All-American Working Dog
The Australian shepherd is the classic working dog: masterful stock herder, champion Frisbee, Flyball and agility participant, and accomplished in search and rescue, therapy, service and guiding the blind.
While the breed loves to work, it also loves its family and is fiercely loyal and affectionate with its owners.
Despite its name, the breed is not from Australia. Many would be surprised to learn that the Australian shepherd is actually an American-bred dog.
The Australian shepherd was bred during the 19th and 20th centuries in North America, where the dogs where initially used during the California Gold Rush to help herd the flocks of sheep migrating west.
The breed was able to tolerate the western terrain and hot climates, making them a commodity to shepherds and cattle ranchers.
It is not clear why the breed was given the name “Australian shepherd” although some historians speculate the American breed may have been associated with Australian dogs born with a similar “merle” coat color.
The breed was bred predominantly throughout Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest, becoming a popular family dog and show dog, often seen performing in rodeos and Disney films such as “Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West.”
By the early 1970s, the Australian Shepherd Club of America and registry was formed.
True to its working class nature, the Australian shepherd is a high-energy dog that requires, on average, two hours of daily exercise to maintain good health and behavior.
This dog breed enjoys engaging in physical activity and if not given the opportunity to exercise, will likely find a way to do it, either by making mad dashes throughout the house or becoming destructive and hyperactive.
A very intelligent breed, the Australian shepherd responds very well to training and is a dedicated guard dog. But this breed isn’t all work and no play; the Australian shepherd is a very loyal family dog, often shadowing its owners and taking advantage of any chance to be affectionate and playful.
The Australian shepherd has a variety of coat colors and combinations. While working dogs tend to have a shorter coat, non-working dogs – or show dogs – have a longer, fuller coat.
Coat colors are black, red (sometimes called liver), blue merle (marbled black and gray), and red merle (marbled red and silver or buff).
The Australian shepherd’s eye color also varies. Nicknamed “ghost-eye dog,” the breed may have any shade of brown or blue eyes or a combination of two different eye colors, such as half brown and half blue, called bi-colored or “split eyes.” The bi-colored characteristic appears to be associated with the merle coloration.
Australian shepherd dogs have several conditions that are common in the breed. Some, but not all, of these are outlined below. Of course, your Australian shepherd will not necessarily develop them and choosing a reputable breeder from which to purchase your pet, will help minimize the risk.
- Autoimmune disorders: There appears to be an increase in autoimmune diseases in this breed including lupus and generalized demodex.
- Blindness and deafness: While the merle coat pattern is most commonly associated with the Australian shepherd, there is a statistical risk that 25% of the offspring will end up with the two copies of the merle gene when two merles are bred. These dogs typically have a predominantly white coat and blue eyes, and are often deaf and/or blind. In this case, the deafness and blindness are linked to having two copies of the merle gene, which disrupts pigmentation and produces these health defects.
- Cataracts are an opacity of the lens of the eye and may cause blindness if not treated surgically.
- Distichiasis occurs when eyelashes grow in the wrong place on the eyelid and cause an eye irritation which may result in scarred corneas.
- Elbow dysplasia is a malformation of the elbow joints that causes lameness and arthritis.
- Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. The symptoms vary in severity but the dog usually foams at the mouth and appears to be chewing on something. Progressive symptoms lead to violent muscle contractions, loss of bladder or bowel control and fainting.
- Hip dysplasia is a hereditary malformation of the hip joint that is more commonly associated with large breed dogs. It can cause discomfort and lameness and result in arthritis. X-rays of the hips when dogs are young (under 2 years) can help identify if this problem is present will allow owners to identify a proper exercise, diet and treatment regimen if their dog is affected.
- Skin conditions: Excessive white on the face and ears can place an individual Australian shepherd at greater risk for sunburn and subsequent skin cancer.
- White-related deafness: White, rather than pigment, around the ears is an indicator of increased risk for white-related deafness. Two different eye colors may indicate later blindness.