The "heeler" didn't get its name because the breed trots obediently beside its owners when on leash -- quite the contrary. Also known as the Australian cattle dog, this assertive, intelligent, headstrong dog was bred specifically to help ranchers herd cattle in the Australian outback. One tactic the dogs use to get those slowpoke bovines moving along is to snap and bite at their heels. A good fit between dog and owner crucial -- mismatches are a recipe for heartbreak on both sides.
In the 1800s, Europeans who had taken up cattle ranching in Australia set out to create a breed of working dog with highly developed herding instincts and the strength and stamina to cover long distances over difficult terrain in intense heat. Today's heelers, which were fully recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1980, carry genes from Australia's wild dog, the dingo, along with blue merle border collies, Dalmatians, kelpies, and according to some, even a bit of bull terrier. On average, this muscular, compact, hardy breed stands about 17 to 20 inches at the shoulder, weighs 30 to 35 pounds and lives between 12 and 15 years. Heeler puppies are born white but their coloring starts to emerge a few weeks later: blue or red mottled or speckled coats, often with black or tan markings on the head.
Heelers were never intended to be household pets, and the same characteristics that make them good at the job they were bred to do can also make them challenging as companion animals. They require a great deal of exercise and mental stimulation and if they don't get ample amounts of both, they can get vocal -- and destructive. The instinct that makes them so good at bossing cows around also means that they need firm, consistent handling by confident owners who never allow the dog to assume the "alpha" role. Apartment dwellers, people with small children and those with elderly or infirm members of the household should think twice about bringing home this high-energy, high-maintenance breed.
Heelers have a short, straight outer coat and a soft, dense undercoat, and shed once or twice a year. The breed is prone to hip dysplasia, deafness and progressive retinal atrophy.
Temperament and Testing
On his website, dog trainer Gary Wilkes warns that "temperament tests" used to predict the personality traits of adult dogs while they're still puppies aren't foolproof, so the process is a bit of a gamble. In the end, each dog is a unique individual, and undesirable qualities such as territorial aggression and phobias can always emerge in later stages of development. Among heelers, undetected deafness is a common problem so before making your choice, you should always test a puppy's hearing away from his litter mates. Have someone distract the puppy and stand a few feet behind him. When you're sure that the pup is completely focused on the other person, make a loud noise by clapping your hands or banging something. The puppy should display a startle response.
According to Australian Cattle Dog Rescue of Michigan, heelers weaned too early are apt to grow up with behavior problems -- the main reason why this breed so often gets evicted from their adoptive homes. Puppies learn valuable social skills from siblings and adult dogs. Some breeders let puppies go at 5 or 6 weeks, although Michigan and some other states require that puppies be 8 weeks. Heelers should remain with their litter for at least 11 to 12 weeks. Intensive socialization should begin immediately so the puppy is exposed early on to the widest possible range of people, places and situations. A prerequisite for adopting a puppy from AuCaDo is past experience with heelers or other herding dogs.