Understanding “Character"

Those of us that love the breed and have lived with them for years honestly can’t imagine a more perfect breed, but they are definitely not the breed for everyone. 

Directly from the breed standard we see :

"The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding and guarding instincts. He is an 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. Although an aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or animals is intolerable.” 

I’m going to take this apart piece by piece. 

Primarily a working dog: When you break this down, it means that you can expect a high energy dog that will rule your life if given the chance. They NEED to be given a job or they will create their own - and you probably won’t like it when they deconstruct your livingroom and take it upon themselves to serenade the neighbours all day long. This doesn’t mean you have to have a working farm with hundreds of livestock; it does, however, mean that you need to be doing something. Herding, agility, rally, obedience, scent detection, and any other number of activities are all great; pick one (or several) and go have fun. You don’t have to be competitive - there are several “back-yard trainers” that will never enter a competition ring - there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do recommend starting with a qualified trainer who can teach you the sport safely. 

Strong herding and guarding instincts: In short? Everything must stay together and be moved around as a group. This can be one of the most frustrating facets of aussie temperament because it’s one of the most dangerous for the dog, and probably the least understood by the new owner. Aussies herd things. They herd cars, bikes, children, basically anything that moves. “Grip” is the nipping behaviour that dogs use when herding, and this is often misunderstood as aggression. Nipping is not acceptable, but understanding the root cause is important when it comes to training. 

An exceptional companion: At face value this looks great, but what it really means is that they want to be with you. All.The.Time. If personal space is important to you then this is not the breed for you. If you like to go out after work and only really get home with enough time to sleep before work the next day, this is not the breed for you. Aussies love their people, they want to be with their people, they want to be active with their people; their people are their life and their world. They bond very closely to their family.

Versatile and easily trained: Okay, this one makes me laugh. Aussies are an exceptionally intelligent breed, but that does not automatically equal easily trainable. When people inquire about puppies and say they want a super smart puppy, my first question is always “do you want smart, or do you want trainable?” 

Aussies have a natural drive to work with you, and usually have an easy time figuring out what you want. They’re a go-everywhere-do-everything dog, but they also have their own ideas about what they should do and how it should be done. 

Great style and enthusiasm: Remember what I said about their own ideas about how things should be done? Aussies add flare to everything, and for people meant for this breed that means joy. Nothing brightens my day more than when Faith does something silly, whether it’s her leaping 5 feet in the air to greet me at eye level and give me kisses, or her spins in the air to catch the frisbee, or her special jumps into the pool that manage to soak everyone within 20 feet. Aussies bring something special to our lives, but you’ve got to be willing to work with them and embrace the joy that they bring. 

Reserved with strangers: There’s a lot of misunderstanding about this part of the Standard, and I’ve seen a lot of breeders use this to excuse poor temperaments. 

Aussies are not supposed to be a dog that runs up to everyone on the street like they’re their new best friend. But today’s society expects that every dog will allow anyone and everyone to pet/touch/hug them, and the dog to go up to everyone and allow the person to practically molest them without moving away or - heaven forbid - growling to display their discomfort. If the dog moves away or growls or shows any other form of discomfort or displeasure that dog is then labelled “aggressive.” Shyness and reactivity are not acceptable per the Breed Standard, but lack of socialization combined with reserve can make for a reactive, fearful dog. I’ve had dogs that really don’t like strangers; I've lived with human and dog reactive dogs, and it’s a hard road to go. If there were ever one thing that I would consider breeding away from the Standard it would be this - for a more social dog. Temperament is so important. 

Early appropriate socialization is key. Your dog may learn to enjoy pets and cuddles from strangers, but they may not. If you’re looking for a dog that will be a social butterfly, this may not be the breed for you. The Aussie is a thinking dog, accurately discerning friend from foe. They require large amounts of appropriate exposure and socialization to a wide variety of persons and situations to become good solid citizens, and there’s a chance that some dogs will never accept a stranger’s affection. Being able to read your dog’s behaviour is helpful in these situations. It will also tell you if you need to remove your dog from a situation to keep them safe. 

Don’t ever let anyone force themselves on your dog. Yes, this sometimes means you will cause a scene, but your dog will thank you for it. We don’t allow people to pet our dogs without our permission, and we never allow our dogs to “socialize” with other dogs on-leash. 

© Shari Joanisse 2023