The History of Australian Shepherds and the Spanish Shepherd Dog



The Spanish herding dogs in California and the Southwest have always been known to early fanciers and breeders. Maryland Little’s Honey Bun was considered “the Spanish type.” She was from the Graatz ranch in Colton, California with several recorded generations preceding her. Maryland based her breeding program on both Basque and Spanish dogs.


You might ask…what kind of dogs were the Spanish dogs? They were part of the landraces such as the Carea Leonés (Leon Shepherd Dog) developed during the centuries old, cañadas (sheep walks to and from seasonal pastures) known in Spain as the trashumancia. They worked in alongside the Spanish Mastiff who protected the flocks against wolves and other predators.  They also traveled the world with the Spanish sheep.


When Spain colonized America, they introduced two kinds of sheep — Churras and Merinos. Spaniards brought Churras in large numbers to provide food and fiber. The flocks not only survived in their new environment, but they flourished and multiplied. The dogs, too, were hardy individuals, toughened by exposure, and they proved to be capable of withstanding many hardships in the rough, dangerous, and uncharted lands of the Southwest.


The Spanish Churra (Churro) is an ancient indigenous sheep breed raised throughout the plateaus and sierras of Castile and León. This region in north-western Spain is also where the enormous flocks of Merino sheep were trailed each spring to graze in the mountains during summer since the Middle Ages. In the autumn, around October — the shepherds began their trek back to their winter pastures in the south on the plains of Estremadura and Andalusia. It is estimated that thousands of dogs accompanied them, the smaller ones for tending the flock (carea) and the larger for guarding (mastín).


Each massive flock or cabaña numbered around 50,000 sheep would be divided into smaller bands averaging 1,000 head. The droves of sheep were tended by shepherds and their dogs. Traditionally, two herders, four dogs and a pack-horse or mule were employed for every 1,000 sheep. The mules were used to pack salt for the sheep, cooking utensils, food for the shepherds and the dogs, and any lamb that was born during the journey and was too young to endure the hardships of migration.


For hundreds of years, the quick and agile Carea León has been used to tend flocks in the mountains of León and bordering provinces. However, as the immense flocks diminished with the decline of the trashumance on foot, so did large numbers of these dogs — many of them becoming a rarity including the Leon Shepherd Dog.


Recognizing they could be replaced or absorbed by other breeds and lost forever — a recovery program was put in place through the University of Leon in cooperation with the Leonese Canine Society. The Carea Leon is making a comeback.


Their temperament is characteristic of the old Spanish dogs. They are reserved with strangers. They are hardy, tough and versatile working dogs with strong herding and guardian instincts. They are highly capable of handling sheep or cattle and are sought after by herdsmen. Their working style is based on the type of work needed when grazing their livestock in cultivated areas unlike when flocks and herds are pastured on mountain zones and allowed to graze freely. They keep the animals in check in the same way shepherds in other parts of Europe do as they lead their flocks out to graze. They would not be able to manage stock without them as they have throughout the ages.


Leon Shepherd Dogs are approximately 18 inches (48cm) to 22 inches (55cm) tall. Their coat is either solid or merle (arlequinados or “pintos”) with or without white and or tan trim (shepherds spots) and is a moderate length. The connection between the Carea Leonés and old Spanish lines is clear.




Article on the Carea Leonés:






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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a well written article! Thank you for continuing to address hot topics of the day as well as deep history that is mostly forgotten! I found the pictures of the spanish dogs fascinating as they reminded very much of the old J-Bar-D line dogs. Thanks again!

  2. We are 2 Maltese dogs and we say 2 Paws Up for this very egsellent post. Your PaLs, LuLu and LoLLy.

  3. Thank you so much. It is very gratifying to know how much people appreciate the breed’s history. I’m trying to document as much history as possible while there are still a few pioneer breeders left who helped establish develop the breed from obscurity to the current popularity Aussies enjoy today.

  4. Here is a photo I think fanciers will enjoy of Viggo Mortensen pictured and Felix Garcia, Secretary of the Leonese Canine Society pictured with two Carea Leones at the Insignia of Gold of León Ceremony on October 2006. Mortensen was awarded the City’s Gold Medal and the self-merle Carea puppy he is holding named Firme.

  5. Melanie,

    Here is another link you will especially enjoy. It shows the foundation type of Aussie you are referring to:

  6. If the first link that I included to the photo of Viggo Mortenson doesn’t take you to that picture (4868) this one may work:

    Hree is another link to the photo in the next post of a dog (10835) very similar to some of the old foundation Aussies pictured with a Spanish Mastiff:

    Hope it works.

  7. I´m from León. My brother and his friend made a documental (film) called “Carea careando” (Carea is a Leones shepherd dog) were you can see what this intelligent dog do with the sheeps and his owner. This art is delcining, most of the sheep are today in closed farms. When i saw an australian shepherd, i see how similar they are with carea arlequinado, one of the types of carea leonés, wiht three colours. It looks as if the aussie dog is a descendent.

  8. Javier, how wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to write. Where can we find “Carea careando?”

    Jeanne Joy

  9. Another Carea Leonés:

  10. where’s the Aussie history?!!

  11. Hello Jeanne: Sorry for answering so late (4 years?!!!!:)
    I don´t have the film “Carea careando” yet, but I have some links I am sure you will like:
    Here you are amateur documental about careas:

    Here you are the description and origin of carea leonés breed in english:
    And the youtube channel with lots of careas videos herding:
    See you soon! Regards, Javier

  12. Carea careando, beautifull documentary:

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