Australian Shepherd History

by Linda Rorem (the original of this article appeared in Dog World magazine)

Little can be known for certain about the origin of many breeds. With regard to the Australian Shepherd, various theories have arisen: that it is of Australian origin; that it is really a Basque breed; that it is of old Spanish origin. The investigating I have done indicates that none of the above theories provides the whole story, but together they may play a part.

Histories of California relate that although there had been many flocks of sheep at the Spanish missions, the number of sheep in the Far West had greatly declined by the time of the Gold Rush at the end of the 1840's. The Gold Rush and the Civil War brought about a great demand for mutton and wool. To meet this demand, large flocks were driven to the Far West from the Midwest and from New Mexico. Sheep were brought around the Horn from the Eastern states, and imported from Australia (1). Dogs accompanying these flocks, along with later arrivals, would figure in the background of the Australian Shepherd.

Dogs coming with flocks from the Midwest and East would have been largely of the old-fashioned Collie type, often called shepherds, which came to America with settlers from the British Isles. Collies and shepherd dogs came to the West not only from the East and Midwest but also directly from Britain. The Collie of those days, a strong, multi-purpose working dog, had a more upstanding style of work with a "looser eye" than its working descendant, the Border Collies (2). Unlike its show descendant, the Rough Collie, it was rarely sable in color, but was usually black with white and/or tan markings, or blue merle. The Rough Collie and the Border Collie began to be developed in their present forms in the late 19th century, the Rough Collie being influenced by conformation shows, the Border Collie by sheepdog trials (3).

As the modern Rough Collie and Border Collie developed, they continued to be imported into America. Meanwhile, working dogs of the old collie/shepherd type were still being bred on American farms and ranches. In the East and Midwest, dogs of this type eventually came to be called "English Shepherds" and sometimes "American Shepherds." In the West, similar dogs came to be called "Australian Shepherds." Differences arose as the breeds developed and received differing influences due to location and breeding, but similarities remained. Natural bobtails occur in the English Shepherd and were not uncommon the early Rough and Smooth "show" Collies (4). While it became customary to dock the Australian Shepherd, the English Shepherd is allowed both long and naturally short tails. Coat and conformation are very; similar. The English Shepherd and the Australian Shepherd share the old Collie colors of tricolor, black-and-tan and black-and-white, but the sable that is accepted in the English Shepherd, and which did occur in the early Aussie, is not accepted by the Australian Shepherd standard today; likewise, merle colors are not acceptable for the English Shepherd today. The Border Collies, on the other hand, retains all of the old collie colors. They are most commonly black-and-white, of course, but also can be tricolor, black-and-tan, red, red merle, blue merle, blue/grey, and sable (5).

The dogs which helped bring flocks from New Mexico would have been largely of Spanish origin. Old accounts describe the "New Mexican sheepdogs" as large, powerful guardian dogs, wolfish in aspect and generally yellowish-white in color (6). Dogs of this type were undoubtedly present in Spanish California as well. Spanish shepherd dogs, descended from the Alpine Mastiff, had come to the West with the early Spanish; settlers. As the dogs of British background came into the West, the strains would become intermingled, much as the Spanish horses of the West were bred with the Thoroughbreds and other Eastern breeds of the later settlers. The principal requirement for herding dogs was the ability to do the job.

Dogs arriving with shipments of sheep from Australia would have been largely of British origin, as were the settlers of Australia at that time. The dogs from Australia are said to trace to the bob- tailed Smithfield dog and to the merle German Coolie or Koolie, a dog similar to the Australian Shepherd of the American West. The German Coolie has long been known in Australia, although unrecognized by the Australian kennel club. Its unusual name apparently was due to the popularity of the type in an area of Australia where there were a number of German settlers, the dogs being acquired by the settlers when they obtained livestock after arriving in Australia (7). It is possible that a few German herding dogs contributed also, in view of the fact that the Merino sheep imported into Australia in the 19th century came most often from Saxony in Germany. There was a wide variety of coat types and colors among the herding dogs of Germany in those days, as was the case elsewhere in Europe before the advent of dog shows.

Although only a small proportion of working dogs in the American West would have been of Australian origin, and merle coloring would have been common in the non-Australian dogs, perhaps the connection between Australia and merle shepherd dogs came about in this way: People seeing sheep from Australia being unloaded at their destination may have noticed merle dogs accompanying the flocks. They then associated that color and general appearance with similar herding dogs in the area, irrespective of the actual background of individual dogs, calling such dogs in general "Australian Shepherds." My large blue merle Sheltie has often been called an Australian Shepherd simply because of his color and general appearance. It has been very common for people to take color to signify a breed.

I have found no evidence for the theory that the Australian Shepherd originated with dogs taken to Australia in the mid-19th century by Basques accompanying Merino sheep from Spain, the dogs then being taken from Australia to America. While the Merino breed is of Spanish origin, Merinos were imported into Australia for the most part from Saxony rather than from Spain; the King of Spain had presented the ruler of Saxony with a gift of Merinos, and eventually Saxony became the most practical source of Merinos (8). The Basques who came to the American West in the mid-1800's came from South America, Mexico and the Basque country of Spain and France. They came initially because of the Gold Rush, but quickly took advantage of the opportunities opening up in the livestock business and became very prominent in the sheep industry of the United States. Basques did not go to Australia until after the turn of the century. In Australia, the Basques became involved in the sugar cane industry and not the sheep industry. In their homeland the Basques were not any more particularly associated with sheepherding than was any other ethnic group (9).

Basques have had an important influence on the development of the Australian Shepherd through the use and breeding of shepherd dogs in the American West. This doesn't mean, however, that the ancestors of the dogs came mostly from the Basque country, although it is possible some of them did. Accounts of the Basques who came to the U.S. to work as sheepherders relate that it was a common practice for the sheepherder to acquire a dog after his arrival (11).

The herding dogs of the Basque country are generally shaggy-faced dogs somewhat like a shorter-coated, self-colored Bearded Collie or small Briard. The usual colors are shades of fawn, sable, grey, and, in some of the French varieties, various merle colors, all with few or not white markings and the nose and eye rims invariably black. Both long tails and natural bobtails occur. There is a "smooth-faced" variety of the Pyrenean Shepherd of France, described as resembling a small working collie or large Sheltie with shorter coat; this variety is most often merle in color, but as is the case with the more common shaggy-faced varieties (the different coat types can be bred together), the black-and-tan pattern, which includes tricolor, is not characteristic and is listed as a fault in the breed standard. Solid black occurs but is said to be rare. Also in the Pyrenees are the large flock guardian breeds, the well-known great Pyrenees of France and the Pyrenean Mastiff of Spain, both white in color with a few patches, of brownish or greyish sable. All over Europe, similar coat types and conformation can be found in the working breeds -- even the reindeer-herding spitz of Lapland sometimes has a natural bobtail.

Many 19th-century American photos show dogs of the old working collie/shepherd type. Some people attempt to label the dogs with specific modern breed names, but this is not really accurate. The present-day breeds (of all the groups -- terriers, gundogs, whatever) did not become clearly defined until long after dogs shows began. Which strains came to be recognized breeds, and at what time, and even in what forms, had a lot to do with whether and when a group of people decided to take up the type as their breed. Contrary to popular belief, kennel club recognition provides no special claim to purity of historical background; about all that can be said is that at some point in time, written pedigrees began to be kept, type became more standardized, and studbooks were officially closed.

There would have been much interbreeding of the various strains of herding dogs in the American West in the years leading up to the early 1900's. This is especially likely when there is similarity of type, as would be the case with dogs of British derivation and dogs of Spanish/Basque origin resembling the modern Aussie. This kind of blending is how virtually all breeds of dogs were developed, and the interbreeding in this case would have been far less arbitrary and between far less divergent types than was the case with many breeds.

General appearance and clues from historical accounts indicate that the background of the Australian Shepherd is predominantly that of the collie/shepherd dogs of the British Isles, with a possible Spanish/Basque influence. The Australian Shepherd isn't an Australian breed, although a connection with Australia provided its name. It isn't really a Spanish, Basque or British breed. It is an American bred, developed over a long period of time in the American West (12).

(1) California, 3rd. ed., by John W. Caughey, 1970, Prentice Hall; among others. The volume The Ranchers, by the Editors of Time-Life Books (Old West series), 1976, has an excellent summary of the history of the sheep industry in the West, including an extensive bibliography.

(2) The Farmer's Dog, by John Holmes, 8th ed., 1978, Popular Dogs Publ. Co.; Sheepdogs at Work by Tony Iley, 1982, Dalesman Books; among others, relate that the emphasis on "eye" and crouching style in the Border Collie is largely the result of the working trials which began for British sheepdogs in the late 19th century. Sheepdogs with "eye" undoubtedly have existed from the beginning, but in relatively small numbers until the trait became especially desirable and so consciously selected for in breeding.

(3) Various histories of early show Collies tell of the change in characteristic color, including The New Complete Collie, Collie Club of America, 1983, Howell Book House. The Popular Collie, by Margaret Osborne, 1962, Arco Publ. Co., relates: ". . . the blue merle colour is one of the very oldest in the Collie breed and blue dogs were frequently seen on farms as companions and workers. Possibly this was the reason -- because they were considered 'common ' -- that merle Collies almost entirely disappeared from the show-ring . . . and if it had not been for the efforts of a few stalwarts who, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, set about resuscitating this colour, we should almost certainly have no blue merle Collies today."

(4) Bobtails in the English Shepherd: Brochure published by The English Shepherd Club; breed standard of the English Shepherd; as well as photos, articles, and personal knowledge. Bobtails in the early show Collie: The Collie, by O. P. Bennett; Dogs of All Nations, by Count Hendryk de Bylandt, 1904, E. Kluwer, which includes a photo of the bobtailed collie which for a time was recognized by one of the British kennel clubs and in overall appearance is very similar to a typical Australian Shepherd of today. Letters and a photo appearing in the British rare livestock breed magazine, The Ark, May 1987 and July 1987, deal with bobtailed working collies in Britain today, describing a dog quite similar in physical form and manner of working to what is considered typical of the Australian Shepherd. (One British author has attempted to link even these British dogs to an ultimate "Iberian" origin, but there is no basis for an identification of natural bobtails with Spain; natural bobtails occur in herding dogs throughout Europe.)

(5) The Versatile Border Collie, by Janet Larson, 1986, Alpine Publications, Inc.; The Border Collie, by Iris Combe, 1987, Faber and Faber; among others, discuss the variety of color in the Border Collie. Blue merle English Shepherds are mentioned in an article which appeared in a 1954 issue of the National Stockdog Magazine. With regard to Aussies, it is well known that sables originally occurred and still do occur in the breed, even though now discriminated against; sources include personal discussion with breeders as well as occasional reference to the color in articles on the breed. It is also known, through discussion with breeders, that the original intent had been to establish an all-merle breed, but that genetic problems involved in breeding merle to merle makes this impractical and breeders came to realize that the solid colors were needed after all. Many show breeds are much more limited in color now than they were originally, and often it was rather arbitrary what colors came to be considered "proper."

(6) Dogs on the Frontier, by John E. Baur, 1964, The Naylor Co. These dogs were primarily guardians with some low-key guiding behaviors. The modern breeds probably closest to the "New Mexican sheepdog" would be the Pyrenean Mastiff of Spain (similar to and related to the Great Pyrenees of France) and other flock-guardian breeds of the Iberian Peninsula.

(7) A few references to the "German Coolie," "German Koolie" or "German Collie" appear in various letters and articles in working dog magazines and in a few books. The Koolie and the Smithfield exist in Australia to this day as working dogs, not recognized by the bench show authorities (there is, however, a breed club for the Koolie). With regard to the Koolie, the dog was "German" in that it was popular in an area of Australia where there were many German settlers who used this dog, much as the Australian Shepherd is "Basque" due to Basque sheepherders using it in the American West, rather than these breeds having their principal origin with dogs brought from Germany or the Basque country. Photos of Koolies and Smithfields show strong resemblance to the Australian Shepherd in overall form and color, although Koolies can also be shorthaired and prick-eared (as were many early Aussies) and Smithfields can have Beardie-like coats.

(8) Sheep and Wool Science, 4th Ed., by E. M. Ensminger, 1970, Interstate, as well as histories of Australia such as A History of Australia, by Marjorie Barnard, 1963, Frederick A. Prager.

(9) Amerikanuak, Basques in the New World, by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao, University of Nevada, considered the definitive book on the subject.

(10) Sweet Promised Land, by Robert Laxalt, 1989, University of Nevada, in addition to various articles in magazines relating to the West and its history.

(11) Various dog breed encyclopedias, e.g., A Standard Guide to Purebred Dogs, Harry Glover, 1977, McGraw-Hill; The Encyclopedia of the Dog, Fiorenzo Fiorone, 1973, Rissoli Editori. The Pyrenean Shepherd of France and the Catalonian Sheepdog of Spain are separate breeds but obvi ously closely related. Both breeds are close to their working roots, although they are gradually being bred more and more as show dogs and pets. Although the French standard allows merles, collie-like coast, and natural bobtails, thus including in the breed some individuals which resemble the Aussie and thus are sometimes used to "prove" the Aussie's supposed Basque origin, these are in fact minority characteristics in the breed as a whole. The black-and-tan and tricolor patterns are specifically barred by the French standard as being uncharacteristic, liver dilutes are excluded (nose must be black), and white markings are discouraged in the French breed and disallowed in the Spanish one. The colors associated with the Aussie are, of course, typical working collie colors and markings, as is the dog's general appearance.

(12) Perhaps a more accurate name for the breed would be "American Western Shepherd." It appears that the theory of Basque origin probably came about from the understandable assumption by some breeders who obtained their first dogs from Basque sheepherders, that the dogs themselves must be of Basque background, and it makes a romantic picture to envision the Basque sheepherders being followed around the world by "their little blue dogs," but this picture, nonetheless, is erroneous. The Aussie is the direct descendent, and primarily the descendant, of the old-fashioned farm shepherd or collie, the "Old Shep" of legend, a heritage of which to be proud.

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