Is an Australian Shepherd the Right Dog for You?
By Liz Palika
Aussies are my breed of choice; I've had them for over twenty years now. However, I am the first to admit Australian Shepherds are NOT the right breed for everyone. In fact, when I talk (or email) to people about Aussies I try to talk more people out of buying an Aussie than I try to convince to get one. Why? Well, let's look at the breed.
First of all, Aussies have a very strong drive to work. As all around, versatile ranch dogs, they need to do something. Aussies were not designed or bred to be pets and as pets, with no job to do, they get into trouble. An Aussie with no sheep to herd, ducks to drive or cattle to round up will herd the kids instead. All Aussies need a job to do; maybe three or four jobs! He needs to bring in the morning newspaper, keep the kids out of the street, learn his obedience and agility training and do therapy dog work. If you can't provide your Aussie with a sense of purpose, don't get an Aussie!
As dogs bred to work and control stock, Aussies can have a very high opinion of themselves and many have a more dominant, somewhat pushy personality. This trait, when combined with the breed's natural intelligence, makes it easy for Aussies to try to assume leadership of the family pack; a recipe for disaster. The owner of an Aussie must be assertive enough to make sure this doesn't happen. If you have a very soft personality, hate being assertive, are very soft spoken and want a dog who will naturally give in to you without any stress, then don't get an Aussie.
All Aussies need training. Not only does obedience training give your Aussie something to do and think about, it also teaches him self-control. Training also teaches him to accept discipline from you and that you are in charge. If you will not take the time to train your dog - not just for a five to six week class but for several years as he grows from puppyhood through adolescence and into adulthood - then do not get an Aussie.
What kind of training technique should you use? Well, the all-positive training techniques are very popular right now but aren't always the best for Aussies. Although all positive training (using no corrections) is wonderful in concept; many Aussies will take advantage of this type of training. In their world, a dog that gives no corrections is considered weak and at the bottom of the pack. The leader must be able to stand up for himself and give needed corrections. Since you must be your Aussie's leader, you must be able to give fair but firm, humane, and ethical yet effective corrections when needed.
As working herding dogs, Aussies need exercise. A walk is not exercise. A good, vigorous game of frisbee is exercise, as is a run along side the bicycle. Aussies need exercise every single day without fail. A dog with too much energy and no outlet for it will get into trouble. If you are an active person who likes to walk, hike, jog and do other outdoor activities, then an Aussie might be great for you. If you're a couch potato, don't get an Aussie.
Aussies need to be with their people. An Aussie is not a backyard dog. Aussies want to be with you as much as possible and would prefer to crawl under your skin! If you don't want a real companion dog, don't get an Aussie. If you want a dog who will stay in the backyard all (or most) of the time, don't get an Aussie.
Aussies need socialization . As protective herding dogs who can be (and should be) reserved with strangers, Aussies need a lot of socialization during puppyhood. If you are very busy and can't take the time to get your puppy to different places and to meet different people while he's a puppy, then do not get an Aussie. An Aussie who isn't properly socialized can easily develop behavior problems, including fearfulness towards strangers, fear-biting, overly aggressive behavior and a host of other problems.
Personally, I enjoy the challenges of raising an Aussie. I like taking my puppy places. I enjoy dog training and love to keep their minds challenged and stimulated. In fact, right now Riker is learning his A, B and C's. He can recognize and touch the appropriate block when I tell him, "Riker, touch A" or B or C. He loves this game, too, because he's thinking and learning. Since I also have a dominant personality, I don't have to worry too much about my Aussies pushing me too far although they all try during adolescence. I don't even mind the fact that I have to vacuum the house daily because Aussies shed - and shed a lot! I like the breed's appearance, intelligence, wonderful personality and tremendous sense of fun.
If you are reading this web site because you're researching breeds, or are thinking about getting an Aussie, please think carefully about this awesome breed before you buy one. Aussie rescue programs are overloaded right now with dogs bought by people who didn't know enough about the breed. They fell in love with the dog's appearance, or intelligence, or another trait without seeing the whole picture. Then, once they had the dog, they realized that perhaps (for what ever reason) Aussies weren't the right dog for them. To prevent that heartache, please think carefully about the realities of Aussie ownership before you bring home an Australian Shepherd.