The Australian Shepherd’s story begins back in the late 18th century and early 19th century in the Pyrenees of Northern Spain and southwestern France, the area known as the Basque country. There, the hills were alive with ship and herdsmen who were known as Basques. To help manage their flocks over the mountainous terrain, they used small dogs to herd the sheep and guard the flock as they grazed.
In the early 1800s, herdsmen were in great demand in Australia due to the rise of the wool market. As work in the Basque region of Europe was slowing down, some of the Basque herdsmen took their dogs and went to Australia, where they could find work.
Eventually, the Australian sheep was sent to America, where the wool market was also growing. It was inevitable that some of these Basque herdsmen and their dogs would follow the sheep to America. In the New World, men and dogs found the terrain and weather conditions in the Southwestern United States similar to what they had known in Australia and Europe. Thus, they adapted easily, some of them even migrating as far south as Mexico. In years to come, those dogs would be known as New Mexican Shepherds. They were simply a larger version of the smaller Basque dogs. The increased size of the dogs meant that they could be used to herd cattle as well as sheep.
Then, in the late mid-to-late 1800s, the famous Gold Rush occurred in the West. The woll market soared even higher and, as more and more sheep were raised to meet the demand, more dogs were needed for herding. The small Basque-like dogs were bred with the larger Mexican dogs and some other herding breeds with strong genetic traits for the work of herding and guarding. As they had originally come from Australia, people began calling them Australian Shepherds. Eventually, they became known as Aussies.
Characteristics of the Australian Shepherd
The very first time we set eyes on an Aussie, we are struck by the symmetry and balance of the dog. Neither a little dog not a large one, it stands somewhere between 18 and 23 inches at the withers (highest point of shoulder). He is slightly longer than he is tall and possesses good bone structure. His coat, which is unique in color to each individual dog, is of moderate length and coarseness. The coat beneath his throat and around his neck is called the ruff. The long hair beneath his chest is called feathering (more often seen in males than females).
The Australian Shepherd is a moderate dog in all respects. His appearance bespeaks agility, strength and stamina. His heavy coat and bobtail give the impression that he is well equipped for the life in the outdoors. His build tells of his physical abilities, and his demeanor and facial expression indicate his intelligence and determination to get the job done.
There is no doubt in the minds of all who meet him that he is capable of performing his work while devotedly serving his owner as friend and partner. He is an enthusiastic worker, a devoted companion and an excellent guardian of home and family. Males carry a distinctive look of masculinity about them, while females are usually a bit smaller and more feminine in overall appearance.
Possibly the most interesting attribute of Aussies is the manner in which they relate to strangers. They are, by nature, reserved toward those whom they don’t know. They are not openly aggressive toward strangers, as is common with many of the working breeds. Rather, they choose to ignore those they don’t know, providing that they (the strangers) do not threaten their masters or families.
Devoted to their owners, Aussies constantly keep track of their charges while ignoring others in their environment. Take an Aussie out among people and he will, in all probability, focus his attention on his owner while acting as if there is no one else present.
Perhaps the most valuable attribute of the Aussie is his intelligence. If we define intelligence as being genetically engineered to perform tasks for and/or with humans, then the Aussie is among the most intelligent of breeds. He can work side-by-side with his master at such chores as carrying things, fetching objects and even pulling small carts containing farm supplies. He can also herd cattle at great distances from his master, who may be a quarter of a mile away. Often an Aussie will be sent to search for an errant sheep who has wandered away from the flock. He will have to search for the animal and, once located, he will have to find the quickest and safest route back to the flock.
The Australian Shepherd is a most versatile breed. Though happiest when working with sheep or cattle on the ranch, the Aussies that don’t live on ranches find fulfillment by adapting to the lifestyles of their owners in other settings as well.