Those who have shared their lives with Australian Cattle Dogs (ACDs) are passionate about this breed. They are among the most intelligent and loyal of dogs, making life with them a challenge at times and an adventure always. ACD owners must be willing to train their dogs and establish themselves as the “leader.” ACDs are often called “Velcro dogs.” They bond closely to their people and want to be involved in everything they do. Your dog will be a true companion while you work the ranch, run, hike, bike, or go about your daily activities. ACDs do not thrive if left constantly unattended in the back yard. Overview: The breed is known by several names—Blue Heeler, Red Heeler, and Queensland Heeler—but, when purebred, they are all the same dog. “Australian Cattle Dog” is the name recognized in Australia as well as by the American Kennel Club and the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America, the breed’s U.S. parent club. These compact, symmetrically built working dogs are born white and darken to their adult color over time. To clear up some misconceptions, a red ACD is not a Dingo and there is no difference in temperament between blue and red dogs. ACDs do not have a merle gene; the distinctive coat color probably results from the ticking gene. Ideally, adult males are 18”-20” at the withers (shoulders), and bitches are 17”-19”. Contrary to common belief in some communities, the ACD is supposed to have a tail. A tail is described in both the American and Australian breed standards. These dogs are true athletes and use their tail as a rudder when making sudden changes of direction, whether while herding cattle, doing agility, or playing in the back yard. Grooming is minimal—just periodic baths, occasional brushing to remove dead hair and nail trimming for dogs that don’t naturally wear them down.
Origins: The ACD was developed as a breed in Australia in the 1800s when it was found that the herding dogs imported from Great Britain had difficulty with the unfenced scrub range, the breeds of cattle, and the climate, all of which differed from their homeland. According to history as known to date, imported herding dogs were initially bred with Dingoes and over time breeders developed the breed we know today as the Australian Cattle Dog. Along the way, other breeds may have been added— Kelpie and Dalmatian have been suggested. DNA analysis may one day give us the full and true story.
Herding: The herding ACD works independently and often has to think for itself. It moves stubborn cattle by coming in low from behind, biting the hock of the weight-bearing leg, and ducking to avoid the kick that often follows. An uncooperative bovine doesn’t discourage the dog; rather the ACD just becomes more determined to get its job done. Training and Exercise: It is not surprising, considering its original purpose, that the ACD is a very high-energy dog as well as an extremely intelligent one. This means that your ACD needs a job or a purpose in life in order for them (and you) to be happy. Many owners train their dogs for work or performance events—herding (cattle, sheep, or ducks), agility, tracking, rally and obedience. Find an activity that provides an outlet for physical and mental energy. Mental exercise and training is good for both the ACD and its owner.
Puppies and Young Cattle Dogs: In the case of puppies and young dogs, it is up to the owner to use common sense and adjust activity levels. Until a dog has stopped growing and its joints are mature, extremes of physical activity (very long daily hikes, leaping and twisting in the air, repetitive jumping, etc.) can lead to permanent injury. Young puppies need to be taught not to nip inappropriately. Some bite inhibition is learned from littermates, which is why it is especially important for ACD puppies to remain in their litter until they are at least 7-8 weeks old. Puppy classes are an excellent way to begin training your ACD. Socialization and exposure to different dogs, people, places, and situations is an important aspect of raising an ACD that will be living in a community of people and other dogs. In general, positive training methods work best with this breed and make training more fun for the owner as well. These are smart dogs and if you make learning enjoyable, they will want to learn. They excel at clicker training in particular. Time-outs, training an incompatible behavior, and preventing unwanted behaviors from happening in the first place generally solve many problems. Physically harsh training methods are often seen as a challenge by a dog that is bred to be kicked by a cow and not be deterred from their intended task. There are better ways to establish respect. Teaching your dog to obey basic commands and then making them earn what they want (a “Nothing in Life is Free” approach) helps establish the pack order in a kind and safe way. Genetics, Health and Longevity: In general, ACDs are sturdy, healthy dogs with an average life span of about 12-16 years. However, there are some health concerns that owners and beeders should be aware of.
Breeding stock should have their hips and elbows x-rayed to rule out dysplasia. OFA and PennHip provide these services.
Blindness is a problem in ACDs. A DNA test can detect progressive retinal atrophy (prcd-PRA) before dogs are bred so that no affected puppies need be produced. Prior to this test’s development, PRA was responsible for blindness in 25% of ACDs if they lived long enough (usually 6-8 years) for it to develop.
CERF testing is done by veterinary ophthalmologists to detect other inherited eye diseases.
There is genetic deafness in the breed. Puppies and adults can be tested (BAER) to determine whether they can hear in each ear. ACDs are smart enough that puppies can mimic their littermate’s responses and seem to have normal hearing.