How do you know the Australian Shepherd is right for you? My husband, Paul, and I owned several breeds before deciding that the Australian Shepherd was just the breed for us. Paul grew up with Doberman Pinschers and Dachshunds; his mother bred and showed both breeds during his childhood. My mother had Toy Poodles. When Paul and I met, we both had German Shepherds, and after we married, we acquired two more German Shepherds, a Dalmatian, a Bulldog and a couple of Papillons. We loved all of these dogs very much, but there were characteristics in each breed with which we weren't comfortable.
I began researching breeds. I asked questions; I watched dogs; I read and read and read some more. Finally, I began paying attention to those beautiful, smart, bobtailed dogs who seemed to do so well at the obedience matches I attended. I finally stopped a couple with one of these dogs and asked them what kind of dog he was. Ralph and Eileen Swingle of Valley Center, Calif., were kind enough to talk to me, answer questions and introduce their wonderful Australian Shepherds to me. It was the beginning of a friendship — with both the Swingles and the breed. I didn't get my first Aussie for several more years because I still had dogs at home (my personal limit is three!), but when we finally got our first Aussie, Paul and I knew this breed was right for us. We have now owned Australian Shepherds for almost 20 years and currently own three: Dax, Kes and Riker.
Just because this is the right breed for us doesn't necessarily mean it is the right breed for you. Let's look at the breed and see if an Aussie might be your perfect dog.
A Canine Shadow
Aussies are extremely devoted to their owners. This means you will have a shadow following you from room to room and from inside to outside. I jokingly but truthfully tell people I haven't gone to the bathroom by myself in years. There is always a nose pressing up against the door checking to make sure I'm inside and all right. If you cannot tolerate a canine shadow, don't get an Aussie.
Once you get used to this shadow, it can be very enjoyable. When you have an Aussie, his warm, friendly presence is always there to comfort you when you're sad or to share your laughter when you're happy. When I get a little sad, Dax brings me some of her toys. Because the toys make her happy, she thinks they'll make me happy, too.
Aussies love being with their owners, so they need to be house dogs. They do very poorly when exiled to the back yard. No dog should be banished to the back yard, especially not a high-energy companion dog like the Aussie.
Aussies can be wonderful family dogs if both the dog and child know what to do and what not to do. Aussies are very patient and will tolerate behavior from children that they will not tolerate from adults. My first Aussie, Care Bear, was also my first therapy dog, and he loved to work with children. We visited kids at day care centers, homes for troubled kids and homes for runaways. Kids could hug and squeeze him, poke him, pull at him and do many things he wouldn't tolerate in another situation. In return, he licked the child's face. Invariably, the child would relax, calm down and snuggle with him.
Aussies are herding dogs, so they sometimes try to herd the family children. This should not be allowed. Your dog should be taught not to chase the kids and the children should be taught not to encourage that behavior. Aussies are protective of the family children and easily can become overprotective, something you need to monitor. An overprotective Aussie might try to interfere or bite when two kids are wrestling, playing rough or screaming. Your Aussie might even try to interfere when you are correcting your child. When your Aussie and kids know the rules, however, your Aussie can be a wonderful family pet and companion.
A Sense of Purpose
The Aussie's strong desire to work and his herding instincts make him a demanding pet. An Aussie needs a job to do and a sense of being needed. Dax brings in the newspapers, even on Sunday when the papers weigh almost as much as she does. Kes chases the birds out of my garden, and both dogs know how to find my turtles in the morning when I go out to count noses and make sure everyone is OK. Aussies without jobs are at loose ends and will find their own jobs, which might be to your displeasure.
The Aussie is an intelligent breed, but don't assume that a smart dog is an easy dog to keep. A smart dog thinks more, and sometimes thinking can get him into trouble. The owner of an intelligent dog must be smarter than his or her dog — not smart in the ways of science or math but smart in things important to the dog. You must be able to watch your dog and learn to understand him. You should be able to second-guess him, stop bad behavior before it happens and use proper training techniques to help him learn what is acceptable and what is not.
Even though the Australian Shepherd is an intelligent dog with a strong desire to work, he needs training. A training program for an Aussie should be fair and emphasize the positive. Although most Aussies take corrections well and know when they have made a mistake, a training program that is too harsh can cause an Aussie to fight back. Although Dax has a strong work ethic, she takes corrections seriously. A firm "Oh, no!" is all she needs most of the time, and the words alone can cause her to look distressed. Dax, like most Aussies, thrives in a positive training program.
If you don't have the time, patience, perseverance and sense of fairness to train an Aussie, don't get one. Aussies love training and enjoy learning as much as you can teach them. An untrained Aussie is guaranteed to be trouble.
Boredom is an Aussie's enemy. When bored, an Aussie will find things to do, including getting into cupboards, digging under the fence, chasing the cat or climbing up onto the counters. Some bored Aussies will develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as fence pacing — trotting back and forth, over and over again. This is not healthy behavior and is a sign that something is not right.
Training, exercise and time with you can alleviate boredom. If you can't be involved enough to keep your Aussie active and motivated, this is not the right breed for you.
Exercise and Playtime
Aussies are athletes, agile and fast, with incredible stamina and endurance. Aussies need regular exercise, but a casual walk around town is not sufficient for healthy adult Aussies. A 30- to 45-minute game of Frisbee or a 3-mile run would be more appropriate.
If your Aussie doesn't get enough exercise, he will be restless, might pace annoyingly or will get into trouble by chewing your sofa to smithereens or uprooting your prized dahlias.
I bicycle with my adult Aussies 3 to 5 miles every other day. On alternate days, we walk 3 to 5 miles and, every day, we play catch with the tennis ball or flying disc. With my young puppy, I play shorter games of catch, run around the yard and take increasingly longer walks.
Playtime can mean exercise, but it also is special time spent with your Aussie. Play should be fun; games like hide-and-seek or find the hidden toy allow you to spend quality time with your pet. Aussies have a unique sense of humor, and playtime is a wonderful way to bond with your dog. Time to play is time to relax and laugh — something we all need in these busy times.
Aussies are Protective
Aussies are highly protective over their property and people. As a herding dog with strong guardian instincts, an Aussie without a flock of sheep will protect his people and territory instead. This means your Aussie will bark when people come up to the house or car and will raise a fuss if someone trespasses into your yard. Aussies have been known to give their lives trying to protect their owners from rampaging bulls, angry cows or human muggers.
While not overtly aggressive, Aussies will do what is needed to protect what is theirs. You, as the owner, must be able to control this protectiveness and protect people from your dog. In today's legal system, a protective dog can be a legal liability. An Aussie must be kept under control at all times to avoid legal consequences. If you don't think you can control (with training and your leadership) a protective dog, don't get an Aussie.
Aussies Can Do it All!
If you are interested in dog activities and sports and want a dog to play with, an Aussie is the right dog. His athletic abilities and intelligence make him a versatile companion. Aussies chase flying discs, play flyball, follow tracks, do search-and-rescue work, serve as therapy dogs and much more. If any dog can do it, an Aussie can!
If you are an active, outdoorsy type of person, take your Aussie camping and hiking. Aussies are good swimmers, love to play in the snow and, with training, readily will pull a wagon.
If you want a dog who is so intelligent that he seems to read your mind, get an Australian Shepherd. If you want a dog who wants to work for you and please you, get an Australian Shepherd. If you want a watchful dog who will alert you to dangers and is dedicated and loyal enough to lay down his life for you, get an Aussie. If you want a canine companion who wants to be with you all the time, get an Australian Shepherd. You'll never regret it! I haven't.