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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Australian Shepherd: All-around Dog & Mystery Sleuth

by Sheila Webster Boneham

(UCD Perennial See You At The Top,
Pet Partner
The main dog in my Animals in Focus mystery series is an Australian Shepherd named Jay. I love all dogs, and have owned other breeds and mixes, but the Australian Shepherd holds a very special place in my heart.  The character of Jay in the books is based largely on my real-life Jay, with a few behaviors and traits borrowed from some of the other Aussies who have graced my life with their presence. As anyone who has lived with or been around Aussies can tell you, they’re nothing if not characters!
The Aussie is a dog with plenty of appeal. First, they’re a good size for many people, with bitches ideally standing 18-21 inches at the top of the shoulder, and dogs (males) 20-13 inches. They’re scary smart, easily trained, athletic, and beautiful. For the right person or family and the right environment, the Aussie is a wonderful companion and partner.

Story, owned by Stephanie Mackey,
bred by Sheila Boneham.
Perennial Once Upon a Thyme
Before you run out to get an Aussie, though, beware – the Australian Shepherd is not for everyone! As with any breed, the traits that make the Aussie perfect for one home make him unsuited to another. How can that be, you may wonder. We get a taste of that in the Animals in Focus mysteries when Jay shows his “mechanical ability,” his independent thinking, and protective nature when things get tight.

How much do you know about Aussies? Take this little quiz, and then check your answers.
  1. What country does the Australian Shepherd come from?
  2. Some breeds come in “varieties” –the Poodle, for instance, has three (Toy, Miniature, Standard). How many varieties are there of Australian Shepherd?
  3. True or false—all Aussies have at least one blue eye. 
  4. True or false--Aussies are very smart, which makes them easy to live with. 
  5. True or false—blue merle Aussies cost more because the color is rare.

Okay, let’s see how you did!
1.  What country does the Australian Shepherd come from?

Dustin, owned by Sheila Boneham,
bred by Susan Moorehead
ASCA & AKC Champion
Brookridge Dustin U, ASCA CD, AKC CD,
CGC, Pet Partner
Despite his name, the Australian Shepherd is the quintessential American, developed into his present form on the farms and ranches of North America. Breed histories don’t agree on all the details, but it is generally accepted that the Aussie is descended from sheep-herding dogs that accompanied Basque shepherds who came to North America from Spain at the turn of the last century. Large flocks of sheep were imported during the late 1800s and early 1900s from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Spain, and France, and the Basques arrived at the same time with shepherding expertise and “little blue dogs.”

American ranchers and farmers were impressed by the working abilities of these bob-tailed dogs and began to use them as all-around ranch hands. In such working environments, ability was far more important than pedigree, and dogs were selected for breeding based on how well they worked. Other herding breeds were crossed with the Basque-type dogs to add and enhance certain traits, and the modern Aussie is clearly related to a number of other breeds around the world, including the German Coolie (collie) in Australia, the Welsh Bob-tail, the Irish Collie, and the smooth-faced Pyrenean sheepdog.
2  Some breeds come in “varieties” –the Poodle, for instance, has three (Toy, Miniature, Standard). How many varieties are there of Australian Shepherd?
Australian Shepherds do not come in varieties. Although some people refer to “standard,” “mini,” and “toy” Aussies, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) nor the United States Australian Shepherd Association (USASA), the breed’s parent club for American Kennel Club events, do not recognize size variants. The Miniature North American Shepherd (formerly called the Miniature Australian Shepherd) is a new breed developed by selecting for smaller Aussies, and some breeders are doing this slowly, carefully, and with attention to health and temperament. Beware, though—a lot of people sell “minis” that are bred purely for small size and big bucks.
3. True or false—all Aussies have at least one blue eye.
Nope. Although many Aussies do have two blue eyes, one blue and one brown, or, in some merle dogs, “marbled” multi-colored eyes, individual dogs can have any color eyes. Jay in the books has brown eyes, as did my lovely real-life Jay. Here are some great images and information about the many eye-color variations in the breed. 
4. True or false--Aussies are very smart, which makes them easy to live with.
Aussies need lots of exercise, especially when they're young!
True and false. Most Australian Shepherds are very, very smart. They are problem solvers, and inventors. They think their way through challenging situations. They are easily bored.
While “intelligent” may sound like an attractive trait—and it is if you give your dog things to do with those brains!—a smart, energetic dog with nothing to do can be a nightmare to live with. Unchanneled energy and smarts are probably the main reason so many Aussies end up in rescues and shelters.
5. True or false—blue merle Aussies cost more because the color is rare.
Mac, owned & shown by Sally Meyers.
Champion Perennial Ironman of Los Suenos, CD,
& bunches of agility titles. 
Sadly, I’ve seen breeders price blue merle puppies higher than black, red, and red merle puppies, and I’ve seen buyers pay the higher prices because they love the color and think it’s rare. It is actually the most common color in the breed. Blue merle coloring results when the puppy inherits a gene for black fur and a gene for merle pattern, a form of color dilution. Both black and merle are dominant genes, so given statistically random pairings of parents with the full range of color genes, fifty percent of puppies will be blue merle. Like all things genetic, it’s a bit more complicated, but the bottom line is that blue merle is not rare, and prices should be based on generations of careful selection by knowledgeable, responsible breeders, not on color or markings. Some non-standard colors also occur in the breed, but puppies should, again, not cost more for having an unrecognized color! For more information and lots of fascinating photos of the spectacular color variation in the breed, click here
For more information about the Australian Shepherd, please check out the information provided by the Australian Shepherd Club of America and the United States Australian ShepherdClub .
If you’re looking for an Aussie for a companion, please either adopt a rescued Aussie from a reputable rescue program such as ARPH (the Australian Shepherd Rescue and Placement Helpline) or buy a puppy or older dog from a responsible breeder. Learn what to look for in a breeder at the sites linked above.
And I hope you’ll join Jay in his newest adventure with Janet—he’ll be running agility and searching for lost kittens in Catwalk….

Animals in Focus Mystery #3

Now available for pre-order ~ 
Personally autographed books from Pomegranate Books, or order from your local bookseller or online, including amazon

Animal photographer Janet MacPhail is training for her cat Leo’s first feline agility trial when she gets a frantic call about a “cat-napping.” When Janet and her Australian Shepherd Jay set out to track down the missing kitty, they quickly find themselves drawn into the volatile politics of feral cat colonies, endangered wetlands, and a belligerent big-shot land developer. Janet is crazy busy trying to keep up with her mom’s nursing-home romance, her own relationship with Tom and his Labrador Retriever Drake, and upcoming agility trials with Jay and Leo. But when a body is discovered on the canine competition course, it stops the participants dead in their tracks—and sets Janet on the trail of a killer.

"Animal photographer Janet MacPhail's latest adventure will delight dog lovers, cat lovers, and mystery lovers. Janet is excellent company, and although Leo the cat plays a starring role, I'm happy to report that Leo does not eclipse Jay the Aussie, who has become one of my favorite fictional dogs. Indeed, if Jay ever needs to move out of the pages of Sheila Boneham's mysteries and into a nonfiction house, he'll be more than welcome in mine. Five stars for CATWALK!" ~ Susan Conant, Author of BRUTE STRENGTH and other novels in the Holly Winter series of Dog Lover's Mysteries

Author’s Note: My husband Roger and I used to breed Aussies under the kennel name Perennial, and our puppies excelled in a variety of activities (earning championships and other titles in obedience, agility, conformation, rally, herding, tracking, and flyball, and certifications in therapy). We had puppies in wonderful homes from Alaska to Florida,the Northeast to the Southwest, and in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

I also helped found an Aussie rescue program in Indiana in the early 1990’s, and I have helped rescuers with identification, owner and adopter consultations, fostering, and transportation over the years. And I’ve written about Aussies. My book The Owner’s Guide to the Australian Shepherd from T.F.H. Publications (now out of print) offered advice for new owners, and my articles in magazines including Dog Fancy and several breed-focused magazines zeroed in on such topics as training your Aussie puppy, the continuum from “show” to “working” Aussies, Ausses as Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs, and more. 


  1. Interesting piece, Sheila. Now I want an Australian shepherd! :) You mentioned the AS's bobbed tail several times. Do breeders bob their tails or are the pups born that way?

    1. Thanks, Susan - it barely scratches the surface of the complex Aussie!
      And good question... Aussie puppies can be born with anything from no tail at all to a full-length tail, and anything in between. There are many stories about why tails are docked, but I suspect the real reason was (is) uniformity. Some countries have banned docking, and Aussies in those countries have whatever they're born with.

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