The History of the Australian Shepherd

by Nannette Newbury First appeared in Dogs in Review, November 2004 Issue
“The Australian Shepherd looks toward a sound, hopeful future. In spite of its name, this breed seems to me very much American, an amalgamation of traits from across the seas; intelligence, loyalty and unique beauty combined with a physical agility for ease in doing the job it enjoys so much. Future breeding programs must retain these valuable traits—not a simple task in the light of increasing public interest in the breed.”
Rachel Page Elliott, mid 1970s

We don’t have much in the way of a written or documented history of the development of this talented and versatile bob-tailed herding dog. In fact, no one has the definitive answer as to how the breed even became known as the “Australian Shepherd,” although many contrasting theories abound. One fact is clear…the modern development of this dog occurred in the United States, primarily the western United States, coinciding with the mass immigration associated with the California Gold Rush in 1849.

The popular story as to the origin of the name of the breed revolves around the immigration of Basque shepherds from Australia to the U.S. When the shepherds arrived with their sheep, they were observed with their “little blue dogs.” Study shows however that no one theory serves to uncover the mystique of the breed’s name and early development.

One fact does remain clear—the development of this breed in America closely follows the immigration patterns of cultures from all over the world and as with those immigrants, quickly became a melting pot of not only cultures, but of canine breeds.

The recently published study (May 2004) Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog bears out this hypothesis. In this study the Australian Shepherd is one of four breeds that did not “cluster.” Most of the breeds studied form distinct clusters consisting solely of dogs from that breed. A lack of clustering would indicate, according to the scientists, that “the breed barrier (i.e., breed registry) is apparently too recent or insufficiently strict to have resulted in genetic differentiation.”

Early Breed Development
To retrace the historical development of this unique breed, it makes sense to follow the development of the sheep wool and meat industries. Over 10,000 years ago, man discovered that the mobile beast provided not only sustenance, but wool provided protection against the harsher climates outside of the Mesopotamian plains where the temperature rarely dropped below 70 degrees. One can assume that these early nomadic shepherds used dogs to assist them in their large-flock migration.

Sheep and wool production spread to Europe and the Romans established a woolen manufacturing center in England as early as 50 AD. The Merina sheep are said to have developed from these Roman lines. The Merina lines deteriorated during the Dark Ages, but were later revived by the Saracens when they conquered Spain in the early 8th Century. Although the Saracens eventually lost control and were banished from Spain, the Merino sheep remained. It can be assumed that the dogs and shepherds also remained. The early Spanish dogs breeds soon developed to manage this expanding national industry. Many of these dogs descended from the Alpine mastiff. Sheep were a highly valued and protected source of income for Spain and helped to finance the voyages of Columbus and the Conquistadors who colonized worldwide.

Protecting its valuable asset closely, the exportation of a single Spanish ewe could earn a smuggler the death penalty up until 1786. After that time sheep were exported to Europe. England’s wool empire reached it’s zenith during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Recognizing the value of the sheep and wool industry Henry seized flocks from the monasteries and redistributed the sheep to court supporters. This lead to vast unemployment amongst the shepherds, creating a surge in immigration to the American colonies. When these shepherds migrated to the colonies it can be assumed they took some dogs with them.

Some of the breeds associated with English and Scottish shepherds that may have played a role in the American colonies, and consequently the Australian Shepherd, were the Collies (rough and smooth), the Border Collie the Scots Collie.

The discovery of new textile technologies replaced England’s hand spinning and weaving technologies and the introduction of improved machinery lead to the growth of the sheep industry in such English colonies as Australia and New Zealand. In 1797 the first documented importation of Merino sheep by an English Army officer occurred in Australia.

It is commonly thought that the most obvious forefathers of the Australian Shepherd in Australia would be the bob-tailed Smithfield Dog, long associated with the Smithfield livestock yards in England, and the merled German Coolie (aka, Coulie). Other herding dogs in Australia that may have contributed to early breed development of the Australian Shepherd are the Dorset Blue Shag, the Magpie, the Cumberland Sheepdog, the Welsh Grey, the Hilman and the Black-and-Tan sheepdogs. It is even possible that some German dog breeds entered into our breed development at this time, as the majority of Merino sheep imported to Australia at this time came from the Saxony region of Europe.

In 1519 when Cortez started his expedition which would later open up Mexico and the western Untied States, he took with him the offspring of sheep from Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, as a walking food supply. These sheep were not the famous Merinos, but large, coarse-wooled Spanish “Churros.”
During the U.S. colonial period, England tried desperately to discourage a competing wool industry in America. With single-minded determination and through purchases from the Dutch and sheep smuggled from England, the sheep population in the colony of Massachusetts had grown to 10,000 by 1664. As settlers moved west during the 1800s they took with them flocks of sheep and their dogs (primarily of English breeding) from the Eastern seaboard.

The Basque Connection
War, unemployment and a poor outlook for the future in their homeland, spurred the Basques to emigrate to Argentina and Paraguay and Chile in the 1840s, where they established themselves as hotel owners and livestock tenders. Originally a maritime culture, Basques were present among early traders and explorers in discovering the New World. The Basque shepherds in South America took heed of the Gold Rush in 1849 and re-migrated to California in search of riches. It is possible that they brought with them dogs at this time. As their primary focus for coming to America was to leave shepherding and to become rich miners, one wonders how many dogs made this trip from South America.

The competition in the gold fields and the extreme anti-foreigner sentiment directed towards them, left few chances for success in the mines. Basques did what it took to survive in the western states, including herding sheep. It is interesting to note that, “…few Basque immigrants herded sheep back home…few had sheepherding experience…and most Basque immigrants, when given the opportunity, left…sheepherding.” (Bieter, John and Mark, An Enduring Legacy: the Story of Basques in Idaho, 2000).

By the 1860s the Basques began to find work in the less competitive and extremely harsh world of herding sheep and cattle. Within decades they dominated this work. The western expansion of the sheep and cattle industries coincided with the growth of the mining centers and Basques, their dogs and herds were soon known in Nevada, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado. Basque immigration peaked in the U.S. between 1900 and 1920.

William Douglass notes in an article entitled, Basque Sheepherding in the American West, “One common, but erroneous assumption about the Basques is that every immigrant from the Pyrenees had an extensive background in sheepherding. In point of fact, there were very few professional herders in the Basque country itself and, ironically, practically none of them moved to the United States.” The first Basques to migrate to the U.S. did so after initially migrating to Argentina and Chile.
Even if some dogs migrated with Basque shepherds originally from the Pyrenees, they might be the shaggy faced dogs that more resemble a shorter coated Bearded Collie or small Briard. A Basque French smooth-faced variety might be the Pyrenean Shepherd. Both long and natural-bob tails occur in this breed. Also in the Pyrenees are the well-known large-flock guardian breeds to include the Great Pyrenees and the Pyrenean Mastiff of Spain.

Contrary to populist theories very few Basques migrated to Australia. In the early 20th century a modest chain of migration from the Spanish Basque to North Queensland Australia occurred. However the majority of Basque immigrants to Australia conscripted to work in the canefields around 1910.

The Modern Australian Shepherd
The westward expansion in the United States occurred between 1849 and 1900. It would appear that the Australian Shepherd also came into its own as a distinct breed during this time period. Combining breeds from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Spain, France, Spain and Germany the little blue bob-tailed dog emerged as ranchers and farmers bred dogs to make the livestock work at hand easier. Terrain and weather affected the breed’s evolution.

By 1917 we have the one of the first records of dogs that would become known of Australian Shepherds attributed to Earl Cotton of eastern Oregon by his niece, Mrs. Roy E. Cotton. Mr. Cotton started raising sheep at the beginning of WWI and had a hard time finding the right dog to work with. He traveled to either Montana or Colorado on a sheep buying trip and returned with “two choice rams and several small, grey merled dogs.” Cotton developed his own breeding program over the next few years, even utilizing Aussie-Border Collie crosses. Sometime around 1924 Cotton imported or purchased two dogs from Australia which “cost him a small fortune!”

“The Australian dogs were absolutely identical to Earl’s best Aussies,” notes his niece. Earl Cotton maintained that the “drop-eared, natural bob tail had come from Australia originally, but that the breed was overly aggressive.”

“The Aussies had been crossed with the mostly black-type border collie and then selectively bred to hold the blue merle coloring, and moderately bold and aggressive temperament. Our American version is the result.”

Sometime in the 1920s Juanita Ely of Littleton, CO acquired her first Aussies. Conflicting data indicates she purchased a blue merle from a young Basque shepherd from Idaho; other reports tell us she imported sheep from Australia and with the sheep and the shepherd, came the little blue dogs.

Between 1920 through 1940 the breed enjoyed marked increase in popularity and the foundation lines for our modern dogs became established during this time. Included in this roster of notable early breeders are Noel Heard who ran a feed mill in Ashland, OR and his son Weldon Heard DVM of Roseburg, OR; Roy Ritter of Nevada started selectively breeding Aussies for his cattle operations as early as 1924; Burt Vetier a Montana rancher owner a line of blue merle Aussies around 1923 he used for gathering range horses; William Gibson of Omaha, NE, had bob-tailed shepherds in 1928; and Don Breazeale of northern California started as an Aussie breeder in 1936, and was the first to register an Aussie in 1959 with the Animal Research Foundation.

Perhaps the person most closely associated with spring boarding the Australian Shepherd into the public eye and starting to set breed type was Jay Sisler, horse trainer/ranch hand from Emmett, Idaho. Sisler states, “I had my first ‘blue dog’ about 1939, but Keno (1944 or 1945) was the first good dog I ever owned and was the beginning of my good line of dogs.” Jay’s brother Gene, also owned an early foundation bitch bought at a livestock auction in 1947. From this mating came Jay’s famous rodeo trick act dogs, Shorty and Stub. Jay’s rodeo career was launched in 1949 with this pair when a promoter in Star, Idaho offered Jay $10 to perform. Sisler’s rodeo trick act career spanned twenty years and included performances on the Ed Sullivan show and tours with Roy Rogers in stadiums throughout the United States and Canada. Stub and Shorty went on to play lead roles in two Walt Disney movies, “Stub, the World’s Greatest Cowdog (1956),” and “Run, Appaloosa, Run (1973).” In 2002 Sisler was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

Sisler’s dogs went onto to play key roles in many of the early breed bloodlines including Harold May’s Gypsy; Iacovetta’s Buck; the Oklahoma Mansker’s Turk line; Fletcher Woods of Colorado and his foundation dog Wood’s Jay is sired by Sisler’s Shorty; the Sorensen line; and indirectly the Hartnagle Las Rocosa line. Subsequent lines continued to develop in California, the Pacific Northwest, Arizona during this time.

There were still no registries at this time and breeding relied on dogs that could work, were merled and had a bob-tail. Many breeding occurred during this time that had many dogs of no relation bred to each other in order to produce the ideal ranch or farm dog. Oral history tells us this practice has continued through the late 1960s. It was not entirely unusual for breeders during this time to get an “Aussie” from the local animal shelter; nor was it unusual in California in the late 1960s or early 1970s to have a litter of pups and to dock the merle pups and sell them as Aussies and leave the tails on the black and white ones and sell those as Border Collies!

In 1950 the Animal Research Foundation originated as the English Shepherd Dog Club of America (ESCOA). By 1953 there were 108 members including Mr. E.G. Emmanuel, of Butler, IN, and Mr. Frederick Preston Search of Carmel Valley, CA. Mr. Emmanuel later broke off in 1954 and established the International English Shepherd Registry (IESR), which became the National Stock Dog Registry (NSDR).

As early as 1952 Dr. Tom Stodghill of the Animal Research Foundation (ARF) with Emmanuel and Preston were researching the history of the Australian Shepherd and registered the first Australian Shepherd, owned by Don Breazeale of Modesto, CA in 1959. Stodghill is adamant in his theory that the Australian Shepherd developed solely in Australia based on an interview with one Mr. Rod Berry of New South Wales. Berry contends that the Aussie is an amalgamation of the Smithfield (London meat market) dog and a cross on a merle Scottish collie owned by one family, The Simpson’s of Upper Hunter River (NSW). The Simpson’s apparently emigrated to California during the gold rush era, taking bob-tail merled dogs with them” Stodghill contention is that as only one family in Australia bred this dog and then removed the dog from Australia, the dog was never recognized as a breed in that country.

The first meeting of the Australian Shepherd Club of America, the club that would eventually be the primary parent club of the Aussie, took place in May 1957 in Tucson, AZ. The original purpose was to seek AKC recognition for the breed. This stance changed in later years. In the first decade ASCA only published a newsletter; they did not have dog shows, a championship titling program or even a registry. The first dogs registered utilized the NSDR. ASCA members dissatisfied with Emmanuel’s NSDR registry began to utilize Stodghill’s ARF registry as well. ASCA went on to found its own registry in 1971. That year Wildhagen’s Dutchman of Flintridge became the first ASCA breed champion as well as the first Australian Shepherd to hold companion dog and companion dog excellent titles in ASCA. He is a foundation sire for many of the modern Australian Shepherd show lines. The first ASCA breed specialty show took place in 1974.

The International Australian Shepherd Association (IASA) was formed in 1966 and held its first Specialty show in 1967 and opened their own registry in 1972. IASA however declined to award championships in their competitive program, citing potential conflicts with future AKC titling; this proved to be the eventual undoing of this organization after ASCA introduced their own championship program at a later date. By the 1970s the Australian Shepherd is firmly ensconced as a breed closely associated with rodeos, horse shows, cattle and sheep ranching operations and the Wild West in general.

In 1991 the Australian Shepherd Association (ASA) was formed with the sole purpose of achieving AKC recognition for the breed. The Australian Shepherd was breed #135 to be recognized by the AKC in 1993, and the parent club (with a name change) became the United States Australian Shepherd Association (USASA).

The subsequent development of the breed has rested solely on its place in society. As small-scale, family-owned livestock operations have decreased in numbers, the popularity of the breed has not—rather the tremendously popular breed has enjoyed rapid growth as they are extremely adaptive to such modern venues as obedience, agility, tracking, search and rescue; therapy dogs and companion animals. The original purpose and origin of the breed however remains rooted and tied to the development of the West.