AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD APPEARANCE:
The coat comes in several color varieties—blue merle, red merle, red or black; either black, red merle, and red—all with or without white markings and/or tan (copper) points. Dogs with tan and white along with the primary color are usually called tricolor.
The breed's general appearance also varies greatly depending on the particular line's emphasis. Show dog Aussies conform to a specific broad-chested, thick-coated, semi-drop-eared appearance. Aussies whose parents and other ancestors have been chosen primarily for their working ability have more variation in their appearance; for example, they might have longer legs, more upright ears, shorter coats, and so on. As with many working breeds that are also shown in the ring, there are differences of opinion among breeders over what makes an ideal Australian Shepherd.
Reflecting the great variation that still exists in the breed, an Aussie can stand between 18 and 23 inches (46 to 58 cm) at the withers and weigh between 35 and 70 pounds (16 to 32 kg). For show dogs, females must fall in the lower heights and weights and males in the higher ranges.
The Australian Shepherd's history is vague, as is the origin of its misleading name. The breed most likely originated in the Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France.
Early European and Australian settlers took many of their herding dogs with them as they emigrated to the eastern United States in the 19th century. Breeds included some that are now extinct or that have merged into other breeds. These probably included the English Shepherd, Dorset Blue Shag, Cumberland Sheepdog, Scottish Collie, Glenwherry Collie, and Bouvier des Flandres, as well as dogs from Germany and Spain. For many centuries, shepherds had more interest in dogs who performed well when helping to manage flocks of sheep than they had in the specific appearance of the dogs. As a result, over time, shepherds interbred dogs that they believed would produce better workers for the given climate and landscape. Terrain and weather conditions in the eastern U.S. were similar to that of Europe, however, so the existing imported breeds and their offspring worked well there.
In the western states, conditions were quite different. In the primarily arid and semiarid areas inhabited sparsely by early Spanish settlers, temperatures reached extremes of hot and cold, and fields varied in altitude from sea level into the higher, rougher Sierra Nevada and similar mountain ranges. A few Spanish and Basque shepherds, their flocks, and their herding dogs came to California with the Spanish missionaries and other settlers in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
With the 1849 California gold rush, a massive migration occurred from the east coast to the west coast, and along with the people came flocks of sheep and the eastern herding dogs. But it was just as effective to bring sheep in by ship, and in they came, including flocks from Latin America and other regions. Shepherds came along with the flocks and also independently, from Latin America, Europe, and Australia, along with their own herding breeds. Dogs from Australia had already begun to be selected and bred for climate and terrain that were quite similar to many parts of California.
As shepherds worked to develop dogs who could handle stock in harsh storms, high arid heat, and chilling cold, and who could think on their own in challenging terrain, reacting instantly to the movement of sheep and to their handlers' commands, the type that became the Australian Shepherd was born.
The name remains somewhat of a mystery, however; the largest influx of Basque shepherds from Australia arrived in the early 20th century, well after the breed had been established as a distinct type. It is possible that many of the imported Australian herding dogs had merle coloring, which was also common in the American Australian Shepherd breed, and so all merle herding dogs were simply referred to as Australian. This remains conjecture.
Because of the dog's origins, this breed is not for everyone. It is an energetic dog that requires exercise and needs a job to do (whether it is learning and practicing tricks, competing in agility, or any other physically and mentally involving activity). It needs to run, full out, regularly. It is usually a sweet and affectionate dog who is faithful to its owners and is good with children, although its overwhelming instinct for herding can be frightening to children and small animals and dangerous if it tries chasing cars. Its herding instincts can cause it to nip at hands or heels, which can be interpreted as aggression. It was bred to guard stock and can be sometimes annoying with its inclination to bark warnings about neighborhood activity, but it is not generally an obsessively barking dog. It is intelligent, learns quickly, and loves to play. This means that a bored, neglected, unexercised Aussie will invent its own games, activities, and jobs, which to a busy owner might appear to be hyperactivity in the house around fragile furnishings or involve the destruction of yard and property.