Australian Shepherd

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds were named in California by the Americans around 1850, when these dogs accompanied the flocks of sheep that sailed from Australia to USA. These sheep were feed for the thousands of people that were attracted to the West Coast of USA during the Gold Rush. Although the Australian Shepherd has existed in USA ever since, it was not developed into the pure breed we know today until the 1990s.

History of the Australian Shepherd

Memorial to the Basque Shepherd with a Lamb and his DogMemorial to the Basque Shepherd with a Lamb and his Dog

The history of the Australian Shepherd began in 1789 when Merino sheep were imported into the Colony of New South Wales. At this time Merino sheep were already being exported along the Trade Route from Spain to South Africa to establish their wool industry. Remembering the Suez Canal was not opened until 1869, ships sailing from England to Australia prior to 1869 had no choice except to travel around the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa. In 1789, these carried the first Merino sheep to arrive in Australia.

Why Australian Merino Sheep were Exported to USA

By 1848 when California' Gold Rush began on the West Coast of USA, the mass export of live sheep from Australia was in full swing. Consequently, when the USA non-native population swelled from estimated 800 to 20,000, Americans looked to Australia for meat. By 1855 when the gold had largely disappeared, there was a population of around 380,000 to feed[4]. As Australia had an over-supply of mutton by this time, America bought the live sheep to feed the growing population.

'Eli Whitney' (on right)'Eli Whitney' (on right)

Among other ships the 600-ton American Barque, the 'Eli Witney' (pictured) was making the regular 90-day voyage between Sydney and San Francisco. It delivered the live sheep to USA and back-loaded the vessel with oats for Australia. Reports in family diaries indicate that one sheepdog shepherded every 500 sheep[5]. Consequently, the sheepdogs from Australia which sailed with the boatloads of sheep to USA, became known as Australian Shepherds.

These dogs unloaded the sheep in USA with such amazing skill, that they captured the imagination of the West Coast American people who were grabbing land there. Affectionately called the 'Aussie', this led to the confusing situation where the name 'Australian' that was originally given to the sheepdog that shepherded boatloads of Australian sheep to the West Coast of USA around 1850, has stuck ever since!

The Australian Shepherd's Development in America

Bob tail Sheepdog 1878Bob tail Sheepdog 1878

Once in America, Australian Shepherds were selectively bred based on working ability. Certainly they found the American countryside quite different to that of Australia. For example, it is reported that because the cactus made the dogs footsore, the dogs were used in multiples with some dogs resting while others worked[2]. Consequently, the 'Australian Shepherd' was originally created in America as a sheepdog to suit local conditions.

The lack of attention to the name of these dogs may have also been neglected because the early squatters were pre-occupied by the many conflicts and wars about land claims. Until the 1860s, Americans who raised sheep in the West were squatters who grazed stock free on public land[1]. By 1869, California in the West of USA became connected to the East by North Americas first transcontinental rail road, making the journey from New York in the East to San Francisco in the West, days rather than weeks. This further opened up the West Coast to new settlers.

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

Although early sheep ranchers documented the presence of 'little blue Australian Shepherd Dogs from Australia' [7] it was not until after World War Two that Merino sheep bred for wool dominated farming. Meanwhile in the West rodeos, quarter horses and horse shows were becoming popular, with amazing dog acts joining public performances. These were publicised in films and on TV. When the general American public became aware of the Australian Shepherd, its popularity further increased[6].

Australian Shepherd BabyAustralian Shepherd Baby

Today, the working style of the Australian Shepherd is still quite distinct. He is a very versatile dog that can work any farm animals from chickens to animal flocks at the front of the flock, steering it on the correct path past other dogs, obstacles, cross roads or alternative routes. It also makes an excellent dog for those interested in the modern disciplines like competitive Obedience and Agility.

Although several people had worked on developing the Australian Shepherd into a definite breed since the 1920s, they did not begin registering them until the 1957 when the American-based Australian Shepherd Club was first founded. It was then decided the bob tail and merle colouring would be the most recognisable characteristics of the breed. The Australian Shepherd was approved by AKC 1991, effective in USA and Australia in 1993 and FCI in 2009.

The Australian Shepherd Today

Australian Shepherd (Blue Merle)Australian Shepherd (Blue Merle)

The Australian Shepherd stands 45.5 - 58.5 cms (18 - 23 ins) tall and is slightly longer than high. He comes in a variety of colours of which the blue and red merles with white collars are the most common. He also can have a natural bob tail. He has a strikingly smooth, free and agile gait, with a well-balanced, ground-covering stride, able to change direction or alter gait instantly.

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

His head is strong and dry and should balance the body. His skull is slightly domed with equal width and depth. His muzzle is equal in length or slightly shorter than the skull and form parallel head planes with a moderate but well defined stop. The colour of his nose and his almond shaped eyes should correspond with that of his coat. His triangular shaped ears are of moderate size and thickness and are set high on his head. He has a normal scissors bite.

His neck is strong and of moderate length. His shoulder blades are long, flat and well laid back and are set fairly close at the withers. His upper arm and shoulder blade should attach at right angles to one another. His forelegs, which drop straight and perpendicular to the ground, have strong bone which should be oval rather than round. His medium length pasterns are and very slightly sloped, and his oval feet should have thick and resilient pads.

Australian Shepherd (Red and White)Australian Shepherd (Red and White)

Although his chest should reach the elbow, it is not broad. His back is straight and strong, firm and level with his croup which is moderately sloped. His ribs are well sprung and long, underline showing a moderate tuck-up. His hindquarters are equal in width to his shoulders. His pelvis and upper thigh form an approximate right angle. His  stifles are well turned and his short hocks are moderately bent but perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other when viewed from behind. The rear dew claws must be removed. The tail is set on following the line of the croup. The Australian Shepherd may be born with a natural bob tail not exceeding four inches. if not, the tail must not be kinked, be moderately feathered and be in balance with the rest of the dog.

Australian Shepherd (Black and White with Tan Points)Australian Shepherd (Black and White with Tan Points)

His double coat is weather resistant from straight to wavy, and of medium length and texture. The undercoat varies according to the climate. The hair is short and smooth on the head, ears, front of forelegs and below the hock joints. The backs of his forelegs and breeches have moderate feathering. Some males have a moderate mane and frill, but this is less pronounced in bitches.

He comes in blue merle, red merle, black or red, all with or without white markings and/or tan (copper) points, with no order of preference.

References and Further Reading

Many thanks to Denise Humphries who provided me with help and assistance during the construction of this page

Published by as 'Australian Shepherd - Quite un-Australian' Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 8 2017, Page 10 also as

Published as 2018 - Jane Harvey "My Research Story" Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) September 2018, Page 48


[2] Carol Ann Hartnagle and Ernest Hartnagle 'The Total Australian Shepherd' Published by Holflin Publishing Inc, Colorado USA ISBN #0-86667-072-6 Chapter 1 Heritage Page 13

[3] Ivan Heazlewood - 'Old Sheep for New Pastures' Self Published 1992 ISBN 0 646 11045 4


[5] Bill Robertson 'Origins of the Australian Kelpie' self published by Bill and Kerry Robertson 2015, Ballan Victoria Australia ISBN 87806945330 Chapter 8 'Moving dogs and people on the Eli Whitney Pages 37 - 40

[6] Jean Joy Hartnagle, 'All About Aussies' self published 1985 Loveland, Colorado USA ISBN 0-931866-18-9, Chapter 1 'Those Little Blue Dogs' Pages 1-5

[7] Ernest Hartnagle and Jean Joy Hartnagle 'Vanished Trials and Faded Memories of Australian Shepherd History'