Also known as the Queensland heeler or blue heeler, the Australian Cattle Dog is a feisty breed from the "land down under." Definitely one-of-a-kind, uncannily intelligent and tenacious, cattle dogs possess remarkable herding ability. Rough-and-ready, they also are devoted and protective home companions best suited to experienced dog owners.
In the late 18th century, early settlers from the British Isles migrated to Australia, bringing their livestock and sheepdogs with them. The immense land tracks and vast grazing landscape encouraged the stock men to develop huge herds of not only sheep, but also space-needy cattle. Formerly, land restrictions in the homeland made much smaller herds of cattle and sheep easier to look after. In Australia, cattle roamed the outback unconfined and unsupervised, and were difficult to keep track of and treacherous for the humans hired to manage them. Back home in the British Isles, the sheepdogs worked the relatively placid herds beautifully, but they simply were not up to the job in Australia. A tougher dog capable of navigating the rugged terrain, surviving the merciless heat and controlling the half-wild, out-of-control cattle was required. Thus began the development of a new, hardier, more resourceful and courageous breed, the Australian Cattle Dog.
Herdsmen, desperate to produce a dog that could handle the cattle, bred their sheepdogs with the native Australian dingo, which had once co-existed quite pleasantly with the aboriginal people. These crosses produced extremely aggressive dogs that attacked and ate sheep, and could not control young calves. One version of the next step in the history of the breed that generally is agreed upon by cattle dog fanciers is that in the year 1840, Thomas Hall from the state of New South Wales, imported a pair of blue merle smooth-coated collies of a variety that no longer exists. They were able sheepherders, but neither the original pair nor their progeny were adept at handling the dangerous cattle. Disappointed, Hall began experimenting with infusions of dingo blood. Dingoes don’t bark and the first results of the crosses worked silently, snapping at the heels of the cattle when needed to keep them moving forward, rather than charging the heads as their sheep-herding collie ancestors did. These first generation crosses resembled small, heavily-built dingoes, either blue-mottled or red-speckled in color. Word spread of their cattle-herding ability and demand grew for this new wonder dog.
Unfortunately, the first cattle dogs also had a tendency to herd horses, snapping at their heels and scaring them half to death. It became clear that the perfect cattle-herding dog must have an amiable relationship with horses. Dalmatians, long known for their incredible rapport with horses, were introduced to the bloodline at this time. It is believed by many cattle dog fanciers that Jack and Harry Bagust, who lived near Sydney, were the first to breed their best dingo and smooth-coated collie crosses to a Dalmatian imported from Great Britain. The offspring were born completely white, developing blue or red speckles at around three weeks of age. These dogs were a success, and had a good relationship with horses and humans. It is believed that the next cross involved a bull terrier, which significantly diminished the dog’s herding ability.
The black and tan kelpie was introduced to the breeding program to remedy the lackluster herding abilities of the last cross. This pairing produced a line of athletic dogs similar in appearance to dingoes, but more muscular with distinctive markings. It was at this time that black eye patches and ears appeared. The crosses also had tan legs, chest and head markings, and the red variety had dark red markings in place of black over an evenly speckled base. Through these selective breedings, there finally emerged a dog with the dingo’s constitution, athletic confirmation, intelligence and silent style of working, combined with the devotion and protective instincts of the Dalmation. The breed's willingness to work, ability to solve problems and obedience to commands came from their sheepdog ancestry.
The breed was chronicled first by Australian journalist, Robert Kaleski. Through his efforts, the breed’s standard of excellence was developed, firmly rooted in the breed’s dingo heritage. In 1902, the standard was submitted and adopted by the Cattle and Sheep Dog Club of Australia, and the Kennel Club of New South Wales, and the breed was officially given the name of Australian Cattle Dog. The breed virtually is unchanged in over a century. Confirmation and color have become more consistent, but the original intelligence and working ability remain undiminished. A dog heralded for its many working qualities, in the 1950s it made significant strides in the show ring as well. Proving just as valuable as a working dog in the United States, in 1967, a club dedicated to the advancement of the Australian Cattle Dog was formed to promote the breed as dual purpose; working dog and show dog.
Unfortunately, the American Kennel Club did not recognize the breed because most of the dogs registered could not trace their ancestry directly back to Australia. This slowed the growth of the popularity of the breed, but from 1978 fanciers began to show the dog at fun matches and obedience trials in which the Australian Cattle Dog became a favorite. An official breed standard was drafted based on the breed’s Australian beginnings and in May 1980, the AKC officially recognized the Australian Cattle Dog in the Working Group. The first official show in which the cattle dog competed was held on September 1, 1980. The breed designation was transferred to the Herding Group when it was formed on January 1, 1983.
- Australian Cattle Dogs, A Complete Owner's Manual; Richard G. Beauchamp
- Australian Cattle Dog Club of America: Breed History
- Australian Cattle Dog.com: History
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images