Australian Shepherd

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

The Australian Shepherd was not developed as a pure breed in Australia. Instead his confusing name was because around 1850, his ancestors shepherded flocks of Australian sheep that sailed in boatloads to California, USA where these sheep were destined to provide mutton to feed the thousands of people attracted by the Gold Rush. The type of dog which shepherded the Australian sheep soon captured the imagination of the American public who called them Australian Shepherds or affectionately 'Aussies', a name which has stuck ever since!

Background of Australian Sheep

Pyrenean Sheep DogPyrenean Sheep Dog

Merino sheep famous for their wool were developed in the tiny Spanish Basque province of Andorra in the Pyrenean Mountains, which borders France. So Basque people with their small blue Pyrenean Sheep Dogs which can have a bob tail, (FCI Standard 141), have been connected to Merino sheep for hundreds of years. But we could not find any evidence of numbers of Spanish Merino sheep or their shepherds coming directly to Australia. See the Australian Shepherd - Quite un-Australian.

Cape Sheep - note the tailCape Sheep - note the tail

The first sheep that arrived in Australia came on the First Fleet in 1788 to supply the new colony with mutton. These were fat-tailed Cape Sheep which were purchased from South Africa when the English ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope en route to Sydney. These sheep had extraordinary tails which could weigh several kilos. Similarly when Christopher Columbus first crossed the Atlantic en route to USA in 1492, mutton sheep accompanied him.

Pyrenean Sheep DogPyrenean Sheep Dog

When Australia's sheep industry first began to develop in the early 1800's, the focus was on producing mutton to feed the growing numbers of settlers. These mutton sheep were sourced from countries easily accessible by sea. Certainly there were a couple of British breeds and a precious few Merinos introduced in those early years. In 1805 Governor John MacArthur and his wife Elizabeth purchased some Merino sheep bred in South Africa and established a farm at Parramatta, outside Sydney. So the Merino was introduced, but mutton was the priority until the 1840's there was an over-supply. Only then did Australia begin working towards developing sheep that could produce wool for export. But it would be some decades before the famous Australian Merino sheep industry became established[3].

History of the Australian Shepherd

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

Meanwhile in USA, in 1848 when gold was discovered in California, the non-native population swelled from around 800 to 20,000 and to a further 100,000 by the end of 1849. By 1850 when the gold had largely disappeared, there was a population of around 380,000 to feed[4]. As insufficient meat was being produced to be feed this growing population, Americans looked to Australia where there was an over-supply of mutton.

English Sheepdog 1803English Sheepdog 1803

Amongst 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 live sheep to USA and back-loaded the vessel with oats for Australia. Reports in family diaries indicate that one 'collie' shepherded every 500 sheep[5].

Smithfield (modern)Smithfield (modern)

These dogs were known in Australia as Smithfield Collies which are still a type of dog known in Australia today. But it would be decades before Kelpies and Australian Cattle Dogs which were Dingo mixes, would become recognized breeds in Australia.

So the 'collies' which accompanied the boatloads of sheep brought from Australia to USA were called Australian Shepherds. They unloaded the sheep in USA with amazing skill, capturing the imagination of the American people. Affectionately called 'Aussies', today this leaves us with the confusing situation where the name 'Australian' that was originally given to a 'collie' type of sheepdog dog that shepherded boatloads of Australian sheep to USA around 1850, has stuck ever since!

The Australian Shepherd's Development in America

Bob tail Sheepdog 1878Bob tail Sheepdog 1878

Once in America, these 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]. So the 'Australian Shepherd' was created in America as a sheepdog more suited to 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 1860's Americans who raised sheep in the West were squatters who grazed stock free on public land, and called it their own[1]. Contrary to popular belief, we could not find any documented evidence that connects these 'collies from Australia' to the Spanish Basque people, their Merino sheep or their Pyrenean Shepherd dogs.

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

In Western USA after World War Two, sheep bred for wool dominated farming. Then there was a boom in the popularity of horseback riding and Colorado became famous for its rodeos and quarter horses. So while the Australian Shepherd was still practically unknown on the Eastern side of USA, rodeos and horse shows with amazing dog acts joined public performances. These were publicized in movies and on TV. When the general American public became aware of the Australian Shepherd, its popularity 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. He 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 1920's, 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 recognizable 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

[1] http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/leasing-public-range-taylor-grazing-act-and-blm

[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

[4] http://www.history.com/topics/gold-rush-of-1849

[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


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