Lesson from Louis L’Amour

In an interview, Louis L’Amour once said, “Historians follow the main line. One historian follows another one, adding maybe a detail here and there or questioning something the other fella has said. They don’t go off to the right and left and they don’t go out there in the boondocks to see what was happening.” This is what has occurred with the history of the Australian Shepherd.

Much of the breed’s written history has been compiled by dog historians, whose association with the early Australian Shepherds was no closer to the subject than a library shelf of books. The thoroughly researched “facts” for the most part are gleaned from library sources and then laced with suggestion and imaginary reasoning, “would have been,” “would soon have,” “may have,” “probably was,” “might be.” The eye witness accounts from actual owners who knew and used the breed were, in most cases, discounted for lack of published documentation.

One historian’s view that has been published over and over proposes the Basque shepherds and their sheepdogs from the Pyrénees Mountains had very little to do with the breed’s foundation stating, “It appears that the theory of Basque origin probably came about from the understandable assumption by some breeders who obtained their first dogs from Basque sheepherders, that the dogs themselves must be of Basque background, and it makes a romantic picture to envision the Basque sheepherders being followed around the world by “their little blue dogs,” but this picture, nonetheless, is erroneous.”

Another author wrote, “However, one fact many [breed] historians either do not realize or have forgotten is that many of the Basque immigrants to both Australia and North America were not shepherds in their homeland.”

The reality is that the breed’s groundwork was formed in the time period between the 1940’s to about 1970, which is documented by registration. It was created from a relatively small group of dogs including Feo, a little blue dog which was brought to the United States from Spain with a contract herder who was working for the Warren Livestock Company. Juanita Ely, one of the breed’s oldest documented breeders bought the dog. He sired a beautiful little blue female named Goody (later registered as Wood’s Blue Shadow) who is behind the pedigrees of countless Australian Shepherds today including the Dr. Heard’s Flintridge, Hartnagle’s Las Rocosa and Fletcher Wood’s foundation bloodlines.

This occurred in the time period when 40 to 50 million head of sheep were grazed in the open ranges throughout the western half of the United States. Many of the herders that came here were shepherds in their homeland. They arrived (on a three-year visa) under contract through the Western Range Association. When they got here, they wrote home and told their brothers to join them, which they did and brought their dogs. During that time in history hundreds of Basques and their dogs were recruited in to the western sheep ranches due to the severe labor shortage created during the 1940s and 1950s.

The “little blue dogs” started gaining recognition because they started showing up throughout the west as the herders brought them in. In response, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) was founded. According to Ken Duart, an early California breeder, he acquired Lita, an early foundation bitch from a Basque shepherd who brought her directly from Spain. He said a sheepherder who had a bunch of sheep at Rolf’s Ranch in the San Miguel area had friends that came to California from the Basque sector of the French and Spanish border to work on the Nelson Ranch in the Bakersfield area. When they came to the United States, they brought two dogs with them which they were allowed to bring as tools of their trade without quarrentine. She was an attractive blue merle female (with one blue eye). She had a moderate coat and a long tail. The time was either late 1959 or early 1960.

By 1974, there were only 16.5 million sheep in the United States. The sheep industry continued to decline and Basque herders were no longer recruited from Spain, but the breed’s underpinning was laid.

In spite of the references (Douglas & Bilbao 1975 or Laxalt 1989) that insist that Basque immigrants didn’t bring dogs with them, a retiree in Aragon related that, when he went to California to herd sheep in the early 1970s, sheepherders coming from Spain brought only a few personal items; but in his father’s generation (i.e. during the period immediately after World War II), many of he immigrants brought their herding dogs with them. This fact is corroborated by numerous sources including an interview, in which a Basque immigrant and his four brothers all brought their dogs when they flew to the US in the 1940s under sheep herding contracts.

A lesson can be learned from L’Amour’s statement. Just because something is documented with lots of facts, doesn’t mean it is reliable…and so has been the case with much of the history being published on the Australian Shepherd.

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a great idea, Jeanne! And thank you for letting me know about this! I look forward to reading the comments from others on my favorite topic!

  2. I enjoyed this post a lot and encourage you to keep this up! I will check back often to see what’s here. You know breed history is a favorite topic of mine. I agree with Gail, thanks for inviting me to read it!

  3. Thank you for including me in your blog. Did the Basque shepherds also call the dogs Australian Shepherds?

  4. Congratulations on the site, I agree with the quote from Mr L’Amour (who I love reading), the more time you spend reading theories the more you wonder how some of them have been arrived at.
    As an Australian I would love to know how the Australian Shepherd became known as…the “Australian” Shepherd, I wonder if there are any records on the formation of the club and how the breed became known as the Australian Shepherd. Thankyou!

  5. No, they didn’t. According to Juanita Ely, “The blue Australian Shepherd dogs first came to Australia from the Great Pyrenees on the Spain side…with Andorra, a little country lying between Spain and France, of only 191 miles. There isn’t much work for the boys to do so they take their little blue dogs and go to Australia to herd sheep. A lot of these boys are Basque, coming from a region in north Spain.” The boy Juanita got her first blue dog from in the 1920’s traveled from Spain to Australia where got a job caring for a huge flock destined for Pacific Northwest. She said, “As these dogs were brought to the United States from Australia, we speak of them as Australian Shepherds.”

    The little blue dogs or (le petites bleus) were strongly associated with the sheep industry in Northern California, Idaho, the Pacific Northwest and then advanced in Colorado with the development of the major foundation bloodlines in the 1950s and 1960s.

  6. “Little Blue Dogs” has been noted in just about every Aussie resource. I wonder why it is that as a Mini Aussie owner, I am accused of ‘shrinking their dog for financial gain’ by ‘breeding runts’. I am anxiously awaiting your book and wish I had purchase it sooner. Thank you for your time!

  7. Hey, Jeanne ! Thaansk for letting me know about your ‘blog’. Love your comments. I dont believe many of our modern dogs have the mentality to do what alot of the foundation dogs did. Alot of it has been bred out as the dogs slowly made their way into suburbia, where so many dont understand a dog that thinks on its own and will often become protective. Most will say, oh yes, I want a protective dog, but they dont reallize that they have to have a handle on the dog. They have what I like to call ‘Lassie-itious”. and think the dog will always know just what to do in every situation. Its sad that the mentality that the original kind of dogs had is harder and harder to find and many of the breed is more like a retriever of some kind. They do fit into the non-livestock oriented homes better, but I think unless breeders guard the true aussie Character, we stand to loose a great deal.

  8. While it is true there have always been “little blue dogs” in the breed it may help you to understand that the majority of little dogs were 18 to 19 inches tall. In 1975 when we were drafting the ASCA Breed Standard we did a statistical study on the breed. We measured several hundred individuals from the main foundation bloodlines.

    Ninety-five percent (95%) of the dogs were in a normal bell-curved distribution. The greater number of Aussies emerged in the middle between 18 inches and 23 inches at the withers. The remaining five percent (5%) were either slightly smaller (17 3/4 inches) or slightly larger just over 23 inches.

    The Breed Standard lists a preferred size, but no disqualification exists because quality must never be sacrificed in favor of size. It is important to know that the original foundation dogs were selected for hardiness and for their ability handle livestock in the western ranch country, and not for size.

  9. I’m so glad I stumbled across this, and have bookmarked the site. As the owner of an Aussie mix shelter pup, and an Aussie that comes from Pincie Creek, Hardins, Slash V lines, I’m looking forward to the perspectives and comments on your blog.
    As to the mini Aussie breeder who asked why she is accused, I guess my only answer would be pretty much that the term “little blue dogs” is relative, perhaps, to other sheep herding dogs of the time, and should not be taken as permission to breed for other than the standard of hardiness and working ability, as Jeanne Joy mentioned. It is the livestock ability that was paramount in these dogs, and the original dog was not intended as a pet, rather as another working member of the family in a farm/ranch environment, which these dogs still are today in many parts of the country. Admittedly, my own Aussie is more pet than partner in farming, but she has a job or two nonetheless and I consider her perfectly capable to do the two jobs for which she was bred – herd livestock, guard the farm. She’s 18 1/2″ and weighs 30 pounds soaking wet.

  10. Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I’ve heard the term “Little Blue Dog” and the term “Bob Tails” when referring to the sheep dogs that were the precursor to the Aussie.

    I’m trying to find the photos of my Mom and her bob tailed sheep dog from the 40’s. His name was “Laddie” and he was broke to pull a cart and pulled my Mom all over the place. It is rumored he was trained to neck rein, just like a good ranch horse.

    I’m loving reading the comments on this sight.

  11. Thank you so much for making the incredible effort I know it has been to gather all of your resources together thru the years and now to publish and disperse the best story of the formation of the amazing dog we all love. I remember back when I first found these dogs in the early 80’s and how I searched and searched for information in the “recorded history” and how the recorded history seemed to have more basis than the few snippets of history I came across otherwise. The real history was just so hard to track down. We are so fortunate to have the Hartnagles in this breed, making the effort to get the big picture in front of the fancy and holding onto the things that made the breed in the first place.

  12. I’m so glad I came across this blog! I appreciate this history on the Basque Shepherds, as I also have seen sites saying that it isn’t true….

    As to the recurring comment regarding ‘little blue dogs’, I personally prefer an 18″ dog. I have no use for a 14″ dog, nor a 23″ dog. 17-19″ suits me just fine. I can’t help but wonder, though, what poodle breeders thought as their breed was miniaturized? And yet now, no one bats an eye. I don’t approve of toy Aussies, but 100 years from now, what will the general opinion be? The Aussie is a new breed, still under development, and we’re all priveleged to be on the ‘ground floor’, witnessing history in the making. It will be interesting to see where the breed is another 50 years from now.

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