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Karin Newstrom, Animal Photography
Aussies are devoted to their people. They like to be as close to them as possible: sitting on a foot, leaning against a leg, or even wedging themselves into your lap. That’s probably to make you feel better about not being quite as smart as the Aussie.
The Australian Shepherd is not from Australia and was, in fact, developed by Basque shepherds right here in the USA. The confusion about his origins is only one of many misconceptions about this talented and hard-working herding dog.
The Australian Shepherd is smart and focused, and a good Australian Shepherd can be your best friend ever, but only if you are prepared to keep him busy with dog sports -- agility, flyball, flying disc games, herding trials, obedience, tracking -- or teach him to do chores around your home or yard. A couple of hour-long daily walks, jogs or hikes, plus some home training sessions will also help to meet his need for activity. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep him occupied to his satisfaction. But if you're ready to provide loving leadership to your dog, train him consistently and fairly, and give him plenty of exercise and an outlet for his considerable intelligence, then the Australian Shepherd can be right for you.
Don't underestimate that intelligence, either. This is among the smartest of all dog breeds, and one whose owners need to pay attention lest they find themselves outsmarted. Expecting an Australian Shepherd to spend his days in the backyard and his evenings keeping you company while you watch your favorite TV shows is a sure way to create a barking, bored, destructive dog instead of the calm, well-behaved, loyal companion you thought you were bringing into your home.
Australian Shepherds herd livestock by nipping at the animals’ heels. If they don’t have a flock to manage, they may transfer this behavior to children, other pets, and vehicles. Never let it go uncorrected, and then redirect the behavior by giving your Australian Shepherd demanding and interesting tasks or games that will provide him with the exercise and mental stimulation he needs. He’ll help your kid practice pitching skills for hours on end and may well be voted MVP of the neighborhood pickup soccer or football games. The Australian Shepherd can also make a super search and rescue dog, detection dog, hearing dog, assistance dog or therapy dog.
You might think that an Australian Shepherd needs a home with a big backyard, but he can adapt to any environment as long as his people give him a couple of hours of vigorous exercise every day. And although he loves the great outdoors, the Aussie is by no means a yard dog. He is bred to work with people. If your Australian Shepherd is a family pet, he needs to live indoors; that is, when he’s not out with you playing, jogging, working or showing up all the other dogs at the local agility or obedience trial. Otherwise, he'll be lonely, bored and destructive.
Herding breeds bark, and the Aussie is no exception. He is always alert and will bark to let you know that he sees or hears something out of the ordinary. Teach him how to discriminate so that things like squirrels in the yard or the neighbor driving into his garage don’t qualify as “out of the ordinary.”
The Australian Shepherd is best known for his striking merle coat — dark blotches against a lighter background of the same color, giving a sort of marbled appearance — but the coat is not limited to that pattern. Aussies can have coats of blue merle, red merle, black or red, all with or without white markings and copper points (markings on the face, ears, legs and tail). Avoid purchasing an Australian Shepherd who is primarily white. White coloration is genetically linked to deafness and blindness in this breed. It usually occurs when two merle-colored Aussies are bred together.
Just as striking as the Aussie’s coat is his range of eye colors: brown, amber, blue, green, hazel, eyes that are different colors—for instance, one blue and one green—and even “split” eyes, in which half the eye is one color and half is another color.
One important thing to know about the breed is that there are two types of Australian Shepherds: those bred strictly for their herding talents and those bred for the show ring and AKC performance events. The herding dogs tend to be smaller, thinner and with shorter coats than show dogs. Those traits make them more agile as they move stock, and the shorter coat is less likely to snag on brush and brambles.
It’s important to know the dog’s background before purchasing a puppy. If you plan to actually work stock with your Australian Shepherd, you will want a puppy from working lines. An Australian Shepherd from show lines may also have a strong herding instinct, but his heavier coat can make him unsuited to work in the “real” world. He will, however, be a super competitor in agility, obedience and other dog sports.
Another thing to be aware of is the existence of “mini” and “toy” Australian Shepherds. The United States Australian Shepherd Association, the AKC parent club for the breed, does not recognize these varieties and they cannot be registered with the AKC. There is a club for the mini Aussie, the Miniature Australian Shepherd Club of America. Assume that these smaller versions of the Aussie will have the same temperament, need for occupation and health concerns as their larger brethren. They are not “easier” or less active to live with.
• The Australian Shepherd has a medium-length double coat that can be straight or wavy. Expect to brush it two or three times a week to remove dead hair and keep shedding to a minimum.
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The dogs that became what we now know as the Australian Shepherd were chosen for their working ability, not their bloodlines, so little is known about the history of the breed. Despite his name, the Australian Shepherd was developed in the American West, not Australia. Possible ancestors include longhaired, bobtailed, Collie-type dogs from Australia; German sheepdogs exported to Australia and known there as German Koolies; and herding dogs brought by Basque shepherds who came to work in the United States both before and after World War II.
The medium-size dogs were found at many farms, ranches, rodeos and horse shows, doing whatever needed to be done: rounding up cattle, loading horses into chutes and trailers, herding ducks, geese, sheep and goats, and fetching, carrying and pulling. Their intelligence also made them great entertainers. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, Australian Shepherds Shorty and Queenie, trained by Jay Sisler, were part of his performing-dog act, which made appearances at venues ranging from Madison Square Garden to the Calgary Stampede. They also starred in two Disney movies: Stub: The Best Cowdog in the West and Run, Appaloosa, Run.
The Australian Shepherd Club of America was established in 1957 and is the largest single-breed registry. The American Kennel Club recognized the Aussie in 1993, and a separate club was formed by people who wanted to show their dogs: the United States Australian Shepherd Association.
Today, the Australian Shepherd ranks 26th among the breeds registered by the American Kennel Club, up from 35th in 2000. That’s a testament, no doubt, to his popularity as a competitor in dog sports.
The Australian Shepherd is super-smart, versatile, adaptable and energetic. This is a thinking dog, bred to use his brain and make decisions. He wants to be a part of everything that is going on and needs an active lifestyle to be happy. He is also big on consistency. He likes things to happen at the same time every day -- meals, walks, bedtime. Any time you want to change something, your Aussie will have to sign off on it first.
Expect to spend plenty of time training the Aussie so he can learn things to do that will keep him occupied. Teach him to bring in the paper, take dirty clothes to the laundry basket, help you in the garden by pulling a cart and more. When he’s done with his chores, he’ll be ready to play outfielder in sandlot games or accompany you hiking or biking.
Like most herding breeds, the Australian Shepherd has an inborn protective streak and can be wary of strangers. He’s not a buddy-buddy dog with everyone he meets, even with plenty of socialization. Without early and frequent socialization, the Aussie can become shy or aggressive in the presence of people he doesn’t know. Aussies are also highly sensitive to sound and may develop noise phobias, especially to thunderstorms, if they are not accustomed to loud or unexpected noises. On the plus side, they are excellent watchdogs and will always alert you to anything or anyone out of the ordinary.
It’s essential to purchase an Australian Shepherd from a breeder whose stock is temperamentally sound and who understands the importance of early exposure to many different people, noises and situations that come with life in a family home. Run far away from breeders who raise their pups in a barn or a pen out in the backyard. An Australian Shepherd who is to be a family companion needs plenty of socialization.
The Australian Shepherd has many great qualities, but they don’t just magically develop. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, countersurfing and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained or unsupervised. And any dog can be a trial to live with during adolescence. In the case of the Australian Shepherd, the “teen” years can start at six months and continue until the dog is about two years old.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Australian Shepherd doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from an Aussie, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
Australian Shepherds are generally healthy dogs, but they can develop certain health problems, including hip dysplasia, various eye diseases, sensitivity to certain drugs, and epilepsy. Here’s a brief rundown on what you should know.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic malformation of the hip socket. Dogs with hip dysplasia may appear perfectly normal, but because the head of the thigh bone doesn't fit properly into the hip socket, over time the cartilage on the surface of the bone begins to wear away. The constant inflammation leads to arthritis.
Hip dysplasia can range from mild to severe. Severe cases usually require surgical correction, usually total hip replacement, which can cost several thousand dollars. Untreated, the dog will suffer pain and lameness. This condition can usually be diagnosed by X-rays and manual manipulation of the hips, which may require anesthesia. It's impossible to know if a dog has hip dysplasia simply from examining him or watching him move. Both of a puppy’s parents should have hips rated good or better by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHIP).
Aussies can be affected by a number of genetic eye problems. These include colobomas, in which part of the structure of the eye is missing. They can also suffer from different types of cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and detached retinas. Another eye problem is persistent pupillary membrane, little strands of fetal tissue that cross over the iris. Aussies are also among the breeds that can be affected by Collie Eye Anomaly, a group of eye disorders ranging from minor to serious.
This long list of eye problems means that you'll want to make sure your puppy's parents were certified to have normal eyes by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, with the results recorded through the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) within the previous year.
Eye disease screening does not end with the parents, however. All puppies need to have their eyes examined by an ophthalmologist after the age of six weeks and before you bring them home. You should continue to have your Aussie's eyes checked annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Aussies are also one of the breeds that can be affected by Multiple Drug Sensitivity (MDS). Dogs with MDS can have fatal reactions to a number of common veterinary drugs including the common heartworm preventive ivermectin. Screening not only your puppy's parents but your dog for these conditions is a lifesaving necessity. The test is very simple and requires only a cheek swab; information on how to test your dog is available here.
Epilepsy also occurs in the breed, but there is currently no screening test for seizure disorders in Australian Shepherds. A good breeder will be able to discuss the prevalence of all health problems, those with and without genetic screening tests, in her dogs' lines, and help puppy buyers make an informed decision about health risks to their dog.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it is impossible to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for common defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The United States Australian Shepherd Association participates in the Canine Health Information Center, a health database. Before individual Aussies can be included, the breeder must submit test results for these conditions. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents. If the breeder tells you she doesn't need to do those tests because she's never had problems in her lines and her dogs have been "vet checked," then you should go find a breeder who is more rigorous about genetic testing.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a good life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping an Australian Shepherd at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
The Australian Shepherd has a lot of hair and his grooming needs may appear daunting, but caring for him isn’t as much work as you might think. Brush the coat regularly to remove dead hair that will otherwise land on your clothes and furniture.
The Aussie sheds, but it’s a major event only twice a year, in the spring and fall. Frequent brushing, warm baths and thorough blow drying during that time will help keep the handfuls of hair under control. Outside of shedding season, bathe the Aussie only when he gets dirty.
The rest is basic care. Active Australian Shepherds often wear their nails down naturally, but it’s a good idea to check them weekly to see if they need a trim. Otherwise, just keep the ears clean and brush his teeth frequently for good overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as is possible. He or she is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than in making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems. He or she will want to be a resource for you throughout the dog’s life.
Start your search for a breeder at the websites of the Australian Shepherd Club of America and the United States Australian Shepherd Association. The ASCA is the original Aussie breed club and still maintains an independent registry. The USASA is the AKC parent club for the Australian Shepherd and has a code of ethics by which members are expected to abide. The Miniature Australian Shepherd Club of America also has a code of ethics, and if you are interested in a mini, you should seek out a breeder who abides by it.
Ask the breeder to show you her dogs’ test results for genetic health problems that can affect the Australian Shepherd. These include Collie Eye Anomaly, hip dysplasia and cataracts. Good breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic diseases, sell puppies only with a written contract, and guarantee a home for any dog they breed if the owner becomes unable to keep him.
Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Many reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of an Australian Shepherd puppy varies depending on his place of origin, whether he is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring, a working home or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Australian Shepherd might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
A breeder isn’t the only source for an Australian Shepherd. Aussies are taken in and placed every year by breed-rescue groups and animal shelters. If you like the idea of rescuing a dog and don’t mind getting an adult rather than a puppy, adoption is a great way to go.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for an Aussie in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Australian Shepherds available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for an Australian Shepherd. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Aussie rescues in your area. Most people who love Aussies love all Aussies. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Australian Shepherd Club of America’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Aussie rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Aussie home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Aussie, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Australian Shepherd to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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