The Australian Shepherd is a medium size dog, slightly longer than tall, with a bob tail. Coat colors can be solid black, solid red, blue merle and red merle (both patterns of the solid colors), with or without white and copper markings. Eyes can be blue, brown, amber or combinations thereof. His size ranges from 18" to 23" tall and weigh 35 lbs to 65 lbs, females being smaller and more feminine looking than males, size not to take precedent over quality.
The Aussie should be balanced in both physical and mental traits. If he is bred for traits in one extreme or another, then he is not bred with the true Australian Shepherd in mind. Being moderate in overall size, coat and bone contributes to his ability to perform as an athlete without tiring too quickly or injuring easily. Some breeders concentrate on physical traits and focus on ear set, markings, heavy bone and profuse coat. Some of these traits are cosmetic in nature and others are just not desirable in a working dog.
Physical soundness means nothing without the mental capabilities to match. The well-bred Aussie is a thinking dog with good reasoning abilities. He has the "good sense" to think a situation through and react appropriately. With proper socialization and training, this is a dog who is reliable and stable in temperament. Exaggerated intensity and/or instinct without the good sense to match is just as undesirable in a working dog as the exaggerated physical characteristics.
The traditional Australian Shepherd is bred for his intelligence, intensity and instinct for working livestock.
His intelligence makes the Aussie a thinking and reasoning animal. This can make training him a pleasant experience because he absorbs new information like a sponge. His ability to think for himself can also make him a challenge to train because he has his own ideas about how to do things. Basic obedience is a must and can be started at an early age. Teaching him to sit, down, stay, come, etc., can be accomplished in the routine of everyday life and helps develop respect between dog and owner. These commands establish ground rules and excellent house manners without much fuss. Positive reinforcement and praise work well with him. He likes the limits to be very cleary defined. When left outside, he needs a secure, escape-proof area. He should not be left to roam freely without supervision.
Combined with intelligence, intensity helps give the Aussie his high degree of "stick-to-itiveness" with any given task without quitting. It helps in his eagerness to learn new things and get it right, and not be intimidated by corrections necessary in training. However the "no-quit", energetic attitude is not a requirement for the average dog owner, thus making it a negative rather than a positive trait. He needs ongoing training to use his brain. The more he learns, the happier he will be. He can be tireless at frisbee, retrieving, running, etc. He needs daily exercise and activities to use his mind and body. He is an athlete.
The herding instinct, or the inbred ability to control livestock, varies in intensity and ability in each dog and in every bloodline. Some dogs will only be content if they work livestock on a regular basis. These traits must be taken into account by the prospective owner.
Aussie temperament is always a hot topic for discussion. What's good or bad seems to differ from person to person and breeder to breeder. However, the breed standard states that he can be reserved with strangers. "Reserved" is not shy or fearful, but it's not sociable either. Being reserved is the opposite of being sociable and can very easily turn into fear and other behaviorial issues if not handled appropriately. Pro-social behaviors need to be encouraged through extensive socialization in and out of the home as well as through exposure to positive social situations. Skilled, confident leadership from the owner is needed to assure the dog that he does not need to be in charge. Always alert, aware of his surroundings and cautious, he can be an extremely good judge of character. He can be protective of his home and family. Although these are acceptable behaviors, he needs to meet new people and be exposed to as many different situations as possible while he's growing up. Aggression toward people or animals is unacceptable behavior. Human companionship is necessary for his mental and physical well-being. Relegating him to the backyard with little human contact can have disastrous results. Breeders who select for the reserved temperament when breeding should make sure that new owners understand the above statements.
With proper care and nutrition, a healthy Aussie can live to 14+ yrs old. However there are some genetic (inherited) conditions that can afflict the breed. Eye defects, hip dysplasia, epilepsy, autoimmune diseases, skin disorders, thyroid conditions, allergies, multi drug sensitivities (MDR1) and inherited temperament issues are known problems. While most dog breeds have certain types of genetic disease, breeders should take all of these things into account when planning a litter and try to minimize their occurrence. Although testing the sire and dam can prove if they are free of defects themselves, testing must be put into perspective. It's no guarantee that their offspring will also be free of defects. A dog can produce a defect, but not have it himself. Combined with testing, study of ancestors in a pedigree helps the breeder make educated choices. Eyes should be examined and hips should be x-rayed before dogs are bred. There is some DNA testing available for certain conditions such as the multi-drug sensitivities (MDR1) and the hereditary cataract mutation.
Epilepsy is one genetic disease of great concern, but as you can see from the list above, it is not the only genetic disease breeders have to deal with. Breeding mentally and physically sound dogs has become a balancing act that often means allowing for the more minor defects that do not have a negative physical impact on the dog in order to breed away from the more serious ones that do. This is not an excuse to breed defective dogs with serious health problems. However, this awareness is growing not only in Aussies but with other purebred dogs as well. This requires breeders to openly discuss the problems in their bloodlines without blaming and criticizing each other. As genetic testing becomes available for epilepsy and other diseases, it will take the guess work out of how to minimize these problems. In the meantime, we can use what diagnostic tests are available to help in our decision making.
A responsible Aussie breeder breeds for quality, not quantity. Breeding of the Australian Shepherd should be undertaken only by those who have a working knowledge of the breed standard, understand Aussie behavior and training, and have studied Aussie genetics and bloodlines. Breeders should be prepared to keep and care for those puppies that do not sell and be prepared to take back any puppies whose homes did not work out.
Aussies can be great competitors in conformation, rally, obedience, agility and stockdog trials as well as being invaluable on the farm. Some become search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs, guide dogs for the blind and service dogs for the physically impaired. They can be excellent companions for the selective individual who requires a dog with high degree of motivation, ability to reason and think for himself, and a strong need to be with and work with his owner.
If what I've described here does not fit your lifestyle, there are many other breeds that will suit you just fine. If you'd rather a Golden retriever-type personality then by all means, get a Golden! Don't take the "Aussie" out of the Australian Shepherd! It's a breed that's not for everyone.
A "PS" on dogs and kids: After studying bite behavior and teaching dog bite safety classes to primary school children, it is my recommendation that any owner with small children put off acquiring ANY breed of puppy or dog until the children are old enough to understand how to behave around a dog. Even parents with the best of intentions have a difficult time supervising youngsters around a puppy or dog and nipping and biting accident happen, usually through no fault of the animal. Waiting until children are old enough to take an active part in caring for and respecting the dog will get the relationship off to a much better start.