Border Collie & Australian Cattle Dog: Is There a Difference?

The Australian cattle dog was bred to herd cows in the Australian outback.
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The Australian cattle dog and the border collie, both bred to herd livestock, have much in common, including speed, stamina and keen intelligence. However, anyone considering adopting a puppy of either breed should understand that when transferred to a household setting, these qualities can be a challenge to manage. To maintain domestic harmony, owners must be prepared to meet their dog's lifelong need for exercise, mental stimulation and strong leadership.

A Dog Suited to the Rough Australian Outback

In the 1800s, Australian cattlemen set out to create a dog specifically suited to herding cattle on the rough terrain and harsh climate of the outback. For more than a century, various would-be breeders tinkered with the bloodlines of the dog that would eventually become the Australian cattle dog, also known as a "heeler." This hit-and-miss process has created controversy over which breeds contributed their genes, and how much, to the final product. There's dingo in the mix, possibly a pinch of bull terrier, definitely some Dalmatian, black-and-tan kelpie and blue merle Highland collie. When referred to as a heeler, the only differentiating adjective refers to the color of the short, speckled coat -- blue or red. The Australian cattle dog was accepted for registration by the American Kennel Club in 1980.

At Home on the Highlands

The border collie employs a determined stare and lightning speed to herd sheep.
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In Scotland, around the same time the Australian cattle dog began evolving, sheep farmers started trying to incorporate the most useful traits of various regional "collies," or sheep-herding dogs, in one breed. A cheerful, eager-to-please streak of greased lightning -- the border collie -- was the result. This breed combines a second-to-none herding instinct with the intelligence to make his own judgment calls when out of range of his master. In 1994, over the objections of many owners of working dogs, the AKC accepted the border collie for show-ring competition. Owners feared then -- and still do -- that uniformity of appearance would take precedence over the herding ability which, they believe, should be the only standard by which these dogs are judged. Border collies' coats can be smooth, medium or rough. While colors run the gamut, the most familiar are black, black and tan and reddish-brown, all with white markings.

What These Breeds Have in Common

Both breeds are of medium size. An adult male Australian cattle dog can reach about 20 inches at the shoulder, while his border collie counterpart may grow an inch or two taller. Both of these high-octane, headstrong dogs are among the smartest in the canine kingdom. According to Stanley Coren, author of "The Intelligence of Dogs," the border collie was ranked by more than 200 professional dog obedience judges as the most intelligent among 110 breeds, with the Australian cattle dog ranking tenth. As household pets, both breeds need firm handling from experienced owners in order to thrive. Without daily opportunities to blow off steam through vigorous exercise, both may become bored and destructive. Border collies and Australian cattle dogs are also both susceptible to similar health problems, including genetic eye abnormalities and hip dysplasia.

Different Herding Styles

Border collies and Australian cattle dogs have different herding styles, each suited to the habits of the animals they were bred to help manage. The border collie takes his cues from the hand signals and whistles of his master, exerting his influence over sheep with a steely stare, low crouch and frenetic speed. When out of range of their masters, both the border collie and the Australian cattle dog are expected to make accurate decisions about where to head their herds. The Australian's popular name "heeler," refers to his aggressive, dingo-like attack technique, nipping at the "heels" of prey. In a dingo, the objective would be to cripple and ultimately kill but in the cattle dog, this instinct has been softened into a technique for encouraging sluggish bovines to get a move on. The dog sneaks from behind, delivers a sharp nip to the cow's hock, then flattens his body to the ground to duck the swift backwards kick certain to follow.