History of the Australian Shepherd

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


by Phillip C. Wildhagen, ASCA Historian


(Working Aussie Source editor’s note: this article, published in the 1977 ASCA Yearbook, is a summary of what was then known or surmised about the origins of the Aussie. At this remove, both the article and its content are of historical interest. More detailed, and sometimes, contradicting, information has come to light in the meantime. All photos are from the Yearbook.)

A great deal of historical material published about the Australian Shepherd during the recent past has reflected the fact that these dogs do not have a clearly defined origin. Being shepherding dogs throughout the ages, their survival has depended upon the needs of herdsmen in many grazing regions of the world. These grazing lands include not only Australia, but countries in Central Europe and the Americas, both North and South.

It is believed that dogs’ first role with man began perhaps over 14,000 years ago as a shepherd and companion after the successful domestication of livestock and a few varieties of fowl. The most commonly known group of shepherds, the Basques, whose ancestry is recorded before biblical times, are usually credited with the early development of herding dogs like our Hussies, but they were not alone in this venture. The Scots, widely known as dog fanciers and sheepmen, also played a major part in developing stock dogs such as the Border Collie and Scots Collie. Also, the German Coulie or simply Coulie, not radically different than the Aussie, followed migrating shepherds to the American continent and Australia during the 18th century, perhaps as a result of new attractions in those countries and the instability of the political scene in Europe at that time.

Other migrants such as the Spanish and American Indians (of Eskimo heritage) brought their dogs to the Americas as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. Names that some of these dogs became known as include Spanish Shepherds, Pastor Dogs, Bob Tails, Bluies, Heelers, New Mexican Shepherds, California Shepherds and eventually, Australian Shepherds.

How did Australia get into the picture? Dogs native to that country are primarily of Dingo origin. Al! others were transplanted there later and then developed to suit the purposes of the region. Breeds such as the Smithfield, a fairly small brown to black dog, and the Barb, similar in type to the Queensland Blue Heeler, were stockdogs known to Australia in the late 19th century. They are described in some detail in Australian literature.

The Coulie, a breed developed in England, also was an immigrant during the 19th century who possessed a type that eventually was passed on to the Australian Shepherd. He was a bit larger than the Smithfield with coarser coat and more substance. These two breeds appear to be the most likely candidates from Australia that ultimately produced the early Australian Shepherd.

In the 1700’s both Australia and the United States were attracting many peoples, not only tram Britain but Europe. In Australia a large number of emigrants were farmers, miners, laborers, millers and blacksmiths. There were dock workers and shopkeepers also in large numbers. The farmers mostly brought a dog or two with them for use in herding. The miners brought their fighting Bull Terriers and small Greyhounds or Whippets. A few others brought types of dogs that do not matter now.

It was the farmers that really took their dogs because they knew that they would need them. The Scots took their old Scottish Collie or Colley, a dog very much like the modern Bearded Collie, in fact the modern Bearded Collie is directly descended from the old Scottish Collie. The English took their Smithfield Sheepdog and Dorset Blue Shags, both are very closely related to the old Scottish Collie. The farmers from Devon and Cornwall took their “Magpie” dogs, a dog not unlike a large Border Collie with very distinct black and white markings. From the hill farms of Westmoorland and Cumberland the farmers took their Cumberland Sheepdog, another dog of somewhat Border Collie type. Of these dogs both the Smithfield and the Dorset Blue Shag were often docked quite tailless.
wildhagen_welshbluegreyThe Welsh took their dogs, the old Welsh Grey Sheepdog, a dog of Bearded Collie type, the Black-and-Tan Sheepdog, the Hillman and the Welsh Blue-Grey Sheepdogs. The Welsh Grey was a long-haired shaggy dog, the Black-and-Tan was hound-like in appearance, not unlike a Doberman,the Hillman was German Shepherd-like and the Welsh Blue-Grey was like a heavy Border Collie of a blue-grey and white color.

The Black-and-Tan was smooth-haired and black and tan as the name implies. It descended from the “Gellgy,” an ancient covert hound of 900 A.D. The old Welsh word for sheepdog was “Bugeulgy.” The oldest of all these Welsh Sheepdogs was the Welsh Hillman, and w known as the “Wolfhound.” It was a large dog, about 25 inches, fast and fearless, with pricked ears and a golden-red coat, slightly shorter than the German Shepherds, with white on the chest, legs, and tip of tail.
wildhagen_glenwherrycollieThe Irish farmers came in less numbers. They brought their Glenwherry Collie, a small black and gold dog of Border Collie type, and their Kerry Blue Terriers, that were originally bred sheep on rough hillsides.

The Germans came in fewer numbers as farmers. They brought their Wallis Sheepdogs, a shaggy black and gold dog and their German Shepherds. Those from North and Central Germany had dogs much like poor quality GSD’s. Those from the South and Bavaria had German Shepherds with thick, long coats. There were one or two Spitz type sheepdogs with them, the Hutëspitz and the Pomeranian Sheepdog; the first is of pure Spitz type, the other like a Spitz Border Collie with white or cream markings.

Many of these people tended to settle in districts together, thus crossing of the various dogs took place. In time types of dogs were given names: ‘German Collie,’ ‘Huntaway,’ ‘Kelpie’, and ‘Smithfield Collie’; the latter is nothing like the original Smithfield.
wildhagen_pyreneanWhen Merino sheep began to become popular in Australia, Basque shepherds were brought in to handle them. They in turn brought their Pyrenees Sheepdogs and their Catalan Sheepdogs, then more crossing took place. A few of the types of dog that may have influenced our breed are shown in the historical photo section.

From the 1650’s various peoples had been settling in the States, especially Dutch, French, and English. The French and English wealthy families had their ladies’ dogs, but these are of no interest to us here. The English who intended to farm brought the same dogs as were taken to Australia, so did the Scottish and Welsh farmers. The French farmers brought their Bouvier des Flandres and Briards; the Germans brought the same types as they had taken to Australia. Then the Basques arrived with the Merino sheep from Australia, bringing with them their own dogs to work the sheep.

Starting around 1800, there was a steady importation of shepherds and their dogs from Australia. From that time on, individual states and even smaller regions have developed and in many cases perfected their own breeds or types of herding dogs using many of these immigrant workers from “down under”.

A Scottish family named Simpson was reported to have brought black and white bob-tailed Smithfields with them when they moved to Australia in the early 1800’s. The Simpsons lived in the Upper Hunter River, an area in New South Wales which is a fertile cattle and sheep farming community. They crossed their Smithfields with the German Coulie, producing a medium sized dog that had black or blue merle body colors, somewith prick ears and others, drop ears. Many had blue, or brown-and-blue, eyes.

During the gold rush days, they moved their family to Northern California, bringing livestock and dogs with them. Other Smithfield-Coulie type dogs emigrated to the West Coast during that period also, but written details of such migrations have long become lost if they ever did, in fact, exist.

The name Australian Shepherd is likely attributed to the dogs that migrated from that
country during the early part of World War I. It seems that the name was used
It seems that the name was used in several regions in the Unites States by the late 20’s, although little written record of this has been found. These dogs were unusual to say the least, to the American farmer, but their quick adaptation to ranch life prompted early popularity with them. It seemed the the name “Australian Shepherd” had a sort of charisma that was passed on from family to family, and which stayed with the the breed til the present time, a period of well over a century.

The simple fact that these dogs were not purebred when they arrived and, were certainly crossed with other working breeds during their early days in the country poses some question as to the validity of the name, but yet, it stays! Our breed is truly an American invention and we have refined the type quite well in the late 70’s. It is possible that the name may be challenged someday should further attempts to gain international recognition be fostered. Since that day has not come before us at the time of this writing, we should enjoy the uniqueness of the name already dubbed upon our Aussies.

In the South Central United States, herding dogs were primarily those of the shepherds from Mexico that had originally migrated from Spain. Influence from these dogs brought a herding style that was generally quiet, and non-aggressive, which kept flocks in a compact unit less vulnerable to predators.

These dogs were of medium size, had a rather short coat suitable to the hot, dry terrain, and had ear-sets that varied from fully erect to quarter break. In the northern states, breeds that came from England and Scotland perhaps had some influence on our breed too. One likely ancestor, the Border Collie, can be either a fetching dog or a driving dog; however, his specialty is the keen ‘eye’ that beholds the wary sheep. Few Aussies have such eye, but the wearing, fetching, and driving characteristic does exist.

Breeds that came from Australia tend to be more aggressive than the Spanish and English imports; however, subsequent hybridization has created a blend that
seems to have softened the Australian temperament, yet producing a rather versatile worker. The working style of our Aussies is certainly different than what will be seen at a Border Collie trial. Aussies work standing, not crouching, and tend to move in on their stock quicker than the Border Collie, particularly with cattle.

The uniqueness of the Australian Shepherd is not really his style of work, it is his unusual color pattern and the amazing relationship he chooses to have with his master throughout his life. Aussies have adapted to almost all environments that man has presented to them from the Arctic to the plains of Texas. He is a “natural” animal around livestock, which is usually observed shortly after they are weaned! When subjected to a few basic commands by his handler, he can master most any herding requirement. The keenness of this instinct does vary among bloodlines, though, and should be a guarded trait when one chooses to select breeding partners.

Up until the middle 40’s, no selective bloodlines could be clearly identified as the result of a breeding program. Aussies that comprised the breed during this early period were rather varied in type and were found mostly in the farming communities. Only a few people have been identified who had these dogs from 1900 to around 1940, however, they may have played a more important port in fostering a breed than can be realized.

ASCA’s 4th President, Ms. Elsie B. Cotton of Portland, Oregon, recalls her Uncle Earl’s dogs as far back as 1917 that were known as Australian Shepherds. His dogs initially were around 19 to 21 inches in height and had medium length coats with a dark merle color pattern. Their type was typical of the smaller dogs found in the breed today. Earl acquired two male Aussies that were from Australia during the early twenties and crossed them into his line. They were a bit smaller than his dogs and were somewhat rough on stock He bred his bitches to these males producing dogs with a more reserved working style which suited his needs around the ranch. These dogs are likely related to some of the later bloodlines of the Pacific Northwest.

Noel W. Heard who operated a feedmill in Ashland, Oregon, in 1928 acquired an Aussie through one of his customers that often left his wagon parked at his store while he indulged in the offerings of a local tavern. This dog, a red, possible sable-colored natural bob-tailed male was known as “Old Jim”. Noel’s son, Weldon T. Heard, DVM of Roseburg, Oregon, notes that this dog is very similar in breed type and structure to a line of Aussies he developed later known today as Flintridge dogs.Old Jim was out of a blue merle bitch and was sired by a NBT red dog. He had considerable substance, fairly large ears and was considered a rough worker.

Also in 1928, one of the breeds earliest fanciers, Mrs. Juanita Ely of Littleton, Colorado, acquired her first Aussie, a blue merle male named Teddy from a young Basque boy who brought sheep from Idaho. Mrs. Ely used these dogs, mostly males, on her small farm for over twenty-five years and often bred females owned by neighbors to her males. Mrs. Ely acquired two dogs from Don Breazeale of Northern California in the late thirties, but how these fit into her breeding activities is not known. She actually started the Ely line of Aussies around 1952 after acquiring a blue merle bitch from Gene Sisler of Idaho known as Ely’s Blue. Ely’s Blue became a rather significant bitch in the breed’s past as many of her offspring later became foundation stock bloodlines that are still active today.

An early written reference to the name “Australian Shepherd” is interestingly found book published in Australia. The book, Sheepdogs, Their Breeding, Maintenance and Training (R. B. Kelley, O.B.E., D.V.Sc.; publ. 1942, Angus and Robertson, Ltd., 221 George St., Sydney Australia) contains the following statement on page 26:

“Occurrence of the wall-eyed pup and this knowledge, therefore, suggest a probable origin for blue-eye colour in some cattle dogs and in what are sometimes called German Collies in this country; in America they are called Australian Sheep Dogs.”

This published record at least acknowledges that the existence of our Aussies was known to the Australians at least 35 years ago.
ritters_streakPerhaps one of the earliest names to become active developing the breed was Roy Ritter of Nevada. He had been selectively breeding these dogs for use in his cattle operations as early as up until his accidental death in 1963. He used the dogs to drive cattle from Nevada to the Chester—Lake Almanor regions of Northern California. His most popular Aussie was Ritter’s Streak, a blue medium sized dog who sired a number of working offspring in the Pacific Northwest, and was a lovely specimen of the breed. Following Roy Ritter’s death, Stanley and Laurel Ronsley of Carson City, Nevada continued this line.

Burt Vetier, a Montana rancher, owned a line of blue merle Aussies back around 1923 them for gathering range horses. His dogs would naturally circle behind the horses, grab a tail and literally “hang on” until one of the riders could rope the animal away from rough ground.

William Gibson, an Omaha, Nebraska farmer had bob-tailed shepherds in 1928; one was remembered by his distinct blue eyes. Gibson’s daughter, Elaine Hartnagle, tells us that his last dog, named “Bob” was acquired from the Vasquez Basques in Walden, Colorado, In the late 1950’s. He used Bob with his stock until his death in 1973. Two days after William Gibson died, “Old Bob” disappeared forever. Every year since then during the early Spring, a bone has been found placed on his grave marker!

Don Breazeale from Northern California began his role as an Aussie breeder in 1936 and still has them today. His dogs are a collection of ranch stock that was used in the area for over a generation. He started with a dog named Sam. The Breazeale line can be found in many of today’s Aussie pedigrees back only a few generations. Don Breazeale was the first to with the Animal Research Foundation in 1952.

Prior to 1945, there is no reliable evidence that the Australian Shepherd was being molded into a true breed type. The Aussies that existed across the country were so varied in structure, head type, size, and coat, that they could easily be classified as a mongrel! In reviewing pedigrees of many of today’s bloodlines, and conversing with early fanciers that are still with us, evidence decrees that one man played the most significant role in fostering the birth of the breed as we now know it. That person is Jay Sisler of Emmett, Idaho. Jay was never really a breeder in the true sense of the word, but did produce a number of litters, along with his brother Gene, that ultimately became scattered throughout the nation during his travels as a rodeo performer.

It all started when Jay at age five had his dad’s bird dogs pulling him around the farm in a cart. In time, he had all the cowdogs and bird dogs teamed to pull sleds and wagons. Later, around 1939, Jay acquired his first Aussie, who had no known ancestry. This dog served to instill (in Jay) which breed would later become a part of his lifetime career. A more detailed story of the influence of Jay’s dogs is described in the following contributed articles. The opinions expressed by the author, including specific quotations in the articles to follow are considered to be their own and do not necessarily reflect those of ASCA. The historical content, though, is factual.

(ed. note: the above-mentioned articles by Jan Haddle Davis, which include one on Jay Sisler as well as Steve Mansker, the Hartnagles, Fletcher Wood, Dick Sorenson, the Rowes, Dr. Heard, and many others throughout the U.S., can be found here)

*Correspondence from Mrs. Muriel Landers-Cooke, Birmingham, England (1978)

this article was first published in the ASCA Yearbook, 1978. ©ASCA