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What is an Australian Shepherd?

By Kirsten C. Tynan
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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An Australian shepherd, sometimes shortened as Aussie, is a highly intelligent and energetic dog. It was originally bred as a working dog to herd livestock and assist in other ranch and farm activities. This herding dog typically uses its physical presence and bark to move and direct livestock. Eye contact or grip may be used with reluctant members of the herd or in other challenging circumstances.

While the Australian shepherd breed was originally developed to perform tasks on farms and ranches, dogs of this breed have been utilized in a variety of other working environments. Australian shepherds are often used in police work such as narcotics detection and search and rescue operations, and are sometimes even used as sled dogs. Due to their amiable temperament, they may also act as service dogs for the disabled or as therapy dogs in nursing homes, hospitals, disaster areas, and other locations.

In spite of its name, livestock producers in the western United States actually developed the Australian shepherd breed. The breed’s ancestors are not known with certainty; however, it is commonly speculated by authorities on the breed to have originated from one of three locations. These include the Pyrnees Mountains in Europe, the British Isles, or Australia as descendants of dogs brought to the United States by Basque shepherds in the 1800s. Regardless of the location of the breed’s ancestors, it is generally agreed that the modern development of the breed took place in the United States.

The official standard for the Australian shepherd breed is maintained by the American Kennel Club (AKC), which recognized it in 1991 and classifies it in the herding group. This standard specifies an ideal height of 20–23 inches (51–58 cm) for males and 18–21 inches (46–53 cm) for females. Typical Australian shepherd males range from 50–65 lb (23–30 kg) while females typically weigh 40–55 lb (18–23 kg). Colorations acceptable according to the AKC standard include black, blue merle, red, and red merle. Merle is a mixed color scheme with blue merle being a patchwork of blue and gray and red merle being a patchwork of red and either silver or buff.

An Australian shepherd with significant amounts of white coloration is disqualified by the AKC standard. Such dogs are typically produced by the mating of two Australian shepherds with merle coloration, thereby inheriting two copies of the recessive gene for such coloration. This genetic heritage correlates with an increased risk of blindness or deafness, which is undesirable to a healthy breed.

There are several other health concerns associated with the Australian shepherd breed. Eye disorders include cataracts, eyelashes growing inward which can scar the cornea, and the birth defect called collie eye anomaly that may result in a variety of vision problems. Autoimmune diseases to which Australian shepherds are susceptible include diseases of the thyroid and troublesome skin conditions. Skin problems include demodetic mange, typically resulting in patches of hair loss, and discoid lupus, which generally manifests as sores around the nose. Hip dysplasia may also be inherited and may result in irregularities in the dog’s gait earlier in life and arthritis as it ages.

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