The Australian Cattle Dog: A Guide for Owners

Updated on April 2, 2020
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He has 15+ years of experience with dogs and various pets.

The Australian Cattle Dog: A Guide for Owners.
The Australian Cattle Dog: A Guide for Owners. | Source

Throughout the world, there exists only a handful of dog breeds that can be consistently described as loyal, adaptable, intelligent, and industrious. One of these dogs is the Australian Cattle Dog. Although originally bred in Australia for the purpose of herding cattle in the 1800s, the cattle dog has proven itself to be a remarkably adaptable breed in recent years, taking on a variety of roles in (and out) of the traditional household. This work examines the Australian Cattle Dog and provides an in-depth analysis of the animal’s behavioral patterns, temperament, and general traits. It is the author’s hope that a better understanding (and appreciation) of this remarkable breed will accompany readers following their completion of this work.

Scientific Classification

  • Common Name: Australian Cattle Dog
  • Binomial Name: Canis Lupus Familiaris
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: Canis Lupus
  • Subspecies: Canis Lupus Familiaris

Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) posing for the camera.
Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) posing for the camera. | Source

History of the Australian Cattle Dog

Origins

As its name implies, the Australian Cattle Dog is believed to have originated in Australia during the early 1800s. Following a sharp rise in cattle-raising within the region, ranchers found themselves in dire need of a good herding dog that could maintain larger herds with ease. In response, the British began to import Smithfields into Australia for the purpose of creating (breeding) a new line of herding dog suited for the continent’s rough terrain and high temperatures. Crossing Smithfields with Dingoes, Scottish Highland Collies, and Dalmations, the breeders (most notably, George Elliot of Queensland and the Bagust brothers) were able to create the Australian Cattle Dog that we know (and love) today.

Function

As the breed’s name implies, the primary function of the Australian Cattle Dog is for herding cattle in a variety of areas and terrain. Each of the dog’s characteristics were carefully planned by breeders for Australia’s extreme temperatures and rugged environment. As a result, the Australian Cattle Dog is generally viewed as a well-balanced, highly adaptable breed.

Adorable Australian Cattle Dog puppy on the beach.
Adorable Australian Cattle Dog puppy on the beach. | Source

Appearance

Body

  • Height: 18 to 20 inches (male); 17 to 19 inches (female)
  • Weight: 35 to 50 pounds

Generally speaking, the Australian Cattle Dog (ACD) is a medium-sized breed, with a highly symmetrical (and proportionately built) body. The dog is well-known for its sturdy and muscular appearance, as well as its level back, deep chest, and “sprung” series of ribs (akc.org).

Head

The ACD possesses a slightly curved skull, with muscular cheeks, a strong jaw, and broad foreface. Possessing a medium-sized muzzle, typical noses are solid black with tight/clean lips following the jawline. Topping the dog’s head is a series of medium, oval-shaped eyes (usually dark brown), and a pair of medium-sized ears that maintain a pointed (erect) appearance.

Forequarters

The forequarters of the Australian Cattle Dog are highly muscular, with shoulders displaying a slanted appearance. Likewise, forelegs are both strong and powerful, running parallel with one another (when viewed from the front). Completing the forequarters is a pair of rounded feet that are accentuated by short toes that display a prominent arch. Padding is considered thick and hard (to deal with rugged terrain).

Hindquarters

The hindquarters show many of the same characteristics of the forequarters, with both a strong and muscular appearance. Overall croup is relatively long with a slight downward slope, whereas the thighs are both long and broad (akc.org). When viewed from behind, the rear legs are straight and run parallel with one another.

Tail

The tail of the Australian Cattle Dog should be relatively long, with a solid coloration at its base, followed by a whitened tip. Tails are set relatively low (following the overall slope of the dog’s back), and generally hang with a slight curvature at rest. A bushy appearance is also quite normal for the tail.

Coat and Coloration

The Australian Cattle Dog possesses a double coat, with the outer layer being straight, coarse, weather-resistant, and relatively flat. The undercoat, in comparison, is known for its short but dense texture. Overall, the ACD maintains a medium-length coating of fur that should range from 2.5 to 4 centimeters in length (akc.org). In regard to color, there are currently two acceptable coats: red and blue. Red cattle dogs will possess a red “speckle” across their body (including their undercoat), with occasional dark red markings on the head and body. Blue dogs, in contrast, possess a blue speckled appearance across their body with the occasional black, blue, or tan marking on the head.

Australian Cattle Dog smiles for the camera.
Australian Cattle Dog smiles for the camera. | Source

Are Australian Cattle Dogs Right for Your Home?

General Characteristics

  • Energy Level: 5/5
  • Exercise Needs: 5/5
  • Playfulness: 4/5
  • Affection Towards Owners: 4/5
  • Friendliness Towards Other Animals: 2/5
  • Training Difficulty: 1/5
  • Grooming Level: 2/5

Note: Scale of 1 to 5 (1=Lowest, 5=Highest)

Temperament

Considered a high-energy, independent, and hard-working dog, the Australian Cattle Dog is a remarkable breed known for its companionship qualities, loyalty, and obedience. Around family, the ACD is quite affectionate and playful. However, it should be noted that this breed is relatively timid around strangers and requires time to develop friendships with others they are not familiar with. As with most dogs, early socialization with a wide array of individuals (and other pets) can help to remedy this natural inclination. The ACD is also quite sensitive (as with most herding breeds), and can pick up on their owner’s emotions better than most animals. As a result, owners should exercise a sense of “calmness” around their ACD if they wish to see positive behaviors in their pet.

Are Australian Cattle Dogs Good With Children?

Yes! The ACD is well-known for its affection and companionship qualities, as well as its adaptability to a variety of roles. Australian Cattle Dogs are also quite playful by nature, and enjoy a variety of games, including fetch, playing ball, and frisbee. For these reasons, children are often a perfect companion to this breed as they are able to provide the dog with both the physical and mental exercise they require on a daily basis (through playtime).

It should be noted, however, that the ACD is best suited for family’s with older children (outside of the toddler stages). This is due to the fact that Australian Cattle Dog’s have a natural inclination to “herd,” and will actively chase younger children. While it may be humorous (at first) to see the ACD herding your children around the yard, such behaviors can become problematic as the dog will actively “nip” at their ankles (similar to herding livestock). Younger children can also trigger defensive mechanisms (such as growling or biting) in this breed by too much roughhousing. This is not to say that families should avoid getting an ACD if they have younger children, however, as these actions can certainly be prevented through obedience training (during the dog’s puppy years), and by taking the time to show your child how to properly play with their new pet.

How Smart is the Australian Cattle Dog?

The Australian Cattle Dog is widely regarded as one of the smartest breeds in the world. According to many experts, the dog usually ranks in tenth place for overall intelligence (owlcation.com). Capable of learning new commands with only a handful of repetitions, owners will discover that the cattle dog is remarkably easy to train (making it an ideal pet for competition sports). Similar to the Labrador Retriever, this breed is also capable of “self-training” through the observation of others. Due to its heightened sense of awareness, resourcefulness, and organization (due to its natural herding abilities), some cattle dogs have even been observed putting their toys (or possessions) away after playing (petmd.com).

Grooming Requirements

Due to the dog’s unique coat, the Australian Cattle Dog requires minimal grooming. Experts generally suggest a weekly brushing to maintain the dog’s coat and appearance. Because the ACD only sheds once a year, owners will be pleased to know that excessive shedding is usually not a concern with this breed. When it does occur, frequent brushing and a bath are usually enough to control hair loss. Finally, owners should pay close attention to the ACD’s teeth, nails, and ears. Keeping these sensitive areas clean (or trimmed, in the case of nails) can go a long way in preventing injuries to your pet and promoting good health.

Australian Cattle Dog playing in pile of leaves.
Australian Cattle Dog playing in pile of leaves. | Source

Training and Exercise Needs

Training

As a highly intelligent and energetic breed (that is eager to both learn and please), owners will have little difficulty in training their Australian Cattle Dog. Due to their relatively reserved and stubborn manner, however, it is recommended that owners incorporate a variety of treats for their ACD (during the training process) to encourage better participation and results. Early socialization and obedience training should also be undertaken during the dog’s puppy stages of development to prevent bad behaviors from becoming habits that last into adulthood.

Exercise Needs

As with most herding breeds, the cattle dog is a highly active and energetic pet. As a result, regular exercise (both physical and mental) should be incorporated into your dog’s daily routine to maintain their overall health and happiness. Experts suggest nearly two hours of physical exercise per day; this includes daily walks and plenty of “off-leash” activities (such as running and games). Due to their high-degree of intelligence, daily mental exercises should also be incorporated by owners to stimulate the mind of your pet. This includes teaching your ACD new tricks as well as basic commands. Failure to stimulate your cattle dog both mentally and physically can lead to destructive behaviors (such as chewing, digging, and excessive barking) as your pet tries to “entertain” themselves by their own means.

Nutritional Needs

As with all dog breeds, the Australian Cattle Dog is best suited for high-quality dog food (whether prepared at home or commercially). Premium food is essential for this breed, as the Australian Cattle Dog is extremely active. As a result, their bodies are known to consume a greater number of calories than the average breed; thus, making proper (and healthy) nutrition a major concern for owners. Owners should also avoid the use of table scraps, as there are numerous human foods that contain substances which are harmful to your pet.

Avoid Giving These 10 Foods to Your Dog:

  • Chocolate
  • Fatty Meats
  • Foods with High Levels of Sodium (Salt)
  • Dairy Products (Such as milk or ice cream)
  • Raw Meats, Eggs, or Fish
  • Candy
  • Grapes and Raisins
  • Garlic or Onions
  • Foods with High Levels of Sugar
  • Avocados

How Much Food Should an Australian Cattle Dog Eat Per Day?

Overall food requirements vary significantly with cattle dogs, and are dependent upon your specific pet’s age, activity level, and size. It is generally recommended that an Australian Cattle Dog should consume 1.5 to 2 cups of food, twice a day (dogtime.com). Since these are only guidelines though, owners should work actively with a qualified veterinarian to determine appropriate food amounts for your pet.

Similar to food, proper hydration is also important for your ACD. While your dog’s activity level, size, and weather all play a role in their overall water needs, experts generally recommend between 8.5 to 17 ounces of water for every ten pounds that your dog weighs. For example, a 50-pound dog would require at least 42 ounces of water (per day) to stay hydrated. During active times, however, these numbers can expand dramatically. Owners, therefore, should keep an eye out for dehydration symptoms in their pets.

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration in Dogs

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Lethargy (reduction in general energy levels)
  • Extreme panting
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry nose and gums
  • Thicker saliva

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

— Josh Billings

What Type of Home is Good for a Cattle Dog?

As with most herding breeds, the Australian Cattle Dog is highly adaptable and capable of fitting a large variety of roles in the home through proper training and guidance. Due to their high energy levels and need for constant exercise, however, households in the country (rural areas) are often best-suited for the ACD. Rural homes offer this breed open space to run and play alongside their family, along with plenty of things to keep their mind busy outdoors. While owners in the city are capable of accommodating to the needs of an ACD, such efforts will require a tremendous amount of time and effort to make your new pet happy.

Are Cattle Dogs Good With Other Pets?

Not exactly. If raised with other pets (from its time as a puppy to adulthood), the Australian Cattle Dog will usually get along fine with other pets in your household (with minor issues). However, smaller animals (most notably, cats) can create a problematic situation as the cattle dog’s natural herding instincts will prompt him/her to “chase, catch, and even kill” animals they perceive as “prey” (dogtime.com). Occasional squabbles with other dogs can occur as well, resulting in scratching and biting. For these reasons, owners should never leave their ACD unsupervised around smaller pets.

Is the Australian Cattle Dog a Good Guard Dog?

Yes. Despite their relatively small size, the Australian Cattle Dog makes for an excellent guard dog due to their alertness and sense of protectiveness over family members. Cattle dogs will actively bark when they sense danger or something out of place. Likewise, when family members are in trouble, they are known to become quite aggressive when defending their owner against dangerous situations.

Sweet Australian Cattle Dog puppy.
Sweet Australian Cattle Dog puppy. | Source

Health Concerns

Recommended Medical Tests and Evaluations for the Australian Cattle Dog:

  • Hip and Elbow Evaluation
  • Ophthalmologist Exam
  • BAER Testing (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response)
  • PLL (Primary Lens Luxation) DNA Testing

Although generally a very healthy dog breed, the Australian Cattle Dog is prone to a variety of health conditions involving its joints, eyes, and ears. Deafness and Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) are among some of the most common health conditions for this breed, as well as hip and elbow dysplasia. Hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand’s disease are also relatively common and should be tested for at a young age.

For these reasons, it is recommended that owners work alongside a qualified veterinarian to determine the right preventative care measures that can be undertaken for their pets. With proper nutrition and support, owners can expect their Australian Cattle Dog to live in the vicinity of 12 to 15 years (or longer).

Pros and Cons of the Australian Cattle Dog

Pros:

  • Highly intelligent
  • Good with children
  • Great guard dogs
  • Easy to groom
  • Healthy
  • Highly trainable

Cons:

  • Require extensive exercise on a daily basis
  • Can be aggressive towards strangers and other pets
  • Relatively stubborn
  • Prone to bite (nip)
  • Prone to chase cars, bikes, and people
  • Known to bark excessively at times

Concluding Thoughts

In closing, the Australian Cattle Dog is a remarkable breed of dog due to their intelligence, adaptability, and strong sense of loyalty. Suitable for family life, guarding, or herding, the Australian Cattle Dog is an ideal pet for a wide range of individuals. While potential owners should plan to invest a significant amount of time (and energy) into the development and well-being of their new ACD, the loyalty and companionship offered by this breed (in return) will certainly make all this work a worthwhile endeavor to pursue. For these reasons, the Australian Cattle Dog is (and will continue to be) one of the most popular dog breeds in the world.

Works Cited

  • American Kennel Club. The New Complete Dog Book 22nd Edition. Mount Joy, Pennsylvania: Fox Chapel Publishing, 2017.
  • Coile, Caroline. The Dog Breed Bible: Descriptions and Photos of Every Breed Recognized by the AKC. Hauppauge, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007.
  • Dennis-Bryan, Kim. The Complete Dog Breed Book. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2014.
  • Larkin, Peter and Mike Stockman. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Dogs, Dog Breeds, & Dog Care. London, England: Hermes House, 2006.
  • Mehus-Roe, Kristin. Dog Bible: The Definitive Source for All Things Dog. Irvine, California: I-5 Press, 2009.
  • O’Neill, Amanda. What Dog? A Guide to Help New Owners Select the Right Breed for their Lifestyle. Hauppauge, New York: Interpret Publishing Ltd., 2006.
  • Schuler, Elizabeth Meriwether. Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Dogs. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, Incorporated, 1980.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds.” (PetHelpful). 2019.
  • Slawson, Larry. “The 10 Best Dogs for Children.” (PetHelpful). 2019.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2020 Larry Slawson

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    • profile image

      Linda Scott 

      2 months ago

      We just adopted a 3 month old rescue red ACD. She is so smart and very lovable. She began giving us hugs about a week ago and due to our excitement when receiving her hugs, she is very generous with them. The rescue told us she was a cattle dog/ Australian shepherd mix but she looks just like the cattle dog pics I’ve seen. She is an amazing girl !!!

    • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Slawson 

      4 months ago from North Carolina

      Thank you, Pamela! My grandmother had an Australian Cattle Dog on her farm. Absolutely amazing dogs!

      Hope you are staying safe and healthy as well! Hopefully all this mess will be over with in a few weeks.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 months ago from Sunny Florida

      This sounds like a great dog for all the reasons you cited in your concluding paragraph. I like the look of them also.

      Hope you are staying safe and healthy, Larry.

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