Origins and history of the Aussie

The Origins of the Aussie

The name Australian Shepherd is now under fire. Many have claimed its unsuitability due to the lack of their existence in Australia and due to the development of the breed in the United States. However, was there a total lack of existence of these dogs in Australia and was the breed truly developed in the United States that we can place the American name on the breed?

Over the years, I have had the great fortune of meeting people from different areas of the world. One man I met was from the Basque region of Spain which is in the north just west of the Pyrenees Mountains. He identified himself as a professional shepherd. He was quite in- terested in my dogs saying that he knew just what kind of dog they really were. He told me that they were a better looking version of what he had used in Europe with his flocks. I said, "Don't you use Border Collies?" He replied that Border Collies were fine for certain terrain, but that these dogs did much better in other situations.

I told him that we have questions about their origin and I asked him what he knows. He said that their ancestors which looked quite similar were from the Basque -- the same place as the Merino sheep. He was sure with the bobtail and merle coat that they started out as a cross with the tough little Pyrenean Shepherd and other dogs that existed in that area. He told me that the old-time shepherds would select dogs to herd based on eye color, coat and taillessness. The shepherds believed that a bobtailed, one blue and one brown eyed dog made for the best herding dog, and they selected for the double coat which made them more weather resistant and hardy. He said you know that they would cross a Pyrenean with a bigger dog to try to combine herding instinct with guarding instinct. This way they kept the agility of the Pyrenean and gained size and presence to move and protect the sheep. He went on to say that as the Merino sheep became well-known around the world for their hardiness, other countries imported them. Some went to England, but it was in Australia that they really took hold. He explained that as the sheep went so went the dogs. This was in August of 1985. Could it be that these dogs or their ancestors are still in the Basque? Has any one ever looked there? I found this conversation quite thought provoking as to the true origins of our dogs.

Not long after this, I met some people who owned Pyrenean Shepherds at an SKC show. They told me that it was well-accepted by their fancy that their dogs were not only the progenitors of all herding breeds without tails, but also of the Australian Shepherd especially because of the similarity in looks. I looked at the totally different coat on their dogs and became skeptical that this could be true. They then pulled a dog from one of their crates that had a coat similar to our dogs. They called him an open-faced, rough coat meaning his true facial features could be seen unlike the other variety where the coat covers the face and he had a straight double coat. Being merle, he looked just like a little Aussie with similar coat. I then realized that these little dogs (about 16 to 17") could easily be behind our dogs.

I decided to go to the library and study the movement of sheep throughout the world hoping that there may be a clue to why our dogs might be called Australian Shepherds and yet exist in American. Just as the Basque Shepherd told me, I found that the Merino sheep is the most popular sheep in Australia and that these sheep were from Northern Spain originally. The sheep were imported to England, and also into Australia. When people realized how hardy they were, they grew in popularity in Australia.

American history records the great Cattlemen-Shepherd battles in the western part of our country. They were fought over the way the sheep eat the grass which is lower than the cattle. This left nothing for the cattle to graze on. These sheep did not come from the East Coast across the Mississippi to the West. Instead, they were imported directly to the West Coast. They came basically from Australia to the United States, and as I learned previously, where the sheep go, so go their dogs.

Anyone who has the first Australian Shepherd yearbook has seen the picture from the 1800's of the Western family with the dogs that look like Australian Shepherds. This was not long after the sheep entered the country. There has been little change in the breed since then. Why are the dogs so much more plentiful on the West Coast even to this day? Why is it that the early fanciers came from the western side of the Mississippi? Why was it initially that they were thought to be Australian in origin and why were they called the Australian's dog or the Aussie's dog? Could it be that these dogs came with the sheep from Australia? These inquiries and the above facts would suggest they did.

But the question persists, why are there no known Australian Shepherds in Australia? In September a few years ago, at a dog show, I had the most pleasant fortune of meeting a man from Australia. He was in his sixties, and as soon as he opened his mouth, I knew I wanted to ask him this very question. A few of the Aussie owners and I talked to him for a while. We discovered that he was a judge in Australia who was touring our country for a month or two with his Australian Terriers. He was very interested in our Australian Shepherds, and he took several pictures. Finally, I asked him what he knew about our breed's origin and why was there no dogs in their country identified as such. I told him that a name change was under consideration and asked if he felt that the Americans developed the breed.

He replied, "You know years ago, I mentored under a wise old judge, back when I was about twenty. He told me that these dogs did come from Australia, but that they were becoming extinct there. He told me that there were some in the States and that they were a very interesting breed. I suppose that years ago, maybe forty or fifty years ago on the stations (something you call ranches) you would have found them still. There may even be pictures, but no one organized them as a breed or cared to preserve them in Australia.

"It is much like the bobtail cattle dog that is nearly extinct. It was developed solely by the ranchers, but its popularity waned. No one protected the breed until recently. They could have easily died out, too. Why, the Australian Terrier wouldn't have been a breed if someone didn't fancy them as such. Those that discovered them didn't change their origin, they just recognized it."

"So what about the Aussie's origin in your country and how did they get to the United States?" I asked.

He continued, "Well, I believe that they followed the sheep. You know that it was one man who brought the Merino sheep into Australia, but dogs were necessary for herd control. They may have been changed slightly in Australia since many times the dogs would be bred with other good herding dogs already in the area. No actual breeds existed, just good working dogs. Dogs of a certain area looked more like each other and less like dogs from another area and these then developed into breeds."

I suggested, " In searching our history, one of our breed's fanciers went to Wales where she found a dog that looks just like the Australian Shepherd called the Old Welsh Bobtail. Locals claim that this dog was more pure than the Border Collie coming with the sheep when they were imported to England from the Basque. It was through mixing this dog with the dogs of the border area of Wales that produced the Border Collie. Could it be that the Australian Shepherd is a more pure version like the Old Welch Bobtail or maybe close to the same thing? "

He replied, "I'm sure that with thorough study one could come up with their true origin, but to call them American without being sure that they came from a breeding of several different dogs within your country would be a misnomer. Discovering the breed is different from developing it. Right now at least you know that they came through Australia. I understand that this is the reason why the Australian Kennel Club accepted your use of our country's name."

As you can see, information on our breed's origin exists. It may be sketchy and incomplete, but it does point at least as far back as Australia. To say that they are an American developed breed would mean that they came from a variety of breeds in our country and developed into a different breed in our country. We cannot say that. There is evidence that these dogs existed as the same dog as early as the 1800's when they would have come with the sheep from Australia. There also is some evidence that these dogs may have existed in more pure form from the Basque region of Spain through Australia to the United States.

Just because the breed doesn't exist in Australia today does not mean that they did not exist in the past. That's a little like saying that George Washington never existed just because we never saw him. We might want to revise history and change the facts to suit our purposes, but the facts would remain and history cannot be changed for those who are willing to search for the truth.

Yes, we discovered the breed, but to say that it was developed in America would be a disservice to the breed. To put the American Shepherd name on this breed of dog would be arrogant at best. At this time, we have facts that the breed came from Australia to the United States. We have no evidence that the breed was developed in the United States, but it was merely discovered here. Therefore, until other facts better defines our breed's history, then what better, more accurate name can we possible use than Australian Shepherd.