Breed breakdown: An in-depth look at the Australian shepherd
The vet’s office
By Dr. Beth Engelbert, DVM
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC
Names can be deceiving. This is true for the Australian shepherd, which was created in the United States. Nicknamed Aussies, they are also called “work-oriented,” “exuberant,” and “smart” — with emphasis on the smart. This very active, versatile breed is not, however, for everyone.
The Australian shepherd was developed in the western US after World War II. Aussies get their name from the Spanish Basque shepherd that was exported to Australia before being brought to the US. Other dogs were incorporated as a better fit for the cold, rough terrain of the ranches.
Early Aussies were bred for their ability, not necessarily consistent looks. Even today there are differences in appearance with the “working” and the “conformation” lines. The latter are bred to follow a written standard, most recently updated in 1991 when the Aussie was welcomed into the American Kennel Club.
Australian shepherds need training and lots of exercise along with a “job.” These intelligent dogs are easy to train, but without a job they create their own. Jobs can include herding, agility, fly ball, police work, therapy work, and many others. While Aussies are very loyal to their families, they can be territorial and standoffish to strangers. This stems from their herding days and the need to protect their livestock. Proper socialization from youth is important.
Aussies, sometimes mistaken for other breeds, are actually very distinct. Aussies are slightly longer than they are tall, giving a stout, rectangular profile. They also have very short tails. Some have naturally bobbed tails, but most are docked. Any tail less than 4 inches is considered acceptable, though natural tails are becoming more common.
Australian shepherds have four accepted colors: black, red, blue merle, and red merle. There are some variations in pattern. Reds range from light cinnamon to dark liver. Blue merles have a grey background with black spots. Red merles have a cream background with red spots. All colors can have a solid pattern; bicoloring where there is white on the face, chest, neck, and legs; or a tricoloring with tan highlights.
While relatively long lived, Aussies are not without health problems. Like many working dogs, hip and elbow dysplasia can occur. Also as in other herding dogs, certain drug sensitivities and eye problems are seen, cataracts being the most common.
Aussies are overrepresented for developing epilepsy. Hypothyroidism is also a problem and may be caused by an immune disorder. Deafness, blindness, and abnormal eye development commonly occur when two merles are bred together.
Interested in an Aussie? Before you grab that leash, ball, or frisbee, grab your phone or computer first. Finding that perfect dog will require research. Whether you want working or conformation lines, finding healthy parents with socialized pups will make for a long friendship.
Wildwood Animal Hospital and Clinic LLC is located at 210 Airpark Road in Marshfield and online at wildwoodanimalhospital.net.