The Changing Structure of a Breed

A little over 30 years ago, ASCA (Australian Shepherd Club of America) adopted the current breed standard.  In that period of time, we have seen a distinct kind of Aussie emerge from the early foundation ranch dogs with the original sprinting structure.  The standard aided by the show program saw the development of an Australian Shepherd with the trotting drive train.

What does that mean for the breed?  Not all Australian Shepherds are created equal. Although most Aussies have the same basic appearance that sets them apart from other breeds, there is a distinct difference between the basic structure of working and show bloodlines. The best comparison can be drawn between the differences of the sprinting Quarter Horse and the trotting Standardbred.

As my father said, “The development of the trotting Aussie produced a dog that could move effortlessly for long distances. The trade-off for this development was paid for with the sacrifice of supreme agility necessary to outrun sheep and cattle.  The longer extension of gait naturally produces a slower reaction time to negotiate changes of direction.” A dog with the trotting drive train requires an extra stride to alter gaits or change direction.

Is that a good or a bad thing? You be the judge.

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  1. Interesting blog! I have a couple of questions. If the standard dictates that Aussies should trot,(I don’t have the standard in front of me), were there more trotters than sprinters from the dogs that were used to draw up the standard? Why was trotting chosen over sprinting? If the original ranch dogs sprinted, is the show ring dictating what the working Aussie structure should be? Will this create a further division of the ‘show’ Aussie and ‘ranch’ Aussie? There is already a marked difference in the coat, and in some regards, the temperament. Just wondering….

    I really love your blog Jeanne! Keep up the good work!

  2. Excellent questions. No, there were not more trotters in the breed. They were created. The trotting drive train was developed through selection similar to the principal used to develop black minks. Wild minks are dark brown, however through selection for darker color through many generations an entirely black color was created.

    The trotting drive train was chosen because it was at one time thought to be a more efficient gait. For covering long distances it is. However, in order to outrun stock especially cattle or sheep out in the open a dog needs to be able to “turn on a dime” which requires a sprinting structure with longer hocks, hare shaped feet etc. The trotting gait of the dog built for trotting is also much flashier and wins blue ribbons.

    No, the show ring does not dictate the structure for working bloodlines. The form is dictated by the function. It is more difficult for dogs with the trotting drive train (even though they may have the desire and good herding instincts) to outmaneuver larger classes of stock.

  3. Hi Jeanne,

    This blog is a nice idea to share views. We really enjoyed the book Ernie and Carol put out and we in particular appreciate the historical information on my mother. Honestly I have not been able to read the whole book but look forward to doing just that one day soon…time and energy!

    In regards to the hock length as the standard states:
    The metatarsi are short, perpendicular to the ground and parallel to each other when viewed from the rear. A short metatarsi is for endurance and yes a long hock is for fast spurts of speed, such as a Jack Rabbit, the Aussie should have something more in-between, but closer to the short then the long hock. Our dogs do not have excessive trotting gaits, they are balanced, they do not overreach, there is more…so much more to the excessive trotting seen in some show dogs then the length of the hock, such as lack of muscle. This lack of muscle is genetic not due to a lack of exercise. I do not believe a short hock is responsible for a lack of agility. Our dogs are very agile and can “turn on a dime,” jump, leap very high from a standing position and run very fast, but also retain the endurance because of this moderate structure.

    I can think of several examples but just received an e-mail a few days ago that is well said from a family of dairy farmers/alfalfa ranchers that have had several ranch dogs from us from the 70’s to the 90’s here is her what she said:
    The dogs, Misty and Penny went east of the mountains with us. They were
    the fastest things on wheels and could fend off and run off up to 3 coyotes
    at a time!

    I thought this was apropos! Thanks again Jeanne for some interesting thoughts and I hope that I can participate in the future.

    Tina Mistretta

  4. Thanks so much, Jeanne, for directing me to this wonderful website.

    I’m learning more every day about our breed.

    Elizabeth Fisher

  5. Interesting subject and discussion. I appreciate everything about the Hartnagle family, and count them among some of my most special “dog” friends. Always there with encouragement, and fair analysis, this family is important to this breed in so many ways.

    I breed for balance in every aspect of the breed. A dog that is a rounder, in that they can do an honest day of work with stock, mostly cattle in my case, and also with the beauty, and ease of movement that can win in the show ring, or the agility ring, or whatever venue their owners’ decide.

    I find that my ‘style’ of Aussie tends to have a moderate turn of stifle with a longer hock than is present in the show ring in most cases. I also find the gait on my dogs to not waste energy in any way. I think that is most important in an efficient working dog, and in the show ring, if we are to maintain the true function of this breed in an ever changing world.

    Love this blog, and an opportunity to have a forum with Jeanne Joy 🙂

  6. I was just sent a link to the blog here and I’m finding it interesting reading. I breed for working dogs, and I like them to be efficiently structured for work rather than very long reach and drive for the show ring. Most of my best moving dogs are closer in the rear than the show ring ideal also.

  7. Dear Ray, Elizabeth, Tammy, Tina and Ann,

    Thank you so much for all your kind words and thoughtful comments. The breed’s future greatness depends on people like you — who understand the importance of testing Aussies in the real world. After all, the yardstick of performance is the barometer on which the breed was founded.

  8. I am entrenched in working dogs in Australia and concerned for the Aussie,Kelpie and Border Collie’s futures anatomically as the emphasis on generic trotting seems to gain the broad sashes. I think the problem is that the speed and alacrity required to work stock can not be demonstrated in the conformation ring. Movement is governed by the capacity of the handler. Judges should perhaps be encouraged to judge dogs more on the “stack”. The better working conformation will be apparent to the trained eye/hand.

  9. I originally got my Aussie for the showring which he has done ok in, but it was when we tried herding that ‘something’ opened up inside him & I found something now we both love to do, though limited as I have to go to other properties to train on with the sheep & ducks, & I am hoping to try cattle this year, which most show people when I tell them are horrified that he may get hurt.
    I only breed every 1-2 years & will never be a big breeder, I want to keep in my dogs what they where originally bred for, which can be hard here in Australia as we are limited in out bloodlines, I am fortunate to have now a 3/4 fairoaks BTB, who is showing great instinct & working ability, & when I compare her to my other Aussies, yes there is a slight difference, & she is very sililiar to dogs I have looked on the fairoaks website & Sandy said she is typical Fairoaks from her photo’s.
    I worry that too many breeders are breeding for that HUGE fluffy coat, & that some in the breed are getting heavier types, I hope to oneday get more working lines in my Aussies, & may even look into getting some semen imported if that can help me improve my type.
    ALL of mine are taken herding & yes there have been 1-2 that aren’t keen.
    I think judges also need to be trained properly in the Aussie breed standard to what is correct.
    I am proud to say my boy can & would be able to do a full days work.

  10. Tull and Andrea,

    Thank you so much for posting. In the early days
    of shows in Britain, it was believed that perhaps,
    a dog could be a show dog and a working dog also.
    Most of the entrants were actual Shepherds with
    their working collies. After a few years, however they concluded there was no way they could breed a dog for show and still maintain a dog capable of handling work in the real world.

    In the 35 years I’ve been judging dogs, I have found there is no way that judges can determine traits like heart and stamina in the show ring. Those traits can only be evaluated in the real world….pure and simple.

    Here is an article you may find of interest:

  11. i have a question for you. we have had Aussies for 25 plus years and every now and then one walks at a slight angle as opposed to a center line. They run with a center line. is this ok? normal? we never had a hip problem and of a litter maybe one does this.

  12. What an insightful blog. I have not been around Aussies for 20+ yrs, but what you have put to words is something I’ve seen in my own dogs and pondered. I have a female that is pure working bloodlines and a male that is 1/4 working. Both move in balance with themselves, and are neither are of heavy bone or “fluffy” build, but my male is certainly fits the trotting drive train you describe while the girl is a pure sprinter. Both can work stock, but there is a very distinct difference in how they use their bodies. The boy is far less agile in comparison, but arguably more powerful, and I don’t think its simply a difference of size. The things the girl can do with her body amazes me, and demonstrates what I think is a valued aspect of the Aussie. 9/10 times she out sprints, out manouvers and out finesses my boy in almost every task or in play. He knows it too! Although his trots look beautiful and effortless, it almost pales in comparison to her flexibility and mobility.

    Intestingly, trotting has never been her default gait. I originally assumed it was because of her smaller than average stature, but a sprinting build makes sense. She is far more comfortable at a canter or gallop, while my boy finds such speeds very tiring, and will often break into a speedy trot instead. Ultimately between the two, she has more staminia than him, when conformationally I’ve been taught the opposite should be true.

    I have always been disappointed as to how she is “conformationally” evaluated by others, for the weaknesses they list seem to be the strengths that give her that agility. They tell me that although those flaws might make her faster, she would be more prone to injury and “wear”. However, at the end of the day, when my “efficiently built” boy tires out, she is the energizer bunny who’s stamina and attitude never says “I’m done”. That speaks louder than any judge can when it comes to quality of stockdog.

    It goes make you go hmmmm. Thank you for posting this.

  13. I must say I so enjoyed Danett’s words. How astute of you to see all these things and to be able to articulate them so well. Well done.

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