It’s a dirty secret people don’t like to share: there are two types of Australian Shepherd. Conformation and working. Generally, the two don’t mix – and when that happens, misinformation abounds. This article should hopefully help educated interested parties get a little more education about the issue.
First, a new comer might see a black tri or a blue merle and think, “Oh! An Aussie.” But as your eye becomes more and more trained, the subtleties start to arise and sometimes individuals on the opposite ends of the spectrum can lead you to wonder – are these really the same breed? In actuality, yes. Only a handful of Australian Shepherds seem to make up the base of this young breed, and most pedigrees, if you trace them back far enough, go to the same place. Through concentrated breeding in the early years of the fancy, two type emerged that can often look very different and appear to have different heritages as well.
Generally, one can tell what type of dog has based on its pedigree. Flintridge-based dogs for the most part are conformation type dogs. Dogs with kennel names like Las Rocosa, Slash V, Twin Oaks, and Woods are generally working line dogs. More and more pedigrees with a combination of the two types are appearing as each proponent of a type realizes the shrinking gene pool is becoming a problem and is willing to trade some characteristics of type to get other (ie, conformation people breeding to get working instinct, working people breeding to get conformation looks).
Conformation-type Aussies and working-type Aussies can differ visually from one another. . The extremes of conformation type dogs are often characterized as Bernese Mountain Dog-like: Heavy-boned (thick bones), heavy-coats, big heads, loose jowls, low ears. Extremes in the working-type Aussies tend to look very English Border Collie-like, with inconsistent looks, high ears, narrow faces, lighter bone (skinny), and lighter coats. (Notice I said English? The Australian BCs tend to be heavier looking themselves and are comparable to a moderate Aussie that falls in between both type extremes).
These are stereotypes only. Conformation dogs can be lighter-built, just as working dogs can be heavier. The incredible variety of this breed is one of its distinguishing characteristics!
The ASCA Aussie Breed Standard defines the Australian Shepherd’s personality as such: “He is reserved with strangers but does not exhibit shyness.” The AKC standard says, “He may be somewhat reserved in initial meetings. . . Gaze should be keen but friendly.” It’s no mistake that AKC changed the standard – and this again reflects a difference in line temperament.
The ideal working Australian Shepherd is more focused on his task and person than strangers; they should not be “friendly.” Many a dog has been returned to a breeder because it was more interested on the people or dogs outside the arena than on the stock and handler inside! This means these dogs are the kind that may not appreciate friendly stranger advances – they may tolerate or even growl at an outstretched hand or face in their face.
In the same vein, conformation line Aussies couldn’t last long with attitudes like that, as they spend their weekends primped and pretty, having private places touched by strangers and are encouraged to show off for judges and spectators alike! Friendliness is key! These types of dogs are what appeal to most suburban family homes, and it’s why the Aussie has become as popular as it has (aside from its obvious beauty) with non-working homes.
Both types of Aussies can be protective of their homes and families, though it is often more pronounced in the working types. Those interested in getting a dog for a pet or work are well-advised to be aware of these differences and discuss with their breeder or rescue rep – a mis-matched temperament could spell disaster in any type of home!
Not all Australian Shepherds can move livestock instinctively. There are some with no instinct, some with no biddability. Many Aussies possess some instinct, but perhaps not enough to do the work without guidance or be trusted to take care of themselves on difficult stock. These types of Aussies are more prevalent in conformation types. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Selected for temperament and appearance alone – many Aussie owners do not have or make the opportunity to get to know the ability of their dogs to work livestock, nor bring out natural abilities to their full extent.
Working type Aussies are more likely to be able to handle the jobs set before them, but even within this type, there are different lineages that are better at one type of work than another. Some might make excellent sheep dogs with more eye and balance ability. Some make better cattle dogs with enough power to move intractable steers. Some lines look to their owners for handling instructions while others prefer to work it out on their own. If you’re looking for a dog to work for you, this is also something to discuss with your breeder.
This is not a PC article, but it is the truth. The Australian Shepherd can be the perfect dog for any situation because of the wide variety of temperaments, sizes, and abilities, but if you’re selecting a new dog, know what you’re looking for and be aware that there is no single “trait” consistent across the types with the dog breed known as “Australian Shepherd.”
Working type breeders lament the ruination of a good working breed to good-looking pets with no instinct, intelligence, and reserve. Conformation type breeders lament the ruination because working breeders only like rangy, ugly dogs with bad temperaments. Neither is the case. Each type makes trades for another.