The Australian Shepherd is smart and focused, and a good Australian Shepherd can be your best friend ever, but only if you are prepared to keep him busy with dog sports — agility, flyball, flying disc games, herding trials, obedience, tracking — or teach him to do chores around your home or yard. A couple of hour-long daily walks, jogs or hikes, plus some home training sessions will also help to meet his need for activity. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep him occupied to his satisfaction. But 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 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.
You might think that an Australian Shepherd needs a home with a big backyard, but he can adapt to any environment as long as his people give him a couple of hours of vigorous exercise every day. And 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.
Herding breeds bark, and the Aussie is no exception. He is always alert and will bark to let you know that he sees or hears something out of the ordinary. Teach him how to discriminate so that things like squirrels in the yard or the neighbor driving into his garage don’t qualify as “out of the ordinary.”
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.
One important thing to know about the breed is 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.