The Australian Cattle Dog (ACD), or simply Cattle Dog, is a breed of herding dog originally developed in Australia for droving cattle over long distances across rough terrain. This breed is a medium-sized, short-coated dog that occurs in two main colour forms. It has either brown or black hair distributed fairly evenly through a white coat, which gives the appearance of a "red" or "blue" dog.
As with dogs from other working breeds, the Australian Cattle Dog is energetic and intelligent with an independent streak. It responds well to structured training, particularly if it is interesting and challenging. It was originally bred to herd by biting, and is known to nip running children. It forms a strong attachment to its owners, and can be protective of them and their possessions. It is easy to groom and maintain, requiring little more than brushing during the shedding period. The most common health problems are deafness and progressive blindness (both hereditary conditions) and accidental injury; otherwise, it is a robust breed with a lifespan of 12 to 14 years.
In the 19th century, New South Wales cattle farmer Thomas Hall crossed the dogs used by drovers in his parents' home county, Northumberland, with dingoes he had tamed. The resulting dogs were known as Halls Heelers. After Hall's death in 1870, the dogs became available beyond the Hall family and their associates. They were subsequently developed into two modern breeds: the Australian Cattle Dog and the Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog. Robert Kaleski, who wrote the first standard for the breed, was influential in its development.
Australian Cattle Dog has been nicknamed a "Red Heeler" or "Blue Heeler" on the basis of its colouring and practice of moving reluctant cattle by nipping at their heels. Dogs from a line bred in Queensland, Australia, which were successful at shows and at stud in the 1940s, were called "Queensland Heelers" to differentiate them from lines bred in New South Wales; this nickname is now occasionally applied to any Australian Cattle Dog.
The Australian Cattle Dog is a sturdy, muscular, compact dog that gives the impression of agility and strength. It has a broad skull that flattens to a definite stop between the eyes, with muscular cheeks and a medium-length, deep, powerful muzzle. The ears are pricked, small to medium in size and set wide apart, with a covering of hair on the inside. The eyes are oval and dark, with an alert, keen expression. The neck and shoulders are strong and muscular; the forelegs are straight and parallel; and the feet round and arched, with small, sturdy toes and nails.
The Cattle Dog breed standard states that it should have well-conditioned muscles, even when bred for companion or show purposes, and that its appearance should be symmetrical and balanced, with no individual part of the dog exaggerated. It should not look either delicate or cumbersome, as either characteristic limits the agility and endurance that is necessary for a working dog.
The female Australian Cattle Dog measures approximately 43–48 centimetres (17–19 in) at the withers, and the male measures about 46–51 centimetres (18–20 in) at the withers. The dog should be longer than tall, that is, the length of the body from breast bone to buttocks is greater than the height at the withers, in a ratio of 10 to 9. An Australian Cattle Dog in good condition weighs around 15–22 kilograms (33–49 lb).
Coat and colour
There are two accepted coat colours, red and blue, though chocolate and cream do occur. Blue dogs can be blue, blue mottled, or blue speckled with or without black, tan, or white markings. Red dogs are evenly speckled with solid red markings. Both red dogs and blue dogs are born white (except for any solid-coloured body or face markings) and the red or black hairs grow in as they mature. The distinctive adult colouration is the result of black or red hairs closely interspersed through a predominantly white coat. This is not merle colouration (a speckled effect that has associated health issues), but rather the result of the ticking gene. A number of breeds show ticking, which is the presence of colour through white areas, though the overall effect depends on other genes that will modify the size, shape and density of the ticking.
In addition to the primary colouration, an Australian Cattle Dog displays some patches of solid or near-solid colour. In both red and blue dogs, the most common are masks over one or both eyes, a white tip to the tail, a solid spot at the base of the tail, and sometimes solid spots on the body, though these are not desirable in dogs bred for conformation shows. Blue dogs can have tan midway up the legs and extending up the front to breast and throat, with tan on jaws, and tan eyebrows. Both colour forms can have a white "star" on the forehead called the "Bentley Mark", after a legendary dog owned by Tom Bentley. Common miscolours in the Australian Cattle Dog are black hairs in a red-coated dog, including the extreme of a black saddle on a red dog, and extensive tan on the face and body on a blue dog, called "creeping tan". The Cattle Dog has a double coat—the short, straight outer guard hairs are protective in nature, keeping the elements from the dog's skin while the undercoat is short, fine and dense.
The mask consists of a black patch over one or both eyes (for the blue coat colour) or a red patch over one or both eyes (for the red coat colour). Depending on whether one or both eyes have a patch, these are called, respectively, "single" (or "half") mask and "double" (or "full") mask. Dogs without a mask are called plain-faced. Any of these are acceptable according to the breed standard. In conformation shows, even markings are preferred over uneven markings.
The breed standards of the Australian, American and Canadian kennel clubs specify that the Australian Cattle Dog should have a natural, long, un-docked tail. There will often be a solid colour spot at the base of the tail and a white tip. The tail should be set moderately low, following the slope of the back. It should hang in a slight curve at rest, though an excited dog may carry its tail higher. The tail should feature a reasonable level of brush.
In the United States, tails are sometimes docked on working stock. The tail is not docked in Australia, and serves a useful purpose in increasing agility and the ability to turn quickly. The Australian Cattle Dog is a breed distinct from the Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog, a square-bodied dog born with a naturally "bobbed" tail. The Stumpy Tail resembles the Australian Cattle Dog, but has a taller, leaner conformation. It occasionally has a natural long thin tail, but most are born without tails.
Like many working dogs, the Australian Cattle Dog has high energy levels, an active mind, and a level of independence. The breed ranks 10th in Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs, rated as one of the most intelligent dogs ranked by obedience command trainability. The Cattle Dog needs plenty of exercise, companionship and a job to do, so a non-working dog might participate in dog sports, learning tricks, or other activities that engage its body and mind.
When on home ground, the Australian Cattle Dog is an affectionate and playful pet. However, it is reserved with people it does not know and naturally cautious in new situations. Its attitude to strangers makes it an excellent guard dog when trained for this task, and it can be socialised to become accustomed to a variety of people from an early age as a family pet. It is good with older, considerate children, but will herd people by nipping at their heels, particularly younger children who run and squeal. By the time puppies are weaned, they should have learned that the company of people is pleasurable, and that responding to cues from a person is rewarding. The bond that this breed can create with its owner is strong and will leave the dog feeling protective towards the owner, typically resulting in the dog's never being too far from the owner's side. The Australian Cattle Dog can be the friendliest of companions although it is quick to respond to the emotions of its owners, and may defend them without waiting for a command. The ACD was originally bred to move reluctant cattle by biting, and it will bite if treated harshly. The Australian Cattle Dog's protective nature and tendency to nip at heels can be dangerous as the dog grows into an adult if unwanted behaviours are left unchecked.
While an Australian Cattle Dog generally works silently, it will bark in alarm or to attract attention. It has a distinctive intense, high-pitched bark. Barking can be a sign of boredom or frustration, although research has shown that pet dogs increase their vocalisation when raised in a noisy environment. It responds well to familiar dogs, but when multiple dogs are present, establishing a pecking order can trigger aggression. It is not a breed that lives in a pack with other dogs.
Data accumulated from Council reports in New South Wales from April to June 2013, showed that dogs identified as Australian Cattle Dogs were involved in 66 attacks, where an attack is defined as any incident where a dog rushes at, bites, harasses or chases any person or animal. Staffordshire Bull Terrier (155 attacks), German Shepherd (89) and American Staffordshire Terrier (88) were reported to be involved in more incidents. Expressed as a percentage of registered dogs, 0.1% of Australian Cattle Dogs were involved in attacks. The data gathered in 2011–2012 listed the ACD twenty-seventh in involvement in incidents ranked by percentage of dogs registered. A review of incidents in Melbourne where a dog bit, rushed at or chased a person or animal in a public space, found that there were sixty breeds involved and the German Shepherd and German Shepherd crosses, and Australian Cattle Dog and Cattle Dog crosses accounted for 9% of incidents. Surveys of U.S. breed club members showed that both dog-directed aggression and stranger-directed aggression were higher in the ACD than the average of breeds studied, with dog-directed aggression being the more prevalent of the two aggression types. The American Temperament Test Society reports a test pass rate of 79.3% for Australian Cattle Dogs. The average pass rate for all breeds is 80.4%.
Health and lifespan
In a small sample of 11 deceased dogs, Australian Cattle Dogs had a median longevity of 11.7 years (maximum 15.9 yrs). A larger survey of 100 deceased dogs yielded a mean longevity of 13.41 years with a standard deviation of 2.36 years. The median longevities of breeds of similar size are between 11 and 13 years. There is an anecdotal report of a Cattle Dog named Bluey, born in 1910 and living for 29.5 years, but the record is unverified. Even if true, Bluey's record age would have to be regarded more as an uncharacteristic exception than as an indicator of common exceptional longevity for the entire breed. It remains, however, that Australian Cattle Dogs generally age well and appear to live on average almost a year longer than most dogs of other breeds in the same weight class. Many members of the breed are still well and active at 12 or 14 years of age, and some maintain their sight, hearing and even their teeth until their final days.
Common health problems
The Australian Cattle Dog carries recessive piebald alleles that produce white in the coat and skin and are linked to congenital hereditary deafness, though it is possible that there is a multi-gene cause for deafness in a dog with the piebald pigment genes. Around 2.4% of Cattle Dogs in one study were found to be deaf in both ears and 14.5% were deaf in at least one ear.
The Australian Cattle Dog is one of the dog breeds affected by progressive retinal atrophy. It has the most common form, progressive rod-cone degeneration (PRCD), a condition that causes the rods and cones in the retina of the eye to deteriorate later in life, resulting in blindness. PRCD is an autosomal recessive trait and a dog can be a carrier of the affected gene without developing the condition.
Hip dysplasia is not common in the breed, although it occurs sufficiently often for many breeders to have their breeding stock tested. The Cattle Dog has a number of inherited conditions, but most of these are not common. Hereditary polioencephalomyelopathy of the Australian Cattle Dog is a very rare condition caused by an inherited biochemical defect. Dogs identified with the condition were completely paralysed within their first year. Based on a sample of 69 still-living dogs, the most common health issues noted by owners were musculoskeletal (spondylosis, elbow dysplasia, and arthritis) and reproductive (pyometra, infertility, and false pregnancy), and blindness. A study of dogs diagnosed at Veterinary Colleges in the United States and Canada over a thirty-year period described fractures, lameness and cruciate ligament tears as the most common conditions in the Australian Cattle Dogs treated.