Robert is a life-long dog-lover and the co-creator of Telemark's Guide to Dogs, an interactive CD-ROM filled with dog information & photos.
A Little Bit About Australian Shepherds
The popularity of dog breeds rises and falls over time, and it seems that Australian Shepherds—commonly called Aussies—are becoming more popular.
It’s understandable. Aussies are beautiful, intelligent, playful, and lots of fun! But they can also be challenging, especially for novice owners. They are very high-energy, and they can be stubborn and mischievous. When combined with their intelligence, that can make them a real handful!
To illustrate the pros and cons of owning an Aussie, I’m going to share some stories of my own experiences. But before I do that, let’s cover the basics about the breed.
- Aussies have a medium size, somewhat “boxy” body, and a medium/long coat.
- Their typical height (at the shoulder) is 20-23 inches for males and 18-21 inches for females.
- They weigh 45-55 pounds (males), or 30-45 pounds (females).
- The medium-length coat comes in blue or red merle, red, or black, either with or without white trim or tan markings. Their coat needs to be brushed regularly.
- They are loyal to their family and great with kids, but a little protective and wary of strangers.
- It’s important to socialize Aussies while they are young!
- They are generally easy-going and adaptable, but they need a lot of exercise, as well as mental stimulation. A bored Aussie can become nervous or destructive.
So now let’s talk about what I’ve learned with my own dog, Cooper!
I have done competitive obedience training with other intelligent breeds, including a German Shepherd and a Golden Retriever, but the Aussie’s combination of intelligence and eagerness to please makes them ideal for training. Keep training sessions fun, and change things up frequently, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your Aussie can learn.
But there’s a downside to that intelligence as well. When Cooper was a puppy, I kept him tied up nearby with a leather leash (to keep him from going behind my desk and chewing my computer cables while I was working). One day Cooper chewed through the leather leash. Since I didn’t have another leash handy, I tied it back together.
Cooper began gnawing at the knot, and after about half an hour, he managed to get it untied. Since it was a temporary measure, I just tied it together again. Less than a minute later, he had untied himself, and happily ran over and jumped in my lap.
He had not only gotten that first knot untied, but he’d figured out the concept of a knot. From that point on, whenever he was confronted with a knot, instead of gnawing on it, he would simply pull at the loops and untie it, just as you or I would.
Knots, doors, gates, and latches don’t stop an Australian Shepherd for long. They very quickly figure out how things work.
Aussies—at least Cooper—also seem to love showing off their intelligence.
There are puzzles made for dogs; they can be filled with treats that the dog gets when he opens the puzzle. The puzzles are rated by the degree of difficulty. I bought an “easy” puzzle for Cooper, and once he understood how to open it, I bought a harder puzzle, and so on until he’d solved the whole set.
One day, I had a small party with several friends who brought their dogs. I got out the puzzles, stuffed them with treats, and gave one to each dog. I gave Cooper the hardest, thinking that it would at least slow him down.
Instead of spending time on his “hard” puzzle, he went over to each of the other dogs, opened their easy puzzles, and stole the treats. Then he went back and took his time opening the hard puzzle that I’d given him.
If a dog can look smug, Cooper certainly did!
Australian Shepherds are bred for herding, and they have powerful herding instincts.
When I take Cooper to a dog park, he will frequently herd the other dogs into a corner. For a while he had a dog buddy – a border collie who came to the same dog park – and they would work together to herd the other dogs. The amazing thing is that, with no formal training or instruction, the two herding dogs would coordinate their efforts. When one of the other dogs would try to break away from the pack, Cooper and his buddy would look at one another as if agreeing which of them would go after the runaway.
Be Cautious Around Children
While it’s fascinating and fun to see an Aussie’s herding instincts, there is a downside to this, and it’s important to understand. An Australian Shepherd will try to herd anything that moves. If you’re at a park, and there are children running around, your Aussie will try to herd them. This might involve nudging them, even to the point of knocking them down or nipping at their heels. Cooper’s herding behavior has led to angry confrontations with some parents.
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You need to be aware of this behavior, and be prepared to deal with it. If you’re at a dog park or another place where dogs are allowed off-lead, and you see kids arriving, put your dog on a leash (at least until you talk to the parents).
You also need to train your Aussie until you have a rock-solid recall command. You need to be confident that, even if your dog is in the midst of chasing something down, he will come when you call him.
If you don’t know how to do this, work with a professional trainer, because it’s really important for anyone who owns an Aussie.
Exercise and Work
Australian Shepherds were bred to have a job and to lead an active life. They are great running companions, and regular runs and long walks are important to help your dog burn off energy.
Even with regular exercise, you’ll be amazed at your dog’s energy and agility. One day, I was once walking Cooper. There was a wall, about 3 feet high next to the the sidewalk. Suddenly Cooper, without even breaking stride, leaped up to the top of the wall and proceeded to calmly walk along the top. Unless they are very tall, fences are not a barrier for an Aussie.
Cooper also knows that he is faster and more agile than most dogs, and he uses that fact when playing. At the dog park, he will sometimes bark at or annoy other dogs until they begin chasing him. Once he has three or four dogs chasing him, he will run straight toward another dog, and jump over him, causing the dogs behind to plow right into the unsuspecting dog. (Did I mention that Aussies can be brats?)
While you can deal with your Aussie’s exercise needs by regularly running with him or taking him to the dog park, your dog also needs mental stimulation. He needs a job to do.
If you don’t have a farm or a herd of sheep or cattle, you can fill this need with regular training sessions. An AKC obedience club can be fun for you and your dog, and keep him from getting bored. Remember that if you don’t give your dog something to do, he will find something.
Cooper has found a pretty benign, and even useful job for himself. He shares the household with two cats, and he’s made it his job to watch them and enforce the “rules.” If the cats jump up on the counter, he barks at them; if they are fighting, he breaks it up. If they touch one of his toys or something they are not supposed to have, he takes it away from them.
But unfortunately, a bored Aussie may create a job that isn’t nearly so harmless… such as systematically shredding your carpets, digging up potted plants, or opening cabinets and scattering their contents.
Aussies and Other Animals
Australian Shepherds are not hunting dogs; they don’t have a strong “prey” instinct. An Aussie will usually not harm other animals, especially if he’s raised around them.
When Cooper was a puppy, there were some baby squirrels in the trees in my back yard. As the squirrels grew older, they would race back and forth across the yard, leaping from tree to tree. Cooper would race along the ground, keeping pace with them. Sometimes the squirrels would climb down the trees, taunt Cooper, and then race back up. Cooper would try to follow them, and for a while, I thought that he’d figure out how to climb trees! To this day, Cooper regards squirrels as friends and playmates.
At our local park, there were small birds that came out at dusk. They would zip along, inches from the ground, eating the insects that hovered over the grass. Cooper would race among them, running and weaving, convinced that he was part of their “game.”
Cooper often encounters squirrels, cats, chickens, roosters, ducks, geese, rabbits, and even cows and horses. His first reaction is always to play with them.
Be sure your Aussie spends time around other animals while he’s growing up, and you’ll never have to worry about him hurting them.
An Aussie has a medium-length coat. It tends to resist matting and tangles, but it does pick up burrs easily. It needs to be brushed regularly. Daily brushing—maybe while watching TV at night—can be a good way of bonding with your dog.
When you brush your dog, check his paws and joints for burrs that may be trapped there. I’ve found that Cooper sometimes gets burrs trapped right at the point where his legs meet his body…. the equivalent of his “underarms.” If they’re not removed, they can cause really painful irritation.
Aussies Can Be Amazing Companions if Raised Properly
Don’t be intimidated by the effort required to care for an Aussie. They are amazing companions, and will truly become a priceless part of your life! But please be aware of what you are “signing up for” when you bring an Australian Shepherd into your home and plan on giving them the care, exercise, and training that they need to be happy and healthy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.