Traits, Personality and Behavior
If you're ready to provide loving leadership to your dog, train him consistently and fairly, and give him plenty of exercise and an outlet for his considerable intelligence, then yes, the Australian Shepherd can be right for you.
Don't underestimate that intelligence, either. This is among the smartest of all dog breeds, and one whose owners need to pay attention lest they find themselves outsmarted. Expecting an Australian Shepherd to spend his days in the backyard and his evenings keeping you company while you watch your favorite TV shows is a sure way to create a barking, bored, destructive dog instead of the calm, well-behaved, loyal companion you thought you were bringing into your home.
Australian Shepherds herd livestock by nipping at the animals' heels. If they don't have a flock to manage, they may transfer this behavior to children, other pets, and vehicles. Never let it go uncorrected, and then redirect the behavior by giving your Australian Shepherd demanding and interesting tasks or games that will provide him with the exercise and mental stimulation he needs. He'll help your kid practice pitching skills for hours on end and may well be voted MVP of the neighborhood pickup soccer or football games. The Australian Shepherd can also make a super search and rescue dog, detection dog, hearing dog, assistance dog or therapy dog.
Like most herding breeds, which have an inborn protective streak, the Australian Shepherd can be wary of strangers. He's not a "Hail fellow, well met" kind of dog, even with plenty of socialization, and early and frequent socialization is essential to prevent him from becoming shy or aggressive in the presence of people he doesn't know. He is also highly sensitive to sound and may develop noise phobias, especially to thunderstorms, if he is not accustomed to loud or unexpected noises. On the plus side, he's an excellent watchdog and will always alert you to anything or anyone out of the ordinary.
Because of these characteristics, it's essential to purchase an Australian Shepherd from a breeder whose stock is temperamentally sound and who understands the importance of early exposure to many different people, noises and situations that come with life in a family home. Run far away from breeders who raise their pups in a barn or a pen out in the backyard. An Australian Shepherd who is to be a family companion needs plenty of socialization.
Although he loves the great outdoors, the Aussie is by no means a yard dog. He is bred to work with people. If your Australian Shepherd is a family pet, he needs to live indoors; that is, when he's not out with you playing, jogging, working or showing up all the other dogs at the local agility or obedience trial. Otherwise, he'll be lonely, bored and destructive.
Alert watchdogs, Australian Shepherds can be barkers, so when he's a puppy, help yours learn when it's okay to bark and when it's not so the behavior doesn't become a nuisance later on.
The Australian Shepherd has a medium-length double coat that can be straight or wavy. Expect to brush it two or three times a week to remove dead hair and keep shedding to a minimum. Active Australian Shepherds often wear their nails down naturally, but it's a good idea to check them weekly to see if they need a trim. Otherwise, just keep the ears clean and give him a bath if he gets dirty.
Variations of the Australian Shepherd
You should also know that there are two types of Australian Shepherds: those bred strictly for their herding talents and those bred for the show ring and AKC performance events. The herding dogs tend to be smaller, thinner and with shorter coats than show dogs. Those traits make them more agile as they move stock, and the shorter coat is less likely to snag on brush and brambles.
It's important to know the dog's background before purchasing a puppy. If you plan to actually work stock with your Australian Shepherd, you will want a puppy from working lines. An Australian Shepherd from show lines may also have a strong herding instinct, but his heavier coat can make him unsuited to work in the "real" world. He will, however, be a super competitor in agility, obedience and other dog sports.
Another thing to be aware of is the existence of "mini" and "toy" Australian Shepherds. Assume that these smaller versions of the Aussie will have the same temperament, need for occupation and health concerns as their larger brethren. They are not "easier" or less active to live with.
The Australian Shepherd is best known for his striking merle coat--dark blotches against a lighter background of the same color, giving a sort of marbled appearance--but the coat is not limited to that pattern. Aussies can have coats of blue merle, red merle, black or red, all with or without white markings and copper points (markings on the face, ears, legs and tail). Avoid purchasing an Australian Shepherd who is primarily white. White coloration is genetically linked to deafness and blindness in this breed. It usually occurs when two merle-colored Aussies are bred together.
Just as striking as the Aussie's coat is his range of eye colors: brown, amber, blue, green, hazel, eyes that are different colors--for instance, one blue and one green--and even "split" eyes, in which half the eye is one color and half is another color.
Health Issues Common to Australian Shepherds
Australian Shepherds are generally very healthy dogs, but can be affected by some inherited health problems. In the hope of controlling the genetic diseases that already affect the breed and prevent any new ones from emerging, some breeders participate in a program operated by the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC). It requires that breeders test all their breeding dogs for hip and elbow dysplasia and the eye diseases that occur in the breed.
Hip dysplasia is a genetic malformation of the hip socket. Dogs with hip dysplasia may appear perfectly normal, but because the head of the thigh bone doesn't fit properly into the hip socket, over time the bone begins to wear away. The constant inflammation leads to arthritis.
Hip dysplasia is treated with surgery, usually total hip replacement, at the cost of thousands of dollars per hip. Untreated, the dog will suffer pain and lameness. A puppy's hips can't be evaluated, but by the age of two you can know if a dog is or isn't affected. This condition can only be diagnosed by X-rays that then need to be evaluated by an orthopedic specialist. It's impossible to know if a dog has hip dysplasia simply from examining him or watching him move. Only obtain a puppy whose parents were both tested with normal hips after the age of 2 by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHIP).
Elbow dysplasia is a similar condition that affects the elbows, and your puppy's parents need OFA clearance of those joints.
Aussies can be affected by a number of genetic eye problems. These include ocular and iris colobomas, where part of the structure of the eye is missing. They can also suffer from different types of cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and detached retinas. Other eye problems include persistent pupillary membrane, where little strands of fetal tissue cross over the iris, and eyelashes that grow out of the oil glands of the eye, which can cause irritation. They are also among the breeds that can be affected by Collie Eye Anomaly, a group of eye disorders ranging from minor to serious.
This long list of eye problems means that you'll want to make sure your puppy's parents were certified to have normal eyes by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, with the results recorded through the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) within the previous year.
Eye disease screening does not end with the parents, however. All puppies need to have their eyes examined by an ophthalmologist after the age of 6 weeks and before you bring them home. You should continue to have your Aussie's eyes checked annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Aussies are also one of the breeds that can be affected by Multiple Drug Sensitivity (MDS). Dogs with MDS can have fatal reactions to a number of common veterinary drugs including the common heartworm preventive ivermectin. Screening not only your puppy's parents but your dog for these conditions is a lifesaving necessity. The test is very simple and requires only a cheek swab; information on how to test your dog is available here.
Epilepsy also occurs in the breed, and there is currently no screening test for seizure disorders in Australian Shepherds. A good breeder will be able to discuss how prevalent all health problems, those with and those without genetic screening tests, are in her dogs' lines, and help puppy buyers make an informed decision about health risks to their dog.
To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Australian Shepherd before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.
6 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Australian Shepherd Puppy
Don't ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store, from an Internet site that offers many breeds and popular mixes, or a website that ships dogs with no questions asked. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you'll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
Start your search for a good breeder at the websites of the Australian Shepherd Club of America and the United States Australian Shepherd Association. The ASCA is the original Aussie breed club and still maintains an independent registry. The USASA is the AKC parent club for the Australian Shepherd and has a Code of Ethics by which members are expected to abide. The MASCA also has a Code of Ethics, and if you are interested in a mini, you should seek out a breeder who abides by it.
Ask your breeder to see her dogs' test results for genetic health problems that can affect the Australian Shepherd. These include Collie Eye Anomaly, canine hip dysplasia and cataracts. Bad breeders will tell you they don't need to do those tests because they've never had problems in their lines, their dogs have been "vet checked," or any of the thousand other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on genetic testing of their dogs. The minute you hear something like that, walk away.
Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Because many young Australian Shepherds are a handful, and many health defects do not appear until maturity, you can avoid both problems by adopting an adult Australian Shepherd (or mix) from a rescue group.
Puppy or adult, take your Australian Shepherd to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues. Ask specifically about how best to monitor your dog for potential health risks.
Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with "puppy lemon laws," be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Pet Insurance for Australian Shepherds
Pet insurance for Australian Shepherds costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Australian Shepherds are much more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.
Embrace dog insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Australian Shepherds are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Australian Shepherds is when he's a healthy puppy. You can't predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can't get when you need it the most.