The Australian Shepherd is one of few dog breeds to be developed in the United States, despite its name suggesting it originated in Australia. In all actuality, this versatile working dog was developed by ranchers in the West that used Aussies for sheep herding in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Australian Shepherds have been called by many names, including the Spanish Shepherd, New Mexican Shepherd, California Shepherd, and Austrian Shepherd. One hypothesis is that “Australian” stuck to their name because that is the origin of the sheep they herded; another theory states that the Australian Shepherd’s coloring was similar to that of dogs native to Australia. The Australian Shepherd was not recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1991; however, it is now ranked as the 17th most popular breed in terms of registrations.
Australian Shepherds are tireless workers known for their obedience and trainability, which makes them popular for people living athletic lifestyles, as well as Agility enthusiasts. They also excel at herding and stock dog trials, making these dogs extremely versatile. However, as highly energetic canine athletes they require an owner that is committed to providing regular exercise and attention. Australian Shepherds are happiest when they have a job to do, so regular structured activity, such as obedience practice, agility work, or teaching new tricks regularly is recommended. When not provided a proper mental and physical outlet for their energy, Australian Shepherds can become hyperactive and destructive. They are not recommended for apartment dwellers and do best in a rural setting, especially with owners who can devote a considerable amount of time and energy to their care.
Much of the Australian Shepherd’s popularity is due to its moderate size and unique appearance. Male Australian Shepherds typically weigh 50 – 65 lbs, while females weigh 30 – 45 lbs. Their coat is medium-length and water resistant and sheds twice yearly. Regular brushing is required to keep the coat from matting. Australian Shepherds can be a variety of colors, including black, red (liver), blue merle, or red merle. The term “merle” refers to a mottled patchwork of coloring and is among the most popular and desired coat colors for an Aussie. Blue merle is gray and black patchwork, while red merle is cream and liver. Eye color is also a popular component of the breed, as they can have “split eyes,” meaning the eye is half brown and half blue.
Major health concerns for Australian Shepherds include epilepsy and vision problems, particularly if both of a puppy’s parents were merle. Other issues include hip dysplasia, Peter-Huet anomaly, and thyroid issues. An important consideration for Australian Shepherd owners is that many dogs from this breed have a mutation of the MDR1 gene which makes them unable to tolerate certain antibiotics and pesticides that are found in common heartworm or flea medications. A simple DNA test can alert an owner to this problem. Overall, Australian Shepherds have long life spans for their size, typically living 13 – 15 years.