History of the Australian Shepherd

By February 17, 2015February 1st, 2016No Comments


by Maryland Little

little_mcconkeystigerbritches_fw(editor’s note: Maryland Little was an early breeder of Australian Shepherds in Riverside, California. A paragraph about her was included in the ASCA 1977 Early Aussie Breeders retrospective written by Phillip Wildhagen. The photograph at right is of a dog of her breeding, McConkey’s Tiger Britches, (Littles Mr. Robert x Littles Pimenta Chica) born in 1965.

The drawing below was included in the article; it is of Arrogante, a Spanish sheepdog imported into Texas in the 19th century. It is taken from a book by Harry S. Randall, published in 1865, titled Sheep Husbandry. This book is available online through Googlebooks, and has quite an interesting description of Arrogante beginning on page 282, who did not seem to this editor to much resemble modern Australian Shepherds, but was more like a modern livestock guardian type.

This article was originally published in 1969, and reprinted July 1975 in the Stock Dog Fanciers of Colorado Newsletter.)


The history of the modern-day Australian Shepherd is clearly discernible, when you realize that the name “Australian Shepherd” is something of a misnormer. The ancestry of this breed is really Spanish and correlates with the history of the Spanish sheep.

The popular name “Australian Shepherd” is apparently of recent origin and possibly occurred because of their proximity with recent (early 1900) importations of Australian sheep. There is no doubt that the ancestors of this dog traveled with the Spanish sheep around the world, including New Zealand and Australia; the Spanish Shepherd dog being diluted in these areas with English and Scotch breeds to develop a softer nature.

Maryland_Little_article_illustrationThe roots of the modern Australian Shepherd are entwined with the roots of a dog known in the 12th century as the Spanish Shepherd — this dog related back to early Roman times to a breed called the Alpine Mastiff. The Spanish Shepherd was used to move tremendous numbers of sheep back and forth across Spain from highlands to lowlands along sheep-walks infested with wild animals and bandits.

So important was this dog to Spain that in 1273 a special society, called the “Honorable Assemby of the Mesta” was formed and supported by the reigning king, Alfonso the Learned, to protect the dogs, sheep, and shepherds. The Spanish Shepherd developed many characteristics that were unknown in the English and Scottish breeds — being of considerably fiercer nature and bred for protection as well as herding ability; these characteristics have been transmitted to their modern counterparts.

When the Spanish sheep traveled to the New World (America) the Spanish Shepherd came also. This period extended over a lot of early American history and covered the Spanish-dominated areas. The sheep population grew to tremendous amounts in the Southwest, particularly New Mexico, which until 1863 included all of Arizona. Here the conditions paralleled the days of the Mesta and the Old Spanish dog with his rather special abilities was bred close to his original type. He became known as the New Mexican Sheepdog or “Pastor” dog.

The Pastor dog worked differently than the English or Scotch breeds. His flock was kept in a compact herd — never in the loose herding pattern which British sheep, in their safer enclosures, were accustomed to. They had to be kept close together because of predators, both wild animals and raiding Indians. If a ewe broke from the flock, he would quietly take her by an ear and lead her back. The Pastor dog had to drive his sheep slowly over long distances, allowing them to graze as they went. He learned the neccesity of quietness and deliberation without sudden movements or barking.

Because of the great size of the flocks and the distances between dog and herder, he learned to understand arm movements, and to stop and watch his master for signals. He became extremely possessive and could distinguish and separate every sheep in his flock from another flock, and if another dog approached his flock without legitimate reason, he would race out, strike him with his chest, and kill him. There are many documented stories of this dog’s courage, fidelity, and intelligence. One authority claims the New Mexican Shepherd, found only in the sheep-raising districts, was larger, and in his opinion, superior, to the Scotch and English Shepherd breeds.

When the early “white” sheepmen moved into the Southwest, they did not understand the Spanish ways of allowing the dog to handle the responsibilites of the flock and considered the herder lazy.

The Pastor dog spread with the Spanish sheep throughout the sheep-raising areas of the United States. In areas where a gentler, less protective nature was needed, he was crossed with the English and Scotch breeds, as he was in New Zealand and Australia, but even in his diluted state he retained his special qualities of quietness, possessiveness, calm authority, and courage. Many dogs that have been bred closer to the Old Spanish bloodlines are handling large stock today — where their fiercer natures are necessary and needed.

It is felt that the modern name “Australian Shepherd” may have become popular because of the breaking away from Spanish domination and ways in the southwestern United States and the resulting animosity towards Spanish names and customs. Whatever path led to this original bloodline reaching around the world from Spain — for whatever reason the name came to be attached — our modern Australian Shepherd carries all of the qualities of an ancient and proud heritage.

this article was first published in 1969

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