by Mari Taggart Morrison
The Australian Shepherd has a long and proud history as a sheep dog. Many in America got their first glimpse of the 'bob-tailed blue dogs' in the Western states as they helped manage the vast free-grazing flocks of sheep that were kept on open land with herders for generations. The Aussies came over from Australia with early imports of sheep—thus giving them their name. After their arrival in America they evolved into the breed we now know, perhaps having some Basque dog influence as Basque herders were brought in to tend the flocks in some parts of America. The breed's exact history remains unverifiable, but by the time they started to be registered they had earned a reputation as an all-purpose working dog — popular with sheep raisers, cattlemen, horse-trainers (who used them as turn-back dogs) and anyone who valued a thinking dog.
Over the last 20 years, the breed's good looks and intelligence attracted those interested in a conformation dog, obedience dog and agility competitor, but there remains a strong, devoted group of dedicated working dog breeders within the breed who still value the natural working ability of the Aussie and who promote it through hundreds of Australian Shepherd Club of America herding trials. In fact, many people are coming back to the Australian Shepherd as a herder — having tried other breeds, the Aussie's unique qualities as an outstanding working dog, coupled with their great personalities and devotion as a family companion make them attractive to families looking for a dog that can "wear many hats" around the farm.
Ron Jacobs is one such rancher who raises commercial and show Columbia sheep, keeping a flock of 300-500 ewes on their land. When their old Aussie died, he replaced him with a dog of another breed, but has since given that dog away and got another Aussie. "I got tired of always having to keep that new dog in his kennel when we didn't have work to do. All he'd do was go down to the sheep pens and stare. My kids missed a dog that they could play with and I missed having a dog that would guard them night and day. I prefer a dog that will work all day with me but when I'm ready to go do something else, my dog is right there, wanting to help with that too!"
The Aussie they now own helps Jacobs gather and sort sheep for shearing, dipping, sales and shows. "When the work's done he goes off with my kids to play frisbee and ball and the devil himself could not hurt those kids with him around," Jacobs states. Jacobs also likes the way Aussies will patrol the property and guard over the sheep, as well as herd them. "They're not a dog you leave with sheep, but they will go around outside the pens and make sure coyotes don't come on the property."
When you talk to working Aussie fans, you hear the same praises about these dogs. They're solid workers, with plenty of force on big flocks, but they're not obsessed with work when you don't need them to be, and their companionable qualities make them a superior guard and best friend for the family.
Nick Davis, of Apache Trails Kennels, got sold on Aussies in 1964, and has since put 58 stockdog titles on his dogs. He sees lots of advantages to the breed. "They're reliable and trustworthy on large groups of sheep because they were used originally on big flocks and they're a thinking dog that's in tune with the job to be done." He sees the Aussie's more casual style with less 'eye' as a plus. "It's less flashy to the untrained eye, but the breed's upstanding, more loose-eyed approach can actual keep sheep calmer." He sees the breeds tendencies to use bark before bite and ability to even hit a sheep with their shoulder or front foot as giving them more variety in their styles and thus more options before resorting to stressing a sheep.
"' Eye' is not the end-all in sheepdogs", Davis says, "Sometimes a loose-eyed dog can do the job more effectively because they cause less anxiety in the sheep." Although Hussies are a close-working breed, Davis points out that a good Aussie CAN get closer to sheep without causing alarm, especially if they have any degree of training.
Marti Parrish is a long-time Aussie owner whose own Aussies have won Working Championships and been in the National Finals. She owns a mixed flock of Montdale and Border Leicesters and has been an ASCA Stockdog judge for five years. She, too, sees her Aussies as being very trustworthy, "I can leave the dog watching over my grazing sheep and go in and do my laundry and know they'll be O.K.." she laughs. She uses them routinely for sorting sheep, moving them from pasture to pasture and for helping her catch sheep for doctoring.
Parrish notes that as a stockdog judge, she has some perspective on the training and showing of the breed in trials. Some of the trainers in some areas of the country are not as experienced as those with other breeds but she notes that the training and handling is constantly improving. One thing she sees in trials that contracts with other breeds - "There are more Aussies I see that are the family dog brought to a trial as opposed to just trial dogs. And quite a few Aussies are being shown by juniors - there's a real bond there between the owners and dogs."
Kathy Warren is the Australian Shepherd Club of America Stockdog Chairperson, and she has owned Aussies since 1972, training 12 of her dogs to Working Championships. She notes that there are higher numbers of Aussies earning working titles on sheep than on cattle, although many dogs within the breed are equally good with cattle as with sheep. The ASCA working program stresses versatility in the breed, and Working Championships can only be earned if the dog proves he can work sheep, cattle and ducks over a series of trials, giving it the reputation as being one of the toughest working programs in the country.
The concept of working cattle in a trial and then turning right around and working sheep and ducks with the same dog a few minutes later is unique to the ASCA system but Australian Shepherd working do enthusiasts are devoted to breeding Aussies that can "do it all" and have great pride that their dogs can be aggressive with cattle one minute and almost tender with ducks the next.
Warren and her husband, Brad, are ASCA Stockdog judges and also raise a flock of Barbados sheep and have a commercial cattle partnership. Her dogs are used on all kinds of stock. "The history of the Aussie was as a farm dog, an all-purpose dog. It depends what you do with them". She likes her Aussies because they're good with heavy sheep and in corral and chute work and will bark if they need to. They can also back and catch sheep. Her current favorite is "Fred" (Working Champion Windsong's Falcon) and she describes him as "Just smart about everything, he's extremely efficient." She can send him after sheep in open areas and trusts him to bring them all in the first time.
Rick Pinney is also an ASCA Stockdog judge who has had Aussies for many years. Pinney owns a flock of 500 - 1000 Coopworth ewes. He also owns Border Collies and Kelpies, but feels that Aussies are probably the most versatile breed, "They make as good a companion as they do a working dog," he states, and describes the breed as having a lot of "flock force" (not to be confused with just bite) with plenty of push to work big flocks. "There's a kindness there in Aussies," he says, "Aussies are not a`3-sheep dog' like some trial dogs — in the everyday world their self-thinking ability is sought after and bred for."
This point - that Aussies have been bred for big herds of flocks, not a few sheep in a trial - may help account for their more close-working, broad wearing style which is suited so well to large numbers of animals. Pinney mentions that he had seen Aussies on the larger field-trial Post Advanced course often do a better job in big areas with larger numbers of sheep or cattle. Their powerful, pushy style may sometimes handicap them in small arena trials with just a few head of stock.
Pinney cautions that some ranchers have been burned buying Aussies that have been bred for show and looks alone. This is also a caution stressed by all working Aussie owners. The breed has almost been victimized by its own good looks and trainability, and there are now lines of Aussies whose ancestors haven't been worked on stock for several generations and are bred for big bone, excessive coat length and other factors that could actually make the dogs less functional on real working ranches. (This is not unique to Aussies, as several working breeds have now been appropriated as show dogs.) Since not all Aussies have been bred for work — buyers should consider only real working dog parentage.
Jo Ann and George Frey raise 100 head of Targee sheep and have Working Champion Aussies that have competed in the National Finals. Three of their current dogs are listed in the tip 20 working Aussies in the nation. George Frey advises prospective Aussie buyers to be careful about what they buy from. "Look for real working dogs - don't go just by statements or working titles — see the dog or its parents work!"
Other breeders concur. Nick Davis stresses that not all Aussies have been bred for work and some frankly, may prove useless. He points out that, unlike other kinds of trials, ASCA trials are rarely held in conjunction with county fairs or are well-advertised, so sometimes buyers don't know where to find good working prospects.
Marti Parrish suggests that a buyer also be sure that the parents of a pup be the kind of working dog on sheep or cattle that you would want to own—studying what some of the different bloodlines are known for is helpful.
For those interested in seeing the "cream of the crop" of working champions in the breed, the Australian Shepherd Club of America holds its National Stockdog Finals every year. For the location and dates, call or write ASCA.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine December 1998/ January 1999