A View of Australian Shepherd History

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments


by Linda Rorem

Horlor_1873_Collies_On_GuardLittle 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 provide a picture.

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 were 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 Collie.(2)

Unlike its show descendant, the Rough Collie, the original working collie was rarely sable in color, but was usually black with white and/or tan markings, or blue merle.(3)

Margaret Osborne relates in her book The Popular Collie:   “. . . 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.”

In The Collie (1917), O.P. Bennett and C. H. Wheeler wrote that among the early show collies, “The prevailing colors were black and white (without tan); black, tan and white; and merle.” W. E. Mason wrote in the Dec. 1908 issue of the Collie Folio, “Collies existed of the Blue Merle colour long before any sables were seen.  In fact, most of the Collies of forty years ago were of this colour, and were furthermore, considered the best workers.”

As the Rough Collie and the Border Collie began to be developed in their present forms in the late 19th century, influenced by conformation shows and sheepdog trials respectively, they continued to be imported into America. Meanwhile, however, working dogs of the old collie/shepherd type were still being bred on American farms and ranches. Some confusion arose over the collie name. The breeders of the kennel club registered dog were adamant that theirs was the one-and-only true Collie, and they were fairly successful for a time in monopolizing the name. All along, the name “shepherd” or “shepherd dog” had been used interchangeably with “collie” or “colley” for the British herding dogs, and as the “collie” name came to be associated more with the kennel club registered Collie (both the dogs with a longer and narrower head and the broader-headed individuals that continued to be part of the breed for a time), in America the name “shepherd” came to be applied more specifically to the earlier working type.(4)

In the East and Midwest, these working dogs eventually came to be called “English Shepherds,” and in the West, similar dogs came to be called “Australian Shepherds.”  There were differences due to the developing breeds receiving differing influences as a result of location and selection, but similarities remained.  Natural bobtails occur in the English Shepherd(5) and were not uncommon the early Rough and Smooth “show” Collies. O.P. Bennett and C. H. Wheeler wrote in The Collie:  “At these early shows [in the 1860s] it was by no means an uncommon sight to see placed for competition specimens that were tailless, and others with half-tails; but the Old English Sheepdog was rarely presented.
emms_bobtailcollie“A fact that is little known by the younger generation of Collie fanciers is that at the period afore-mentioned there existed quite a large number of sheep dogs exact representations of the Collie, except that some were tailless, and others half-tailed.   “In breeding from dogs of this stamp tailless, half-tailed and full-tailed puppies frequently appeared in the same litter.

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 similar in physical form and manner of working to what is considered typical of the Australian Shepherd. While it became customary to dock the Australian Shepherd, the English Shepherd is allowed both long and naturally short tails. Coat and overall conformation are similar.  The English
Bylandt_bobtailed_collieShepherd 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 and recessive chocolate/red are not acceptable for the English Shepherd today, although chocolate/red, being a recessive, still appears occasionally.(6) Another link to the collie breeds is shown by the presence in the Australian Shepherd of the mutation for sensitivity to ivermectin, MDR1.

The dogs which helped bring flocks from New Mexico were 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, with some accounts mentioning black and tan.

These dogs were primarily guardians with some low-key guiding behaviors. Dogs of this type were undoubtedly present in Spanish California as well. It is possible that dogs similar to the Carea Leon, a smaller, active Spanish herder, also were present.(7)
Spanish_sheepdog_arroganteThe rise of the sheep industry in the American West in the 19th century was accompanied by a changeover from the New Mexican sheepdog to the collie and shepherd types which were brought in by the settlers and ranchers in abundant numbers. As the dogs of British background came into the West, interbreeding took place with the Spanish strains, 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. By the later 19th century, however, the British influence predominated.(8)

In the September 24, 1859 issue of the San Joaquin Republican, a notice appeared:

“Australian Shepherd Dogs – A number of these shaggy and intelligent creatures, says the San Francisco Times, lately arrived from Australia, to be employed in the southern country to tend sheep. They are remarkably sagacious and powerful and hardy, but not handsome. Their powers of endurance and faithfulness are the theme of numerous anecdotes.”

Another importation is mentioned in the March 31, 1860 issue:

“Australian Shepherd Dogs — The Alta of Tuesday says:  ‘A gentleman of this city [San Francisco] has recently imported a couple of shepherd dogs from Australia, which are to be used hence forth in tending sheep in the interior.  They are celebrated for their strength, docility, courage and intelligence; and as the rearing of sheep is becoming a great business in California, the services of these animals may come into general requisition.’”

The book Resources of California stated in 1869:

“On the large sheep ranches, one herdsman is employed for a thousand sheep.  There are a few shepherd-dogs in the state, some brought from Australia, others from Scotland.”

Dogs arriving with shipments of sheep from Australia were largely of British origin, as were the settlers of Australia at that time. The Australian dogs may have traced to, among others, the Smithfield dog, described as being longhaired and bobtailed, collies of various colors including merle, and dogs known variously as German Collies, German Coolies, or German Koolies, which often were associated with the merle color.  The German Coolie or Koolie has long been known in Australia, although unrecognized by the Australian kennel club. Merino sheep imported into Australia in the 19th century came most often from Saxony in Germany, and on occasion German sheepdogs were imported with them.(9) As was the case elsewhere in Europe before the advent of dog shows, there was a wide variety of coat types and colors among the herding dogs of Germany in those days, including blue merles and semi-long coats.(10)

In Australia, the dogs of German origin dogs would soon have been interbred with the more numerous working dogs of British origin, many of which were likewise merle and of generally similar appearance and working characteristics. “Welsh heeler” was another name applied in Australia to dogs of this type, and it is recorded that blue merle smooth collies were brought to Australia by the Hall family.

Just as in the eastern U.S., shepherd-type dogs arriving from England and other areas of Britain came to be called “English Shepherds,” although there was no breed in England with that name, so dogs of similar type and background imported from Australia came to be called “Australian Shepherds” in the American west, although that name was not used in Australia for any breed. Rather, the name was applied in America to dogs coming from Australia.

Although only a small proportion of working dogs in the American West were of Australian origin, and merle coloring occurred 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.

Local names of a general working dog type can vary considerably. Eventually, as the type is developed into a modern breed, one name will come to be used more often and eventually push any others aside. One idea proposed was that the name of this Western stockdog was changed to “Australian Shepherd” because of prejudices among incoming “Anglos” against any Spanish connection. This isn’t the case. There was no stigma attached to the Spanish herding dogs, and Americans’ accounts of “Spanish sheepdogs,” “Spanish shepherd dogs,” and “New Mexican sheepdogs” speak highly of them. But as herding practices changed, the dogs changed as well, with the continuing arrival of dogs considered to be more adaptable or more easily obtained. The Western dogs became quite mixed, although the overall trend was an increase in the influence of the working collie/shepherd. The name “Australian Shepherd” isn’t as much of a misnomer as some have conjectured, but a name of long standing in the American West where the modern breed was developed. Dogs from Australia contributed to the stockdogs of the American West, and from that came the name.

Over time, references to the Australian Shepherd began to appear more often.  An article about a shipwreck on the Oregon coast in 1881 relates that a half-grown Australian Shepherd pup was found alive on the beach near the bodies of the lost crew. An Australian Shepherd appeared in a dog show in Idaho in 1905.  Lost and found ads mention, among others, a blue Australian shepherd dog with one-half stub tail lost in Woodland, California in 1911 and a black and white Australian shepherd pup lost in Reno, Nevada the same year. In the 1910s and 20s there are Australian Shepherds listed for sale in newspapers in California, Nevada, Montana, and even Alberta, Canada, with mentions of these kinds becoming more frequent as time went on.
Hoxies_dog_in_1929_movieIn the late 1920s and early 1930s an Australian Shepherd named Bunk appeared in movies with cowboy star Jack Hoxie, and was in some non-Westerns as well, such as the 1928 versions of “Shepherd of the Hills” and “Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.”  Bunk also made appearances with Hoxie in the 101 Ranch wild west show and the Downie Bros. Circus.  He was a blue merle, and in appearance similar to today’s Aussie, although with a long tail.

I have found no evidence for the theory that the Australian Shepherd originated with dogs taken to Australia in the 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.(11)

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. There, they became involved in the sugar cane industry and not the sheep industry.(12) In their homeland the Basques were not any more particularly associated with sheepherding than was any other ethnic group. While among the Basques who came to work as shepherds there were those who had experience with sheep due to the sheep-raising that took place in their homeland, accounts of Basques in America relate that they commonly did not have sheepherding experience in the old country.(13) It was in America that they became noted for their presence in the sheep industry.

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 understandable that an impression would develop linking the Basques with the dogs they used. While some Basques brought dogs with them, accounts of the Basques who came to the U.S. to work as sheepherders relate that it was the common practice for the sheepherder to acquire a dog after his arrival.(14)

Basque studies programs in areas where Basques were particularly influential in the livestock industry, such as those in Nevada and Idaho, have compiled many interviews with Basque sheepherders who came to the American West throughout the 20th century. A typical story is that they came from small farms that had a few head of livestock such as cows, chickens, pigs and sometimes sheep. They had experience with livestock and were hardworking people with a rural background, but for the most part they were not originally sheepherders.(16)

As the numerous interviews show, many young Basque men left their homeland in search of work, but they did not go to Australia with boatloads of sheep on their way to the American West. That is not to say no Basques brought dogs with them — some did — but it nonetheless was an uncommon occurrence according to the Basque sheepherders themselves. Dogs of Basque origin contributed to the Aussie, but they were not the only or even the primary source. The relatively few dogs coming with Basque immigrants were soon interbred with the more numerous herding dogs of British background.

There are several herding breeds originating in the Pyrenees, one of which, the smooth-faced variety of the Pyrenean Shepherd of France, has been said to be the origin or principal ancestor of the Aussie. However, while one can find dogs in the Pyrenees that resemble a small Aussie — all over Europe, similar coat types and conformation can be found in the working breeds — these are in the minority, and white markings, black and tan and recessive red coloring are rare and not considered to be characteristic of the Pyrenean Shepherd, although occurring in an occasional individual.

The dog the Spanish Basques consider to be their native sheepdog and which they call the Basque Shepherd (Euskal Artzain Txakurra or Perro de Pastor Vasco) is a sable long-tailed dog, with semi-long hair in both shaggy-faced and smooth-faced varieties. Overall, the general resemblance of the Australian Shepherd in size, coloring, shape, and working characteristics is to the old-fashioned farm collie/shepherd more than to the Pyrenean breeds. It is highly unlikely that dogs brought from the Basque country to America were, by some happenstance, primarily the less common merle smooth-faced Pyrenean Shepherd rather than the more numerous shaggy-faced and tawny dogs, and once in America they were kept “pure.” Whatever the details of type, they were not bred separately from the working collie/shepherds of British origin (in which black and tan, merle, recessive red, and white markings are common), in such a way that they constituted a separate breed.(17)

Many 19th-century American photos show dogs of the old working collie/shepherd type. Some people attempt to label the dogs in these photos with specific modern breed names, but this is not really accurate. Most of the breeds in their narrower, standardized kennel club-recognized form (this is the case in all the groups — terriers, gundogs, whatever) did not become clearly defined until the advent of dog shows. Which of the old landraces came to be recognized breeds, and at what time, and even in what form, had a lot to do with whether and when a group of people took up the type as their breed. Contrary to popular belief, kennel club recognition provides no exclusive 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 are old landrace breeds that are only now coming to the attention of kennel club authorities.

In the American West in the 19th century and early 20th century there was much interbreeding of the various strains of herding dogs. This is especially likely when there is similarity of type and use. This kind of blending is how most breeds of dogs were developed, and the interbreeding in this case was far less arbitrary and between far less divergent types than was the case with many breeds.(18)

General characteristics 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 Spanish/Basque influence. The Australian Shepherd isn’t an Australian breed, although there is a definite connection with Australia which provided the name; nor is it a Spanish, Basque, or British breed. It is an American breed, developed over a long period of time in the American West.(19)


(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. The emphasis on “eye” and crouching style gained more favor with the advent of the working trials which began to be held for British sheepdogs in the late 19th century. Sheepdogs with “eye” existed earlier, but in relatively small numbers until the trait was highlighted by the trials and, as a result, more consciously selected for in breeding  

(3) The New Complete Collie, Collie Club of America, 1983, Howell Book House; The Collie, by O.P. Bennett, 1917, Washington, IL; The Popular Collie, by Margaret Osborne, 1962, Arco Publ. Co.  

(4) In Britain, “sheepdog” remained the common term for such dogs. In the case of the Australian Shepherd, a more accurate name might be “American Western Shepherd;” still, there is a definite connection with Australia that gave rise to the name.  

(5) 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.  

(6) The Border Collie, 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; see The Versatile Border Collie, by Janet Larson, 1986, Alpine Publications, Inc., and The Border Collie, by Iris Combe, 1987, Faber and Faber. With regard to sable in Aussies, sources include personal discussion with breeders as well as occasional reference to the color in articles on the breed.  

(7) For photos of present-day Spanish mastiffs at work, along with the Carea Leon, see the Mastín Español Photo Gallery.  An article in Spanish about the Carea Leon is at: Canina Leon (thanks to Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor for this link).  

(8) Dogs on the Frontier, by John E. Baur, 1964, The Naylor Co.  

(9) An importation of German sheepdogs with a load of Saxony Merinos was noted in an Australian newspaper in 1851.  An article in the Sydney Morning Herald dated July 14, 1900, related that according to Charles Gould of Sydney, “this dog is named after a blue dog imported from Germany early in the sixties by Mr. C. W. Bucknell of Minigver [Mungyer] station, Gwydir district, New South Wales. With him were associated a lot of sheep and cattle matrons, hence the variety. They were never supposed to have the prick ears of the barb, and all the Germans were blue, with marble eyes. The German sheepdog proper, however, is little like the one known as such in this country.”  Newspaper ads in the late 19th century and early 20th century reference the “German Collie” and “German Coolie,” and they were also being shown in dog shows and taking part in sheepdog trials.   

(10) Merle herding dogs in Germany are called “tigers”; however, “tiger” is a color term, it is not a breed any more than “black and tan” is a breed. “Tiger” dogs vary considerably in size, coat type, and other characteristics. In his book The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture, 1925, Max von Stephanitz calls merles variously dappled, flecked, and tiger-spotted. He does not refer to a breed called the Tiger, and the reference he makes to Australians importing German working dogs is to his modern German Shepherd Dog. More recently there has been a movement among breeders of German working strains to breed their dogs along more clearly-delineated variety lines, but the varieties are still often bred with one another.  

(11) 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.  

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

(13) An Enduring Legacy:  the Story of Basques in Idaho, John and Mark Bieter, 2000, University of Nevada Press.

(14) Sweet Promised Land, by Robert Laxalt, 1989, University of Nevada, in addition to various articles in magazines relating to the West and its history, and inquiries to the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada at Reno.

(15) 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.  

(16) The fact that the Basque association with shepherding came about more in the West than in the Basque country and that Basque immigrants seldom brought dogs with them does not come from books written by researchers puttering around in libraries. Accounts by the Basques themselves show this to be the case. For instance, Pete Cenarrusa, sheep rancher and Idaho Secretary of State, and considered a champion of Basque culture, commented in a 1993 interview that herders would not initially have knowledge of sheep but would have perseverance. A sheepherder who did work with sheep in the Basque country was Rufino Urganga, described as being one of the few Basque immigrants who had any experience with sheep prior to their arrival in the U.S. He related in his interview that his father was a carpenter, his mother managed the home, children and garden, and he started working as a sheepherder in the Amboto and Urkiola mountains when he was 12 years old. When he was around 19 he decided to go to the U.S. with two other men from his village to seek work opportunities. No dogs came along, and from reading the accounts, it clear to see why it was not a common practice.

(17) One 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. Nor does the importation of Merino sheep have any particular connection with the Basques. Merinos are not from the Basque country, which has its own breeds of sheep. Assertion of an ancient Basque origin of the Aussie via the Welsh Sheepdog is conjecture. Dogs that accompanied ancient migrations would have been of highly variable appearance and would have been thoroughly blended with (and in some cases supplanted by) the dogs of later arrivals over the centuries. Accounts of monks or later importers possibly bringing a few dogs to Britain from Spain along with importations of sheep do not indicate a foundation of a type or breed, as opposed to yet another small addition.

The Welsh Sheepdog is a loose-eyed working sheepdog that, like other British herding dog types, has many similarities to the Aussie. It is, however, itself a blend of the original Welsh varieties with loose-eyed collie types brought from Cumberland and other parts of northern England and Scotland in the days before the development of the strong-eyed Border Collie; see Hutchinson’s Dog Encyclopedia (1934). The general type of the Welsh Sheepdog is closer to the typical British collie/sheepdog rather than to the Pyrenean Shepherd. Further, the herding dogs brought to America and Australia came from all parts of Britain. Dogs from Wales were not a predominating influence nor were they kept separate from the other working dogs.

(18) An example of the blending that occurred among the herding dogs in the American West is shown in the account of Mrs. Roy E. Cotton, an early breeder of registered Australian Shepherds, in the 1966 Spring Edition of the Animal Research Foundation magazine. She relates how her uncle’s blue merle dogs, originally obtained in 1917 or 1918 from Colorado or Montana (with no indication given of a Basque connection), were crossed with black “Border Collie” type dogs, and later with two merle males brought from Australia, the resulting offspring being considered Australian Shepherds.  

(19) In many breeds, breed historians often posit ancient and pure origins for their favorites, but these claims are largely unsubstantiated, as recent studies in the genetics of dog breeds have shown. Most dogs were well mixed until the middle of the 19th century and even later. This is not something to be considered as somehow shameful or less desirable than a supposed ancient and pure origin — it is simply how most modern dog breeds were developed, including the Australian Shepherd. The Australian Shepherd, like other breeds, is a blend, with a principal descent from the old-fashioned farm shepherd/collie, the “Old Shep” of legend, a heritage of which to be proud. My thanks to Penny Tose for leads provided in research and in particular the newspaper sources for the early California imports from Australia and further information about Bunk, Jack Hoxie’s movie dog. 

this article was first published in Dog World Magazine in 1987, this revision January 2010.

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