History of the Australian Shepherd in the Northwest

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

by Mrs. Roy E. Cotton

Working Aussie Source editor’s note: Elsie Cotton was the 4th president of ASCA, and her dog Cotton’s Blue Bobby and his son Mays Adobe Rebel, are in back of many Aussie pedigrees today.

cottons_bluebobbyMy Uncle Earl acquired his first Australian Shepherds in either 1917 or 1918. At the beginning of World War I, he started raising sheep and tried out many breeds of herding dogs but was not entirely satisfied with any of them. In order to upgrade his sheep, he made a visit to either Montana or Colorado on a sheep-buying tour. He returned to his ranch in Eastern Oregon with two choice rams and several small, grey merled dogs … Earl was really set up in the sheep business now. At no time was he ever dissatisfied with his Australian Shepherds. In fact, some of the family said that he continued to raise sheep only because it gave him an excuse to keep and raise Aussies!

Since I was born in 1917, it took me until 1921 to decide that the Aussie was the best dog in the world! From then on, I remember that I did nothing but pester Earl with questions about them. He had tried his best to gain all possible information on them too, and I believe that he knew more about the breed than almost anyone else.
According to the best available information, Earl originally had two males and three females. All were reasonably unrelated, so from this small beginning, he was able to stay within his own lines for some time. All five dogs were dark grey, heavily flecked and blotched with jet, shiny black. They had deep rich tan markings on cheeks, legs and sides of the chest. White appeared on the breast, stomach and feet and all had large, soft ears that “broke down” just above the base. They ran from about 19 to 21 inches in height … and both males and females had natural “half-tails”, that is, the tail was only half the natural length of the normal tail in other breeds.

The reason that I am able to describe these so accurately is because this was the type of Aussie that Earl always strove to breed and he would never sell one of this type when they appeared in the litters of pups. He said that they were identical to his original stock.

Earl had a summer range up in the mountains for his bands of sheep and always sent his Aussies up there with them as he found that they were extremely gentle with ewes and lambs but could also handle the most aggressive ram and were superb at protecting the flocks from any type of predatory animal. The Aussies would back down from nothing that threatened the flocks. Since at that time Eastern Oregon had cougars, bears, bobcats and coyotes (none of which turned down a potential lamb dinner), the little Aussies had their work cut out for them.

He also used the Aussies at the home ranch to cut and hold ewes due for lambing and sheep in for shearing. His older retired dogs stayed at the ranch and herded milk cows, range bulls and hogs; and of course, were very effective guard dogs for the women and everything on the ranch.

Over a period of years, other ranchers bred their females to his good studs. Most of these other dogs were the black Border Collie with white ring necks, feet and tip of the tail. Through this cross, many good all around herding dogs appeared. In the first generation cross, the pups invariably looked like the Border Collie but carried a bit more white; some had blue mixed in the white. Several ranchers bred these blue-factored pups back to the Australian Shepherd studs and ended up with reasonably pure-bred (in appearance and temperament) Aussies.

Eventually, Earl’s bloodlines began to “run out” in that he was coming up with diluted grays with far too much white. These dogs were very good looking and still excellent herding dogs but were obviously well on the road to albinoism. So he bought up a few of the Border Collie-Aussie crosses and bred them into his own lines. By severe selection he entirely eliminated the albinoism and came up with some very good dogs. However, his one complaint was that the strain was now showing a bit too much mildness in disposition. He had become too used to the very bold and aggressive temperament of his original dogs.

Early in the 1920’s, Earl acquired two males from Australia, I believe this would be about 1924. I don’t think he imported them himself. As nearly as I can remember, he said he had a change to buy this pair and that they cost him a small fortune. I do know that he definitely said both had come from Australia and I imagine that some returning G.I. from World War I had brought them home with him and had either found them too hard to handle or needed the money. Both were trained cattle dogs but Earl found them far too aggressive for sheep; both were mature dogs and not young by any means. I can easily describe these dogs as I remember them well…I disliked them as they were the only dogs on the place that Earl would not let me touch. Since I had never been afraid of any dog, I was really annoyed to find two that I couldn’t handle, so I remember them fully as well as I remembered my favorites of the ranch.

These Australian dogs were absolutely identical to Earl’s best Aussies with the exception of color and size. They were a bit smaller than his males. These would be about 19 inches while Earl’s males went 20 to 21 inches at the shoulder (I am positive that not one of his Aussies were under 18 inches). The ears were the same; large, soft and breaking low. Both had very short, natural bob tails and had blue (not “China”) eyes. The one big difference was the color. The coats were the correct length and texture…that is, medium long, harsh and weather-proof with a thick, wooly undercoat…but they were dark grey with flecks and speckles of shiny black. No spot of black was larger than a half-dollar. They had the rich tan markings and white on breast and on all four feet.

Earl kept these dogs for some time and bred them to every female on his place and to most that he had sold, and then he sold the Australian dogs to a beef rancher who needed dogs to handle range bulls. To the best of my knowledge, Earl never had to buy or use any other lines from then on to the time of his death. That one cross into the American lines that Earl had bought originally, put his dogs right back as he wanted them. He again had a dog that could do any job and do it well, and was neither too aggressive or too mild. All of the pups sired by these two and out of Earl’s lines were again dark grey and mottled and merled with black just as his original dogs had been.

This brings us to the final analysis on the Australian Shepherd … and I think that it verifies what Earl had been able to find out. He maintained that the drop-eared, natural bob-tail had come from Australia originally but that the breed was overly aggressive. The Aussies had been crossed in with the mostly black type of Border Collie and then selectively bred to hold the blue merle coloring, medium bold and aggressive temperament and our American version is the result. Earl always tried to breed for the natural bobs and could not part with those he had. He laughingly told me once that “I guess if the pups can’t grow tails, they grow brains!” but he wasn’t laughing when the chips were down as he had found that the average natural bob was able to out-work and out-think any of the long tailed dogs that he had kept and trained. By selective breeding, his litters were arriving with a high percentage of very short natural bobs and the others were with tails only 1/4 or 1/2 the normal length of other breeds.

Since Earl’s death many years ago, his dogs have been scattered throughout the Northwest and I honestly don’t know if anyone has attempted to keep and selectively breed the Aussie in recent years in this area.

Through second-hand knowledge, I have a bit more information on the Australian Shepherd. Some friends of mine who both know a great deal about all breeds of dogs and are especially fond of sheep dogs, visited Australia about four years ago. They had only a limited amount of time there and had no chance to run down the information given them, but I will put it down just as they were told:

They had made an inquiry about the Australian Shepherd from a rancher who breeds Australian Heelers and Kelpies. He didn’t know what they were talking about until they described our breed to him. Then he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean the little Stubbies!” This rancher gave them all of the information that he had, but unfortunately it was very little. The Stubbie had, at one time, been very popular but had fallen into disfavor as other herding dogs were developed and at the present time, he knew of only one cattle rancher who was still raising them.

He also gave my friends a very accurate description of the two dogs my uncle had purchased that had come from Australia, and in addition, said that the Stubbies he knew of had always had very short natural bob tails, or at the most, the tail was less than 1/2 the normal length.

This rancher did not know of any other name for the breed other than “Stubbie” and said he hadn’t the slightest notion of where the breed had come from or what breeds were used to create it. He said that the only thing he is able to figure is that the Stubbie was a true mutation that would breed to the same type at any possible opportunity. He also told my friends to beware of any dog that looks like a Stubbie but is red speckled in color. He said that the red denoted a cross into the Dingo (Australian Wild Dog) and such a dog was never to be trusted alone with any kind of livestock. However, he said that he hadn’t heard of any red Stubbies in over 20 years and that any he had seen were all some shade of grey speckled with black and with various amounts of white and tan markings on the face, chest and legs.

One last bit of information on the Australian Shepherd in the Northwest—a friend of mine who is an Indian and was raised around sheep dogs as a child, said that his family had Aussies for several years. He bought some from the Agricultural Division of the University of Idaho several years ago. He and his family bred their dogs from these lines for many years but here again, they have all been scattered and the bloodlines lost.

(Working Aussie Source editor note: the following uncredited addendum was attached to the end of the document; it appears that it was not part of the original ARF article )

ARF’s magazine in 1966 as well as ASCA’s Yearbook* refer to one other documented importation of dogs from Australia: a Scottish family named Simpson was reported to have brought black and white bobtailed Smithfields with them when they moved to Australia in the early 1800’s. The Simpson’s lived in the Upper Hunter River, an area in New South Wales which is a fertile cattle and sheep farming community in Australia. They crossed their Smithfields with the German Coulie, producing a medium-sized dog that had black or blue merle body colors, some with 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. It was here in the USA that these dogs were named the “Australian Shepherd.”

*the 1957-1977 ASCA Yearbook

this article was first published in the 1966 Spring edition of the Animal Research Foundation magazine, ©ARF. The Animal Research Foundation, a breed registry, was founded by the late Tom Stodghill, who researched the origins of the Aussie in the 1950’s.

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