Australian shepherd history may at first seem confusing because this is a herding breed developed first in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain and then in America. The modern “Aussie” appeared in the 1800s but was not recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1993.
The Pyrenees Mountains lie between Spain and France. The Spanish side includes an area known as the Basque region. This area was known for its fine herds of sheep and the nimble, intelligent dogs that herded and protected the sheep. It is unknown just how long Basque shepherds had been breeding sheepdogs, but the American Kennel Club theorizes that the Australian shepherd as we know it today was mostly established by the 1800s.
During this century, there was a vast influx of Basque people into America to take advantage of the opening of the West. The Basque people also brought their dogs. They settled mostly in the Southwest but some went as far as California.
As more and more large sheep outfits took over the American West, there were not enough herding dogs in America to look after them. Dogs were imported from Australia. These are thought to be border collie-like herding dogs with their origins in British dogs. When these collies met with the Basque shepherd dogs, they bred.
This produced the modern Australian shepherd. The extra dash of collie blood helped add hardiness and intelligence while the Basque blood contributed a dog more interested in working and protecting sheep that just guiding them or cutting an individual from a flock.
What About the Name?
If Australian shepherd history doesn’t explain this dog breed’s name, then how did it get to be called an Australian and not an American shepherd? Perhaps it’s a bit of old-fashioned salesmanship. Any animal breed given the name of a foreign country immediately seemed more exotic and desirable to Americans than native breeds or crosses.
According to the Working Australian Shepherd Association, the first known use of the name “Australian shepherd” was in California newspapers around 1862. The name stuck. Other names were tried and dropped include the New Mexican shepherd, blue heeler, California shepherd, pastor dog, bob-tail and even the Spanish shepherd. The dogs worked on all types of farms and ranches throughout the American west.
Although the Australian shepherd or Aussie existed for over a century, it wasn’t until 1957 that America got around to starting a registry for the breed. The American Kennel Club did not officially recognize this breed until 1993, long after many countries had. However, the breed is still not recognized in Australia. This breed is rapidly becoming popular all over the United States. Aussies excel at dog sports like agility, are smart and sensitive enough to be used as therapy dogs and still are used to herd livestock.
One Aussie movie star was Bunk, who appeared in numerous cowboy movies along with his owner Jack Hoxler. Another famous Aussie is Caitland Isle Take a Chance, nicknamed Chance, who won Best in Show at Crufts 2006, then the most prestigious dog show in Europe.
American Kennel Club. “Australian Shepherd History.” http://www.akc.org/breeds/australian_shepherd/history.cfm
Working Australian Shepherd Association. “Australian Shepherd History.” http://www.wasadogs.com/Eductaion.aspx
Hanks, Lisa. “Your Best Mate: The Australian Shepherd.” Dog Fancy. Bow Tie Press; January 2010.
BBC News. March 12, 2006. “Australian Shepherd Wins Crufts.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4800126.stm