About the Australian Shepherd
The Australian Shepherd, or lovingly called the Aussie, is a fairly new breed. The parent club of the breed, the Australian Shepherd Club of American (ASCA), was formed in 1957 and the breed was recognized by the AKC in 1991. The Australian Shepherd was devloped from the Basque Shepherd but the breed as we know it today was created exclusively in the United States. The aussie was designed for its natural working ability with sheep and cattle and its easiness to train.
At A Glance
Aussies are a very unique looking breed and can be recognized immediately.
On average they are between 18-21 inches tall at the withers for bitches and 20-23 inches tall for dogs. However quality is not sacrificed over size. Weights are dependant on the density of the dog, but they typically are anywhere from 40-60 pounds.
Ears should be high set and either "button" or "rose" shaped and fall to the length of the corner of the eye. They should lift 1/4 to 1/2 above the base and break forward. Prick ears are not accepted, nor are overly large or hound ears.
Tails are docked in the first few days of life, however they can also be naturally bobbed (NBT). Some natural bob tails do need additional docking if they length of the tail would be longer than 4" when full grown. The NBT gene is dominant, however breeding two natural bob tails together can cause spinal defects in homozygous carriers. This condition is usually lethal and puppies are typically reabsorbed in the womb. For this reason, two NBT carriers should never to be bred to one another.
Coats, Colors, and Inheritance Patterns
The Australian Shepherd is known for its merle coloring and long coat. However, this is a breed of great variety. You will see dogs with tighter coats to giant, plushy coats. The ideal is a moderate length, double coated dog. The coat texture should be that of "easy maintenance," as that burrs and debris should brush right out and the coat should not easily matt.
The Australian Shepherd comes in 4 base colors: black, blue merle, red, and red merle. With these colors you can have a "self" color (no white/tan points - though this is not common) or white and/or tan points. Merle is dominant over solid colors and black is dominant over red. The richness of the color varies greatly among the breed. Reds can be seen in any color from a dark liver to a lighter sorrel. Merling can also vary greatly. In blue merles especially, we can see a very light sky grey to a dark pewter in the merling.
No matter the shade of color, black and blues will always have a black nose leather and black pigment surrounding the eyes. Reds will always have a liver nose leather and liver pigment surrounding the eyes.
White should only be present on the legs, underbelly, neck, chest, and face. White on the neck, or collar, should not extend past the withers (shoulder-blade) and white body splashes are not allowable. The dominant color on the face should not be white. If a dog has tan points the coloring will always be present first under the tail; in some dogs this is the only place you will see the tan coloring. Tan can also be on the legs and face. Tan should not blend into the body color, this is called running copper.
Cryptic (or Phantom) Merles
A merle dog is defined by ANY merling on the body. Some dogs will show a great deal of merling, while some only have a tiny speck of merling. If there is any doubt, genetic tests are available to check for the coloring genotype.
However, a true cryptic merle carries a different (shorter) version of the merle gene and they are genetic different from a merle. These dogs will have no evidence of merling. Breeding a cryptic merle to a merle will not produce double merle puppies.
A double merle occurs when two merles are bred together and a puppy inherits both merle genes. Each puppy in a merle to merle breeding has a 25% of being a double merle. You may commonly see them called "lethal whites", however this can be misleading as the condition is by no means lethal. These puppies are characterized by excessive white and blindness and/or deafness. This should absolutely be avoided.
A combination of recessive genes can cause certain color patterns to sometimes pop up. These patterns have always been around, though rare, in the breed. The two most common are yellow and dilute genes. The dilute gene acts upon the red or black coloring, so a blue merle would appear a blue and slate color as opposed to blue and black. Some people like to market these as "rare Aussies," however they do not follow the breed standard, therefore should be avoided. We do have genetic tests to test for the dilute and yellow markers.
Some other non-standard colors that can appear are sable, brindle and white.
This is Boone, an atypical blue merle aussie, at 8 weeks and 2 years.
(photos used with permission from his owner)
Aussies by nature are a reserved and cautious breed, though not aggressive or shy. While some are very friendly, others may never accept a stranger. It is important for prospective Aussie owners to understand that this breed typically does not have the happy-go-lucky personality of a Golden Retriever. Many people expect all puppies to be friendly, but a reserved breed will be reserved from the get-go. This does not mean they were unsocialized as a puppy, it is part of their genetics. However, we can improve or worsen this through training, or lack there of. Reserved dogs make friends but only after some skepticism. Wether this just be needing a quick sniff or a consistent presence. However, once you are in their "pack" they are committed. Is important to never force a reserved dog to meet people. They need to know that if they do not feel comfortable they can escape the situation. I advise all Aussie owners to make meeting everyone a positive experience, while they may still be reserved they will not be scared that you will force them into a "scary" situation.
The breed is defined as having strong guardian instincts, which means they may protect people and places they see as theirs from a threat. Because of these traits, Aussies need a strong pack leader who can provide consistent training with proper socialization and exercise. Without this, you are setting yourself up for a poor situation that can lead to a bite.
Now onto the good part! Aussies are very loyal companion dogs and often referred to as a velcro dog. They have silly personalities and always want to play. They do have an "off switch" (providing they're receiving adequate exercise) which makes them not so "busy" all the time like a Border Collie tends to be. They will happily go everywhere with you, or reluctantly wait, sometimes impatiently, at home for your return. They love to be by your side and they LOVE to work. They typically need a job to occupy them. Traditionally this was managing stock, but now dog sports have become a fun alternative. They make excellent hiking partners as well. Aussies are known for being one of the "smarter" breeds and typically can problem solve extremely well. Without proper mental stimulation and exercise they will become destructive. Redecorating your house will be their new job. ;)