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What is the Australian Shepherd?

by Terry Martin, Slash V Working Australian Shepherds, beginning paragraphs of article printed in the Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine 1994

What kind of a working dog is an Australian Shepherd?  What should we expect of a good one?  The Australian Shepherd is a "hands on" type of worker who wants to be part of the action.  He works close to the stock in an upright position controlling his stock by gaining authority with confidence readily backed up by grip.  Different working situations have prompted breeders to develop more variations in style than some breeds.  Lines have been selected to be heeling driving dogs, and this instinct may dilute the desire to head and to contain the stock.  Others are very strong fetch dogs with an intense instinct to gather and keep the stock together.  Understanding the style and
instinct of your individual dog is the first step to using him effectively.

Variation in style of the good dogs is the result of breeding for specific needs.  Variation in style of weak or inferior dogs in any breed is the
result of indiscriminate breeding or the unfortunate unpredictability of hereditary traits.  I can't overemphasize the importance of researching bloodlines and talking to people who have actually seen the dogs work.

A good Australian Shepherd will work silent or use bark for authority.  A dog who barks and does not bite is of little use for ranch work.  The ideal Australian Shepherd will heel low and grip on the nose or face of cattle.  A good dog will instinctively run to the head of cattle needing to be turned back and will apply force.  The dog will have the confidence to walk in on standing stock to move them.  There are dogs who will effectively turn running stock but will not use force on stock when standing.  In many ranch situations this dog is still useful because power is needed when stock are running out of the handler's control.  The dog should be there to help. Just as you can use a man, horse, or a four wheeler, the dog has things he can do for you.  An Australian Shepherd's power, agility and stock savvy give him an advantage over stock that none of the above can equal.  The good Australian Shepherd is always eager for physical confrontation with the stock.

It is important to understand that the aggressive Australian shepherd is not necessarily going to develop into a dog always biting stock.  A good dog will learn through experience and training when to apply force and when his presence is sufficient to move or stop livestock.  His early instinct to bite livestock will develop into an awareness of appropriate force as he learns about livestock's response to his actions.  A confident aggressive dog will convey his power to livestock in ways we probably will never completely understand.  You will see powerful dogs make a move toward a cow, turning her without even touching her.  The same cow will run over a weaker dog in the same situation.  Livestock can read a dog and sense their weakness or strength.  The dog with the grip to back up his stand has learned he can hold his own and handle situations.  This confidence is seen as power by the stock.  The dog who has been backed down by livestock will be the loser too many times, and without confidence he becomes useless.

An important difference in working a dog like the Australian Shepherd compared to a strong eyed breed is for you to understand where the dog is comfortable working.  This is where his instinct is going to put him.  As a comparison, imagine that the strong eyed dog is working an invisible circle drawn out around the stock.  As long as he can put pressure on one side of that circle and the stock responds properly, he is content to stay outside the circle.  His constant eye contact tells him he is in control.  Only when the stock does not move from this subtle pressure does he move inside the circle to apply needed force.  The reason some "eye dogs" are considered weak on aggressive stock is because of their reluctance to move inside this circle when force is needed.  The Australian Shepherd does not see this invisible circle.  He is working the stock themselves, and therefore his instinct brings him closer before he is content that he has control.  A good Australian Shepherd will be aware of all the stock within his vision and quickly correct one getting away or lagging while all the time his instinct keeps him in close.  This basic instinct to be close is one of the reasons the breed is likely to grip or be aggressive.  Near proximity triggers the
instinct to take hold.

The quiet courageous cattle dog who can handle tough cattle by gaining their respect with grip and the sheep dog with the instinct to work wide off the stock both use POWER and CONFIDENCE to be the best at what they do.  But to be truly great they must use it in far different ways.


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