Australian Shepherds: The All American Cowboy Dog
In 2004, we adopted a rescue dog. Our son, Shea, was in college and we had never owned a family dog before in his lifetime. Having been raised on a farm, my dad, Ray Mullaney, insisted that you not have any animal if you didn't have the time to properly care, train and exercise it. As owners of our own marketing agency, working 16+ hour days, we didn't have the time to devote to caring for a dog. Shea had the choice of giving up on all extra-curricular activities to be home with the dog or to do those things and be satisfied with the family cats. He chose the cats and sports and drama.
In 2002, we had closed the agency and become marketing consultants. We inherited the farm I grew up on when both my parents, Ray and Ruby, died in late 2001. We remodeled an office in the lower level of the house and began working from home... as well as running the Plymouth, MA farm. So, Shea decided we finally had time for a dog. And we needed a farm dog, who wouldn't chase the horses, but who could help herd the llamas. We applied to New England Border Collie Rescue (NEBCR), and they suggested we adopt Misty.
Misty was an 8 year old Aussie/Border Collie mix. She'd been in foster care for 2 years after her family moved away and surrendered her to NEBCR. Her foster had pretty much given up on the idea that she'd ever find an adopter. Misty was older than I wanted, but Shea went on the meet and greet at the foster's farm in Maine. And he brought Misty home, saying, "This is our dog. You have to trust me!" And of course, he was right. Misty decided immediately that this was "her farm" with "her critters" and "her humans". She chose us. And it was the best thing ever. She knew best. As did the NEBCR rep who knew that as first time herding dog owners we had a lot to learn from an older dog like Misty. Misty trained us and not the other way around.
We only had her 4 years before we lost her to cancer. It broke our hearts. She was our "Best Girl". She taught us what it meant to have an Aussie (or "Baussie" some call the cross.) And we were determined to go get more Aussies. We soon found Odin and Patches, two purebred Aussies, both rescues from New England rescue organizations. They were exactly one month difference in age, one from CT and one from ME. They were inseparable for the 11 years we had them. So different from one another, but one heck of a team together.
LIFE ON THE OPEN RANGE
And so I started learning all I could about the breed. And I found out that despite "Australian" in their name, they are the All American Cowboy Dog. Ranchers out West needed dogs to help them manage their cattle herds. The sheep ranchers' Border Collies were smart and disciplined, but they weren't exactly right for cows. For starters, cows don't respond to "the Border Collie stare". They ignore it and them. They aren't impressed by the "stalking crouch". And they tend to kick pesky dogs when they are annoyed.
So the ranchers began cross breeding all sorts of herding dogs to create dogs with the size, smarts, speed and stamina to help manage their cattle herds. Legend has it that "Aussies" are descended from some Basque sheep dogs that came to the Western states with their Basque shepherds when sheep ranchers purchased herds of sheep from Australia's famous sheep stations. Who knows if this is true, but if you run DNA on your Aussie you'll find traces of Australian Cattle Dog (ACD), Border Collie, Standard Collie, Corgi, German Shepherd, Chow Chow, and a variety of other working breeds. The ranchers only cared about one thing: could the dog herd cattle. Were they tough enough, agile enough, and determined enough to move a herd of big, unruly cows from here to there, to guard them from predators (two and four legged), and to work with very little direction? If you watched as many Westerns on TV as I did growing up, you notice the loud din of the herd noises. So you can forget trying to call out commands to your dogs. Or even a high pitched whistle. The dogs need to know their job and have the intelligence to solve problems on their own without human intervention to do their job.
So, pretty much all the "bad things" we hear about Aussies are just their tools for getting their job done. They are nippy at feet to control stubborn cows. They lunge. They bark really loud and bark a lot. They are over-protective resource guarders. They don't always listen. They have too much energy and can run for hours. They go until they drop. They have really thick coats that are wind and waterproof. And which they shed twice a year. They can handle high temperatures and freezing ones equally well. These are all the reasons Aussies aren't for everyone. They require lots of training, exercise, and a job to do. And a lot of patience and persistence from their human to get them to age 3, when they "magically" get it all together.
But then there is the other side. The side that make Aussie owners as devoted to the breed as their Aussies are devoted to their humans. The "good" side that makes Aussies so special.
Think of every Western movie you ever saw. The Cowboy Lifestyle was made up of one cowboy, his Aussie dog, his cutting horse, and 100 head of cows. Often he worked alone, watching over those cows while they grazed for the summer on the grassy plains. Then at roundup time, he moved them back to the main ranch for the winter or to be moved in a cattle drive to the meat packing plants in Nebraska and Kansas. It was often a lonely life. And the Aussie dogs bonded with "their" human, their working partner, to the point where they could almost read each others minds. They'd work all day as a team. And at night, the dog would entertain his owner with "tricks" around the campfire and then guard his back all night against the perils of the plains. These dogs would defend "their" partner with their very lives, being totally in tune with their cowboy and their charges. Courage runs strong in Aussie DNA, along with strength and agility. They have no problem taking on much bigger "opponents" if they think their human is in danger. And they believe that the best defense is a good offense as they charge full speed into the fray.
BUILDING A BRIDGE TO A NEW LIFE
The majority of Aussies are still to be found out West in Texas and Oklahoma. The people in the East began discovering them about 25 years ago. Breeders began working on developing the breed for conformation and temperament to show them in AKC events. They are a fairly "new" breed by AKC standards.
However, the "ranch bred" Aussies still make up the majority of these dogs in homes across America. And a great many of them were adopted from Aussie rescue organizations, like Australian Shepherds Furever or ASF.
Boston native, Nancy Pearlman Gonzales, founded the group in 2013, after adopting her blue merle, Asher. She quickly realized that there was a huge glut of Aussies in TX and OK that were being euthanized daily because the shelters didn't have room for all the dogs being "dumped" on them. The problem was that the dogs needed to go East, to places where people were most anxious to adopt them and give them loving homes. Over the nearly ten years, ASF has built a national network of rescuers and fosters equally devoted to the breed. They "pull" Aussies from shelters and also take owner surrenders, and arrange to transport them to where they need to go. More than 3500 dogs have been saved, rehabilitated, trained and rehomed by ASF volunteers during that time.
ASF recruits volunteers nationwide to rescue, foster and match these dogs with just the right families. And as an ASF foster, I can tell you from experience, that these dogs often make it quite easy for us. They can be quite "insistent" when they discover "their" human. A tell-tale sign is that they rush to a person and won't leave them alone. They often sit or lay on the person's feet, as if to say, "You aren't going anywhere without me". They try to hop in the car as soon as a door opens as if to say, "Let's go". And you quickly see why we call them Velcro dogs. If you adopt one, don't plan on ever going to the bathroom alone again! They'll be right there.
I have a plaque on my wall that says it all, "Love is being owned by an Aussie". And I know that to be entirely true. Just ask my pack. They each own their very own piece of my heart. And always will. Aussies are "forever dogs".