Australian Shepherd Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

Close-up portrait of purebred australian shepherd

Don't let the name fool you; the Australian Shepherd was actually developed in the United States. The Aussie is a medium-sized, energetic dog most commonly associated with farm life. Their bright blue eyes, or combination of blue and brown eyes, and adorable personality captures attention, and their drive to herd makes them extremely valuable to those with livestock.

Origins and History

The Australian Shepherd was designed to herd livestock for ranchers and farmers in the western United States, and many Australian Shepherds still perform this work today.

Many theories exist as to which breeds were used to develop the Australian Shepherd. The Aussie's origins likely include collie and shepherd-type dogs that were introduced with sheep shipments from Australia in the 1840s, leading to the name, "Australian Shepherd." Breeders aimed to improve their herding skills and create an adaptable, tireless, and intelligent dog.

Aussies were bred based on intelligence, temperament, agility, and herding instincts. Ultimately, the breed evolved into what is now considered one of the finest livestock-handling breeds in the world. Despite their popularity, the American Kennel Club did not recognize the breed until 1993.

Characteristics of the Breed

Australian Shepherd characteristics

The Aussie is well-known for their endearing appearance, affectionate personality, and easy-to-train demeanor.

Appearance

The Aussie, as the breed is affectionately referred to, is a sturdy dog of medium build, who is highly energetic and keenly intelligent. They are able to observe a situation, reason out a course of action, and then go to it. These qualities are what make them superior in the field.

One very distinct characteristic of the breed is their bobbed tail, which is barely noticeable amongst the thick coat. This trait is recessive, and the preferred tail length for adult Aussies with docked tails is 4 inches, per the AKC standard.

The Aussie should be slightly longer than it is tall, and should be hard-muscled, not fat, and ready to go to work. Males stand between 20 to 23 inches tall, and females average 18 to 21 inches. A mature male Australian Shepherd should weigh between 50 and 65 pounds. Adult females are a bit lighter, averaging between 40 and 55 pounds. Most Australian Shepherds take 16 months to achieve full adult size and weight, but most reach their full height by 1-year-old.

Coat and Grooming

The Aussie carries a double coat. The outer coat is hard and acts as a water-proof barrier for the undercoat, which insulates the dog from both heat and cold. Combined, these coat textures serve the Aussie well in all weather conditions so they can remain on the job with their flock. The coat is medium in length, with a fluffier collar around the neck, shoulders and chest, sometimes referred as a "ruff." Coat colors include black, blue merle, red, and red merle.

The breed sheds all year, but more profusely in the spring, as their winter coat is no longer necessary.

Australian Shepherd dog portrait on picnic table

To avoid matting, brush the Aussie's coat once a week, or more frequently during high shedding periods. To untangle the coat, spray it with a dog hair conditioner diluted with water before brushing. Then, with a slicker brush, stroke in the direction of hair growth, making sure to get all the way down to the skin and not just over the top of the coat. A rake for the undercoat is also useful for eliminating excess hair. Mats are common behind the ears, and you may need to use a stripping comb to get rid of them. Any of these grooming tools can be found in a good pet supply store.

Your Aussie should only require a bath when they're dirty, which shouldn't be more than a few times a year if you keep them brushed. To avoid drying out their skin and coat, do not utilize a human-brand shampoo. Instead, visit your local pet store to grab a dog-friendly mixture.

Temperament

The Australian Shepherd is a good-natured dog who can give the Energizer Bunny a run for his money, but it's only natural for them to be a bit reserved when meeting strangers. Aussies are extremely devoted to both their human family and their flocks, and will go to great lengths to watch over and protect both. Since Australian Shepherds are herding dogs who consider children to be part of their "flock," you'll need to teach your dog that chasing and nipping at children in order to herd them isn't acceptable. Aussies make fantastic, affectionate companions for families with children after they have learned this lesson.

Aussies require socialization and exposure to a variety of people, sights, noises, and experiences, preferably while they're still young. If you find an adult Aussie, exposing them to new surroundings on a regular basis can assist them in becoming a well-rounded adult dog.

Exercise Requirements

Australian shepherd dog

The only real drawback to the Aussie personality -- if it can truly be called a drawback -- is their highly energetic nature and their need to burn off that energy. This means you need to give your dog plenty of exercise on a daily basis, or destructive behaviors may begin in an effort to keep them busy.

Every day, your Aussie needs at least some stimulating activity, such as a run, a Frisbee game, obedience exercises, or agility exercises. Interactive puzzle toys are a great way to keep their active mind occupied when you're not playing with them providing both mental and physical stimulation.

Puppies don't require the same amount of vigorous activity as adults, and you shouldn't allow them run on hard surfaces like concrete or leap until they're at least a year old. It could put a strain on their still-developing skeletal structure, leading to eventual joint issues.

Training

The mix of being sharp as a whip and eager to please is unbeatable. Aussies are relatively simple to train for almost any task, including housebreaking, farm work, and service work for the disabled. If you are prepared to put in the time with these dogs, they can genuinely become Jacks-of-all-Trades.

Reward-based training, also known as positive reinforcement training, has proven to be effective with Australian Shepherds. Instead of punishing the dog for undesirable behavior, this method of training encourages them to accomplish desired behaviors by rewarding them with praise or treats when they are well-behaved.

Health Concerns

Like many dog breeds, the Australian Shepherd faces certain health problems.

Canine Hip Dysplasia is perhaps the most common ailment found in the breed today. Malformed joints lead to excessive wear on the cartilage, eventually resulting in bone rubbing on bone. This is very painful for affected dogs and can be crippling.

Additionally, Aussies may be prone to:

  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy: A degenerative eye disease that results in the loss of photoreceptors at the back of the eye, eventually leading to blindness.
  • Hypothyroidism: A condition in which the thyroid gland produces too little hormone.
  • Cancer: Cancer can strike dogs just like it does humans. There are many distinct forms of cancer, and treatment efficacy varies from case to case. Surgery, medicinal treatments, and holistic treatments are all methods to manage or eradicate cancer. Aussies are most prone to developing hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma compared to other breeds.
  • Canine Epilepsy: Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes seizures. Epilepsy can be managed with medicine but not cured. With correct management of this inherited condition, a dog can live a long and healthy life.
  • Skin problems: Australian Shepherds are prone to skin allergies, which are likely related to genetic causes. However, like with other dogs, their genes, upbringing, allergen exposure, and general exposure all play a role. Skin allergies may wreak havoc on your dog's skin if left untreated; prolonged itching can lead to hot spots or skin damage from repeated rubbing, scratching, and biting.
  • Nasal Solar Dermatitis: This disorder, often known as Collie-nose, affects dogs with little or no pigment in their nose, though it is not limited to Collies. Lesions on the nose and occasionally around the eyelids form in dogs who are hypersensitive to sunlight, ranging from small pink lesions to ulcerating lesions.

Life Expectancy

Australian Shepherd puppy lying on grass

The average lifespan of an Australian Shepherd is 9 years, although some have been noted to live up to 15 years old. This is comparable to the average lifespan of other dog breeds of similar size. According to Guinness World Records, the oldest known dog was Bluey, an Australian Shepherd that lived to the age of 29 years and 5 months before being euthanized in November 1939.

Fun Facts About the Australian Shepherd

As with other breeds, the Australian Shepherd has some distinctive facts that are unique to them, including:

  • Australian Shepherds weren't immediately well-known. Following World War I, Australian shepherds had a major surge in popularity. As more people moved west, the athletic dogs found even more opportunities. The dogs were ideal for the rodeo because they were intelligent and easy to train. That's where they gained the most attention.
  • Because of their ghostly-blue eyes, Native American tribes dubbed the breed the ghost eye dog. They were believed to be sacred and were frequently avoided.
  • The eyes of Australian shepherds are not always blue; they might be green, amber, hazel, brown, or even two different hues. The dogs' eyes may be marbled (heterochromia), which means that each of their eyes is a blend of two or more hues.
  • Hyper Hank, an Australian Shepherd, and his owner, Eldon McIntire, gained a lot of recognition in the 1970s for their amazing Frisbee routine. The brilliant disc team won competitions all over the country, performed at the Super Bowl XII pre-show, and spent time with the Carters at the White House.

Breeders and Rescues

Many Australian Shepherds are adopted without a clear idea of what it takes to own one. Many Aussies are in need of adoption or fostering. If you don't find an Aussie rescue in your region, contact the national breed group or a local breed club, and they will be able to direct you to one. You can also take a look on PetFinder.com to find both purebred and Aussie mixes.

Like other breeds, there are also Aussie breeders. You can find a directory of reputable breeders on the United States Australian Shepherd Association website. Find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your dog's parents if you're buying a puppy. Health clearances demonstrate that a dog has been checked for and cleared of some hereditary conditions. Health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; thrombopathia from Auburn University; and normal eyes from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) are all common in Australian dogs. The OFA website can be used to verify health clearances.

Portrait Of Australian Shepherd Puppy On Grass

The Right Breed for You?

Australian Shepherds are devoted pets and tireless workers, but they might not be the ideal breed for everyone. An Aussie needs plenty of space to exercise, ideally with a lot of open pasture. They also enjoy being useful and are never more fulfilled than when they have a task to do. After all, these are working dogs, so life cooped up in an apartment would likely be frustrating for both you and your dog unless you can provide sufficient exercise.

Unless you are prepared to give as much devotion to your Aussie as they will shower on you, it might be better for you to consider a less active breed. An Aussie needs both challenges and socialization to thrive and remain happy.

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Australian Shepherd Dogs: Everything You Need to Know