Bundled against the wind and dampness, the cowboys mounted up ready to drive the cattle towards the winter pens. A half-dozen dogs, some solid black or red with white markings, two with bespeckled and patched merle patterns, spread out as they neared the herd. The cattle snorted and pawed the ground; revved up by the brisk air, they were ready to cause trouble.
The dogs circled their quarry and closed in, driving them forward. Here and there, a steer turned in charge mode, but the dogs didnít back off. After several touch-and-go minutes, the cattle seemed to sigh in defeat and trotted as a group towards the ranch complex, dogs behind and at the sides of the herd and cowboys ready to confront any escapees.
Stockmen in the American West still use Australian Shepherds to help gather and drive sheep and cattle. These tough dogs get the job done, sometimes with less finesse than the more commonly known Border Collie but always with courage and skill.
The Australian Shepherd is not from Australia, it is an American original developed in the West by eastern and Midwestern sheepmen drawn to western adventure and the Gold Rush and by Spanish settlers in the Southwest. Details are lost, but it is likely that the breed came from mixing and matching good stockdogs of a number of other breeds: the various Collies from the British Isles, herding and driving dogs from the European continent, those Spanish dogs from the American southwest, and a striking merle-pattern shepherd dog that came from Australia with immigrants and their sheep.
Basque shepherds, a group of hardy sheepmen from the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France, figure prominently in the breedís evolution. Basque shepherds came to the US from Spain, from Spanish colonies south of the US border, and from Australia. These sheepmen needed robust dogs that could help guard the flocks and spend months on the range with only sheep and human shepherds for company; tough, smart, and able, the Aussie fit the bill.
Todayís Aussie is a versatile breed that retains its herding instincts but is happy to compete in obedience or agility events, romp with the family, or take part in a variety of activities from therapy visits at nursing homes to search and rescue efforts to find lost persons.
A latecomer to the American Kennel Club, the Aussie was recognized in 1993 for participation in AKC conformation contests. Prior to 1993, the Aussieís heritage was protected by the Australian Shepherd Club of America and its National Stock Dog Registry, organizations that still keep the stud book and organize events for the dogs. ASCA promotes the Aussie as a working dog; many breeders stuck with this registry out of concern that AKC recognition would encourage breeders to concentrate on the dogís appearance rather than its working ability.
The AKC and ASCA standards for the Aussie differ slightly in some respects, but both describe the dogs as follows: Males range from 20-23 inches tall at the shoulder, and females from 18-21 inches. The skull is flat or slightly rounded, muzzle is tapered slightly with a rounded tip, eyes are almond-shaped, and ears are triangular and break (tip over) forward. The body is firm and muscular, a bit longer than tall, and the chest is deep, the ribs well-sprung, and the tail naturally bobbed or docked to no more than four inches.
The double coat is moderately long, and straight-to-slightly wavy. Hair on the head and legs is short, and the back of the front legs are feathered. Hair around the neck and shoulders is fuller than the rest of the body, especially on males.
Colors must be clear and rich; only black, red, blue merle, and red merle are acceptable overall, but dogs can have a white blaze on the face, white markings on chest, neck, and legs and copper-colored markings on face and legs.
Merle patterns consist of patches of the basic color (red or black) on lighter shades of the same color. Black merles appear blue and are known as blue merles.
The striking merle pattern, which can be carried by black and red dogs, has a down side: breeding a merle to a merle can produce deaf or blind offspring. These unsound puppies are generally white with color patches.
Breeding a red or black dog to a merle can produce a variety of patterns and colors in the same litter because the color or pattern of the adults may mask the expression of recessive genes in each dogís makeup. For example, a black dog bred to a blue merle can produce blue merle, black, red, or red merle puppies depending on the recessives genes involved.
The well-bred Aussie is a steady dog, good with children, intelligent, active, enthusiastic, and willing to work. He still has good herding and guarding instincts and will round up children or other pets if the occasion arises. He can be aloof with strangers but should never be shy or snippy.
Potential owners should also be aware that this is an energetic dog, needing exercise and training to complement his work ethic. It is no surprise that he excels at agility, an enterprise that makes use of his athletic ability and his problem-solving ability.
Like many other breeds, the Aussie can suffer from hip dysplasia, hereditary eye problems, von Willebrandís disease, and thyroid disease. He is also subject to seizures, discoid lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disease), cleft palate, and patent ductus arteriosis (a circulatory abnormality). Tests exist for some of these diseases and syndromes, and good breeders make use of the tests and carefully match breeding pairs to minimize their occurrence.
At the very least, Aussies should be certified free of hip dysplasia and have their eyes tested before breeding. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and PennHip both examine hip radiographs to diagnose hip health. OFA does preliminary readings before the dog reaches two years of age and permanent readings after two years of age. PennHip takes three different x-rays to ascertain hip health. Eye tests are done by veterinary ophthalmologists and sent to the Canine Eye Registry Foundation for certification. Eye tests must be repeated annually; hip x-rays must only be done once unless the breeder chooses to do a preliminary check on a young dog.
Many breeders also test for vWD and thyroid to help them make breeding decisions.
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