The Australian Shepherd is one of the best herding dogs, both skilled in herding livestock and dedicated to any assignment. In fact, these dogs are the happiest when they are physically stimulated with various dog tasks. On the other hand, they’re not all about work. Aussies make some of the best companions to families too.
In 2017, the Australian Shepherd ranked as the 17th most popular dog breed in the United States. This ranking has been on a steady rise as more owners learn about how fantastic these dogs are. When you keep an Australian Shepherd, there’s nothing better than coming home to your ecstatic dog, jumping for joy.
In this quick, yet thorough guide to the Aussie breed, you’ll learn all the basics. There’s a ton of information to consume about these dogs, but with a little time and dedication, any owner can successfully raise an Aussie.
Australian Shepherd Basic Profile
Friendliness: They’re not the most ferocious guard dogs, but most people don’t keep an Aussie for this reason. Instead, they’re some of the sweetest dog breeds. Affectionate with family, kids and other dogs – it’s easy to get along with an Australian Shepherd. Still, they’ll remain aloof with strangers and gradually warm up to them.
Trainability: Few dogs are as trainable as the Australian Shepherd. When you combine intelligence and undying loyalty in a dog, you get a highly trainable canine. Training keeps them mentally stimulated, but more importantly, makes raising an Aussie that much easier.
Grooming: Australian Shepherds aren’t the easiest dog to groom. Some dogs have short hair and don’t shed. Unfortunately, this is not the Australian Shepherd. They shed year round and especially during spring season. In addition, they tend to drool, so cleaning up their coat with dry saliva is necessary for good hygiene.
Adaptability: Because of their affection for the family, Aussies can’t stand being alone. Also, their high energy level means they aren’t suitable for apartment living. Don’t expect your Aussie to easily adjust to such living conditions. On a bright note, they adapt well to weather climates and can withstand both moderate heat and coldness.
Activity: If you’ve ever met an Australian Shepherd, you already know it’s hard for them to sit still. Full of energy, Aussies need enough physical activity – and they need a lot. Daily walks is a must and i’m not talking about a simple stroll through the neighborhood. A large yard will help them release pent up energy by doing a few laps when they’re excited.
- Height: 18 – 35 inches
- Weight: 40 – 70 pounds
- Life Expectancy: 12 – 15 years
- Dog Breed Group: Herding Dog
Australian Shepherd: Key Points
- The Aussie requires a lot of physical stimulation. Specifically, an hour of daily exercise is recommended. This doesn’t necessarily mean an hour walk, but also games such as fetch or ball.
- Owner’s Tip: For a mentally healthy Australian Shepherd, give them a daily job to fulfill. The most obvious is a herding job, as this was what they were bred for. However, if you don’t own any cattles, obedience exercises will work too.
- Without physical exercise, Aussies can exhibit destructive behavior. Such behaviors include, excessive barking, tearing up your couch or uncontrollable sprinting.
- Australian Shepherds are not hypoallergenic dogs. Owners allergic to dogs may want to consider keeping their Aussie outdoors to prevent the spread of dander (allergens).
- They have a really keen sense of environment. If something is wrong, such as a suspicious intruder, you’ll likely hear fierce warning barks.
- Owner’s Tip: Don’t leave your Aussie in a small space while you’re at work. At the very least, a small backyard will do. Just make sure it’s fully enclosed with high gates, as Aussies are amazingly high jumpers.
- Due to their intense herding instincts, expect an Australian Shepherd to try to establish dominance as the head of the house. It’s your job, as the owner, to set the pack hierarchy right. Don’t spoil them by letting them do what they want.
- Weekly brushing is necessary for good hygiene. As an Australian Shepherd sheds its winter coat, you may want to brush the coat more frequently.
- They are people-dogs. Even if you have a sizable yard, don’t keep them there for long periods of time. Interact with them and certainly play with them.
- Early socialization is necessary for dogs, but especially for Aussies. By nature, they’re aloof with strangers and need to be around different types of people to help them socialize better with humans in adulthood.
Australian Shepherd Origins
Perhaps the biggest misconception of the Australian Shepherd is their origin story. Despite popular belief, largely due to their name, the Aussie is not from Australia. Rather, they originated from the United States.
If you’re curious what dog breeds are from Australia, check out our guide to Australian dog breeds.
The Name “Australian”
So why are they called the Australian Shepherd if they’re not from Australia? There’s a lot of speculation as to why they were given such a name.
The first theory relates to the type of sheep they were herding early on. Before they were recognized as an official breed, the Australian Shepherds were believed to be herding sheep imported from Australia, among other livestock. Thus, giving them the name – Australian Shepherd.
Another theory is based on physical characteristics of these dogs. As you can see from pictures, many Aussies have a unique color pattern. We call this a blue merle color pattern. In the early 50’s, many dogs imported from Australia had the same color pattern. Perhaps through misinformation, many believed these dogs to be Australian breeds simply because they looked like one.
Development of the Aussie
Developed on American soil, the Australian Shepherd was bred for one thing: herding. It’s why they’re some of the best herding dogs in the world.
In the mid 19th century, immigrants were flocking to the United States. For many, their livelihoods revolved around farms and they brought their livestock with them. To help with managing livestock, herding dogs were needed.
At the time, most of the herding dogs were imported from Australia, which may also be another reason for the misconception. However, American farmers also took up the task of breeding a reliable herding dog without spending a lot of money importing one from across the world.
Before we knew it, the Australian Shepherd had arrived.
The Australian Shepherd wasn’t officially recognized until 1957, by the newly-formed Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA). Today, they’ve become the largest independent breed-specific organization in the United States.
Although an organization had been established for these dogs, there was no standard breed description for the Aussie until 1977. And even after that, it took another 16 years for the Australian Shepherd to enter in the Herding Group of the American Kennel Club. By then, it was 1993.
The journey was long for the Aussie, but they were finally officially in the books.
Australian Shepherd Temperament
These dogs were bred to establish dominance over livestock to control the movement of the herd. When Aussies are doing their job, they’re the happiest. So, it’s not a big surprise that they bring their “work life” into the home – intentionally or not. For a more in-depth review on the Aussie, check out my Australian Shepherd temperament guide.
Aussies Establishing Dominance
By this, I mean they’ll try to establish dominance over their pack. And by pack, I mean the family. Yes, you. To minimize this, it’s crucial for you to establish firm rules and leadership. Do not let them even think of being the family’s pack leader.
For this reason, it may be difficult for first-time or novice owners to raise an Australian Shepherd. However, it’s not impossible if you know what you’re doing.
Affectionate Herding Dogs
One of the best traits of the Aussie is their undying loyalty for the owner(s). With immense devotion comes affection. They are loyal because they are, at heart, affectionate and friendly dogs. They love to play, and play often.
They’re not just affectionate towards humans of the family, they’re great with other animals as well. Whether with other dogs, cats or small animals, Australian Shepherds love interacting with all kinds of animals. As long as they were raised up with these other animals of the house, they’ll be fine with them. If you have a cat, check out our guide on Aussies and cats.
Note: Needless to say, if you have unfriendly or hostile large dogs in the house, it could pose a problem with your Australian Shepherd. If you’re rescuing an Aussie, make sure to properly socialize the two dogs first. It may be a good idea to separate them in the beginning.
Aussies With Children
Australian Shepherds love to play with children, especially if they can match the energy of the dog. Although they’re gentle with kids, the children need to be old enough to know how to respect a dog.
This means educating kids on the do’s and don’t’s of playing with dogs. No tugging on their ears and tails and definitely don’t try to ride them like a horse. Unfortunately, i’ve seen this happen.
Kids should still be supervised when interacting with an Australian Shepherd. Because of their high energy, an Aussie may unintentionally hurt a child out of excitement. As mentioned, they’re friendly and affectionate by nature. However, accidents can and do happen.
Aloof With Strangers
Australian Shepherds are fantastic with the family. That’s because family dogs grow up with the family. When it comes to strangers, it’s a different story.
These dogs are inherently aloof and standoffish with unfamiliar people. For this reason, early socialization with people is essential for Aussies. They need to experience interacting with all types of people, so in adulthood, they’ll be able to better recognize “good and bad people.”
Failure to do this will put you and your dog at risk when they’re with strangers. It’s not unusual for an under-socialized Aussie to act aggressively and even bite a stranger. They can easily get scared or feel threatened and respond accordingly.
Enrolling them in puppy school at a young age is a great start to socialization. In the end, it helps produce a well-rounded and gentle Australian Shepherd.
Aussie Size: Height & Weight
The size and weight of an Australian Shepherd can vary, depending on gender and bloodline. For male Aussies, they stand tall anywhere from 20 to 23 inches. On the other hand, a female Aussie can be between 18 to 21 inches tall.
Liter size can also affect the size of these dogs. For example, the typical liter size of a pregnant Aussie is 6 to 9 pups. Those that give birth to smaller sized liters may have bigger dogs. Of course, this will vary and depend on genetics too. A small size liter doesn’t guarantee bigger dogs, but it happens.
Male Aussies can weigh between 55 to 70 pounds. A lot of factors play into this, including how much food you feed them. Too many treats can make them prone to obesity. A female Aussie typically ranges between 35 and 55 pounds. Same factors apply to females.
Miniature Australian Shepherd
The numbers above are for full-sized Aussies. Medium to large dogs not your thing? No worries. They come in miniature size, or as I like to call them – fun size!
Mini male Aussies can range anywhere from 14 to 18 inches tall. Whereas females will usually be around 13 to 17 inches tall.
In terms of weight, they can be anywhere from 20 to 31 pounds, depending on bloodline and gender. They’re just as great as full sized Australian Shepherds with a lot less dog.
Caring for an Australian Shepherd
Caring for an Australian Shepherd can be a daunting task, especially if you’ve read this guide all the way through. It’s the reason why they’re not always recommended for first time owners. However, with a little knowledge and a little patience, caring for one won’t be as bad as you think.
One of the most time consuming part of keeping an Aussie is the grooming. If you’re looking for a low maintenance dog breed, try something like a Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, Greyhound or Labrador Retriever.
Australian Shepherds do shed year round. Also, they shed even more during spring time when they’re getting rid of their winter coats. For this reason, it’s best to brush them at least once a week. You’ll probably need to do this twice a week during spring season.
Like every other dog, basic grooming is necessary. This means the occasional tooth brushing, depending on how many treats and human foods you feed the dog.
If your Aussie doesn’t spend much time running on concrete pavement, clipping their nails when they get too long is also needed. As soon as you hear the footsteps of your Australian Shepherd, it’s time to clip. Failure to do so can lead to minor injuries and discomfort.
The occasional bath is recommended. If the dog spends a lot of time outdoors, once every two weeks is okay. It’s important not to bathe your Aussie too often. By doing so, you could be washing away the healthy oils on their coat that protect them from dry skin, allergies, etc.
Training an Aussie
Arguably the most difficult part of raising an Australian Shepherd is the training. We already know physical activity is important (have you tried getting your Aussie to swim? Read here to see how). However, i’d argue that mental stimulation is equally important.
Obedience training provides both mental stimulation. And with dogs like the Aussie, it is necessary. This gives the dog a sense of purpose, which is crucial for mental health of a high-energy herding/working dog. Make sure you get them into a routine of obedience training because they will love it.
It’s not a bad idea to get some dog puzzles and toys for your Aussie to play with. It’ll keep them occupied and give you a breather when dealing with these dogs.
Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent dogs, so training will not be as difficult as you think. They respond well to positive reinforcement, such as rewards (praise, food, play time).
As for crate training to housebreak an Australian Shepherd, here are reviews for the 4 best dog crates for Aussies.
Keeping an Aussie
It’s a good idea to keep an Australian Shepherd in the backyard. However, it’s a problem when their inherent desire to herd something kicks in. Did I mention they jump ridiculously high? A normal gate may not keep them in, so it’s important to keep them occupied with plenty of interaction and play time.
Always keep your Aussie on a leash and never let them lead you. Make it absolutely clear that they need to walk and stop according to your actions.
When they’re puppies, don’t let them run or jump on concrete (or any hard surfaces). Their bones are still developing and their highly active personalities can lead to injuries. Personally, i’d wait until they’re at least one year old before giving them the freedom to do so.
Aussie Diet Recommendation
Note: Always consult with your dog’s veterinarian about diet, even as they grow bigger.
The daily recommended amount is 1.5 to 2.5 cups of quality dry dog food per day. This should be split into two meals – once in the morning and once at night. However, this should not be a strict guideline. Outside factors such as size, physical activity and metabolism play into this.
Not all dogs are the same. Just like how not all humans are the same. Consequently, not all humans (respective of gender) eat the same amount. So why should all dogs? They shouldn’t.
You can start with the daily recommended but adjust as you see fit. Like most dogs, if they’re really hungry and not getting enough food, they’ll find a way to let you know.
The quality of dog food matters. Higher quality means better nourishment and less food needed to get the daily recommended nutrients. Pick only trusted brands for your Aussie. You can consult with your veterinarian on the recommended brand of their choice.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Australian Shepherd is that no specific dog looks exactly like another. They are physically unique with many variations. For example, with just coat colors, there are six different variations of the Aussie.
On the surface, Australian Shepherds are medium sized dogs with a medium length coat and pendant ears. They have an upright squared stance and a deep chest.
The medium length coat can have either straight or wavy hair. However, feathering behind their legs is seen among all variations of the Australian Shepherd.
In addition, they have oval eyes that come in a variety of color combinations. Some colors include: blue, amber, brown or a combination with flecks. It’s not uncommon for some Aussies to have different colored eyes as well.
All Aussies have a full mane surrounding their neck and head.
The pendant ears that sit atop the head are triangular shaped and are always erect.
Aussie Coat Colors
As mentioned, Australian Shepherds come in a variety of coat colors. Specifically, there are four known coat colors (and way more variations!).
Australian Shepherd coat colors come in: blue merle, red merle, black and red (solid liver brown). All oh which, are extremely beautiful. These other colors are “disqualified” because they are considered evidence of mongrelization, or mixed with other breeds. For more information on mixed Aussies, check out these 18 interesting Australian Shepherd mixes.
All of these colors can come with different trims. For example, copper and white trims are popular with blue and red merle Aussies. With all these combinations, there’s a lot to choose from, especially if you don’t care if they are 100% Australian Shepherd.
If you’re interested in the 14 different color variations, i’d recommend my guide to Australian Shepherd colors here.
Tail or No Tail?
A common question I get is, do Australian Shepherds have tails? The answer is yes, they have tails. However, not all of them are born with a tail.
It’s estimated that one in five Australian Shepherds will have a naturally bobbed tail. In other words, they’re born without a tail. This statistic is based on numbers from registration certificates of the Aussie in the United States.
Despite many Australian Shepherds having tails, the length of tail can vary depending on the dog. A normal tail will taper as the vertebrae get smaller closer to the end of the tail. Other Aussies will have short tails without the tapering, which can seem like a stubby tail.
In an ASHGI health survey, data showed that nearly 47% of all bobtailed Australian Shepherds have quarter-length tails (or longer). And, in about 10% of the new borns, a kink or curve is seen in the tail.
For Australian Shepherds, this trait is an incomplete dominant trait. This means that puppies that inherit two copies of this gene trait usually die early. For this reason, two bobtailed Aussies should not breed with one another.
By doing so, you can receive puppies with severe deformation and problems. Most of which, are put through euthanasia and put down.
If you want to learn more about why you need to cut your Aussies’ tail, check out my article answering: do Australian Shepherds have tails?
Australian Shepherd Health
For the most part, Australian Shepherds are healthy and robust dog breeds. However, like all breeds, they are prone to some health problems. With proper care, there’s a good chance your Aussie won’t develop any of these problems, if any. But it’s important for all Australian Shepherd owners to be aware of them.
If you can spot early symptoms of these conditions, it could go a long way in preventing further complications with your Aussie. Any signs of these conditions, it’s best to contact your local veterinarian immediately.
Avoiding Health Problems
There’s no secret formula to raising a healthy Australian Shepherd. Even if you feed them the best food and get them plenty of exercise (such as running), there is still a chance of health issues.
The best way to prevent any potential health conditions is to pick the right breeders from the start. Reputable Australian Shepherd breeders will have all the health documents of the parents. In fact, they’ll most likely have the documents of the grandparents as well.
Always question your breeder about the health and potential issues with these type of dogs. If they’re truly knowledgeable, they’ll have no problems answering questions. It’s the breeders that give incomplete answers that you should avoid.
This is a far too common health condition that’s not just seen in Australian Shepherds, but many dog breeds. Although its a heritable condition, it can be made worse by physical activity, such as jumping off a tall couch onto hard flooring.
Hip Dysplasia can also lead to the development of arthritis as the dog ages. For this reason, I want to reiterate not allowing your Aussie puppy to jump on hard floors until after year one. Symptoms of this condition include visible pain in the dog or lameness on either (or both) rear legs.
Epilepsy has been a problem with Australian Shepherds. It’s a condition that causes seizures in your dog. Although medication can help treat the problem, it can never be cured. Aussies with epilepsy should not be bred, so make sure to consult with your breeder about this condition.
Australian Shepherds are prone to deafness, especially late in age. This is all hereditary and can be somewhat treated using medication and in severe cases, surgery. It’s not all bad – there are products on the market to help your Aussie deal with deafness.
Vibrating collars, for example, will act as a hearing aid for an Aussie experiencing deafness. With a little time and patience, both you and your dog can adjust to deafness and make a smooth transition.
Cataracts can be a troublesome condition, as it makes it much more difficult to see for your Aussie. For animals that rely heavily on keen eyesight, it can be a problem.
Usually, you’ll start to notice a “cloudy” appearance in the eye of your Aussie. If this happens, consult with your vet. The good news is that, with surgery, you can remove the cataract.
One of the oddest health conditions, Distichiasis occurs when an extra row of eyelashes grow on the edge of the dog’s eyelid. This will cause a lot of irritation for your Aussie and you may notice the dog squinting or frequently pawing at the eye (trying to scratch). By using Cryoepilation (freezing), vets can remove the extra eyelashes.
Collie Eye Anomaly
CEA is an inherited health condition seem in some dog breeds. Unfortunately, the Australian Shepherd is one of them. This condition happens relatively early and typically develops before the age of 2.
As given by the name, this condition is a genetic anomaly (or abnormality). In other words, even dog parents without this condition can give birth to dogs with this condition.
In many cases, CEA can lead to blindness and there is no treatment for it. However, even blind dogs can adjust well. They have a great sense of smell and superior hearing.
This medical condition occurs when the thyroid produces abnormally low levels of the thyroid hormone. Unfortunately, there aren’t clear cut symptoms that point to this condition. However, any signs of sudden weight gain, lethargy or nausea may be Hypothyroidism.
If any unusual symptoms occur or if your dog just doesn’t seem normal, contact your vet immediately. Fortunately, this can be treated with medication. And even with meds, the dog can live a normal and pleasant life.
Tumors and Cancer
Like humans, an Aussie is susceptible to cancer and tumors. The types of cancer can vary, but the 5 most popular are Melanoma, Lymphoma, Hemangiosarcoma, Bone Cancer and Mast Cell Tumor.
Depending on the cancer, treatment will be different. Your Aussie will either need surgery to remove a tumor or to go through chemotherapy in an attempt to kill the cancer cells.
Symptoms of cancer in your Aussie include: lethargy, loss of appetite, difficulty urinating and drinking water, development of a lump (mass), abnormal discharge and more.
Dogs can develop improper growth of cartilage between the joints. Although this can happen anywhere, it’s most common in the elbows of your dog. Not only will this cause pain, but also stiffness in the joint.
Australian Shepherds are hyperactive dogs, so spotting this condition is easier than with other dog breeds. If for some reason they seem limited in their mobility, they may be experiencing Osteochondrosis Dissecans.
Although there is no hard evidence, scientists speculate that overfeeding puppies with growth formula food (high-protein dog food) may be a factor in causing OCD.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy
PRA is a degenerative eye disorder that develops with old age. With PRA, your dog loses photoreceptors in the back of the eye, which will eventually lead to blindness in the dog.
There is not much you can do about this. As a potential Aussie owner, you should ask your breeder about this. All certified Aussie breeders will get their dogs’ eyes checked annually.
Although blindness sounds bad, it is more common than you think – especially with senior dogs. The great part is that dogs have other sharp senses that can make up for blindness.
Persistent Pupillary Membranes
PPM is an eye condition where tissue in the puppy’s eyes at birth don’t go away. For puppies, they act as extra nourishment for the lenses of the eyes prior to birth. For most dogs, they disappear when the puppy hits 5 weeks old. However, sometimes they persist, which can lead to further complications.
If the strands don’t eventually break down, it could lead to cataracts and other troublesome eye conditions. Fortunately, there are simple treatments for this, such as prescribed eye drops, which help break down the tissue.
Nasal Solar Dermatitis
Often called the Collie-nose, NSD is a condition that affects dogs with little or no pigment in their nose. Despite the nickname, this condition is not seen in just Collies.
Aussies with NSD are ultra-sensitive to sunlight. In fact, when exposed, they develop pink-colored lesions on the nose. If you notice this, keep them out of direct sunlight and contact your vet. If your Aussie needs to go outside, sunscreen is highly recommended.
Breeds Similar to the Aussie
By now, you know Australian Shepherds are some of the best dog breeds in the world. But as a potential dog owner, you should do your due diligence and look into other breeds.
Here are a few dog breeds that we believe are similar to the Australian Shepherd:
Border Collie – Also herding dogs, the Border Collie are also the smartest dogs in the world. Borders and Aussies are both animated, agile, adaptable and fierce workers.
Australian Cattle Dog – Both this cattle dog and the Aussie have very similar physical characteristics. On top of that, they both are excellent herding dogs. The main difference? One is actually from Australia.
Belgian Malinois – There are few dogs that can match the activity level of the Australian Shepherd. The Belgian Malinois is one of them. Both herding dogs are insanely agile and dedicated workers. Got a herding job? Both dogs will thrive.
Despite the plethora of options for dog owners, the Australian Shepherd stands out like a bright star. Although they may be difficult for new owners, it is still possible for them to successfully bring up an obedient and happy Aussie.
These dogs are affectionate, lively, free-spirited and hard workers. Is there really any more you could ask for in a family dog? I’ve owned many dogs in my life, ranging from the Pembroke Welsh Corgi to the Pomeranian and German Shepherd. Still, the most interesting experience was with my Australian Shepherd.
There’s not a single dull moment with an Aussie. They’re incredibly smart and love to do tricks, along with obedience and agility training.
If you’ve made it all the way through, then you’re onto something great. Give these dogs a chance and you’ll thank me later.
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