For informed and experienced dog enthusiasts, the Australian Shepherd is a dream breed. With an athletic nature, a love for tackling new challenges, and an undying loyalty to their caregivers, Aussies are a solid choice for those looking to take dog training to the next level.
Though many working and herding breeds come with far greater intensity than the Australian Shepherd, these dogs are still not a beginner’s breed. Let’s delve into the reasons why the Australian Shepherd might (or might not) be the right match for your family.
Australian Shepherds Are a Relatively New Breed
Counterintuitive to the breed’s name, the Australian Shepherd was not, in fact, developed in or anywhere near Australia.
The breed’s ancestors likely came from the Basque region of Spain; shepherds there first traveled to Australia, and then to the United States. The breed was further developed in the United States. Australian Shepherds not only proved incredibly effective at herding both sheep and cattle but rose to fame through their appearance in early American rodeos.
This clever breed would perform outrageous tricks in addition to herding bulls during live demonstrations. Australian Shepherds became exceptionally popular in the Western U.S., and today, are recognized and loved across the globe.
Aussies Are Closely Related to Shetland Sheepdogs
Genetic testing evidence shows that Australian Shepherds are most closely related to the smaller Shetland Sheepdog and the highly driven, active, and intelligent Border Collie.
In 2023, they placed twelve out of two hundred under the American Kennel Club’s breed popularity ranking. This makes Australian Shepherds one of the most popular dogs in the United States! Given the temperament and behavioral needs of the Aussie, however, this is not necessarily a good thing for the breed.
Before jumping on the popular breed bandwagon, it’s important to research the breed-specific needs and characteristics of a dog.
What to Know About the Breed Standard
So what are Australian Shepherds like, physically? Australian Shepherds actually come in a variety of colors within their breed standard. Standard colors include black, red, red merle, and blue merle. All colors within the standard contain white and tan points, so this includes tricolor dogs.
It may seem silly to be so particular about coloration in dog breeds, but breed standard colors were developed so that breeding emphasizes a dog’s general health, temperament, and physical functions, rather than aesthetics. Certain coat colors can be linked to unexpected genetic problems.
For example, breeding two merle Australian Shepherds together can lead to deaf and blind puppies. This is one of countless reasons to select ethical dog breeders–- no matter how cute it may seem for your Aussie to have puppies at home!
Australian Shepherds Are Medium-Sized Canines
Australian Shepherds are medium-large sized dogs. Males stand 20-23 inches at the shoulder, and females 18-21 inches. Depending on their sex, a healthy Australian Shepherd weighs between 40-65 pounds. These are long-haired, double-coated dogs, so be prepared for lots of shedding! Aussies should not be shaved and require daily brushing to prevent that beautiful sea of hair from becoming a nest of mats.
And those beautiful, icy eyes? Perfectly normal! Australian Shepherd eyes come in amber, brown, and blue-– and can contain flecks of any of these three colors. Heterochromia is also common in these dogs; that means having two differently colored eyes!
Aussies Have Different Tail Types
Due to selective breeding, roughly one in five Aussies are actually born with naturally bobbed tails. The remaining eighty percent typically have their tails docked. Initially, some argue, this was a safety precaution; heavy cattle could step on dogs’ tails and break them.
Not all herding breeds call for docked tails within the breed standard, and evidence shows us that docking was not always practiced for dogs’ benefit. In 1700s England, taxation on “pet dogs” led many farmers and hunters to dock the tails of their working dogs–– differentiating their working animals from leisurely pets.
Given that the vast majority of today’s Australian Shepherds will never herd cattle, docking is performed for largely aesthetic reasons. So, it’s not necessary.
Aussies Are Good-Natured, High-Energy Dogs
Before considering adding an Australian Shepherd to your family, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the needs and characteristics of herding breeds. Herding dogs were bred to work cooperatively with humans.
We can contrast this trait with livestock guardian breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees, which were bred to protect farmed animals rather than herd them. Livestock guardian breeds work independently of humans, and their work is based solely on instinct. Oppositely, herding breeds look closely to humans for direction and guidance.
Without guidance, mental stimulation, and constant engagement from their caregivers, herding dogs can develop common (and serious) behavioral issues. In the right environment, Australian Shepherds are loyal, loving, athletic dogs. They make excellent hiking partners and are ideal prospects for a variety of breed-specific sports, particularly herding, agility, and competitive obedience.
Australian Shepherds Aim to Please Their Owners
Aussies are what dog enthusiasts and trainers call highly “biddable” breeds. Biddability refers to a dog’s intrinsic motivation to please humans. This is a desirable trait for dog caregivers who know how to harness it!
Like many herding breeds, Australian Shepherds are not always predisposed to being friendly and social with strangers. They bond deeply with their caregivers and require active, positive socialization to become strong canine citizens.
Common Behavioral Challenges in Australian Shepherds
Australian Shepherds are true herding dogs by nature. Depending on your experience and comfort level with herding breeds, this can be a positive trait or a massive problem. Far too often, herding breeds are destined for failure with caregivers who don’t know how to exercise their instincts in a healthy way.
Herding dogs are especially inclined to, well, herding. Given that the likelihood of keeping cattle and sheep in your home is low, an unfulfilled Aussie may resort to herding just about everything else: toddlers, grandma’s walker, the family cat, the neighbor’s Maltese, or the visiting in-laws.
This might sound comical, but herding large animals often requires dogs to use their teeth, their voice, and assertive body pressure. Snapping at extremities such as hands and feet is a quintessential herding breed behavioral issue; it’s serious, and it can become dangerous.
Aussies Are Not for First-Time Dog Parents
It should be noted that most Australian Shepherds are less intense in their instincts than more true-to-their-nature herding breeds, such as the Australian Cattle Dog or the Border Collie. This is partially due to most modern-day Aussies being bred as companions rather than working dogs. If you are interested in delving into herding breeds, a breed such as the Australian Shepherd or the Shetland Sheepdog can be a good place to start.
Still, genetics should not be dismissed. Australian Shepherds are incredible, but they are not ideal dogs for first-time caregivers.
A Trainer Can Help Your Aussie Thrive
Did you know that less than 4% of American dog owners seek professional training for their dogs?
It’s a harmful myth that Aussies or any other working breeds need a “firm hand” to understand boundaries. In fact, aversive training aims to suppress unwanted behaviors, rather than creating healthy, desirable behaviors. Using positive reinforcement training to show our dogs how we want them to behave, rather than waiting for them to make a mistake and using punishment, is more likely to prove successful. Consistent rules, ample engagement, variety in training, and lots of dog-focused exercising can help Australian Shepherds thrive.
Let’s jump back to that statistic. Out of the mere 4% of Americans who seek professional dog training, the majority only seek out a trainer when their dog’s behavior becomes problematic. This is like waiting to see a dentist until your teeth are in searing pain; it’s going to be a much greater effort to fix than if you’d only scheduled those teeth cleaning appointments!
Be Sure to Find a Certified Dog Trainer
Australian Shepherds are not independent dogs. They need guidance and structure to thrive. A reinforcement-based dog trainer can help you create structure in your dog’s life before their behavior gets out of hand. Training (and these early-to-learn tricks) should be fun for both dog and handler and can serve as a joyful bonding experience.
It should be noted that dog training is an unregulated industry, and great caution should be exercised when selecting a training service. Finding a trainer certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers is a strong starting point. It’s never too late to start training your dog. So, whether you’ve rescued a senior Aussie or purchased a new puppy, training is a good idea!
Australian Shepherds Benefit from Obedience Training
A beginner’s obedience class can help your dog learn the basics, like recall (coming when called), handler focus, walking politely on the leash, and more. But Australian Shepherds often need a whole lot more to help them thrive mentally. Why not take your training up a notch?
Competitive dog obedience is becoming big in the dog world. While every dog is an individual, some breeds are more likely to succeed and enjoy certain sports. The clever and people-pleasing Aussie tends to enjoy sports that involve plenty of engagement with their handler. Herding, agility, obedience, rally, and frisbee are great starting points!
Have you ever heard someone say that sports kept them out of trouble as a kid? The same applies to your dog.
Australian Shepherds Love Having “Jobs”
Aussies need a job, so having a positive outlet for all of that mental energy can help prevent them from taking it upon themselves to find a “job” on their own…like herding the cat, digging up the carpet, or eating the baseboards!
Dog sports aren’t always a realistic option for the busy pet owner. That doesn’t make you less of a caregiver! Trick training is a fun alternative you can do at home for free. Incorporating activities and routines on walks will also help keep your Aussie engaged. Dedicating even fifteen minutes per day to training can make a world of difference for these dogs.
Food puzzles, enrichment items, chew toys, and changing scenery can all help stimulate your Aussie. Keep it interesting, and these dogs will be your most loyal companion!