Raising an Australian
Shepherd: Temperament and Development
by Lisa Lafferty
raising an Aussie, it’s wise to understand general breed character and to design
the rearing program with the individual dog in mind. Awareness of the general
(and sometimes drastic) temperamental changes that Australian Shepherds exhibit
as they mature can aid owners in training and socialization.
Shepherd Club of America Breed Standard)
Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding
and guardian instincts. He is an exceptional companion. He is versatile and
easily trained, performing his assigned tasks with great style and enthusiasm.
He is reserved with strangers but does not exhibit shyness. Although an
aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or animals is
This word accurately describes most Aussies, but what does
it really mean? Aussies are intelligent and learn basic obedience commands
extremely quickly, but this is only part of how Aussie intelligence works.
Aussies are problem-solvers and are renowned for their
ability to think independently and make decisions on their own. Aussies do not
see “limits” in their environment…only opportunities. This is a necessary trait
in Aussie working ability with stock and it carries over to other areas of
life. Aussie owners should thoughtfully teach limits, before the Aussie takes
For example, fences. Other dogs see fences as
insurmountable obstacle. A Lab looks at a fence and thinks, “Darn, a fence.
Guess I’ll be staying in the yard.” The Aussie looks at a fence and thinks,
“hmm, I can get over that” and then proceeds to try 90 different ways to do so.
Aussie owners are often shocked at their dog’s ability to escape. Many Aussies
die each year after they escape an enclosure that seems secure. Is this because
of phenomenal jumping ability and athleticism? Partly, but the biggest reason
for this often-seen trait is that the Aussie doesn’t see the fence in the same
way as other breeds. If there is a problem in the way of an Aussie (such as how
to get over a fence to see something interesting) the Aussie will usually
quickly figure out how to solve the problem.
Another example: if an Aussie is hungry (and Aussies are
usually very food-motivated, a trait that is not listed in the Breed Standard),
he will look for food and find a way to get it! If this means opening a
cupboard, jumping onto the counter, unzipping a backpack, unwrapping Christmas
chocolates, the Aussie will find a way. Aussies see roadblocks, but do not
submit to them. They figure out ways to get around!
As herding dogs or obedience/sport prospect, the Aussie
problem-solving capacity can be a problem with owners who use repetitive,
drill-style training methods. Aussies learn quickly and enjoy a challenge.
Repeated “drilling” can quickly bore or even cause an Aussie to dislike the
activity. Many Aussies will try to insert something of their own into the
“game” and what they insert isn’t always ideal for working or competition!
Keeping an Aussie motivated includes allowing them to problem-solve.
“…primarily a working dog…”
The average Aussie loves to have something to do. This
doesn’t mean that they are just “jocks” and need endless physical activity…far
to the contrary! Aussies need mental stimulation just as much as physical.
There should be a healthy balance in this area or problems can arise.
Australian Shepherd problem-solving is not only temperament
trait, but a motivation. They enjoy a challenge, they love figuring things out;
success in solving a problem is a reward unto itself.
Many homes provide massive amounts of physical activity but
not much mental stimulation, and this can cause trouble. Aussie puppy owners
who do not provide adequate mental stimulation to balance with the physical
often find themselves with a dog that is extremely physically fit but mentally
very restless. This translates to a dog that is able to strip the wallpaper in
creative patterns all day long with gusto and great stamina due to his fantastic
physical condition (and his eager-to-problem-solve brain)!
Much has been written about the Aussie as an active breed
who has a high energy level. A more accurate statement would be that a bored
Aussie is an active dog with a high energy level. Aussies that have adequate
mental stimulation can be very satisfied with regular leash walks every day and
a few free runs or active retrieval games per week.
Examples of mentally stimulating activities:
Food dissection (stuffed Kongs instead of food bowl)
Delectable but difficult-to-slaughter chew bones
Retrieval games (also physically stimulating)
Trick performance (rewarded with access to highly valued items)
Hide and Seek with owner (physical for both players!)
Agility (also physical, but primarily mental…on the woodpile, in
the forest, or on formal equipment in a class environment)
Free play with other, known dogs (also physically stimulating)
Flyball (also physically stimulating)
Working livestock (also physically stimulating)
“…of strong herding …
The ability to authoritatively
boss around livestock is a trait that has been cemented in by breeders for a
hundred years or more. The key word here is “boss.”
Aussies like to have their world
in order and know that they can have an influence on creating that order. This
means that if leadership and guidance from humans is weak, the Aussie will step
into the leadership role.
Just because they CAN do this
doesn’t mean that they SHOULD. Aussies are dogs that have various watchdog
tendencies and the independence and confidence to back up a bark with a bite.
The breed needs a good human boss to show them boundaries and provide them with
the leadership they need. Remember that Aussies bossing around livestock is
supposed to be directed by a person working along with them. Aussies like to
have good leadership and to know what is expected of them. An Aussie that
thinks they are the leader within their human “pack” is usually more stressed
than they should be, and can even start to “boss” the human members of the
household which can lead to uncontrollable behavior and even inappropriate
Another part of the Aussie
herding instinct is strong levels of prey drive (the instinctive reaction to
moving objects/pursue and capture). Prey drive is what makes an Aussie a
motivated ball-player or Frisbee addict. Aussies love to chase and nip at
moving objects. Children, cats and cars are often the target of this drive. It
is important to channel this drive into appropriate activities and to teach the
Aussie what is NOT appropriate. If prey drive is present, the dog will feel
strongly motivated to express it. The owner must give the dog an outlet or the
problem-solving, independent Aussie will find his own.
As a high-prey-drive herding
breed, Aussies are usually extremely visually sensitive. This is important to
remember during the socialization process. Aussies notice things that other
breeds don’t, and the socialization process should be extremely far-reaching for
“…he is an exceptional
companion… versatile and easily trained…”
Owners of Aussies that have
experience with other breeds often comment on the train-ability of the Aussie.
Train-ability has nothing at all to do with intelligence…it has to do with the
breed’s willingness to take direction.
Aussie train-ability is a
combination of mental and physical traits. Mentally, an Aussie likes to comply
and likes to take direction. Physically, in order to be a stockdog they must be
tough and gritty and bounce back readily from discomfort or pain they might
encounter (getting kicked by a cow, running into a fence, working in bad
What this means is that Aussies
need to know what you want, and are usually willing to comply when they know
it. In relation to stockdog work, they readily change tactics and learn the
wishes of their handler. If undirected they can feel a sense of anxiety and try
to do things on their own, which to them is not ideal. An Aussie puppy wants
and needs to be shown boundaries and feel there is a clear leader, someone whom
he can look up to and take direction from.
On the physical side of things, a
good Aussie cowdog is supposed to be able to get kicked in the teeth and get up
ready for more, and dive right back into his job without apprehension. The cow
corrects him pretty hard…and the Aussie bounces back with enthusiasm!
This trait of physical toughness
can cause difficulties in handler/dog training, too. An example of this can be
the use of a long line to administer leash pops (training for recall, stock
work, etc). This can be a large source of frustration to handlers that have in
the past used these types of training methods with success with other breeds. A
Border Collie or Labrador Retriever would probably respond pretty well to a
long-line leash pop due to their physical sensitivity…but not most Aussies. If
the Aussie does not connect the leash pops to the handler, his physical
toughness might cause him to ignore the leash pops. An Aussie handler has to
find different ways to show his dog right from wrong, ways that allow the dog to
comply with the owner’s wishes rather than avoid discomfort. The presence of
high prey drive in Aussies can mean that people wishing to have a great sport or
obedience dog can use prey-drive games as high-level motivators. Some Aussies
like prey-drive games more than food rewards!
Toughness/stoicism should also be
considered in regards to health. Aussies can be stoic to the extreme. If your
Aussie is showing pain, it is worthwhile to investigate right away.
“strong… guardian instincts
…reserved with strangers... aggressive, authoritative…”
Aussies are protective watchdogs.
Aussies are closely attached to their family but do
not tend to seek contact with strangers, or easily accept strangers as
“friends.” This does not mean they are shy or aggressive. Aussies are
selective in their social interactions. They can be extremely affectionate
with family members but not interested in stranger’s affections.
authoritative...” At a car wreck where people are injured and other
people have arrived, there are A) people that step in and take charge B)
people that follow A’s direction and C) people that remain bystanders.
Aussies are type A. When something is happening, they take action. They
don’t often back off from a challenge and their problem-solving abilities
and independence cause them to try to manipulate their environment. They
don’t give up easily, either.
The traits above express
themselves very differently at various stages in the dog’s life.
Puppies: As youngsters, these
traits are often blunt or not present at all. This is Mother Nature’s way
of allowing the dog to explore his environment and learn to accept things.
Teenagers: During adolescence
(10 months to about 18-20 months) Aussies often go through a phase in which
they “try out” some of the instinctual tendencies that are cropping up as
their bodies and brains mature (just as human teenagers do!). The traits
mentioned above often express themselves in extreme ways during adolescence
as the dog learns.
Adults: True adult personality
(18-20 months onward) is often very different from the puppy and adolescent
So what does all of this
information on the inherent Aussie personality and different life stages mean to
the person raising an Australian Shepherd from puppyhood?
Basically, it means that the
owner should be aware of inherent breed traits and also aware that these traits
can appear at different ages and in different strengths. Particularly in
adolescence, extreme behavior can be seen. Owners should predict potential
expression of these traits, recognize preliminary signs of them, and raise the
puppy right from the start with the aim of prevention of future problems.
should be given clear leadership and guidance from a very young age, right from
the start. They should have clear boundaries and understand that the human is
in control of their behavior. This does not mean harshness or strictness,
rather that the human should control every aspect of the pup’s life in a way
that the puppy can perceive it. Play, food, toys, and access to valued items
should be carefully controlled so that the puppy clearly understands who is the
leader in the household.
Most Aussies are “easy puppies,”
and far too many Aussie owners ride along with the “easy puppy stage” without
considering the consequences. An Aussie that does not have a lot of practice in
bowing to a human’s wishes does not easily take direction at times when direct
compliance is needed. It is wise to train your puppy to be compliant, biddable
and non-argumentative during the part of his life when it’s easiest…puppyhood.
If your puppy is showing reserve
with strangers and watchdog traits from a young age, be sure to recognize these
traits and teach your puppy how you want him to act. Do not encourage
in puppies that you do not want to continue in adulthood. What seems cute in a
fluffy puppy can be dangerous down the road in an adult dog. If your dog is
particularly sensitive to strangers, socialize more. If your puppy is
particularly “watch-doggy,” exercise more control so that you will eventually be
able to manage him so that no one is in danger. Also, make sure the dog knows
the house is YOURS instead of HIS by controlling every aspect of his freedom and
Because of the breed’s extreme
intelligence, visual sensitivity, and watchdog traits, Aussie puppies should be
socialized in as many different environments and situations as possible.
Herding breeds in general demand fully three times the socialization of
retriever breeds. Do it, do it again, then do it some more. Maintenance should
be continued for the lifetime of the dog.
The adolescent period
in the Australian Shepherd usually marks the beginning of watchdog traits,
reserve with strangers, and authoritative behavior. Owners should be aware
that during this period, these traits can be extremely, alarmingly strong.
Dogs that were gregarious during puppyhood can start to avoid contact with
strangers. Dogs that were never watchdogs suddenly begin to do it, and are
often difficult to control while doing so. Because of the Aussie trait to move
TOWARD things that are bothering them rather than backing off, this can lead to
difficult situations. If the dog doesn’t want to be petted by a stranger he may
threaten the person with a growl if they don’t leave him alone. People the dog
perceives as “intruders” are treated with high levels of suspicion and may even
be greeted with aggressive displays.
Many Aussie owners suffer severe
anxiety during the adolescent period when the dog shows extreme
protective/watchdog behavior or extreme reserve. Be aware that the way your
dog is acting during adolescence is usually NOT how the adult personality will
end up…it is a stage that must be worked through. Just because it’s a stage,
however, doesn’t mean you should ignore it and wait for it to “go away.” Your
dog is learning the whole time. If he learns that extreme behavior is the
thing that works, he will continue behaving in an extreme way. You must control
and prevent extreme behavior through management and socialization. You must
never allow him to learn that throwing his teeth around is an acceptable
option. You must consider how people that encounter him will feel if he shows
this behavior. You should keep managing and training until the behavior
Don’t despair even if little to
no progress is evident. It may seem that no matter how hard you try, your dog
is still over-the-top reactionary. It is NORMAL for an adolescent Australian
Shepherd to show these behaviors strongly throughout adolescence. Keep
plugging away! Your primary focus should be on prevention…so that the dog
doesn’t learn that these behaviors work. If you use careful management and
training through adolescence, the behaviors will calm down as hormones and
sheer experience turn him into an adult.
In regards to their relationship
with their owners, teenage Australian Shepherds begin to push the boundaries of
their world, just as human teenagers do! This means that Aussies might
challenge authority by responding differently when directed to do something.
They can seem distracted or even outright oppositional. Sometimes it may seem
they have forgotten every piece of previous training! This should be coped with
by strengthening control of the dog’s environment and extra obedience practice.
Do not assume that things will get better if you just wait. If you do nothing,
the dog will definitely re-define his relationship with you. If you increase
training and control, the dog will remain where he should be…below you in rank
structure, a willing and compliant partner.
Australian Shepherds that have been properly
socialized and trained can usually handle nearly anything life throws at them,
but in a way different than many other breeds. Reserve with strangers turns
into “I am not everyone’s best friend and I won’t act that way.” Adult Aussies
often ignore strangers, and are slow to change the classification from
“stranger” to “friend.” Do not expect your Aussie to be the Will Rogers of
dogdom, “never met a stranger…” Treasure your Aussie’s loyalty to you and your
family members. Do not allow others to force unwanted affection on him.
Respect his nature, and allow him his dignity.
Watchdog traits in adults are
usually prominent, but a well-trained Aussie should have pretty good judgment of
when it’s appropriate to be a watchdog, and should respond to his owners’
command of “Ok that’s enough.” A good Aussie with proper temperament will
probably guard the car and home with savage intensity when the owner is not
there. He may even guard like this with people outside the family that he has
previously been friendly with…when you are there, they are fine, when you are
not, they qualify as “intruders.”
It is important to remember that
Aussie threats usually aren’t bluffs. If a cowdog is trying to make a cow move,
he is going to back up his threat with a bite. This holds true in a watchdog
situation as well. Do not put your Aussie into situations that will cause him,
in his mind, to “need” to bite someone. If you do, you are almost guaranteeing
his death by lethal injection.
Good knowledge of basic breed
characteristics can allow Australian Shepherd owners to prepare and train their
dog to be the best companion possible. Ignoring these basic traits during the
raising and training process almost always results in problems.
An Aussie is an intelligent
working dog, with strong herding and guardian instincts, an authoritative and
aggressive personality, a dog that thinks there are no limits in life and that
he can manipulate his own environment if he just tries hard enough. He is a dog
that loves his family beyond measure and tolerates strangers with dignity but
not effusive affection.
For some, these traits will be
unwelcome and disappointing. For the true Aussie fancier, these traits are what
make the breed the best dog in the universe.
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