Evaluating Form, Function, and the Breed Standard. Gail Karamalegos, ASCA Senior Breeder Judge

INTRODUCTION: First and foremost, the Australian Shepherd is a true working stockdog, and anything that detracts from his usefulness as such is undesirable. The most important breed characteristics are overall moderation in size and bone, balance with correct proportions, and sound movement

GENERAL APPEARANCE: The Australian Shepherd is a well-balanced dog of medium size and bone. He is attentive and animated, showing strength and stamina combined with unusual agility. Slightly longer than tall, he has a coat of moderate length and coarseness with coloring that offers variety and individuality in each specimen. An identifying characteristic is his natural or docked bobtail. In each sex, masculinity or femininity is well defined.

CHARACTER: The Australian Shepherd is primarily a working dog of strong herding and guardian instincts. He is an intelligent, 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. This unusually versatile stockdog works with the power and quickness to control difficult cattle as well as the ability to move sheep without unnecessary roughness. Although an aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or animals is intolerable.

The first sections are perhaps the most important part of the standard, because they identify the purpose of the breed. The emphasis here is on a functional, athletic, medium-sized dog. I have been party to thousands of discussions regarding Aussies and the breed standard, but the two adjectives that seem to be the most difficult to grasp the meaning of are “medium” and “moderate.” Collectively, these two words appear in our standard 14 times, so their importance in describing and understanding the ideal Australian Shepherd and standard ranks very high. “Medium,” in this context, is defined as: 1. a middle state or condition. 2. something intermediate in nature or degree. And “moderate” is defined as: 1. kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense. 2. of medium quantity, extent, or amount. In order to clarify the applications in the standard, it is important to understand another element regarding breed standards in general – the same terminology is used in ALL standards. As a result, anyone with a knowledge of canine structure and terminology would be able to comprehend the meaning in a written standard, theoretically anyway. Balance is gauged by the overall appearance when the dog is standing still and when moving. Obviously, a dog whose purpose is to work a variety of livestock, needs to be as sound as possible-- mentally and physically. Moderate coat length allows for variance from a shorter summer coat to a fuller winter coat, however an extremely short coat (with the exception of bitches losing coat after puppies have been weaned) or long coat is not typical. This breed was developed in the western and southwestern parts of the U.S., and the moderate, medium-textured coat is one that protects and insulates best in a varied climate. The dictionary defines “reserved” as: “having a tendency to emotional restraint and so appearing reticent or composed.” A reserved dog is self-assured and restrained in its behavior around strangers. An intelligent dog of strong guardian instincts is going to be naturally aloof with strangers. It is important to note that this reserve is normal and appropriate for the breed. Breed Standards are written to describe the overall ideal dog, and not just how a dog should appear and be judged in the show ring.

HEAD: The head is clean-cut, strong, dry, and in proportion to the body. The topskull is flat to slightly rounded; its length and width each equal to the length of the muzzle. The muzzle is of medium width and depth and tapers gradually to a rounded tip, without appearing heavy or snipey. Lips are close fitting, meeting at the mouthline. The toplines of the muzzle and topskull appear close to parallel. The stop is moderate but well defined.

Clean-cut, strong, and dry means without sharp angles, loose skin, heaviness, or a fragile appearance. A strong muzzle will tolerate injuries better, and protects the teeth. Loose lips/flews are also more prone to injury. For comparison, the ideal Collie head is typically described as a wedge, tapering very gradually from the skull to the muzzle, both in profile and facing. The opposite extreme would be the American Cocker Spaniel, with “eyebrows are clearly defined with a pronounced stop.” A Cocker Spaniel doesn’t have to be concerned with being kicked in the head by a cow, but the Australian Shepherd’s head needs to have a bone structure that is conducive to deflecting a hoof, hence the need for a moderate stop. This breed’s working heritage necessitates a clean cut head that has the appearance of smooth transition from one part to another, with no harsh angles or heaviness. This is a functional head which allows the dog to avoid injury when working. Flying hooves tend to glance off a clean-cut head, rather than catching on prominent bony structures. Dogs with heavier bone structure also tend toward heavier muscle and more skin. This is highly visible in the head, as the muzzle will often have flews rather than the nice, tightly fitted lips that an Aussie should have.

TEETH: A full complement of strong white teeth meet in a scissors bite. A level bite is a fault. Teeth broken or missing by accident are not penalized. All other missing teeth should be faulted to the degree that they deviate from a full complement of 42 teeth.

Disqualifications: Undershot bite, Overshot bite, Wry Mouth

Malocclusions such as these disqualifications are harmful to the health of the dog, and often require veterinary dentistry.

EYES: The eyes are very expressive, showing attentiveness and intelligence. They are clear, almond- shaped, of moderate size, and set a little obliquely, neither prominent nor sunken. The pupils are dark, well- defined, and perfectly positioned. Eye color is brown, blue, amber, or any variation or combination, including flecks and marbling. All eye colors are acceptable in combination with all coat colors.

Faults: Any deviation from almond-shaped eyes.

Round eyes are a fault that is not uncommon in this breed. This type of eye is more prone to injury, rather than the almond eye that is protected by the bone surrounding the eye socket. Pigmentation of the eye rims is also important in a breed which works in the sun. A round eye is more prone to injury in dense cover and when a dog is working livestock, due to the decreased protection resulting from the eyeball protruding more from the skull. A medium-sized, almond shaped eye is set deeper in the skull, and is therefore less likely to be damaged. Eyes set obliquely will give the dog a larger field of vision than eyes set on the front of the skull.

EARS: The ears are set high on the side of the head, are triangular, of moderate size and slightly rounded at the tip. The tip of the ear reaches to, but not further than, the inside corner of the nearest eye. At full attention, the ears should lift from one-quarter (1⁄4) to one-half (1⁄2) above the base and break forward or slightly to the side.

Severe Faults: Prick ears; overly large ears; low set ears with no lift from the base.

Working dogs need the advantage of being able to have the best hearing possible. Correct, high ear set and type allows for good hearing, prevents dirt and debris from getting into the ear canal, and imparts that wonderful “look of eagles” that is so desirable in the expression. Large hanging ears severely detract from breed type, are more prone to infections, and are frequently indicative of an overall coarse dog with loose skin. Being a soft-eared breed, Aussies often have what is commonly referred to as a rose ear.

NECK AND BODY: The neck is firm, clean, and in proportion to the body. It is of medium length and slightly arched at the crest, setting well into the shoulders. The body is firm and muscular. The topline appears level at a natural four-square stance. The bottom line carries well back with a moderate tuck-up. The chest is deep and strong with ribs well sprung. The loin is strong and broad when viewed from the top. The croup is moderately sloping. The Tail is straight, not to exceed four (4) inches, natural bobtail or docked.

Sight hounds have relatively long necks, because their function is to hunt game by sight, not smell, and to run their prey down. Their entire structure and movement is different than an Australian Shepherd, as is their historical purpose. Length of neck is also somewhat dependent upon shoulder layback. Dogs with upright shoulder blades will appear to be shorter in neck, and by the same token, dogs with good scapular layback will have longer necks. A breed with a short neck is the Bulldog (“The neck should be short, very thick, deep and strong.”). The Australian Shepherd’s medium length neck is the most functional for the breed’s purpose. It is long enough to provide flexibility and to assist with turning the body quickly in any direction, yet strong enough to support the head for long hours of work.

FOREQUARTERS: The shoulder blades (scapula) are well laid back, with the upper arm (humerus) slightly longer than the shoulder blade. Both the upper arm and shoulder blade are well muscled. The forelegs are straight and strong, perpendicular to the ground, with moderate bone. The point of the elbow is set under the withers and is equidistant from the withers to the ground. Pasterns are short, thick, and strong, but still flexible, showing a slight angle when viewed from the side. Feet are oval shaped, compact, with close knit, well-arched toes. Pads are thick and resilient; nails short and strong. Dewclaws may be removed.

Well-laid back shoulders are approximately 30-35 degrees from vertical, or 55-60 degrees from horizontal. Steep shoulders do occur, and while very functional for some breeds, they generally cause a lack of reach, rolling across the withers, and less ability of the front assembly to absorb shock. A 30-degree (from vertical) slope to the pastern is found to be the strongest and yet still allow for flexibility and tolerance of hard surface work. Other foot types that should be faulted are cat feet, splayed feet, and hare feet. Working dogs must have good, strong, tight, oval feet.

HINDQUARTERS: Width of hindquarters is approximately equal to the width of the forequarters at the shoulder. The angulation of the pelvis and upper thigh (femur) corresponds to the angulation of the shoulder blade and upper arm. The upper and lower thigh are well muscled. Stifles are clearly defined; hock joints moderately bent. The metatarsi are short, perpendicular to the ground, and parallel to each other when viewed from the rear. Feet are oval shaped, compact, with close-knit, well-arched toes. Pads are thick and resilient; nails short and strong. Rear dewclaws are removed.

Too much or too little angulation in the rear affects movement and overall balance. The Aussie is primarily an upright working dog, therefore angulation should be moderate, which allows for overall agility and quickness, balanced with effortless gait.

COAT: The coat is of medium length and texture, straight to slightly wavy, and weather resistant. The undercoat varies in quantity with climate. Hair is short and smooth on the head, outside of ears, front of forelegs, and below the hocks. Backs of forelegs are moderately feathered and breeches are moderately full. There is a moderate mane, more pronounced in dogs than bitches. The Australian Shepherd is a working dog and is to be shown with a natural coat.

Severe Faults: Non-typical coats such as excessively long; overabundant/profuse; wiry; or curly.

The Aussie is a double-coated breed. An overly soft, silky, or cottony coat is less weather-resistant and is difficult to care for, with a tendency to hold water and to mat. An excessively long coat is very incorrect, and trimming it off for the show ring doesn’t make it correct. Coarse coats usually don’t have much in the way of undercoat, and this type of coat is very rare in the breed.

COLOR: All colors are strong, clear and rich. The recognized colors are blue merle, red (liver) merle, solid black, and solid red (liver) all with or without white markings and/or tan (copper) points with no order of preference. The blue merle and black have black pigmentation on nose, lips and eye-rims. Reds and red merles have liver pigmentation on nose, lips and eye rims. Butterfly nose should not be faulted under one year of age. On all colors the areas surrounding the ears and eyes are dominated by color other than white. The hairline of a white collar does not exceed the point at the withers.

Disqualifications: Other than recognized colors. White body splashes. Dudley nose.

The piebald spotting gene does occur in the Australian Shepherd, and can occur in solids as well as merles. Due to the potentially unsound conditions (auditory and visual impairments) that can occur in homozygous merles, it's important to limit white in this breed. Full nose pigmentation is desirable in mature dogs. Because of the merle coloration, dogs with pink spots on the nose are fairly common, but this is not ideal. Lack of pigmentation results in sunburn, and a dog that has to stay out of the sun is not a useful working dog OR companion.

GAIT: Smooth, free, and easy, exhibiting agility of movement with a well-balanced natural stride. As speed increases, both front and rear feet converge equally toward the centerline of gravity beneath the body. The top line remains firm and level. When viewed from the side the trot is effortless, exhibiting facility of movement rather than a hard driving action. Exaggerated reach and drive at the trot are not desirable. Gait faults shall be penalized according to the degree of deviation from the ideal.

Paramount to the movement of this breed is that it should be effortless and efficient, with no wasted energy. The reach of the front and drive of the rear should be in balance to one another, with the position of the extended front foot being directly beneath the dog’s nose at maximum reach. Feet should be kept close to the ground, even at maximum extension. Convergence going and coming should be equal, with the front and rear legs straight, and with pasterns/feet turning neither in nor out. When viewed from the rear, you should be able to see the pads of the feet when lifted off the ground, but the pads should not be “looking at the sky”. Balanced foot-timing is highly desirable, and is the hallmark of a dog that truly appears that he could go all day. The dogs pictured below have beautiful movement-- ideal for me anyway-- but there are many Aussies who demonstrate less reach/drive than these dogs do, and they are in good balance to themselves. They are able to do the job, are quick on their feet, and perform the tasks at hand. The side gait pictured below isn’t necessary for a working Australian Shepherd. What IS necessary is for each specimen to exhibit balance, efficiency, and symmetry.

SIZE: Preferred height at the withers for males is 20 to 23 inches; that for females is 18 to 21 inches, however, quality is not to be sacrificed in favor of size.

It is notable that this section uses the term PREFERRED when describing the ideal height ranges. For the type of work that this breed should be physically capable of performing, medium size is the most functional. A 25-inch tall Aussie is not a medium-sized dog. This breed should be compact and quick on its feet, and oversized dogs simply cannot move as quickly or turn as sharply as a more moderate sized dog. Coarseness is also indicative of a dog that lacks moderation. When examining this breed, it’s important to put your hands on their legs, to feel for the bone and muscle. There’s a lot of creative grooming going on out there, and merely glancing at the legs doesn’t give an accurate picture of how much bone is actually there. 

© Shari Joanisse 2023