extremely affectionate with the family. Aussies generally love everyone in their households but may have a favorite person.

An Aussie likes to stay near that individual’s side.

Australian Shepherds like you to pet them and mostly tolerate hugs from the family. They do enjoy cuddling.

+ Kid-friendly

 Aussies appear to like kids as kindred spirits and handy playmates.

+ Friendly with other pets?

 The Australian Shepherd is exceptionally compatible with dogs, and if well-socialized with them, will make friends with cats.

Aussies are more likely to tolerate a cat that belongs to the family home.

Their early history involved roaming free across vast expanses of land in the Wild West, so you have to expect they hunted rodents. They likely view pocket pets as prey.

+ Friendly towards strangers

 Aussies are not aggressive dogs, but they have a cautious approach with strangers. Many Australian Shepherds are friendly but have no interest in physical overtures.

Others are quite warm with familiarity and encouragement. Still, others never really accept strangers but are not rude or hostile.

Socialization will help acceptance and keep your dog from being skittish, an unacceptable trait in an Aussie.

7- Health and grooming needs

 Your dog will have low grooming needs. You may need to provide long-term care for arthritis. 

Australian Shepherd with snow

+ Amount of shedding – Moderate

 Aussies shed moderately year-round. They have two large sheds a year, corresponding to when they replace their undercoat in the fall and spring.

+ Drooling Potential – Low

 The Australian Shepherd does not drool much. It has tight lips without any drooping of the flew or jowls.

+ General Health

 Unfortunately, Australian Shepherds are similar to Collies and the GSD in the number of health challenges they can face.

A couple of the top nagging issues are hip and elbow dysplasia.

Elbow dysplasia is a common problem in herding dogs and affects Aussies at a rate of about 4% as of 2019, about the same rate as MDR1. 

MDR1 is another concern of Aussies as well as Collies and Shelties. Multi-drug resistance renders a dog incapable of adequately processing certain drugs such as Ivermectin and Imodium.

Affected dogs will exhibit neurologic symptoms with standard dosing of these medications.

Aussies suffer from deafness, a trait linked to both the merle gene and large white areas on the head.

The breed also shows an overwhelming incidence of debilitating neurologic disease, degenerative myelopathy, at almost 14%.

Australian Shepherds are closely related to Collies and suffer the same eye problems.

Most commonly, you will see late-onset cataracts, but there are a few other ocular problems.

Collie Eye Anomaly

 The choroid, which supports the retina, does not develop appropriately in dogs with CEA.

Dogs with mild changes will be almost normal, while severe disease can cause detached retinas, bleeding in the eye, and blindness.

Australian Shepherd puppy sleeping

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

 This disease causes progressive destruction of rods and cones in both eyes.

Affected dogs progress from night blindness to complete loss of vision. Not many Aussies develop the disease, but up to 10% may be carriers.

Iris Colobomas

 The iris is the colored portion of your dog’s eye. A coloboma describes parts of the iris that fail to develop.

It can be barely noticeable or involve huge chunks of missing iris. Genetics is not exact yet, but the majority of affected dogs are merle.

Your Aussie is likely to live a long and productive life.

Buying from a reputable breeder will ensure your best chance of having a dog free of significant eye issues and severe joint abnormalities.

Certification does not eliminate all problems but can heighten your awareness and make you better prepared to manage your dog.

The AKC recommends people who sell puppies to perform specific breed-targeted tests on the parents and litters if applicable for puppies.

  • Ophthalmologist evaluation 
  • Hip
  • Elbow

BAER testing for deafness may also be appropriate for merle dogs.

+ Potential for weight gain – Moderate

 Having the genetics of a hardworking breed with high stamina, the Aussie can gain weight readily if you turn him into a sedentary house pet.

+ Easy to groom – Yes

 Aussies have a double coat that varies from straight to very wavy. Some have thick coats, while others are thinner.

Australian Shepherd

You should not shave an Aussie because of the protective nature of the double coat.

Moreover, an Aussie does not tend to mat. Therefore, you are left only having to brush and bathe.

You need to run a brush through your Aussie’s coat once or twice per week.

You will need to increase the frequency to five or seven days weekly during times of heavy shedding.

+ Size

 The Aussie is a medium-sized dog, standing 18 to 23 inches tall at the withers and weighing 40 to 65 pounds.

Most females are smaller than males.

– Trainability

 Australians have two characteristics going for them when it comes to trainability. The breed is eager to please and very intelligent.

+ Easy to train – Variable

 Australian Shepherds are only easy to train if you can first command their respect.

They share challenges in common with others in the herding group.

  • Independent thinkers
  • Pushy – Will try to take control if they face an unsure or weak-willed handler
  • Sensitive – Will not respond well to forceful training methods
  • Can be manipulative

+ Intelligence

 Dog psychologist Coren’s ranking the Aussie as 66th of 138 in intelligence is more a reflection on the breed’s independence rather than a slam on its cleverness.

Coren’s emphasis in his well-published charts is on working obedience, which demonstrates mastering and obeying commands.

Australian Shepherd looking at the camera

He has additional charts that measure logic and social intelligence where the Aussie is sure to have fared better.

Nevertheless, the Australian Shepherd has average working intelligence, illustrating the need for firm direction and active engagement of his sharp mind.

Otherwise, there is no reason to think the Aussie differs much in raw brainpower from her close relative, the Border Collie.

+ Prey drive – High

 Aussies have a high prey drive, but it has been channeled for generations into herding.

Your Australian Shepherd may not run things down and kill them, but her instinct to chase objects like cars, kids, cats, and bicycles will be high.

If you keep her mind active and focus on early training and socialization, you can make sure your Aussie controls her predatory urges.

Providing activities like agility or disc games offer an outlet for your Aussie.

+ Tendency to bark or howl

 Aussies are talkative dogs when in the company of others. Despite their tendency to work sheep in silence, they are vocal with their owners and when playing.

Like Huskies, they may “speak” to you in various tones, from short yaps to drawn-out singing.

Australian Shepherds also often bark to warn off visitors, approaching strangers, or suspicious occurrences.

However, an Aussie that barks nonstop or without reason is bored or not receiving sufficient exercise. 

+ Potential for mouthiness

 Assume that all puppies will be mouthy, and you must train them to see biting and nipping your hands as inappropriate.

Your adult Australian Shepherd has a high potential for mouthiness because of his strong herding drive.

Aussies can especially be problematic with children as they try to herd them into different areas and nip ankles to get their point across.

8- Physical needs

 Your pet will have relatively high physical needs, as is true of most working dogs.

Australian Shepherd running

+ Intensity – High

 Aussies carry the high intensity of most, if not all, herding dogs. They go all-out in any endeavor and are never satisfied without a job.

The breed has a strong work ethic and drive. It is not one for being still for any length of time except when sleeping.

+ Energy level – High

 You have chosen a dog that has a lot of energy and stamina. Aussies have an enthusiastic spirit and a readiness to serve.

+ Exercise needs – High

 Your dog will need 90 to 120 minutes of exercise every day, at least 20% of which should be strenuous.

A good routine for an adult Aussie is 15 minutes each warm-up and cool down through walking, 45 minutes of running or other high-intensity activity, and 20 minutes to half an hour of training.

Of course, you can change things up if you plan a hiking adventure or if you have a flyball competition over the weekend.

If your dog works extremely hard one day, she can have a light exercise session over the next day or two.

Your Aussie will recover quickly, though, so be ready. People often overlook the tremendous versatility of the Aussie.

  • Police – Drug sniffing, bomb detection
  • Search and rescue
  • Agility
  • Herding trials
  • Frisbee
  • Seeing eye
  • Physical, emotional support animals
  • Flyball – Relay race for dogs; Short course where each dog jumps over obstacles while carrying some kind of baton

+ Potential for Playfulness – high

 Aussie dogs love to romp and play chase games. A well-mannered Australian Shepherd is a joy to behold with children and other dogs.

9- Size of the breed

Your Aussie will be about the height of a Border collie but about ten pounds heavier and squarer in build.

Australian Shepherd

Males are 20 to 22 inches tall, with females on average about two inches shorter.

10- Temperament

 Australian Shepherds are smart, hardworking, good-natured dogs.

Their approach to life is initial caution followed by exuberance, which they back up with agility and focus.

Their history of teamwork has set them up to get along with both children and other dogs.

Children

 Australian Shepherds like children because kids appeal to their desire to play.

However, Aussies also may see small kids as charges that require herding.

Watch your dog for nipping and pushing with his snout.

You will want to focus your training on discouraging herding behavior or redirecting it towards appropriate targets.

Aussies are large enough to topple children, so you should supervise them with anyone under the age of nine years.

Other Pets

 Aussie dogs get along with other dogs and sometimes cats if they were raised together.

Their intensity and predatory instinct do not bode well for smaller pets like lizards, rodents, or birds.

Aussies may be a handful for small dogs and should play with them only under supervision or with the established trust of your Aussie’s behavior.

11- Health

 This breed is relatively healthy, living 13 to 15 years. However, Aussies seem to have more than their fair share of minor ailments and severe disorders.

What follows is a list of common problems from which Aussies can suffer.

Australian Shepherd

Some are specific for sheepdogs, while others plaque many purebreds.

That being said, you can train your Aussie to look upon many smaller animals as his flock, whereby he would protect them rather than eat them (e.g., larger birds like chickens and geese and possibly parrots).

It is doubtful you will ever get your Aussie to see a mouse or hamster as anything other than vermin.

  • Hip dysplasia – Growth abnormality of the hip joint
  • Epilepsy – Seizures without a definitive reason; Maybe hereditary
  • Deafness – Linked to merle gene
  • Genetic eye problems – Progressive retinal atrophy, colobomas, and cataracts are the most common ocular issues
  • Allergies – Usually chronic and can lead to skin and ear infections
  • Hypothyroidism – Insufficient thyroid hormone production; Requires lifelong supplementation
  • Hypersensitivity to particular drugs (MDR1 genetic abnormality) – Common problem specific to collies and their close relatives; Can also see in more distantly related herding dogs
  • Elbow dysplasia – Similar to hip dysplasia except the elbow is a more complex joint with more potential problem areas
  • Degenerative myelopathy – Progressive non-painful degenerative disease that leads to eventual paralysis

12- Grooming and care

 You should brush your Aussie two or three times weekly to remove dander and loose hair and to stimulate the circulation of oils and nerve endings in the skin.

Other tasks should become part of your grooming routine.

  • Baths – Mild shampoo or medicated if dealing with allergies or infection; Every 4 to 6 weeks, less often in health, more frequently for treatments
  • Check ears twice-weekly – Look for foul odor, redness, pain, itchiness, or discharge
  • Brush teeth – Dog appropriate equipment; Start when your dog is a pup
  • Clip nails – Every 4 to 6 week

13- How to feed your Australian Shepherd

 Always feed your Aussie with an eye on her ideal weight. Weight will fluctuate based on several factors.

Australian Shepherd face
  • Energy level – Higher energy level needs to eat more
  • Lifestyle – Working and competition dogs need more food
  • Age – Puppies require relatively more, seniors less but higher quality
  • Health – Surgery recovery and certain diseases require more calories, often higher quality food

Eyeball your dog’s body condition every time you brush her.

Sometimes it is hard to tell precisely with all the hair, but your Aussie should have an abdomen that “tucks” up from ribs to hind legs when you view her from the side.

You should see a waist between the back of the ribs and the hips as you look down.

And you should be able to feel your pet’s ribs under a thin layer of padding when you run your fingers through her fur.

Take any doubts to your veterinarian, and go slow with any feeding changes.

An average Aussie should eat about three to four cups of dry food a day based on a 55-pound dog.

If you prefer more precision, that same dog will get about 1350 calories per day.

Measuring calories has the advantage that you can apply it to homemade diets and commercial wet or dry foods.

Consult with your veterinarian for viable options if you are considering a raw diet.

Puppies and adolescent dogs require more calories than usual.

However, resist the temptation to overfeed your up as obesity can exacerbate dysplasia symptoms in vulnerable dogs.

Because of potential risks of bloat, even adult Aussies should have their daily food quota split into at least two meals a day several hours apart.

Young puppies may eat as much as three or four times a day.

As is true for any dog, you want the first few ingredients in your Aussie’s food to be a nutrient-dense, preferably animal protein source.

It can be beef, lamb, or chicken, or any selection of novelty sources like venison, duck, or bison.

If your Aussie has allergies or sensitivities, you may need to restrict or eliminate certain ingredients like grain or common proteins such as chicken, beef, or bone meal.

References

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Marcelle Landestoy