Australian Shepherd Breed Characteristics

It’s a very hot day and your dog wants a cuddle or has just found some water to cool down in and wants to share the experience with you… all with a big goofy smile on its face! You are probably living with an Australian Shepherd, often simply referred to as ‘Aussies’ and a sense of humour is a pre-requisite for owning this loveable but often clownish breed! 

Australian Shepherd playing in waterAustralian Shepherds are a working breed, developed to herd and control livestock on ranches in the US in the 19th century. They are still popular as a working ranch dog but also excel in other working roles such as search and rescue, guide dogs, service dogs, detection dogs, and therapy dogs. Despite their background, this intelligent and loyal breed can also be a great family companion dog. However, not all families are alike so to suggest that they are a good fit for all families would be incorrect. To determine if an Australian Shepherd is suited to your family requires research on your part and locating a reputable breeder who will help you make the correct choice of a puppy for your home and family. Add to that, time and dedication on your part to make sure the breed gets the right training and socialisation to grow into that great family companion that you are looking for.

As a family dog, the breed is affectionate, eager to please, and devoted to their owners. A sensitive and very intuitive breed, they are highly intelligent, responding well to training. They can be reserved with strangers so socialisation with people and other pets from an early age is extremely important for an Australian Shepherd. In a family situation, they are very loving with a strong desire to be part of any or all family activities and they have room in their heart for the whole family. Australian Shepherds are pack orientated and are happiest when they know their place, regardless of whether their pack is made up of people or other pets. They can be playful, comical, and goofy, many even physically grin by showing their teeth when they are happy, traits which can prove to be very endearing to their owners. Their grinning can be accompanied by vocalization and a silly crab-like wriggle to add to their comedic performance.

The intelligence of the breed can also result in challenges for the owner. Australian Shepherds are often independent thinkers. What may be perceived as an obstacle by another breed such as a gate or a fence, an Aussie will perceive as a challenge to be overcome. They can be manipulative, opting to play their owners to get what they want. Clowning around to bring a smile or laughter to their owners if the plan fails is always their fall-back option when things don’t go their way. Training needs to be consistent and involve the whole family. The breed has a good memory so if an Australian Shepherd gets away with something once they can be relentless in trying the same tactic in the future to see if they can achieve the same result.

Red tri, black tri, red merle tri and blue merle tri-colour Australian Shepherds in full flight.

Temperament

Temperaments can be extremely variable, even within lines and litters. It is important to meet a breeder’s adult dogs and accept that they have experience with the breed and will be the best ones to advise you on choosing a puppy from the litter that has the right temperament for your family. In the wrong family, Australian Shepherds can become anxious and hyperactive. Like many working breeds, Australian Shepherds need mental stimulation and enjoy a challenge. They love to have a job, even if in a family situation it only involves supervising the family as they go about daily activities and household tasks like gardening and house cleaning. Without stimulation, the breed can become destructive so Australian Shepherds should be left with plenty of enrichment and activity toys if they are going to be left alone for any length of time. With nothing to do they will often find more inconvenient ways to amuse themselves.

For the most part, Australian Shepherds adapt well to the different activity levels of the family. If the family is highly active and busy, the dog will be as well but if the family is relaxed, or the owner is lazy, their dog will often behave in the same way. The ability to switch off at the end of the day can make an Australian Shepherd easy to live with but it is not necessarily an automatic trait in the breed. Part of their training must include being encouraged to be calm. An over-stimulated non-stop Australian Shepherd is not an easy dog to live with. They can be boisterous when they are young and not particularly body aware so their physical size and exuberance can lead to problems with small children and should be taken into consideration if you are considering bringing an Aussie into your family.

Australian Shepherd at the beach catching a toy

The Ideal Australian Shepherd Owner

The decision to bring an Australian Shepherd into your family should be influenced by your personal situation. Aussie’s make a great family companion provided you choose the right time to add a dog to your life. Families with very young children are unlikely to have the time and dedication needed to successfully raise and train an Australian Shepherd puppy. The physical strength and activity level of a juvenile Aussie can be too much for very small children and parents who may already be time poor and sleep deprived. On the other hand, if children are not yet a part of your family, getting a puppy at least a couple of years before the first child arrives can work very well. An Australian Shepherd that has reached maturity and is calm, well-mannered, and trained can be a wonderful protective companion for the baby, willing to play games and be tolerant of the newest family members. Alternatively, waiting until your children are school age can also work well as more time can be devoted to training while the children are at school.

Children also need to be taught appropriate behaviour around the dog. You should be mindful that Australian Shepherds were bred to work cattle. They can be very gentle when working stock but can also be very firm when required to bring animals into line. If your Aussie decides that poorly behaved children require the same correction, it won’t end well for the children! Children should be encouraged to be calm and steady around the dog and avoid over-stimulating and exciting behaviour.

Correct training and socialisation are required to instill high owner value, a desire to be with and to please their owner above all other distractions. Dogs whose desire to be with other dogs outweighs their desire to be with their owner end up dragging on the lead, playing poorly with others, and being annoying in social situations. Correct training neutralises all other distractions, ensures that your dog will play well with others when given permission and returns when asked. For novice dog owners this may all seem to be too much but making the correct choice avoids future problems and difficult re-homing decisions. Fewer dogs would end up in rescue if people made better choices when choosing a dog.

Australian Shepherd training for dock dogs competition

In the right home, with the right owner, Australian Shepherds can be an outstanding companion. They excel at obedience and dog sports like agility, flyball, doggy dancing, tracking, and dock dogs as well as their herding ability but they can also be a little unpredictable. Someone expecting or desiring a dog with consistent robot responses may be disappointed. Depending on how they feel on the day they can excel in competition or decide to play the class clown. Organised activities like this are not a requirement of Australian Shepherd ownership but doing things with your dog is. They are best suited to active people that are prepared to spend time out of the home with their dog. As an intuitive, sensitive breed a well-trained adult dog can be a great dog for a household with someone suffering from mental health issues, but a young dog would not be ideal.

Australian Shepherds have a double coat of moderate length that produces a substantial amount of fluff, particularly when moulting so if you are a neatness fanatic then the breed is probably not for you. They love their toys so you can expect these to be scattered throughout the house as well and yes, inside the house with their family is where they are happiest.

Australian Shepherd Health

Although they are a relatively sound working breed, the incidence of hereditary health conditions is not absent from the breed and must be taken into consideration when sourcing a puppy. Responsible Australian Shepherd breeders are working on reducing the incidence of hereditary disorders through genetic and other forms of health testing of their breeding dogs and puppies. This testing is expensive, and it is unlikely that someone with a couple of Aussies of unknown pedigree will go to the trouble and expense of testing their dogs before having a litter. Buying a puppy from a backyard breeder who has bred for financial return or so their children can experience having a litter leaves the buyer at risk of obtaining a puppy with a genetic health condition. Getting an Australian Shepherd cross does not eliminate the risk either as different breeds are still dogs. The genes for hip dysplasia, for instance, are the same genes in all dogs so getting a crossbred can still result in a dog with hip dysplasia. If the puppy comes from a pet shop it may have been bred in a puppy mill where many dogs are kept in poor conditions. Being a selective purchaser is the best way to discourage the breeding activities of unethical breeders. There are many breeders of Australian Shepherds that do extensive testing so with some research you should be able to locate a good breeder that can provide a healthy puppy from tested parents.

Blue merle and red tri-colour Australian Shepherd puppies

Known health conditions in Australian Shepherds include hip and elbow dysplasia so it is important to view the hip and elbow scores of the parents. While there is a genetic component to both these disorders, they can be developmental as well. Allowing puppies to gain weight too quickly and letting adult dogs get too fat combined with excessive exercise can result in hip and elbow problems regardless of the scores of the parents. It is important to follow the diet and developmental guidelines of the breeder and your vet, not just the feeding guidelines on commercial foods.  

The breed suffers from several eye conditions including Collie eye anomaly (CEA), hereditary cataracts (HSF4), progressive rod-cone degeneration (PRCD), and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). Although there are DNA tests for these conditions, all breeding dogs and puppies should also be screened by a registered canine ophthalmologist without exception and reputable breeders will not breed with affected dogs. These disorders are present in other breeds and crosses but a DNA test to identify the carrier genes is available for Australian Shepherds. Merle to merle breeding should also be avoided as the colour gene is associated with both blindness and deafness. Merle to merle mating produces a 25% chance of puppies being deaf and/ or blind.

One very important genetic health condition in Australian Shepherds is the presence of the Multi-Drug Resistance 1 (MDR1) mutation. The gene is estimated to be present in up to 44% of Australian Shepherds worldwide. Dogs that carry this gene have a sensitivity to Ivermectin and several other drugs. Dogs require only one gene to potentially have an adverse reaction to certain medications. Dogs that have two copies of the gene are at much greater risk of adverse neurological reactions to medications including tremors, excessive salivation, anorexia, blindness, coma, and even death. The incidence of Australian Shepherds carrying two copies of the gene worldwide is between 10% and 25%. Dogs are unaffected by this mutation until drugs are administered but it is both important and helpful if your vet is aware that your dog is at risk.

The extent to which good breeders test may vary depending on the country they reside in as some health conditions may be less prevalent in the breed lines of that country. A breeder that does not discuss potential health issues is either ignorant of the problems or is avoiding the discussion. Both are reasons to avoid the breeder and continue looking. Puppies are hard to resist so it is better to ask these questions before being presented with a litter of adorable Australian Shepherd puppies.

Australian Shepherd puppies

Locating a Reputable Australian Shepherd Breeder  

The importance of sourcing a puppy from a reputable breeder can’t be overstated but how do you recognise a good breeder? Good breeders want the best for their puppies so most will offer, or even require, a puppy to be returned to them if it isn’t a good fit for your family. In light of this, they will do their best to make sure this situation doesn’t eventuate by making sure that their puppy buyers are ready for an Australian Shepherd, have researched the breed, and understand the commitment required to have an Aussie in their life. They will often require a questionnaire to be completed to help them assess your suitability. You should view this as a service rather than a burden and answer the questions as honestly as you can. It will help you avoid making a mistake that results in the painful choice to re-home a puppy. Beware of breeders that allocate a puppy based on colour or when the puppies are too small to assess their potential temperament. The best breeders tend to breed rarely so they may have a waiting list for their puppies. For them, it is more about improving the breed and finding good homes for their pups than breeding large numbers of puppies. It is worth the wait for a puppy from this type of breeder.

If a breeder has agreed to sell you a puppy, most will be happy to involve you in the raising of litter in terms of progress updates and photos.  Social media is being used by some breeders to connect with puppy buyers, allowing them to share their thoughts on the breed, training, and ongoing care of your puppy. It helps them provide support to their puppy buyers and the breeder gets the pleasure of seeing their puppies grow in their new home. You may be invited to visit the puppies in which allows the breeders assess your personality and match the temperament of the puppy to your family but this may be inappropriate if there has been an outbreak of Parvovirus in the area as disease transmission is always a concern before the puppies have had their vaccinations.

On collection, you should receive a puppy pack that includes their microchip and registration details, health testing results, vaccination certificates, and information on the schedule for their vaccination booster shots and worming regime. It will often include information on diet and training and the breeder will usually send you home with some of the puppy’s food to avoid diarrhoea from a sudden change in diet. Many breeders require puppy buyers to sign a contract, agreeing to return the puppy to them if it proves unsuitable in any way. Most good breeders would prefer to refund a buyer and take the puppy back rather than see the puppy go on to another potentially unsuitable home. It may include a sterilisation clause though for puppies, particularly males, there is increasing evidence that for health and developmental reasons, sterilisation is best left until 12 to 18 months.

Puppy packs often include a toy and or a blanket that has been with the mother to reduce stress but the most beneficial thing that you will go home with is the support that a good breeder will provide. Reputable Australian Shepherd breeders want the best for their puppies and the lifetime support you receive from a good breeder is invaluable. It can make the difference between having to re-home a dog that has become part of the family or experiencing devastating health or behavioural problems that cause you to regret your decision to bring this wonderful, intelligent and beautiful breed into your home.

Black tri-colour Australian Shepherds

For those that want the statistics…

Colours: Black, red, blue merle and red merle in self (solid), with tan (eg black and tan), bi-colour (white with no tan), and tri-colour (with white and tan)

Weight: Male: 18–32 kg (40–70 lb), Female: 16–29 kg (35–65 lb)

Height: Male: 48–58 cm (19–23 in), Female: 46–56 cm (18–22 in)

Life Expectancy: 12-14years

Training Resources for Australian Shepherd Owners

Poitive Reinforcement Training - What is it? Cindy Ludwig, Canine Connection LLC

Clicker Training - Getting Started - Cindy Ludwig, Canine Connection LLC

Dog Training - Articles on positive reinforcement training.

Puppy Culture - Puppy Training and Socialisation DVDs

Further Reading from the Author

Getting to Know Dogs - by Diana Andersen Animalinfo Publications

Getting to Know Dogs by Diana Andersen, Animalinfo PublicationsLearn more about dog ownership and choosing a dog that is right for you with this comprehensive, easy to use guide covers topics including the history and origin of the domestic dog, popular breeds, locating and choosing a healthy dog or puppy, the first days at home, diet, basic training and an extensive section on maintaining the health and wellbeing of your canine companion.

Illustrated throughout with over 200 images from award-winning animal photographer Diana Andersen. Helpful health diagrams and useful links for further information.

Available in Hardcover or eBook.

BUY NOW 

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