A bit of history on the prick ear and the Australian Shepherd by Ernie Hartnagle

The severe fault on prick ears has been a blight on our breed. Prick ears are naturally occurring among the bloodlines. A few of the foundation Aussies that had prick ears include Wood’s Dandy, Mansker’s Freckles, and Smedra’s Blue Mistingo.


In 1975, our registry was operating in its third year. The Breed was not yet established. We had set up viewing committees to accept dogs for approval. We had no official guidelines, and most of the existing Standards were little more than dumpster quality.


The first official Standard, the one that we are using today, was approved by the membership in 1977. Dr. Robert Kline chaired the committee, with a number of qualified veterinarians as consultants. There appeared to be an existing concern that some of the viewed dogs accepted by the viewing committee were possibly not entirely of pure Australian Shepherd breeding, most of which were endowed with prick ears.


The Breed Standard Committee, in needless desperation, agreed to list the prick ear set as a serious fault. They felt that this stop gap remedy would focus attention on the prick ears to discourage acceptance of these questionable individuals into the breed. This move proved to end in dismal failure.


In retrospect, this was unwarranted, unproven, thoughtless overkill by the committee. We, at that moment, unknowingly put a millstone around our wonderful working Aussies and have blighted his very existence and prestige among the five most popular working breeds used today. Ironically, most of these breeds support prick ears! And yet, we are the only one that needlessly faults the prick ear.


When prick ears were severely faulted breeders started taping their dog’s ears to their heads. Some even had them surgically cut which took away any lift. Therefore, we started seeing a majority of dogs in the show ring that had ears that couldn’t lift. If prick ears are only a fault rather than a severe fault people might be less inclined to tape them, especially if ears with no lift are severely faulted.


Why Are Aussie’s Tails Docked?

People often ask, “Why is the Australian Shepherd’s tail docked? Some of the reasons are tradition, identification, cosmetic, and function.

Tail docking has most likely occurred since ancient times. It has been written that the Romans docked tails because they believed, though erroneously, that the muscles in the dog’s tail were a cause of rabies.

In the late 1790s, a tax law was introduced on dogs to help fund the French wars. Working dogs were the exemption and were docked to signify their status. This practice was also in place in Great Britain.

Woods Natural History, published in London in 1865, lends insight into the historical practice of tail docking. “The tail of the Sheep-dog is naturally long and bushy, but is generally removed in early youth, on account of the now obsolete laws, which refused to acknowledge any Dog as a Sheep-dog, or to exempt it from tax, unless it were deprived of its tail. This law, however often defeated its own object, for many persons who liked the sport of coursing, and cared little for appearances, used to cut off the tails of their greyhounds, and evade the tax by describing them as Sheep-dogs.”

As dogs assisted man in the field, herding or hunting, their tails could be a magnate for foxtails and a host of other burrs and stickers, which could cause trauma to the tail. Consequently, tail docking was implemented to avoid injury and infection. This is one of the reasons natural bobtails were valued and bred for.

As dog shows became fashionable in the mid 1800’s with the establishment of the Kennel Club, tails of some breeds were docked as an identifying characteristic. Even today, in breeds with congenital bobtails, the tail is sometimes shortened to enhance a more symmetrical appearance, creating a classic silhouette for the show ring.

Why is the Aussie’s tail docked? The clearest answer I can give is that it is probably tradition and that it is stated in the breed standard that: “An identifying characteristic is the natural or docked bobtail.”

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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