He’s beautiful, isn’t he?
He’s also smart, athletic, a snap to train, devoted, telepathic, and my right-hand guy. In fact, he’s everything you could want in a dog — and more.
It’s the “more” part that gets most people into trouble. The truth is — for as beautiful and brainy as Australian Shepherds are — they aren’t for everyone.
The question is: Are they for you?
Let me walk you through a few key points to help you decide.
In order to live with and raise a healthy, happy Aussie, you really do only need to know a couple of things. If you get a book on Australian Shepherds, these points will be covered, albeit a bit casually. It’s just that these couple of things are huge.
Way back at the beginning of my love affair with Australian Shepherds, I wish I’d known the depth and breadth of the importance of these points. It would have saved me a lot of trouble. I hope that by stressing the vital and critical need to do these few things if you do decide you still want an Aussie, I will have set you down the right path for many years of trouble-free, blissful enjoyment with your incredible dog.
1. Research breeders and lines. Unless you plan on herding, don’t get an Australian Shepherd from working lines.
First, finding a reputable breeder is key to finding a healthy dog. (Aussies are known to have some health issues that are more likely to show up in litters of backyard breeders and puppy mills.) Start by checking with the AKC website. Then check with your vet and local dog trainers. These guys are usually fountains of information on such things. Talk with a few breeders before you make your selection. The breeder should be more than happy to answer as many questions as you have. In fact, a good breeder will have just as many questions to ask you.
Also, research the lines (the genealogy of both sire and dam going back a few generations) from which you’re getting your Australian Shepherd. Working lines (as opposed to show lines) are bred for having a very strong mind and strong herding instincts — neither trait is well-suited for the average family home. Unless you plan on herding (yes, as in sheep, cows, or ducks) with your Aussie and/or you’re a very experienced dog owner, it’s best to stay away from working lines. If you have children, definitely stay away from working lines. (If you have young children, consider a non-herding breed altogether.) If you don’t have time for a high-energy, strong-minded dog, you don’t have time for Aussies.
2. Socialize, socialize, socialize. And then socialize some more. And then some more. I’m not kidding.
While some Australian Shepherds are friendly goofballs, most are pretty reserved. In fact, that’s the breed standard — they’re not bred to be everyone’s bud. In order for them not to become shy and/or suspicious, they need to be socialized.
Books and breeders concur that socializing is important. That’s very true — of all dogs. But just exactly how much socializing are we talking about? A couple of strolls down Main Street? A few kids over? That might be enough for an easy going Lab, but it’s not even close to a beginning for an Aussie. I’m here to tell you that you need to make this your #1 priority in a big way. In fact, this is the single most important thing you can do for you and your puppy.
What books and breeders are often remiss in mentioning is what happens if you don’t do a good job here. Let me fill you in. As herding dogs and protective herding dogs at that, getting your dog used to all kinds of people and situations in and out of your house is key for her while she’s young. Otherwise, you’ll have a dog that’s wary of people and new situations, or worse.
By worse, I mean having a dog that won’t let people onto your property or into your house without at least intimidating the heck out of them. Or, at most, winding up with a dog who will bite (a herding nip is considered a bite by the law) to keep anything she finds unfamiliar — and therefore suspicious — away from her people.
Get her used to different people coming and leaving, people petting her, people flapping their arms, people moving quickly, people with umbrellas, funny hats, sunglasses–you name it. Take her to other locations–downtown, the park, etc. Find a good, positive trainer and take her to puppy training classes. Not only to get her started with obedience but to socialize her with other dogs as well.
Start early! Even if she doesn’t have all her shots yet, you can still carry her places with you to help her get used to different sights and sounds.
3. If you don’t train your Australian Shepherd, she will train you!
I’ve had several breeds of dogs over the years, most from the herding/working category. So I’ve known some smart dogs in my day. Kiera blows them all out of the water. By far. By scary far. An Aussie’s intelligence is something to be reckoned with. So start training the day you get your pup, and don’t stop. Period. If you get lazy, she’ll start seeing how well she can train you.
Aussies are bred to work and think. If you don’t give your Aussie something to think about, she will find ways to amuse herself. And you might not be happy with what she comes up with. So give her direction. The great thing about Aussies is that they learn so fast that it makes them fun to train. Because of their versatility, you can get them into any dog sport and they’ll shine.
Or just train her to be useful around the house. For instance, teach her to go get people instead of yelling or using an intercom. By working regularly with your Aussie, you’re also putting yourself routinely in the position of leader. Aussies do best with a good leader. Otherwise, they tend to take over.
While Aussies will endure quite a bit of physical pain without complaint, they tend to be soft dogs emotionally. That is, they’re really tuned into their owners and are easily affected by their moods and tone of voice. So I recommend that you find and work with a positive trainer. These dogs are such a snap to train that harsh methods are not required or advised. (There’s a difference between being clear and consistent, and harsh.)
4. Australian Shepherds need a lot exercise.
Aussies come in a range of energy levels. Some are energetic busy bees and some are moderate. Most fall somewhere in the middle –neither crazy whirligigs (except some from working lines) nor couch potatoes. That is to say exercise is important for this breed to be happy. Depending on your dog’s energy levels, a long walk may be enough. Most Aussies will need significantly more. They also do best when they have space — inside and out. In other words, if you live in an apartment and are gone most of the day, consider another dog.
These dogs make wonderful companions on runs, or hikes, or any outdoor activity. The key word here being activity. Because they are such extraordinary athletes with keen minds, there’s literally no dog sport at which that they don’t excel. Find one that the two of you can enjoy, and you’ll have years of fun together.
5. Australian Shepherds need a job even more than they need exercise — which is saying something.
While exercise is important for a healthy Aussie, a job is mandatory for a happy Aussie. These dogs live to work. Their work can be as simple as keeping an eye on you, or another pet, or the kids, or the house while you’re gone. Or as complex as running agility, herding sheep, or doing Search and Rescue work. Again, because these dogs are highly intelligent, if you don’t give them a job, they’ll make one up for themselves.
Kiera has given herself the job of watching me, the property, and policing Finn and Graidy. The jobs I’ve given her are to help me around the house and to babysit Cait when I need to make a quick store run and she doesn’t want to come. And, for fun, we’ve done obedience, agility, and we like to herd together.
Australian Shepherds are not for everyone. They require clear communication, consistent discipline and leadership, and an outlet for their minds and athletic talents. Heed these needs seriously. There are already too many Aussies in rescue because people just like the way they look without considering how much time and energy they require.
If you can provide these few conditions, you’ll be blessed with the companionship of an extraordinary dog who will go to the ends of the earth and back for you.