Australian Working Dogs – Bred Aussie Tough

Life on the farm in Australia is hard yakka. Our land is vast, and its variable geography is subject to a dramatically fluctuating climate. Early starts, long hours and working outdoors in all weather conditions is not for everyone. But alongside the Aussie farmer is an animal that thrives in such an environment: the working dog. We take a look at two of the most renowned breeds of Australian working dogs, bred Aussie tough: the Australian kelpie and the Australian cattle dog.

Working dogs are essential workers on the land, and this has never been more true than now. Since the onset of Covid, finding farm workers is a difficult task. Border closures led to a loss of traveling labourers, and now, The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has ceased its Harvest Trail Services program, which connected travelers with harvesting jobs. The working dog, one of the seven group classes of dogs in Australia, became an even more valuable asset. These two Australian working dog breeds stand out not only at home, but around the world.

Despite popular belief, the kelpie is not related to the dingo
The Australian kelpie breed is named after the first officially bred pup

The Australian Kelpie

This breed was named after the first official pup, Kelpie. The kelpie was bred in Australia from British working collies in the 1870s. The focus of breeding selection was natural herding ability and a hardworking spirit. According to The Working Kelpie Council of Australia, the Kelpie we see today can be traced back to early foundation stock, though a black dog of indeterminate origins will often be labeled a kelpie.

Despite myth and rumour, the dingo took no part in the makings of the Australian kelpie. Though there may be some similar physical characteristics, such as size and ears, the University of Sydney‘s scientific research shows that they are not genetically related.

The Australian kelpie comes in a variety of colours: black, chocolate, red and fawn, with or without markings. They have a double coat, shed moderately and are very protective. Breeding remains focussed on natural work ethic and herding instincts. As such, coat colours take a back seat unless kelpies are bred for showing. Most significantly the kelpie is highly energetic and intelligent.

Though kelpies make great working buddies and can be great with families, they do need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. In fact, a kelpie is at their happiest when they are working, independently mustering sheep and cattle. If they aren’t trained, mentally stimulated and exercised, they will likely resort to destructive behaviour.

A blue heeler at work
Australian cattle dogs are naturals at rounding up a herd

The Australian Cattle Dog

The Australian cattle dog is the result of crossing a smooth highland collie with a dingo in the 1840s. They were known as ‘Hall’s heelers’ after the first breeder, Thomas Simpson Hall, and their habit of nipping at the heels of livestock. Hall bred his heelers right up to his death in 1870.

The Australian cattle dog’s double coat is speckled and mottled, and sheds abundantly. Most of us are familiar with the blue heeler, but there are also red heelers. Like the kelpie, Australian cattle dogs are robust, energetic and highly intelligent. These hard workers require training and they thrive when set to task. Like the kelpie, it makes sense that if kept as pets, Australian cattle dogs need a lot of exercise and mental stimulation to flourish and be content. If left to their own devices or confined, they can be destructive and have a tendency to nip. This same nipping action is a mustering tool to pull sheep and cattle into line on the farm.

Worldwide Fame

English novelist Louis de Bernières tells a version of the true story of Red Dog, a red kelpie cattle dog cross who travelled around Australia. You can find Red Dog’s statue in Dampier, Western Australia, as well as the Roaming with Red Dog Trail. Later, de Bernières published Blue Dog, a fictional story inspired by the origins of Red Dog.

Not all Australian working dogs have such regard. Australian Working Dog Rescue is a non-profit organisation that takes care of abandoned working dogs and tries to find suitable homes for them. The organisation states that owners without an understanding of the responsibility of owning a working breed dog ensure a steady supply of surrendered working dogs. Because they have been bred to work hard and smart, consideration must be taken before adopting a working dog.

The Australian kelpie and the Australian cattle dog are hard at work all over the world, from the US and South America to Great Britain and Europe. Our Australian breeds are reputed for being Aussie tough, able to work hard in the most difficult conditions, and for their marvellous innate mustering ability. Capree Eve, a kelpie bred in Bathurst, New South Wales, recently sold for $49,000, valued for her working skills. Our national canine treasures do us proud.

Read Big Dog Life to find out what it takes to be the owner of a large dog.

Two chocolate and tan kelpie puppies
Australian kelpies puppies