The Australian Cattle Dog

A working manís dog from the land down under


The origin of many dog breeds is a mystery lost in the mists of time. Some breeds claim ancient heritage based on type or geographic distribution or ancient writings, but few old breeds can confidently be traced back to particular ancestors.

Modern breeds are a different story. In some cases, man set out to build a breed to do a specific job in specific terrain and blended several breeds to get the appropriate characteristics that could be perpetuated generation after generation. Standards for these breeds place working ability above appearance and often allow for wide ranges in size, color, and coat type as long as the dog is capable of doing the work that needs doing.

The Australian Cattle Dog is one of those newer breeds. Developed as a partner to help herd stubborn, wild, and often aggressive cattle in the rough outback regions of Australia, this dog is a tough, capable, and forceful canine with the endurance and skill to drive untamed cattle to market.

Ranchers began with British shepherd dogs called Smithfields that were brought to Australia by colonists in the 1800s. The Smithfield was big, black, and bobtailed and had a long rough coat. When the wide open spaces of the countryís interior were opened to cattlemen and the animals were turned loose to forage on thousands of acres of unfenced land, it quickly became obvious that dogs accustomed to working on British farms and city streets didnít have the fortitude or technique to deal with semi-wild cattle in hostile territory. Not only did the Smithfield dogs lack the skill to work untamed livestock, their barking frightened the animals into stampeding.

Initial efforts crossed the Smithfield with the Dingo, Australiaís feral dog; the resulting dogs were strong silent types but were aggressive. The crosses that were successful involved blue merle Smooth-coated Collies with Dingoes and a smattering of Dalmatian Black and Tan Kelpie genes to fix a range of desired characteristics.

Dingoes were chosen because they are silent and are well-adapted to conditions in the outback. They introduced the red color to the mix to produce both red merle and blue merle offspring. Later crosses with a Dalmatian produced the speckled coat that is characteristic of the Cattle Dog today. The Dals also added loyalty and an affinity for horses, and the Black and Tan Kelpie brought back working ability that had been watered down by the infusion of Dal genes.

The result of these crosses was a compact dog that resembled a speckled or mottled Dingo, a dog that drove cattle by biting at heels and dodging kicks. The original breed standard was approved in 1903, but in the 1940s, Australian veterinarian Allan McNiven added more Dingo genes to the mix. When his experiment was discovered, he was suspended from showing by the Royal Agricultural Society Kennel Council and his dogs were dropped from the registry.

Known as the Blue Heeler for its method of working cattle from the rear or the Queensland Heeler for its region of origin, the Australian Cattle Dog came to the US to work cattle ranches in the mid-20th Century. Some of these dogs were traced back to McNivenís Dingo crosses, and they were not allowed in the US registry when the American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1980.

In 2001, AKC registered 1418 individual ACDs and 571 litters of the breed, down from 1699 dogs and 615 litters the year before.

The breed standard

The Australian Cattle Dog is a muscular, short-coated medium-sized breed with a serious work ethic and the substance, power, balance, and overall athleticism for herding livestock or running an agility course. He is suspicious of strangers and loyal to his owner, qualities that make him a good guard dog as well.

Males are 18-20 inches at the shoulders; females 17-19 inches. Weight is 35-50 pounds with bitches lighter than males.

The ACD skull is broad, the cheeks are muscular, and the muzzle deep and powerful. Teeth meet in a scissors bite, eyes are dark brown ovals with an alert, intelligent expression and a hint of suspicion. The body is muscular; the feet round with hard pads and short, strong nails; the tail is set low and hangs with a slight curve.

The ACD coat is weather resistant with a short dense undercoat and a moderately short, straight outer coat. The tail is bushy.

The coat color is unlike any other breed. The blue ACD may have black, blue, or tan markings on the head and tan markings on the legs, chest, throat, the inside of the thighs, and outside of the hind legs below the hocks. Tan undercoat is allowed as long as it does not show through the blue outercoat. Black on the body is acceptable but not desirable.

The red ACD should be evenly speckled all over the body with darker red markings on the head. Red body patches are allowed but not desired.

The Cattle Dog as pet

The Cattle Dog is a bold, clever, active canine with a mind of his own. Generally affectionate with children he grows up with, he can nonetheless take it upon himself to herd them around by nipping at their heels. He can be tough with other dogs, reluctant to listen to commands from someone he does not respect, and destructive if left to his own devices.

According to Chris Walkowicz in Choosing a Dog for Dummies, Cattle Dogs are ď... strong-willed and confident and need owners who can take charge. About the time of puberty, they begin to challenge other dogs as well as people. Early and continuous socialization and training helps them learn that people, fortunately, are the top dogs.Ē

Obviously, the ACD is not a pet for those who donít have time to train and socialize or for those who are unable or unwilling to exercise firm control. Thereís no asking this dog to behave, only outwitting it so it has no other choice. However, for active individuals or families, the ACD could be the perfect match.

Health matters

The ACD is susceptible to hip dysplasia, progressive retinal atrophy, glaucoma, lens luxation, hypothyroidism, skin lesions, liver abnormalities, poorly developed kneecaps, osteochondritis dissicans, and occasionally deafness.

Hip dysplasia can range from mild to severe with crippling arthritis a common outcome. Because it is an inherited abnormality, the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America encourages all breeders to certify their breeding stock with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals as the best method of limiting the occurrence of this joint malformation in offspring.

Progressive retinal atrophy is a serious inherited condition, so breeders are also encouraged to take their dogs for annual eye checkups. PRA causes changes in the retina that begin with night blindness and progress to total blindness. There is no effective treatment. ACDs are subject to two types of PRA, and research has produced a genetic test for one of the two.

Lens luxation occurs when the eye lens is displaced. It is a painful disorder that can cause loss of vision if the lens is not removed.

Glaucoma involves increased pressure in the eye. It can be inherited and can cause blindness.

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland does not function properly. It causes coat and skin problems but can usually be controlled with medication.

Osteochondritis dissicans, also known as OCD, is a skeletal disorder involving defective cartilage and potential damage to bony surfaces in the joint. It occurs in fast-growing medium to large breeds and is triggered by a combination of genetic predisposition and over-feeding (or feeding a diet that is too high in energy for the dog). OCD causes lameness and may require surgery to remove damaged or fragmented cartilage.

When looking for an Australian Cattle Dog puppy, potential buyers should ask breeders about BAER testing for deafness along with certifications from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or PennHip for hips and the Canine Eye Registry Foundation for annual eye tests. Although these certifications do not guarantee that puppies will be free of the abnormalities, they increase the breederís chances of producing healthy litters.

For more information about the Australian Cattle Dog visit the AKC website for links and e-mail addresses for club contacts.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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