Get to Know the Australian Shepherd: A Jack of All Trades

Skilled at herding, agility, flyball, Frisbee, and obedience, this do-it-all breed is up for anything.


The Australian Shepherd may have a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to part of its name. The breed originated in the United States, not Australia. But there’s no question about the Shepherd designation; this is a talented and versatile herding dog ready to tackle any challenge. Most Aussies today turn their talents to being active and attentive companions. But give them a chance, and they’ll prove themselves at just about anything.

Aussies are especially talented at herding, agility, flyball, Frisbee and obedience. They are smart and active, a great combination if you want to do a lot with your dog, but a bad combination if you expect your dog to entertain itself.

The breed came to America by way of Australia, and they came to Australia by way of Europe. They accompanied Basque shepherds (the human kind) to both locations as they followed the sheep industry to new frontiers. These dogs had to be much tougher and hardier than traditional European herding breeds to withstand the rugged terrain of Australia and the western United States. They were skilled at working cattle, which made them especially valuable in the American West. As they evolved even more they came to be called Australian Shepherds.

The Aussie’s herding style is termed “loose-eyed” (as opposed to “strong-eyed”). This means they herd with an upright posture, tending to use their body and movement to intimidate and thus move sheep rather than staring and stalking. They will also bark to control livestock, but not as much as many other breeds. And they will at times grip (meaning bite) the livestock if they are challenged. Despite being called shepherds, they are equally good at herding cattle.

Because they work so closely with the shepherd, herding dogs are especially good at learning complicated tasks, including tricks. In the 1950s and ’60s, a group of highly-trained Australian Shepherds appeared in a rodeo trick-dog act. You can find videos of them online by searching for their trainer, Jay Sisler.

Sisler’s trick dogs were featured in the Disney movies Run, Appaloosa, Run and Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West, bringing the breed national attention. Many of today’s Aussies trace back to Jay Sisler’s rodeo dogs.

In the late 1950s, Australian Shepherds began to be registered with the National Stock Dog Registry and, later, the Australian Shepherd Club of America. Working Aussies are still primarily registered with these organizations rather than with the AKC.

The AKC recognized the Australian Shepherd in 1993, amidst much controversy. Many breeders did not want AKC recognition, and chose not to accept it. Because of this, the non-AKC organization, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), is still equally important for registration and competition.

The Aussie is in the AKC Herding group.

The Australian Shepherd is the 22nd most popular AKC breed, but because so many are registered with ASCA or with the National Stock Dog Registry, their true popularity is probably higher.

Aussies come in a variety of colors, including (but not limited to) black and tan, red and tan, blue merle, red merle, all with or without white trim. Merle refers to splotches of dark and light grey (blue merle) or dark and light chocolate (red merle).

Never breed two merle Aussies together. The merle color is caused by the action of a single dominant gene. Dogs with two copies of the gene are mostly white and very often have serious eye problems, including blindness.

Merle Aussies often have blue eyes. These eyes have perfectly normal vision (unless associated with two merle genes).

Some Aussies are born with natural bob tails, and the tails of others are traditionally docked in some countries. Natural bob tails do not breed true.

Like many collie breeds, Aussies may carry a gene that makes them sensitive to several medications. Most well-known are certain heartworm preventives, but other medications can actually have more serious effects. A DNA test is available to determine if your Aussie is at risk.

Owners include Mel Gibson, Steve Jobs, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Tim Robbins, Sally Field, Susan Sarandon and Flip Wilson.

A miniature version of the Australian Shepherd has been developed. These dogs are now known as Miniature American Shepherds.

Do you own an Australian Shepherd? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Read more breed profiles:

About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.

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