The Australian Shepherd breed actually originated in the US and not in Australia, despite what its name suggests.
The breed was first developed during the so-called Golden Rush during the 1840s in the western states. This wonderful dog breed was bred to herd sheep and livestock, and today the Aussie still is one of the most reliable working dog breeds, even though it is more popular as a family companion dog.
The dogs from this breed are energetic and naturally intelligent. They are happy when they have work to do, and when they are provided with sufficient exercise and participate in different dog sports.
Closely associated with cowboy life, this American dog breed is among the USA’s top 20 most popular breeds.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about the Australian Shepherd dog.
- Canine breed group: Herding dogs
- Height at the shoulder: 20-23 inches for males, 18-21 inches for females
- Average weight: 50-65 for males and 40-55 lbs. for females
- Average lifespan: 12-15 years
- Coat color: the double coat is medium in length and water-resistant. The outer coat is straight or wavy. It can vary in color –black, tri-color, red, red merle and blue merle
Overview of the Australian Shepherd breed
This medium-sized working dog breed is the top preferred herding dog by cowboys since these dogs are agile and sturdy stock herders and movers.
With coats in various colors and sharp and keen looks in their eyes, these capable and smart dogs will herd just about any animal or child in sight.
This strong herding instinct and their high energy levels could be a handful for novice dog owners or people who prefer leading a more sedentary life.
On the other hand, if you love being active and spending time outdoors and are willing to add an intelligent and tireless running or training buddy, the Australian Shepherd could be the perfect companion dog for you.
Watch dogs from this breed perform what they are best at – herding sheep is an absolutely fascinating sight. They can move large flocks of livestock and direct them to their destination perfectly.
The Australian Shepherds are hardworking and versatile dogs that will be at their best in homes where they are given a chance to train and use that intelligence and the overflow of energy. Having a backyard will help keep your Aussie happy and active, but you will need to take it on long walks, or even better – runs, hikes, cycling trips or find your pup another job to keep it happy.
If you fail to provide this kind of mental and physical exercise for the Australian Shepherd, it can become bored, leading to unwanted destructive behavior and barking. If left without a job, the Aussie can find its own job and start herding the kids or other dogs or animals around and even chasing cars.
The best way to keep your Australian Shepherd happy is to let it participate in different competitive dog sports and competitions. The dogs from this breed are natural winners in most such competitions, including herding, agility, obedience and fly ball contests.
You can also keep the dog busy and working at home by teaching it to help you around the house by performing different chores for you, like bringing in the newspapers, picking up laundry and others.
The more work the Australian Shepherd has – the happier it will be.
The Aussies are medium-sized canines with bobbed or docked tails, medium-length coats and penetrating green, blue, brown or amber eyes.
Being a natural herder, the Australian Shepherd could become the perfect watchdog and loyal companion. These dogs are aloof to strangers, protective of their families and will get along with children well, as long as you have trained your pup to abstain from the desire to herd them.
The average Australian Shepherd requires about 30 to 60 minutes of vigorous exercise every day, as well as a job to keep busy, which you can easily provide via obedience training or dog sports like agility and herding.
Aussies can become loud and destructive when left without mental and physical stimulation.
They also have strong protective instincts and will alert you when they sense that a stranger is approaching your home. You will need to socialize your puppy from an early age by meeting it with new people, neighbors, and different situations to curb this natural suspicion of strangers that, if left unmanaged, may lead to fear, aggression, and even biting.
Aussies are not the best apartment dogs, but if you can provide them with the training and work they need to perform, they can live happily even in a big and busy city as long as they have a small outdoor space to run around.
Keep in mind, that as herding dogs, Australian Shepherds can become pushy with timid or inexperienced owners and can assume a dominant herding position at home. This is why this dog breed is recommended for owners with experience and those who are firm and confident enough to teach the dog its position in the family hierarchy.
Aussies do not shed too much but do need weekly brushing to keep their coats shiny, healthy and free from matting.
These dogs love spending time with their human families, so they will not enjoy living outdoors all day and all night alone.
Overall, this energetic, smart and loyal dog is the perfect companion and pet for confident, firm and active owners or families.
History of the Australian Shepherd breed
Even though the breed is called Australian Shepherd, it was developed for herding livestock in the western states during the Gold Rush. Its ancestors are most likely European and Australian shepherd dogs, including the Collie and other dogs which were imported from Australia along with the sheep.
The original breeders had a goal of developing the perfect hardworking, smart and versatile herding dog. The breed’s popularity was boosted in the years following World War II when western-style cowboy life and horseback riding regained their popularity.
The fans of western movies as well as of rodeos or other horse riding shows, fell in love with the agility and the capability of the dogs from this breed.
The surprising fact in the history of the Australian Shepherd is that the American Kennel Club did not officially recognize it until 1993.
Today, the dogs from this breed are among the top 20 most popular dogs in the US, loved by the growing army of fanciers of this all-American breed.
The size of the Australian Shepherd
The Australian Shepherd is a medium-sized dog that is a tad longer than it is tall. The male Aussies are about 20 to 23 inches at the shoulder while the females are slightly smaller – with a shoulder height of 18 to 21 inches.
The average weight of a male Australian Shepherd is 50-65 lbs. for the males and about 40-55 lbs. for the females.
You may have heard about Toy or Teacup Australian Shepherds. These dogs are not officially recognized by the breeders specializing in Australian Shepherds because the dogs from this breed are meant to be serious and sturdy working dogs which can handle a flock of sheep and pass through rough terrains, and not miniature lap dogs.
The personality of the Australian Shepherd
As mentioned before, these assertive herding dogs are quite pushy with livestock, which can lead some of them into taking the dominant roles at home as well. They may attempt to herd the children, the entire family or other people and dogs. This is why the Australian Shepherd breed is not recommended for timid or inexperienced owners.
These dogs are very loyal and protective, so you will need to train and socialize your dog from an early age if you want to prevent it from becoming aggressive or fearful with strangers later on in life.
With proper socialization from the first days, and a lot of exposure to people, children, and various settings, your Australian Shepherd will grow up to be a well-rounded dog with proper manners and social skills.
Health care and common health problems for the breed
Being bred as sturdy working dogs, the Australian Shepherds are generally pretty healthy. Then again, just like with every other dog breed, they are prone to developing certain diseases and health conditions more than others.
This is why when you are buying a puppy, always ask for medical clearance for both parents of your future dog. Such clearance will eliminate the risk of your dog developing some of the most common genetic diseases which affect the canines from this breed.
When asking for health clearance, ask for one for hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, von Willebrand’s disease and hypothyroidism issued by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. Also, ask for clearance for thrombophilia by the Auburn University and clearance for good eye health by the Canine Eye Registry Foundation. You can check all of these clearances at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals’ website offa.org.
Here are some of the more common health problems and diseases that may affect Australian Shepherds:
This condition affects many medium and large-sized dog breeds. It is caused by the femur bone of the hind legs does not fit snuggly in the hip joint’s pelvic socket at the dog’s hip. It can affect one or both rear legs and can cause pain and lameness. The condition can be diagnosed with an X-ray. Unfortunately, this painful condition can get worse as the dog ages, and it may turn into even more painful arthritis.
Dysplasia is a hereditary condition, so dogs diagnosed with hip dysplasia should not be bred. You should always ask for clearance for both parents for this painful condition.
This type of dysplasia is also hereditary, like hip dysplasia, but it affects the front legs and elbows of the dog. Again, this can lead to lameness and pain in one or both of the dog’s front legs. It can be treated with pain medication or surgically. Then again, if you are buying an Australian Shepherd from responsible breeders who have health clearance, you shouldn’t need to worry about this condition.
This hereditary illness causes seizures in the dog. Unfortunately, epilepsy cannot be cured, but with the proper medication and care, an epileptic Australian Shepherd can lead a long and happy life.
Australian Shepherds can be partially or completely deaf, and while some forms of hearing loss can be treated and reversed, others cannot. This can pose a problem for owners who do not have the experience or knowledge to properly train or care for a completely deaf dog.
Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD)
OCD is a painful cartilage growth in the elbow or shoulder joints of the dog. This growth can cause stiffening and an inability to bend the leg. The condition can be detected in Australian Shepherds aged 4 to 8 months and could be caused by overfeeding puppies with high protein or growth formula foods.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
This eye disorder is degenerative and can eventually lead to blindness in one or both eyes due to the gradual loss of the photoreceptors in the eye. This condition can be detected early on. Thankfully, canines have the capability to adapt to partial or complete blindness, as long as you abstain from moving the furniture around and you take care to keep them safe from traffic.
This is another degenerative eye disease that is fairly common in Australian Shepherds. It manifests itself in a cloudy appearance of one or both of the eyes and usually occurs as the dog ages. Like in humans, cataracts can be surgically removed in some cases.
Collie Eye Anomaly
This is a genetic condition that can cause blindness. It can be diagnosed when the dog is 2 years old, but unfortunately, it is irreversible. Since this is a hereditary condition, always ask the breeder for clearance from an Ophthalmologist. Dogs with Collie Eye Anomaly should not be bred.
This condition involves the growth of a second set of eyelashes on the oil gland of the eye of the dog, which can irritate the eye. If you notice that your Australian Shepherd is rubbing its eyes or squinting a lot, you should go to the vet and check it out for this unpleasant condition. It can be cured via cryoepilation, which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and thus remove the extra set of eyelashes. This is a surgery and is performed under general anesthesia.
Persistent Pupillary Membranes
These are tissue strands in the eye which are remains of the fetal membrane and usually disappear as the puppy grows to be about 4-5 months old. In case they do not disperse by themselves at the age of 8 weeks, you should ask your vet for prescription eye drops to break them down. If left untreated, these membranes can lead to cataracts.
This is a condition where there are very low levels of the thyroid gland hormone. Some symptoms of this condition include obesity, lethargy, dullness, low energy levels, drooping eyelids, irregular temperature, and infertility. Also, the coat can become brittle and coarse and start falling off, and the skin can become tough and dark. This condition can successfully be managed with daily medications for the rest of the life of the dog.
Unfortunately, just like with humans, allergies are common among dogs, including Aussies. Allergies can be caused by foods, inhalants or by contact with allergens. Some contact allergies can be caused by shampoos, chemicals, and even the bedding material. Inhalant allergies can be caused by pollen or other airborne allergens. Particular foods can cause food allergies. The cause of the allergy needs to be properly diagnosed so that you can limit the contact of your dog with it and thus avoid unpleasant allergic reactions. There are also various medications that can help ease the symptoms of allergies in dogs as well.
Drug sensitivity is pretty common among herding dog breeds and is caused by a genetic mutation of MDR1, causing the underproduction of a certain protein responsible for cleaning out the dog’s organism from toxic substances. The lack of this protein in Australian Shepherds can lead to toxicity when the dog is given or exposed to a particular drug.
Some common drug sensitivities are to Ivermectin which is a common ingredient in many anti-parasitic products and other veterinary drugs. Drug sensitivity can lead to depression, tremors, hypersalivation, seizures and even death. Even though there is no cure for this hereditary condition, there are some genetic DNA tests that can identify drug sensitivity, so you can protect your dog from exposure to the drugs it is sensitive to.
This is caused by injury to the face and is irreversible. But dogs can lead full and happy lives even if they are partially or completely blind.
Even though we have provided a long list of potential health problems of Australian Shepherds, they are rather healthy animals in general, when bred by responsible breeders who have to ensure that their parents and ancestors do not carry the genes causing most of these hereditary health problems.
Nasal Solar Dermatitis
This is another health problem common among herding dog breeds, also known as Collie’s nose. It occurs in dogs with no or limited pigment in their nose, making them sensitive to sunlight. Lesions due to bright sunlight can appear on the nose and around the eyelids of the affected dog. If your dog is diagnosed with this condition, you should apply canine sunscreen and keep it out of direct sunlight when unprotected. One of the best treatments is tattooing the dog’s nose black.
Just like us humans, dogs also can develop various types of cancers. The treatment of cancer in Aussies depends on the type of cancer and can include chemotherapy and surgical removal of the cancerous tumor.
Caring for the Australian Shepherd
As mentioned previously in this article, Australian Shepherds are highly active working dogs. To properly care for a dog of this breed, you must be prepared to spend at least half to one hour with it engaging it in vigorous exercise. This can include running with you, playing Frisbee, or engaging in agility and obedience training and dog sports.
Apart from the need to stay active and working, the Aussie also requires mental stimulation to keep its mind engaged and trained. You should provide your dog with puzzle toys or other mentally stimulating exercises on a daily basis.
Suppose you fail to provide your dog with the mental and physical exercise and work it requires. In that case, the Australian Shepherd will quickly become bored, leading to destructive behavior and incessant barking.
Young puppies do not require so much exercise. In fact, you should refrain from playing with and running with an Aussie puppy on hard ground surfaces to prevent bone and joint problems. Walk and exercise your puppy on soft ground surfaces such as grass until it grows to be at least 1 year old.
Also, the strong herding instinct of this dog leads to a dominant behavior, a lot of chasing and even nipping. This type of behavior should be curbed with obedience training from an early age. You need to be firm and consistent if you want to end up with an obedient well-rounded dog, rather than a dominant pet that will want to herd you, your children and everyone else.
The Australian Shepherd dogs are very protective of their families. You should invite a lot of guests and meet your puppy with a lot of different people and dogs from an early age, if you want to prevent fear or aggression towards strangers and towards your guests or other dogs later on.
The dogs from this breed are highly intelligent and eager to learn and respond very well to positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, treats, and games. All you need to teach your Aussie puppy is who the boss is, and it will be happy to take your commands.
Dogs from this breed thrive well in homes with a fenced backyard or other outdoor space, but they should not be kenneled and kept as outdoor only dogs, because they do like to be with their human families.
If you are an active person, who loves cycling, running, hunting or exercising, your Australian Shepherd could become your best training or running buddy.
Suppose you can provide your dog with the chance to train for and take part in different dog sports such as agility, herding or obedience trials, and competitions. In that case, it will be the happiest dog ever and will also never let you down because the dogs from this breed are natural winners in all kinds of dog sports contests.
Feeding the Australian Shepherd
The recommended daily amount of food for an adult Australian Shepherd is about 1.5 – 2.5 cups of top-quality dog food per day. The food should be divided into two separate meals to prevent bloat.
Of course, the exact amount and type of food you need to give to your Aussie depends on its age, weight, health and activity level.
Being a highly active dog breed, the Aussie should eat high-quality caloric dog food. You should measure the food every time to prevent overfeeding or malnourish.
Also, be careful about allowing your Australian Shepherd to become overweight. This can lead to various health problems, such as bone and joint problems, diabetes and other conditions that can shorten the lifespan of your four-legged friend.
Always feed your dog with age-appropriate foods. Elderly dogs need much fewer calories than young dogs, and puppies have their own nutritional needs.
Apart from buying ready-made dog food, you can also prepare healthy and nutritious dog food at home but abstain from feeding your Australian Shepherd with scraps of human food. Some of the food we eat is not healthy and can even be toxic for canines.
Check out which foods are safe for your dog and ask your vet for the best type of food and the quantities you need to feed your dog.
Grooming the Australian Shepherd
The coat of the Australian Shepherd is of medium length and is water and snow resistant. The dogs that live in colder climates have heavier undercoats than those in warmer areas.
Their hair can be wavy or straight, with smoother and shorter hairs on the ears, heads, below the heels and on the forelegs.
They have to feather on the britches and on the back of the forelegs. The hair on the chest and neck, especially in males, is longer and thicker.
The color of the coat can differ. Some Australian Shepherds are black, others are tri-color, and there are also red, red merle and blue merle Aussies.
Merle coats are like patchworks of dark spots on a light background. These tend to get darker over time.
Australian Shepherds are moderate shedders but will blow their thick double coats in the spring and autumn when the shedding becomes heavier.
In order to keep the Aussie tidy and with a healthy and beautiful coat, you should brush your dog at least once a week thoroughly and more often during the heavy shedding seasons.
For the best results, spray the dog’s coat with a dog conditioner and water in order to detangle or remove matting in any problematic areas. Use a slick brush to stroke the hair in the direction of its growth, making sure that you go right down to the skin of the dog.
You can use an undercoat rake to remove any excess hair as well. If the hair has become matted, you should use a stripping comb to deal with it properly.
When properly groomed and brushed regularly, an Aussie will need to be bathed only when it is absolutely necessary – just about once or twice per year. Always use specialized dog shampoo when bathing your pup in order to prevent drying of its coat and skin.
The coat of the Australian Shepherd should be shiny. If you notice that it is becoming dull, you may need to change the dog’s diet or improve its grooming regimen.
You should also regularly inspect your dog for any rashes, sores, tenderness or signs of infection on the skin.
Also, check its ears and eyes for any signs of infections, such as discharge, a bad smell or redness. Clean the ears gently but without putting anything inside the ear canal of your Aussie.
Make sure you keep your dog’s nails properly trimmed to prevent splintering and other injuries. The best way to get your dog used to nail trimming and tooth brushing is to start from an early age and reward your pup every time it behaves itself during the grooming process.
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With the proper care and weekly brushing, the thick, water-resistant double coat of your Australian Shepherd will be healthy, shiny and beautiful.
Socializing the Australian Shepherd with pets and children
Like most herding dogs, Australian Shepherds have a strong herding instinct. This can lead to the urge to herd the children and other pets in your home. Since Aussies often use nipping and chasing to move livestock, they may engage in this type of behavior with your kids or pets too. This is why early socializing and obedience training are absolutely mandatory for the dogs of this breed.
You should teach your dog to communicate with your children and other pets properly from day one in the house. With proper and timely socializing, you can teach these smart dogs just about anything and polish their social manners and behavior.
They are also naturally protective and can be aloof and even aggressive to strangers, which is another reason why you should take the time to introduce your Australian Shepherd to as many people, dogs, and situations as possible from an early age. Make sure you invite many guests or take your dog with you to different occasions and places to avoid fearfulness or aggression to strange humans or animals later on.
When socialized properly, the Australian Shepherd can be the perfect play friend for the children and also will protect them. Still, you will need to teach your kids how to properly and safely interact with dogs in order to prevent injuries and incidents.
Always supervise these interactions between dogs and children, just to be on the safe side.
If you are patient, confident and consistent when training your dog, it will quickly learn who the boss is and will gladly learn and respond to new commands.
Unfortunately, one of the leading reasons for dogs of this breed ending up in rescue shelters is that their owners were not able or unwilling to spend the time to train and channel the endless energy of these dogs.
They are loyal dogs, which are protective of their families, and can become destructive if not provided with enough mental and physical exercise, so this breed is definitely not suitable for every owner.
Buying or rescuing an Australian Shepherd from a shelter
Before adding an Australian Shepherd to your family, you must understand just how much activity and training this dog requires. Also, you must be certain that you have the confidence and skills to teach this dog, who is the authoritative figure at home.
If you are an active person looking for a wonderful dog for dog sports and competitions, then you should definitely consider buying or adopting an Australian Shepherd.
As mentioned in the health section, these dogs are prone to various hereditary health conditions. This is why you should always ask for health clearance for these conditions for both of the parents of your dog.
In case you decide to adopt an Australian Shepherd from a shelter, make sure you speak to the staff to find out more about the dog’s background and behavior before bringing it home with you.
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The Australian Shepherd is a symbol of American cowboy life and is one of the top most popular dog breeds in the USA. These medium-sized dogs are incredibly intelligent, hardworking and agile animals. They are among the best herding dogs and are often winners of different dog sports and competitions.
Aussies require a lot of physical and mental exercise, as well as a lot of training and socializing. If you are an active person, which has the experience and confidence to train this dog properly, the Australian Shepherd could be the best and most loyal pet you have ever had.