Meet the Breed: Work It!

The active and attractive Australian Shepherd tackles any task with skill and joy.

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When 19th-century American ranchers in what was then the Wild West imported hardy Australian sheep to improve their flocks, they got something extra. The sheep were accompanied by Basque shepherds who had immigrated to Australia; the shepherds brought along their talented canine aides de camp. The shepherds’ little blue herding dogs helped to change the face of the West. They developed into what is today known as the Australian Shepherd, a nod to their ancestors’ passage from the Antipodes.

Little is known of the history of the Australian Shepherd, which, despite its name, was developed in the American West, not Australia. Possible ancestors include longhaired, bobtailed collie-type dogs from Australia; sheepdogs from Germany imported to Australia and known there as German Koolies; and herding dogs brought by Basque shepherds who came to work in the United States both before and after World War II. The dogs that became what we now know as the Australian Shepherd were selected for their working ability, not their bloodlines, so their history is as patched as their coats.

For farm and fun
At most any farm, ranch, rodeo or horse show, the Australian Shepherd could be found helping to drive and round up livestock, loading horses into chutes and trailers, and performing just about any chore that didn’t require opposable thumbs, including fetching, carrying and pulling. The breed’s moderate size, versatility and trainability made it an invaluable working dog, capable of herding ducks, geese, sheep, goats and all types of cattle.

The Aussie’s intelligence also made it a great entertainer. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, Australian Shepherds Shorty and Queenie, trained by Jay Sisler, were part of Sisler’s performing-dog act, which included appearances at the Calgary Stampede and Madison Square Garden. They also starred in two Disney productions: Stub: The Best Cowdog in the West (1974) and Run, Appaloosa, Run (1966). Thanks to YouTube, Sisler and his dogs can still be seen performing amazing tricks, including jumping rope, doing handstands and playing leapfrog.

Aussie clubhouse
An offshoot of the National Stockdog Registry, the Australian Shepherd Club of America was established in 1957 to register members of the breed. Today, it’s the largest single-breed registry in existence, with more than 165,000 dogs in its studbook. It also sanctions conformation shows and titles for ASCA-registered Aussies, and records points and titles for Aussies competing in ASCA agility, obedience, rally, tracking and stock dog events.

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