Stockdog Corner: The Aussie getting established as a breed

By April 18, 2017July 5th, 2017No Comments


By Terry Martin, as published in the Aussie Times (date unknown)

I thought I would write about the past this time.  If no one does that, it becomes lost.  When I do this, it is the past as I remember it, so I welcome other views and other memories of ASCA’s early years as well as the early years of the Aussies.

I was not around when ASCA was incorporated in 1957 and certainly was not around to verify or deny the historical reports about where the Australian Shepherd came from.  There are many things that have been written about those dogs in the 1800’s who seem to have come with sheep herds that either originated in Australia or came through Australia perhaps from Spain and other countries.  But blue bob-tailed dogs are in photos and obscure writings from those early times, and they came from somewhere.

Although I got my first Aussie in the mid sixties, I did not become involved in ASCA until the registry was begun in 1972.  I’d like to paint a picture of what the dog world and the Aussie world was like back then.  Of course, as I said above, this is from my perspective and I was living on a ranch in rural Colorado.  For those of you who can’t remember back when there was no internet or computers (no fax machines either) try to imagine how isolated each and every one of us were back then.  Our only contact with people who did not live in our area was hand written or typed (typewriter – now obsolete), stamped and mailed.  There was the telephone of course, but long distance was expensive and considered a luxury.  Many of us, myself included, got one channel on our television.  Think about that – ONE channel!  One hour of news and sports at six and ten PM.

At that time we had Aussies to work cattle, and only knew a very few people who had any kind of stockdogs.  There was only one magazine up until ASCA began the Aussie Times just before I joined.  That magazine was all breed stockdogs and put out by the National Stock Dog Registry (NSDR) or more known then as the International English Shepherd Registry (IESR).  It was eagerly awaited at my house and had stories about farm and ranch dogs mostly in the West and Midwest at that time.  It also had a lively letters to the editor section.  Although it appeared that the main Aussie activity back then was California and the west coast, Arizona, and Colorado,  I did not know any of the Colorado people.  I had only seen a very few Aussies at all.  The general public  had no idea what they were or that they were a breed.  No telling how many times I described an Aussie this way.  “You know what a Border Collie looks like?  Well the Aussie is about that size but more compact build, the ears break over, and it does not have a tail.  They can be either black or blue merle (and then had to describe what a blue merle is).”  Often when I mentioned the tail they said, “Oh, I have seen one of those”.

So were they a breed?  What makes a breed?  The IESR had registered them for about  ten years at the request of ASCA.  ASCA was a handful of people located on the west coast and in Arizona.  But the registration requirements were pretty much wide open, because what were these dogs?  Bob tailed stockdogs of medium size and coat that came in blue merle and black with a very rare red or red merle…..And yet there were breeders out there who had kept their dogs to a strict type for many generations.  My first Aussie in the mid 1960’s came with a five generation pedigree complete with colors, eye color, tail length, and working style (which was mild, medium, or rough).  She was a Colorado bred dog from Mrs Bernard Ely.

I was introduced to more Aussies because we showed Quarter Horses at the time.  It was pretty common for people to bring their dogs to the horse shows where the dogs were loose and wandered around or laid under or near their owner’s trailer.  Except for a couple of incidents that come to mind when a dog gave in to the urge to help someone  in a cattle working class, I don’t remember dogs ever causing any problem with each other or with people.  (one incident was with our Rocky Top and the other was with Porter’s Gillian, a little blue eyed bitch sired by Heard’s Salt of Flintridge.)  Actually Gillian ran in to help a roper tie his calf.  That was not received well.

It was at the horse shows that I “met” Taylor’s Whiskey and Taylor’s Buena.  Whiskey was the first red merle I had ever seen.  I also met Hosmer’s Jill at the horse shows, another red merle.  How cool was that?!  Even in the Aussie world the color was almost unheard of at that time.

Let me get back to the ranch situation.  We lived in Colorado until the early 1970’s and then moved to Utah on a ranch there.  I met more Aussies at the horse shows there but also began finding them on ranches working cattle.  Joe Taylor who had Whiskey and Buena had working Aussies both for himself and for men who worked on the ranch and had sold dogs to others who did the same.  Even then I found that the public  did not recognize the Aussie as a breed.  I think where they were more numerous, particularly California, they were more recognizable.  The ones I saw on ranches were for the most part not registered, so those of us who were registering our own dogs were always encouraging others to do so.   We wanted the dogs to be a breed although I don’t think we really totally understood what that meant.  In a way it was a desire for people not to perceive them as a mutt!

At that time there were big sheep outfits who lambed out on the dry rocky sage covered ground behind our place.  They brought big herds and herders in wagons to stay with them – and dogs.  I did talk to some of them about their dogs.  None were registered nor did they have any interest in it, but they treasured the dogs.  Most of them looked like Border Collies but once in a great while I saw a blue merle and more often bob tails.  To believe these types of dogs are not in our breed’s foundation would be unrealistic.  As I said above, what is a breed?  What was a breed back then?

If you can picture all of this, it is impossible not to recognize that these dogs that appeared to be Aussies very likely were not pure, because what was pure in a dog that had no registry until a few years earlier?  1970 was only 46 years ago and that is a very short time in the evolution of a dog breed.  Many breeds are hundreds and even thousands of years old.  The Aussie became a breed with four or five generations of registered ancestry in most of them in a few decades.  But look back and ask yourself again, what is a breed?

When I first got into the breed they were primarily on ranches and farms.  Not entirely of course as some who did not live in rural areas were attracted to them because of their appearance,  personalities, and sometimes simply because someone they knew had a litter of puppies and gave them one.  At this same time there were beginning to be conformation shows as well as obedience competition.  These were sanctioned by ASCA with very loose rules and schedules for points.  Since so many of the dogs within the breed belonged to people in rural areas, it was fun to get together and show the dogs.  Where I lived in Utah we held shows and often went out to eat together afterward or had a meeting of our newly formed Aussie club.  There were guys in cowboy hats and boots showing “Old Blue” in conformation after brushing him on the tailgate of their truck.  We all learned about the Breed Standard (after we had one in 1977) and about structure and things like bites and earsets and angulation.  The folks who had been showing in conformation for a few years could be beaten by the ranch dogs, but of course it worked the other way too.  I personally believe that some of the ranch dogs had nice structure and movement because those people knew correct structure through years of working with horses and cattle.  They instinctively liked it and chose puppies that were correct.  Soundness was important to them in their stock as well as their stockdogs.

The first ASCA stockdog trials began in the mid seventies, and I have written about those before.  I think the reason the breed did not split any earlier than it did was because the shows and trials both were few and far between.  Making a few conformation shows a year was a big deal and going to one or two trials was too.  Thus we had a weekend with one day of conformation and obedience and a day of stockdog trial.  I don’t remember anyone traveling to those events who stayed for one and not the other.  And if  you are going to be there, there is that desire to compete.  Those were good times back when we wished people would respect our dogs as a breed and worked toward that happening.

We did create a breed from the seeds that those in the 1800’s and early 1900’s gave us.  Those seeds were no doubt mixed with the seeds of other breeds and no breed at all along the way.  Dogs who worked stock, guarded the farm/ranch/home as well as the family and had the appearance that had come to us from the past became purebred Australian Shepherds.  Purebreds with a record of ancestry and in more and more cases they had a record of achievements in ASCA events.

There were dedicated people who made this happen.  These were people from coast to coast who loved this unique breed of dogs and who for many years dedicated hours and hours of time to a dog club that did not have any money to reimburse them.  It was a dog club that at times teetered on failure and went through scary times when those who cared were in fear it would all come crashing down.  But it didn’t, and part of that I believe is because of the total uniqueness of the DOGS.  Perhaps some of us back then also had that “strong guardian instinct” the Breed Standard talks about and were not going to give up this dream.