The Australian shepherd is a popular breed among rural communities in the United States. He’s especially well-admired by ranchers, who favor his easy-to-train nature and his strong herding instincts. The Australian shepherd, also known as the blue heeler, is growing in popularity each year. He was the 22nd was popular pet breed in the United States in 2012. This breed, like many herding breeds, has his personality quirks, but with consistent handling, they need not be a barrier to companionship.
The Clue's not in the Name
Despite his name, the Australian shepherd as we know him today is an American creation, bred and refined by ranchers after World War II. The breed likely originated in Europe, as a herder working alongside Pyrenean shepherds. He was imported into the United States in the 1800s and found favor with Basque shepherds who had arrived from Australia around the same time. Once here, he became a popular and admired herder, capable, sharp and agile of mind.
He does have protective qualities, but these are not to his detriment. As is typical of most herding breeds -- notably German shepherds -- the breed is driven to protect his flock. Any perceived intrusion or threat is met with suspicion and potentially aggression. In a pastoral setting, the threat may be a wolf or a bear. In a domestic context, it could be the mailman. His protective streak drives him to bark at the strange visitors, watch the yard for intruders and keep a close eye on anyone approaching his master or family members while out in public.
The Australian shepherd, as a herder, is among the most intelligent of all dog breeds. Herding requires a sharp mind, so when the original custodians of this breed were selecting specimens for mating, it was the keenest minds that were selected, resulting in a universally intelligent breed group. Other roles, such as guarding or pulling wagons, emphasized strength over smarts, so certain breed groups were bred for brawn.
As well as protectiveness and intelligence, the Australian shepherd is instinctively driven to control movement. He may do this by nipping at the heels of any family member he thinks is deviating from the herd. He is energetic, easily bored and eager to please. For the right type of owner, he is the ideal pet.
Suitability as a Pet
Australian shepherds thrive in stimulating, active environments. They will not happily sit around all day waiting for the fun to start. If there’s nothing going on, they’ll make their own fun. Although they are protective and have guardian instincts, they are not to be relied upon as guard dogs. While they may be ideal as watchdogs -- alerting family members to any unexpected visitors -- they simply do not possess the strength, appearance or courage to tackle an intruder. Combined with a brawnier breed, like a rottweiler, they could form a formidable security duo.
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.