Australian Shepherds are Awesome!

Australian Shepherds are known as one of the most intelligent dog breeds out there—and for good reason!

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a number of Australian Shepherds as my companions and working partners. I have countless stories about how amazing these dogs are.

Care Bear, a black, copper, and white tri-color Aussie was the inspiration for the founding of the therapy dog group, Love on a Leash. Ursa, also a black tri, was a working demonstration dog for Kindred Spirits Dog Training for all thirteen years of her life. Riker, my dog, and Kona, owned by a friend, could pull a heavily loaded wagon as a team and at several national Australian Shepherd specialty dog shows. Dax, also a black tri, earned multiple obedience and herding titles, including several high-scoring Dog Show & Trial awards. Bashir put himself between an aggressive, angry goat who wished to do me harm and by doing so, was himself hurt by that goat. A few years later, Bashir refused to leave my side for days at a time after my husband was killed by a reckless driver. The intelligence, companionship, and loyalty of these dogs is amazing.

The breed’s ability to do whatever is asked of them is well known and is so much a part of the breed that when I wrote my book about Aussies, there was only one phrase I would consider for the title, Australian Shepherd: Champion of Versatility.

australian shepherd

©istockphoto/LittleCityLifestylePhotography

An American Breed

Contrary to the breed’s name, it is very much an American breed. There are many theories as to how and where it originated. There are probably some Basque herding dogs in their ancestry; dogs that came with the Basque shepherds who tended the flocks of sheep brought in during the California gold rush. Many of those flocks were imported from Australia, which probably led to the misleading name.

The farm collie of the midwest, now known as the English Shepherd, was probably also an ancestor. Some breed fanciers think the old Scotch Collie might have also had an influence on the breed; but right now, they are just theories. Perhaps when the DNA tests are better we will have more definitive answers. However, we do know that the breed we adore came into being here in the United States, primarily in the American West.

Looking at an Aussie

Aussies are a medium-sized dog, with females standing between 18 and 21 inches tall at the shoulder and males generally a couple of inches taller. Their build should be of a moderate size appropriate to their height with no extremes. Bred to be a working herding and farm dog, these dogs need to be strong enough to do the job, agile enough to work the stock, and yet not so heavy or bulky that they tire easily. A medium-sized, moderate dog is a good description.

People often recognize Aussies by their coloring. There are four basic color patterns: blue merle (a blue/grey color with darker splotches): red merle (a liver, brownish-red color with darker liver splotches); black tri-color; and red tri-color. All of the color patterns can have white on the legs, chest, muzzle, blaze, and collar, along with copper accents (hence the tri description). Not all dogs will have white or copper, although most do.

Their colorful coat is of medium length and easy to care for. Most dirt is easily brushed out of the straight, silky coat. Daily brushing is recommended as the hair behind the ears can tangle as can the pantaloons (between and behind the back legs). A downside to this wonderful coat is that Aussies shed. A lot. And often.

Aussies can also have varied colored eyes ranging from deep brown to light amber, blue, or marbled. They even frequently have two different colored eyes, called heterochromia. The saying that “the eyes are the windows to the soul” was obviously thinking of an Aussie’s fascinating eyes.

australian shepherd

©istockphoto/AJ_Watt

A Handful of a Personality

After knowing the breed for more than three decades, I can say that I’ve yet to meet a boring Aussie. These dogs are personality plus. They are happy, joyful, intelligent, biddable dogs who at the same time have a strong drive to work. That work can range from farm and ranch work to dog sports, obedience competition, therapy dog work, trick training, carting, and everything in between.

An Aussie without a job to do will be an unhappy dog. An unhappy Aussie will be prone to getting into trouble and they can be quite inventive. You may find the family cats all herded together on the sofa or all the towels pulled out of the bathroom and piled in the living room.

Giving your Aussie a job doesn’t mean you need to have sheep in your backyard, though, or that you need to compete in dog shows every weekend. Obedience training, trick training, scenting games, or other fun activities can keep your dog happy. And like most dogs, Aussies respond well to bribery! While training, be sure to give plenty of treats.

Most people looking into this breed understand that they are herding dogs with strong herding and guardian instincts. What some people don’t understand is that because these dogs were bred to be versatile farm and ranch dogs, they are also reserved and cautious with strangers. Although Aussies are joyful dogs with their family and friends, strangers who trespass on to their property will be greeted with barking and potentially a show of teeth. When someone tried to rob me one time, Ursa jumped out of my truck window to confront the potential thief. He did not get my purse.

Not for Everyone

As much as I love this breed, and as wonderful as these dogs are, it is not the breed for everyone. Bred to be an intelligent working partner, they are not happy if things are not as they wish them to be. Aussies need to spend lots of time with their people. If relegated to the back yard, they will bark (loudly and often!) and can be incredible diggers. An unhappy or bored Aussie can be destructive in the house.

If you’re the type of person who is bothered by a canine shadow following you everywhere, don’t get an Aussie. Aussie owners love to share, “I never use the restroom by myself!” Aussies like to supervise everything you do. Everything!

However, if you enjoy your dog’s company, love to go for daily walks, jogs, or bike rides; and enjoy the challenge of training and doing things with an intelligent working dog, then an Aussie might just be the right dog for you.

australian shepherd

©istockphoto/Florian Fritsch

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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