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The Australian Shepherd, often known simply as the “Aussie”, is a medium-sized breed of dog that was, despite its name, developed on ranches in the Western United States during the 19th century.

There are a number of different theories regarding how the breed came to be associated with Australia, but there is no consensus. They are similar in appearance to the popular English Shepherd and Border Collie breeds, and research has found that Australian Shepherds and Border Collies are closely related to each other; both the Border Collie and Australian Shepherd are slightly more distantly related to other kinds of Collies and to Shetland Sheepdogs.

Australian Shepherds rose in popularity with a boom in Western riding after World War II. They became known to the general public through rodeos, horse shows, and Disney movies made for television.

For many years, Aussies have been valued by stockmen for their versatility and trainability. While they continue to work as stock dogs and compete in herding trials, they have earned recognition in other roles due to their trainability and eagerness to please and are highly regarded for their skills in obedience. Like all working breeds, Aussies have considerable energy and drive and usually need a job to keep them occupied. They often excel at dog sports such as dog agility and frisbee and are also highly successful as search and rescue dogs, disaster dogs, detection dogs, guide dogs, service dogs, and therapy dogs. They are considered the 17th-most popular dog breed in the United States.

Physical traits

Size

The Australian Shepherd is a medium-sized breed of solid build. They can weigh from 30 to 65 pounds (14 to 29 kg) and stand from 17 to 26 inches (43 to 66 cm) in height. The Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) standard calls for the Australian shepherd to stand between 18 and 23 inches (46 and 58 cm) at the withers, females being 18 to 21 inches (46 to 53 cm) and males measuring 20 to 23 inches (51 to 58 cm); however, quality is not to be sacrificed in favor of size.

Color

Aussie colors are black, red (sometimes called ‘liver’), blue merle (marbled black, white, and gray), and red merle (marbled red, white, and buff); each of these colors may also have copper (tan) points or white markings in various combinations on the face, chest, and legs. A black or red dog with copper and white trim is called ‘tricolor’ or ‘tri’, a black or red dog with white trim but no copper is called ‘bicolor’ or ‘bi’. White, rather than pigment, on or around the ears is an indicator of increased risk for white-related deafness. Excessive white on the face and ears can place an individual dog at greater risk for sunburn and subsequent skin cancer.

The wide variety of color combinations comes from the interaction between the color allele, which is either black (B) dominant or red (b) recessive, and the dominant merle allele (M). Together, these provide four coat-color aspects that can appear in any combination:

  • Black, with tan points, white markings, or both on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly – solid black dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan or white.
  • Red (liver) with or without tan points or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly – either white or tan points are required. Solid red dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan or white.
  • Blue merle (a mottled patchwork of gray and black) with or without tan points or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly – neither white nor tan points are required. Solid merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan or white.
  • Red merle (a mottled patchwork of cream and liver red) with or without tan points or white markings on the face, collar, legs, chest, underbelly – neither white nor tan points are required. Solid merle dogs are equally desirable as ones with tan or white.

The merle allele, which produces a mingled or patchwork combination of dark and light areas, is the coat pattern most commonly associated with the breed. This merle (M) is dominant, so heterozygous dogs (Mm) show the pigmentation pattern; however, when two merles are bred, the statistical risk is 25% of the offspring will end up with the two copies of the merle gene (homozygous). These dogs usually have a mostly white coat and blue irises, and are often deaf, blind, or both. In this case, the deafness and blindness are linked to having two copies of the merle gene, which disrupts pigmentation and produces these health defects.

All black and blue merle dogs have black noses, eye rims, and lips. All red and red merle dogs have liver or brown noses, eye rims, and lips.

Also, great variety is seen in the Aussie’s eye color, and they are often heterochromatic. An early nickname for the breed was “ghost-eye dog”. Aussie eyes may be any shade of brown, or blue; they may have two differently colored eyes, or even have bicolored or “split eyes” (for example, a half-brown, half-blue eye), which appear to be linked to the merle coloration. Merled eyes occur, as well, where one color is mixed in and swirled with another. Any combination of eye color is acceptable in the breed standard, so long as the eyes are healthy. In general, however, black Aussies (self, bi-color, or tri-color) tend to have brown eyes, while red (self, bi-color, or tri-color) Aussies tend to have amber eyes, though these Aussies may also carry the blue-eyed gene. These dogs are also brown in color.

Tail

Some Aussies are born with naturally bobbed tails. Others have full long tails, and others with natural partial bobs, where the tail is shorter and appears stubby. Breeders have historically docked the tails when the puppies are born. In the United States and Canada, the standard calls for a natural bob or docked tail not to exceed four inches as a defining characteristic; however, some long-tailed examples have been successfully shown and been given recognition. Any natural tail length is permitted when showing in Europe, where docking has been banned in most countries, including the United Kingdom.

Temperament

The breed is typically highly energetic, requiring a great deal of exercise and attention. An Australian shepherd enjoys working, whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in dog agility, or engaging in any other physically and mentally involving activity.

Dogs may show reserved and cautious guarding behaviors. They are kind, loving, and devoted to those they know. They are very loyal to their owners, and are rewarding dogs if treated well. Because the breed was developed to serve on the ranch, a job which includes being protective of its property, it is inclined to bark warnings about neighborhood activity. It is not inclined toward obsessive barking.

The Aussie is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie may invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity: for example, an Aussie may go from being at rest to running at top speed for several “laps” around the house before returning to rest. Without something to amuse them, Aussies can become destructive. Aussies also do best with plenty of human companionship: they are often called “Velcro dogs” for their strong desire to always be near their owners and for their tendency to form intense, devoted bonds with select people.

The Australian Shepherd has a reputation as a highly intelligent and versatile stock dog with a range of working styles. A good working Aussie is quick, thoughtful, and easy with its stock. The ability for the breed to adapt to the situation and to think for itself makes it an excellent all-around worker. For this reason, the Aussie is often chosen to work unusual livestock such as ducks, geese, and commercially raised rabbits.

These dogs require a minimum of two to three hours a day of play, exercise, and attention. They thrive in rural, ranch-like conditions, and need space to run and play in an urban setting. The Australian Shepherd is a high-spirited dog, that requires much attention and work. Teaching them tricks keeps them focused and happy, which also keeps their minds working. The breed also has great stamina and can live in a variety of terrain. Because of this, they are popularly used as trail and working dogs.

Health

Australian Shepherd can have several health problems. Vision problems are common, and epilepsy is also a concern. In merle-to-merle breeding, the puppies that have inherited two copies of the merle gene have an increased risk of being born blind and/or deaf.

Feeding

The recommended amount of food an Australian Shepherd should eat is 1-1/2 to 2 cups of dry food a day, But size, exercise level, and age should be considered. With proper diet and exercise, the Australian Shepherd can stay in good shape.

Grooming

Australian Shepherds have a medium-length, water-resistant coat. With the coat being somewhat long and wavy or curly, this breed does shed, mostly in the spring to get rid of the winter coat. The shepherd should be brushed weekly to maintain a healthy and clean coat and also to prevent matting. With being a “working dog”, this breed should be outside to get its needed exercise. If a dog is dirty, a basic bath can be given, but not frequently, for it can dry out the skin and coat.

Mortality

The median lifespans for breeds similar in size to Australian Shepherds are mostly between 11 and 13 years, so, assuming the results of the UK study are not representative of the population there, Aussies appear to have a typical lifespan for a breed their size. Leading causes of death in the UK survey were cancer (32%), “combinations” (18%), and old age (14%).

Results of a 1998 internet survey with a sample size of 614 Australian Shepherds indicated a median longevity around 12.5 years, but that longevity may be declining. A 2004 UK survey found a median longevity of 9 years, with a sample size of 22 deceased dogs.

Morbidity

Based on a sample of 48 still-living dogs, the most common health concerns noted by owners were eye problems (red eye, epiphora, conjunctivitis, and cataracts). Dermatological and respiratory problems also ranked high.

Collie eye anomaly (CEA) is rare in the breed, but it and cataracts are a concern in Aussies. Other conditions of note include iris coloboma, canine hip dysplasia, Pelger-Huet anomaly, hypothyroidism, and nasal solar dermatitis. Prior to breeding, the Aussie should be checked for hip and elbow dysplasia and DNA tests performed to show the dog to be free of the MDR1 mutation, cataract mutation, and CEA. Tests should also include those for thyroidism and clearances for other known eye diseases like colobomas, progressive retinal atrophy, and retinal folds.

Some Australian Shepherds (as well as Collies, German Shepherds, and many other herding dogs) are susceptible to a genetic mutation of the MDR1 gene. Dogs with the mutation can suffer toxicity from antiparasitics such as ivermectin in high doses, and other drugs. A test is available to determine if a particular dog carries the mutated gene.

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a heritable condition where the femur does not fit securely in the pelvic socket of the hip joint. This problem can exist with or without clinical signs, meaning some dogs feel pain in one or both rear legs.

Double merle

Double merle or homozygous merle occurs when the offspring of two merled parents inherit two copies of the dominant merle gene. The odds of this are 25% for each pup born from such a litter. Double merles often have excessive white and can have hearing and vision problems as a result of having two copies of the merle gene. Homozygous merles can be deaf or blind, or express iris colobomas and microphthalmia. Not all homozygous merles are affected, but most are, making the breeding of two merles a very touchy subject. Some breeders euthanize mostly white pups, while others may attempt to sell them as “rare” white Aussies without disclosing the potential for health defects. A large percentage of homozygous merles sold eventually end up in rescue and shelters, as the average family is ill-prepared to take on a deaf or blind pet. However, deaf or blind Australian shepherds can make wonderful pets given a home prepared for their special needs. They are an intelligent breed, which generally learn hand signals with ease.

The term “lethal white” originated from horses born with lethal white syndrome, and has since evolved to often describe dogs born with the double merle trait. This trait is found in many breeds, but most commonly found in Australian Shepherds. The name “lethal white” is a misnomer, as this genetic condition is not lethal to the dogs; it is often the breeder who is lethal to the pups by culling them immediately after birth, Many consider the term “lethal white” to be derogatory.

Australian Shepherd. (2017, May 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Australian_Shepherd&oldid=783141684

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