Australian Shepherd Dog

The Australian Shepherd Dog is a breed of herding dog that was developed on ranches in the Western United States. Despite its name, the breed, commonly known as an Aussie, did not originate in Australia. They acquired their name because of association with Basque sheepherders who came to the United States from Australia.

Australian Shepherds rose rapidly in popularity with the boom of western riding after World War II. They became known to the general public through rodeos, horse shows, and through Disney movies made for television.

For decades Aussies have been valued by stock men for their inherent versatility and train ability. While they continue to work as stock dogs and compete in herding trials, the breed has earned recognition in other roles due to their train ability and eagerness to please, and are highly regarded for their skills in obedience. Like all working breeds, the Aussie has considerable energy and drive, and usually needs a job to do. It often excels at dog sports such as dog agility, fly ball, and Frisbee. They are also highly successful search and rescue dogs, disaster dogs, detection dogs, guide, service, and therapy dogs. And, above all, they can be beloved family companions.

Australian Shepherd Dog Appearance

The breed's general appearance varies greatly depending on the particular line's emphasis. As with many working dog breeds that are also shown in the ring, there are differences of opinion among breeders over what makes an ideal Australian Shepherd. In addition the breed can be split into two distinct lines - working and show dogs. Working dogs tend to have shorter coats and are sometimes smaller and thinner, while the show lines are bred according to breed standard and can have longer fur and a heavier-boned structure.

The Dog Size

The Australian Shepherd is a medium sized breed of solid build. The standard calls for the Australian Shepherd to stand between 18-23 inches at the withers. Females being 18-21 inches and males measuring 21-23 inches

Dog Color

Aussie colors are black, red (sometimes called liver), blue merle (marbled black and gray), and red merle (marbled red and silver or buff); each of these colors may also have copper points and/or white markings in various combinations on the face, chest, and legs. A black or red dog with copper and white trim is called tricolor or tri, a black or red dog with white trim but no copper is called bicolor or bi. White should not appear on the body of the dog from topmost point of the shoulder blade to the tail. The ears should be covered by and completely surrounded by pigment other than white to decrease the risk for white related deafness. Eyes should also be surrounded by color, including the eye rim leather. Excessive white on the face and ears can place an individual dog at greater risk for sunburn and subsequent skin cancer. The wide variation of color combination comes from the interaction between the a color allele, which is either black (B) dominant or red (b) recessive, and the dominant merle allele (M). Together, these provide four coat-color aspects that can appear in any combination:

  • Black Tri, with tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Solid black dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Red (Liver) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Neither white nor tan points are required. Solid Red dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Blue Merle (a mottled patchwork of gray and black) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Neither white nor tan points are required. Solid Merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.
  • Red Merle (a mottled patchwork of cream and liver red) with or without tan points and/or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly. Neither white nor tan points are required. Solid Merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan and/or white.

The merle allele, which produces a mingled or patchwork combination of dark and light areas, is the coat pattern most commonly associated with the breed. This merle (M) is dominant so that affected dogs (Mm) show the pigmentation pattern; however, when two merles are bred, there is a statistical risk that 25% of the offspring will end up with the two copies of the merle gene (homozygous). These dogs usually have a mostly white coat and blue irises, and are often deaf and/or blind. In this case, the deafness and blindness are linked to having two copies of the merle gene, which disrupts pigmentation and produces these health defects.

All black and blue merle dogs have black noses, eye rims, and lips. All red and red merle dogs have liver or brown noses, eye rims, and lips.

There is also great variety in the Aussie's eye color. An early nickname for the breed was "ghost-eye dog". Aussie eyes may be green, hazel, amber, brown, or blue; they may have two different colored eyes, or even have bicolored or "split eyes" (for example, a half-brown, half-blue eye), which appear to be linked to the merle coloration. Merled eyes occur as well, where one color is mixed in and swirled with another. Any combination of eye color is acceptable in the breed standard, so long as the eyes are healthy. In general, however, black Aussies (self, bi-color or tri-color) tend to have brown eyes, while red (self, bi-color or tri-color) Aussies tend to have amber eyes, though these Aussies may also carry the blue eyed gene.

Dog Tail

A hallmark of the breed is a short bobbed or docked tail in countries where docking is permitted. Some Aussies are born with naturally short bobbed tails, others with full long tails, and others with natural partial bobs, where the tail is midlength and appears stubby. Breeders have historically docked the tails when the puppies are born. Even without a tail, the wagging movement of the hind end still occurs.

Some Australian Shepherd dog breeders try to keep the tail on the dog for the natural look, which can still be shown in the breed ring.

Australian Shepherd Dog Temperament

The breed is an energetic dog that requires exercise and enjoys working, whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in dog agility, or any other physically and mentally involving activity.

Dogs with strong working instinct may show more reserved, guarding behaviors along with a tendency to chase or nip at strangers. Its protective instinct and behaviors can be frightening to children, strangers, and small animals. They are kind, loving, and devoted to those they know. They are very loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well. Because the breed was developed to serve on the ranch, a job which includes being protective of its property, it is inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity, but it is not an obsessively barking dog.

The Australian Shepherd Dog is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie will invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity: for example, an Aussie may go from being at rest to running at top speed for several 'laps' around the house before returning to rest. Without something to amuse them, Aussies often become destructive. The Australian Shepherd Dog also do best with plenty of human companionship: they are often called "velcro" for their strong desire to always be near their owners and for their tendency to form intense, devoted bonds with select people. Recent studies have also shown that shepherds work well with special-needs kids and babies.

The Australian Shepherd Dog has a reputation as a highly intelligent and versatile stock dog with a range of working styles. A good working Aussie is quick, thoughtful, and easy with its stock. The ability for the breed to adapt to the situation and think for itself makes it an excellent all-around worker. For this reason the Australian Shepherd Dog is often chosen to work unusual livestock such as ducks, geese, and commercially raised rabbits.

The Australian Shepherd Dog, though a great dog for a family with an abundance of time, can become extremely destructive if left alone, or in small spaces. They are known for digging holes, tearing up lawns, and chewing anything in sight if they become restless. These dogs require a minimum of 2-3 hours a day of play and exercise and need constant attention. The dogs thrive in rural, ranch like conditions, but would be a nightmare for any busy group of people living in a city or suburb. When restless, they will often try to "herd" their owners which may include excessive jumping, snapping, and biting.

Australian Shepherd Dog Health

There are many health problems that an Australian Shepherd can acquire, including back and hip problems, vision problems, and pancreatic problems. Also, an Aussie can develop bladder problems and urinary infections over time. Many can be epileptic. Thyroid problems are also appearing.


Results of a 1998 internet survey with a sample size of 614 Australian Shepherds indicated a median longevity of about 12.5 years, but that longevity may be declining. A 2004 UK survey found a much shorter median longevity of 9 years, but their sample size was low (22 deceased dogs).

The median life spans for breeds similar in size to Australian Shepherds are mostly between 11 and 13 yrs, assuming the results of the UK study are not representative of the population there, Aussies appear to have a typical life span for a breed their size. Leading causes of death in the UK survey were cancer (32%), "combinations" (18%), and old age (14%).


Based on a sample of 48 still-living dogs, the most common health issues noted by owners were eye problems (red eye, epiphora, conjunctivitis, and cataracts). Dermatological and respiratory problems also ranked high.

Collie eye anomaly (CEA) and cataracts are considered major health concerns in Aussies. Other conditions of note include iris coloboma, canine hip dysplasia (CHD), Pelger-Huet syndrome, hypothyroidism, and nasal solar dermatitis. Prior to breeding, the Aussie should be checked for Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, DNA tests performed to show the dog to be free of the MDR1 mutation, cataract mutation, and CEA. Tests should also include those for thyroidism and clearances for other known eye diseases like colobomas, PRA and retinal folds. The Australian Shepherd (as well as Collies, German Shepherds and many other herding dogs) are susceptible to toxicity from common heartworm preventatives (anti-parasitics) and other drugs. This is caused by a genetic mutation of the MDR1 gene. The most common toxicity is from the heartworm medicine Ivermectin found in products such as Heartgard. (Only at very high doses. Most dogs will not have problems with Ivermectin found in products such as Heartgard Plus.) A test is available to determine if a particular dog carries the mutated gene.

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