Contrary to the name, Australian shepherds—affectionately called Aussies—were bred as herding and working dogs on the American Frontier. Since their introduction in the 1800s, the active, playful, and unfailingly loyal Aussie has become one of the country’s most popular dog breeds. Their high intelligence and eager-to-please nature means they’re quick learners, which is a great attribute for training, but also means they can be a bit of a handful for novice owners.
With a high prey drive and strong herding instinct, Aussies need an experienced owner who knows how to properly channel their energy through consistent training and exercise. These nonstop pups are happiest when they’re occupied, whether through working the land, wrangling livestock, or running the trails with their owner. Despite their ability to enjoy the outdoors for hours on end, Aussies have minimal grooming needs. If you’re looking for an active companion who’d love nothing more than to be by your side all day, the Australian shepherd might be the right dog for you.
The breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1993, and as of 2020 (based on 2019 stats), is the AKC’s 13th most popular breed.
With a body that’s slightly longer than it is tall, the Australian shepherd is a medium-sized, solidly built herding dog whose colors and patterns can vary greatly. Aussies have a two-layer coat: a weather-resistant top coat of medium-length hair that is straight or slightly wavy; and an undercoat that helps them adjust to both heat and cold. Aussies can go weeks between full baths, but do require weekly brushing to keep out debris and prevent matted fur.
It’s thought that approximately one in five Aussies’ tails are naturally bobbed—meaning they’re shorter at birth—while others were historically docked in puppyhood. The thought was that keeping the tail shorter would help prevent injuries out in the fields as they worked, but the American Veterinary Medical Association no longer recommends tail docking, and considers it a purely cosmetic procedure that may actually do more harm than good.
Australian shepherd colors and patterns can vary greatly, but the United States Australian Shepherd Association recognizes these four major categories: black, red, red merle, and blue merle (merle being the genetic pattern that occurs in a dog’s coat, often appearing as speckled patches of color). Red merle Australian shepherd dogs have shades of red (sometimes known as liver) that appear in their coats as colored patches against a white or tan base that darkens with age. Both solid red and red merle Aussies tend to have red lips, noses, and eye rims. Blue merle Aussies have black spots against a gray base that also darken with age. Both black and blue merle Australian shepherds usually have black noses, lips, and eye rims.
Aside from their cunning ability to herd just about anything with legs (kids included!), the most notable characteristic of this dog breed might be their eyes, which can vary greatly based on genetics. Typically, black and red Australian shepherds have brown, amber, or blue eyes. Aussies with merle coloring have a wider range of eye colors, including brown and blue, blue marbled with brown, and even two different colors and or patterns altogether in each eye.
There’s no doubt about it, Aussies were bred to work. Because these pups historically spent hours alongside their owners in the fields herding sheep and cattle, they require ample daily exercise, mental stimulation, and obedience training to be their happiest. Hiking, running, never-ending games of fetch, and agility course training are great ways to keep your Aussie happy, healthy, and adequately exercised—especially if you’re not planning to herd sheep with them out in the fields all day!
“A good herding dog doesn’t run in the field for 20 minutes then go, ‘Oh I’m exhausted.’ They run for a long time at high speeds,” says Brian Kilcommons, founder of The Great Pets Resort, a boutique training facility in Connecticut. “This isn’t a dog you can put on the shelf, run them when you feel like it, and then be inconsistent with them. You can go hiking with them, or if you’re a runner that’s a big plus. You can take them to agility, you can do scent work, you can do herding. But daily exercise can’t be optional.”
The Australian Shepherd Club of America points out that if not properly channeled, the energy of these super-smart pups can mean they get into trouble and become destructive if left alone for too long. Before committing to an Aussie, it’s important to consider if your lifestyle allows for ample amounts of time for play, exercise, and training.
While they’re not considered aggressive, it’s important to note that the Aussie’s extremely loyal nature means they may be somewhat territorial. They typically will shy away from strangers, preferring to stick to their owner’s side—earning the affectionate moniker of a “Velcro dog.” As they were bred to be protective, they’ll sound the alarm at the sight of strangers. A well-adjusted Australian shepherd is good with cats, other dogs, and children under supervision—though their herding instincts mean they may try to employ those skills on small children or other pets by nipping at ankles. As with any dog, it’s important to socialize your Aussie from a young age, and to teach children how to properly interact with dogs.
Though these traditional ranching dogs have adapted to living situations for today’s modern owner, they do require access to a decent amount of outdoor space to be properly exercised. You don’t have to own an acreage to keep an Aussie happy—though that might be an ideal set-up for this active breed! A house with a large, fenced-in yard will suffice. Because of their activity needs, Aussies aren’t the best match for apartment living unless you’re able to get outside for a stimulating walk, hike, or game of Frisbee at the dog park for at least 40 minutes every day.
“When you have an Australian shepherd, it’s going to be very active, very smart, and tough," says Kilcommons. “It has a high need for exercise and mental stimulation. You need to be willing to go to obedience competitions or agility or fly ball or something that is going to engage the dog both mentally and physically.”
Eager to please, Aussies are quick to learn and enjoy regular training sessions. They respond well to positive-reinforcement training methods, and many Aussies go on to thrive in agility training once they master obedience basics. While the average owner probably won’t be taking this dog to herd livestock out on the farm, many professionally-trained Aussies work as search-and-rescue, narcotic detection, and guide dog roles.
As an affectionately nicknamed “Velcro dog,” Aussies prefer being with their people for most of the day, and may not be the best fit for someone who works long hours due to potential separation anxiety. Aussies are a great match for active owners who plan to spend quality time with their dog, whether that means a multi-day outdoor adventure or simply riding along on an errand run. It’s important to consider your lifestyle before committing to any dog, but it may help to speak with an Australian shepherd breeder or rescue group about expectations to see if an Australian shepherd puppy or dog would be a good fit for you.
Even though their coats are on the longer side, Australian shepherd grooming requirements are relatively low-maintenance. Their weather-resistant top coat is fairly good at self-cleaning (which means fewer full baths!), but does require weekly brushing with a slicker brush to control shedding and matting, help clear out any debris, and promote healthy skin. The Australian Shepherd Club of America recommends brushing twice a week during heavy shedding periods (like spring and fall) to help keep your Aussie’s coat clean and healthy.
Regular brushing can also be a good time to check for things like coat sheen (since dull hair could mean a lack of nutrients in diet), nail length, and ear and dental health. While it is not recommended to shave your Aussie, since their coat may not grow back the same and it disrupts the dog’s ability to regulate their temperature, you may want to check with your vet or a groomer for tips on trimming the longer hairs around the ears or along your pup’s rear end.
With a dog as energetic and smart as the Aussie, it’s equally important to care for your dog’s mental needs as well as their physical ones. Aussies need plenty of mental stimulation to stave off boredom. “It’s not just ‘training’,” says Kilcommons. “It starts with the boundaries you set with the dog, what’s allowable and what isn’t, through day-to-day interaction. With livability, people need to concentrate not only on obedience but on manners. Dogs get frustrated, they get bored, they start becoming destructive or they start acting out because they’re either fearful or they’re deciding they’re going to start calling the shots, and this definitely applies to the Australian shepherd. With this breed, obedience and boundaries are a must.”
The Australian shepherd is considered an overall healthy breed with a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, though certain issues like elbow and hip dysplasia and hereditary eye problems can occur. The United States Australian Shepherd Association recommends breeders test for cataracts, autoimmune thyroiditis, drug sensitivities, and collie eye anomaly (CEA) to avoid passing on to their litters. Experts who study genetic conditions in Aussies recommend dogs with close relatives who have had hereditary cancer—such as lymphoma—do not mate with other dogs with a history of the same cancer. Of course, not all Aussies will encounter serious health issues, but it’s important to be aware of these concerns when considering this breed.
While rare, Aussies with double merle characteristics (meaning they have a predominantly white coat) may be more prone to hearing and sight impairments. Despite this, these Aussies can still live long, healthy lives with proper care. Before you pick a puppy from a litter, be sure to ask your reputable breeder about potential genetic issues, and request any family and pedigree history so you can identify any red flags on hereditary issues. Or if you’re adopting your Aussie, be sure to ask the rescue organization for any available health history.
In a funny twist of fate, the Australian shepherd’s origin may not really involve much of Australia at all. In fact, the American Kennel Club says the Aussies we know today are actually descendants of herding dogs from Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees mountains of Europe who immigrated to America for work in the mid-19th century. These shepherds brought their “little blue dogs” with them to work the land in Western states like Wyoming and Colorado, where ranchers fell in love with the sturdy hard-working breed. While a few Basque sheepherders (and their dogs) may have come to the American West through Australia, some historians have noted that the naming of the breed “Australian” is a quite a stretch, since the dogs are not registered in Australia as a native breed and there is no substantial history of the dogs outside the Basque sheepherders who came to work in the American West.
Once they’d arrived in the U.S., Australian shepherds quickly became a staple of cowboy culture in the American West, becoming Hollywood regulars with notable appearances in classic Westerns like Run, Appaloosa, Run and the more modern Disney film Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West. They’ve taken center-stage in the rodeo culture, too. Check out this video of famed animal trainer and rodeo performer Jay Sisler and his incredible pups Shorty, Stubby, and Queenie. Today, many Aussies still work on ranches and farms, happily herding cattle and protecting sheep.