The Australian Cattle dog is highly intelligent, sturdy and active. He was originally developed to herd cattle on large ranches in Australia, and in fact, is still used for herding. The Australian Cattle Dog loves having a job to do, and when his workday is done, he’s quite content to cuddle up with his family.
You may also have heard of this dog by other names, including Blue Heeler, Halls Heeler, Australian Heeler and Queensland Heeler. The “heeler” part of the name comes from the way that these dogs herd – by nipping cattle at their heels. The official name, though is Australian Cattle Dog. Some people simply say “Aussie.”
The Australian Cattle Dog was bred in the 1800s, by settlers who needed dogs that could be aggressive enough to keep cattle that were practically wild, due to the large expanses of land used by the beef industry in Australia, yet stable enough to just nip rather than attack and possibly hamstring the cattle. The dogs that settlers brought over from England simply weren’t sturdy enough to handle the climate and working conditions, so settlers began to breed their dogs to dingoes. These dogs are believed to have been the predecessors of today’s Australian Cattle Dog.
Settlers quickly developed a preference for blue-colored dogs, hence the name “Blue Heeler.” Their popularity quickly grew, and in Queensland they became known as Queensland Blue Heelers, or simply Queensland Heelers.
In the latter part of the 19th century, a man named Robert Kaleski began breeding these dogs, and also showing them. In 1903, the Kennel Club of New South Wales developed standards for the breed, which was by then known as the Australian Heeler. Shortly after, “Australian Cattle Dog” became the preferred moniker.
In America, the Aussie spent quite some time in the AKC’s “Miscellaneous” class, but was made eligible to show in the Working class by 1980, and then transferred to Herding in 1983.
A male Aussie will stand between 18 and 20 inches at the shoulder. Females stand between 17 and 19 inches. For either gender, the weight will range between 30 and 50 pounds.
As you might expect from a herding breed, the Australian Cattle Dog needs a lot of activity and mental stimulation. If an Aussie gets bored, he’ll probably become destructive.
Aussies are also highly protective of their family and territory, and very willing to protect both. They’re not usually unfriendly, but they can be a bit aloof with strangers.
These dogs are very smart, but can have a stubborn streak, so it’s very important to be consistent in your training. As with most dogs, positive reinforcement works much better than punishment.
Temperament can be affected by many different factors. Of course, early socialization is important, and if you’re buying from a reputable breeder you can usually assume that the puppies have had enough time with the mother and littermates to be “good dogs,” and also that they have been exposed to a lot of human contact. Your job, once you take delivery of your Aussie, is to continue that socialization by exposing him to a lot of different people, situations, smells, etc.
Also, insist on being able to see the mother, and if possible, the rest of the litter. Usually, breeders will list their puppies for sale shortly after they’re born, so you should have an opportunity to visit your puppy at several stages of his development. If you end up “late in the game,” though – and it does happen sometimes – it might be that most (or all) of the puppies have already been placed in their forever homes. In this case, you won’t be able to see how the puppy relates to the rest of the litter. You should still be able to see the mother, though, and if the breeding hasn’t taken place off-site, to a sire that is not owned by the person who owns the dam, you should be able to see the father as well.
If you can see your puppy with the rest of the litter, look for one that’s sort of “middle of the road.” You don’t want one who’s so aggressive that he’s bullying his littermates. By the same token, even though you might feel sorry for the little guy that’s cowering in a corner, you don’t want that one either.
A well-adjusted puppy should be receptive to being handled, curious, and friendly.
Australian Cattle Dogs are usually healthy. Of course, any dog can be susceptible to various diseases or disorders. Chances are your Aussie will never develop any of these conditions, so don’t take this as my saying, on any level, that you shouldn’t consider an Aussie.
One condition that’s a little more common in Aussies than it is in other breeds is PRA – progressive retinal atrophy. It’s deterioration of the retina that can cause night blindness to begin with, and loss of vision overall as the condition progresses. Keep in mind though, that dogs adapt very well to reduction in vision. I wouldn’t advise you to move the furniture around, but as long as the home environment remains stable, you’ll find that dogs with impaired eyesight do a really good job of ratcheting up their other senses to compensate for vision loss.
Deafness is another condition that is more common in Aussies than in some other breeds. It’s most common in white-colored dogs. Usually, it becomes obvious at a very young age. Again, though, deaf dogs can live a very fulfilling life – you’ll just have to watch them a little more closely so that they don’t end up in trouble because of things that they can’t hear – traffic, or other dogs, for instance.
Now, a word on hip dysplasia. Most of the time, people think of hip dysplasia as being common to large breeds – Dobermans, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, etc. The fact is, though, any dog, of any breed can be born with, or develop, hip dysplasia. It’s a condition in which the thigh and hip bones don’t fit together as they should. In some dogs, there might be no symptoms at all, and it would take an X-ray to identify the condition. In other dogs, the symptoms could be mild – just a bit of lameness or discomfort that can be treated with pain medication. Rarely, the condition can be so severe as to require surgery.
Dogs that have any of the disorders I’ve just described can usually live good lives. They should not, however, be bred.
Care and Feeding
The Australian Cattle Dog, as previously stated, is an active dog, and not suited to apartment living. He should have a big yard to play in, or at the very least be taken on long walks two or three times a day. Even better, if you’re not actually operating a ranch where he can work to his heart’s content, enroll your Aussie in agility or another canine sport – he’ll love the challenge!
Another thing to keep in mind about Aussies is that they can be very “mouthy.” Accordingly, you’ll have to train your dog to use his mouth only on toys, not on people or furniture
As to feeding, every dog is different. I’m always pointing out that I free feed Janice and Leroy, and that it’s one thing my veterinarian and I have “agreed to disagree on.” You can probably free feed your Aussie if you like, since they’re not typically “recreational eaters.”
If you prefer to feed on a schedule, though, most Aussies will require a cup and a half to two and a half cups of quality dog food each day, spread out over two meals. A really active dog might require more food, while a couch potato might need less.
Of course, you don’t want your dog to get fat, so if you’re concerned that he might be overweight, do a simple test – stand facing his butt, and look down. You should see a narrowing toward his hips (what would, in humans, be the waist). Next, put your hands on your dog’s back with your thumbs pointing toward his spine, and your fingers pointing down. If he’s in top shape, you should be able to feel his ribs, but you shouldn’t be able to see them. If you can see his ribs, or you can feel them without applying any pressure at all, he’s too thin. If you can’t feel the ribs at all, he’s too fat. So, just increase or decrease the food a bit until he reaches a more acceptable weight.
Coat and Grooming
The Australian Cattle Dog has a straight, short outer coat and a dense undercoat. He’s also what’s known as a “seasonal shedder,” meaning that although he won’t shed all that much throughout the year, every six months or so he’s going to “blow” his coat, leaving clumps of hair all over the place. Most of the time, you can get by with brushing a couple of times a week, but when he really starts to shed, you’ll probably want to do it daily.
As to coloring, the Aussie’s coat is either blue or red speckle. The blue can also include black or tan markings, especially on the chest, throat and legs. Red speckle Aussies are red all over, and on the head, the red color might be darker than on the rest of the coat.
Aussies are no different from other dogs in that they need to have their teeth brushed at least a couple of times a week in order to prevent the buildup of plaque and tartar that can lead to tooth decay or gum disease. If your dog will tolerate it, daily brushing is even better.
You might not have to worry all that much about nail trimming if your Aussie is getting the exercise he needs. Especially if he’s active on hard surfaces, often just exercise is enough to wear his nails down. If you hear “clicking” when he’s walking on hard surfaces, though, it’s time for a trim.
You should also check your dog’s ears weekly to see if they’re red or smelly – this could indicate infection. You can also clean his ears using a pH-balanced ear cleaner (never rubbing alcohol!). Use a cotton ball or a damp cloth, and don’t insert anything into your dog’s ear canal – you just want to clean the outer ear.
Also, when you’re grooming, keep an eye out for any rashes or sores anywhere on the skin, in the mouth, nose and feet, and around the eyes. Doing this will help you to identify any health issues early on, before they have a chance to become truly problematic.
Kids and Other Animals
Aussies are usually good with kids, and in fact, very protective of them. Because of the tendency to be “mouthy,” though, they’re often better with older children who won’t become alarmed if the dog becomes a little grabby. They’re usually best introduced into your household as puppies – sometimes, adult Aussies who haven’t been around kids can frighten toddlers by attempting to herd them and being nippy.
As to other animals, Aussies are usually good with other dogs. Again, though, it’s best if they’re together from a young age. There can also be problems with jealousy, since Aussies tend to bond so strongly with their humans – sometimes, they just don’t want another dog in the mix.
It’s also worth pointing out that Aussies are no different from any other breed, in that if you have two animals of the same sex, there’s a good chance that they’ll fight. So, if your heart is set on a pair of girls, or a pair of boys, it’s best to have them neutered.
Australian Cattle Dogs are not usually good with cats or other small animals. If you have an adult cat, and you bring an Aussie puppy into your household, it might be okay, but bringing a kitten into a home with an adult Aussie could have a bad outcome – chances are that the dog will view it as prey, as he probably will any other small animal. He’ll chase, he’ll catch, and the chances are also pretty good that he will kill.
Sadly, it’s this prey drive that often leads to Aussies being surrendered to animal shelters, so if you’re contemplating a multi-pet household, tread carefully.
The Final Word
Aussies are tough, independent dogs. That said, though, they also bond very effectively to their humans. I wouldn’t recommend an Aussie for a novice dog owner, but if you know your way around dogs, the Australian Cattle Dog could be a wonderful companion for you, and a great protector.