Whether you call them Blue Heelers, Red Heelers, Queensland Heelers, Australian Heelers, or Australian Cattle Dogs, these unique-looking dogs are known for their gorgeous coat colors, intelligence, and go-all-day-every-day energetic nature.
Australian Cattle Dogs are the culmination of cross-breeding the Blue Merle and the Australian Dingo by British settlers in Australia in the late 1800s. These working dogs have plenty of energy and love to run. They’re devoted to their people and can be good for families—as long they have an outlet for all that energy.
Whether you’re thinking about getting an Australian Cattle Dog or if you’re already a tried-and-true fan, here are eight things you should know about this breed.
1. Heelers are one of the most intelligent dog breeds around
Like other working dogs, heelers are bright and motivated. They also need plenty of training and exercise to channel all that intelligence.
For evidence of their incredible mental prowess, just check out this video. Meet the late Skidboot, an incredibly intelligent and well-trained dog who was once called “the smartest dog in the world.”
Skidboot could learn any trick: he could take out the trash, lead a horse by a rope, and he even performed at rodeos.
In 2003, he competed in Animal Planet’s Pet Star competition and won $25,000. He appeared on numerous talk shows, including Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Oprah Winfrey, and Late Night with David Letterman.
2. Australian Cattle Dogs have a dense double coat
Fun fact: the blue heeler’s unique coat is water-resistant, keeping them dry in the rain. They’re equipped with an undercoat and an outercoat. The top layer acts as a wick. They shed the undercoat once or twice a year so they don’t need a lot of grooming outside of regular brushing to remove loose hair, and occasional baths (unless they get in the mud).
3. Australian Cattle Dogs are descended from dingoes
English sheepdog breeds didn’t have the “oomph” to work long days under the hot Australian sun moving cattle hundreds of miles, so they were crossed with native dingoes. (Some studies posit that the native Australian dingo’s ancestors date as far back as 1500 BC. The Dingo became domesticated and was eventually used for livestock control.)
Later, the heelers were cross-bred with Dalmatians, collies, and kelpies, to lock in desired traits.
So how did that happen?
In 1840, Thomas Simpson Hall, an early colonist and cattle farmer, crossed dogs that had been bred with multiple collie strains and a dingo. The study he produced gave way to the beginning of what’s called “Hall’s Heelers.”
According to Showsight magazine, which specializes in articles about purebred dogs, George Elliott in Queensland took Hall’s heelers, and continued to breed them. (The “blue” heelers are derived from this strain).
Australian farmers and cattle owners loved the result and purchased the dogs from him. Later, two brothers, Jack and Harry Bagust of Canterbury in Sydney bred them with Dalmatians—”to instill the love of horses and faithfulness to master into their dogs.” The Dalmatian cross is what gives some Australian Cattle Dogs their colorful markings, including a coat that comes in either a “blue” tone or a “red” tone.
4. Heeler pups are born white
You might be surprised to learn that the heelers have an all-white coat at birth. This trait also most likely comes from their Dalmatian heritage. Puppies start getting colorful quickly and you can see their pattern strongly by six weeks.
5. Australian Cattle Dogs have a lot of aliases
These dogs are also known as blue heelers, red heelers, Queensland heelers, and Australian heelers. The name heeler comes from the fact that they nip at the heels of cattle, hence, “heeler.” Other names refer to the coat color and the area where they hail from. Whatever you call them, they’re gorgeous!
6. Heelers are bred to work with cattle specifically
The name ‘heeler’ comes from the job of driving cattle by nipping at their heels. Since cattle are more ornery and much larger than sheep, it takes a special kind of dog to get their attention— and respect.
Look at that stamina!
7. Heelers were accepted into the AKC in 1980
Though the breed standard was set in Australia in 1903 and has been “pure” since 1893, it wasn’t part of the American Kennel Club until relatively recently, in 1983. (The United Kennel Club recognized it even later, in 1985). The breed moved from the Working Group to the Herding Group.
8. The Guinness Record for the oldest dog is held by a heeler
In general, these medium-sized dogs live to anywhere from 12 to 15 years old. However, they can live much longer! After 20 years of herding, Bluey, who lived with Les Hall of Rochester, Victoria, Australia, retired and went on to live almost a decade more. His record-breaking lifespan was 29 years and 5 months. Amazing.
Breed Health and Wellness
Because Australian Cattle Dogs were crossbred, they inherited some potential health problems, particularly deafness. According to the American Kennel Club, breeders should check for progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), which leads to blindness, and hip dysplasia. Make sure they don’t get wax buildup in their ears and get their teeth cleaned regularly.
The Australian Cattle Dog is extremely loyal to their human, loves herding animals, and is good with small children (though not too small as they like to herd by nipping at heels). They have a ton of energy and love to play and run. Though they’re extremely loyal to their family, they can be a bit wary of strangers.
Who’s the Best Human for Australian Cattle Dogs?
If you like vigorous outdoor exercise, an Australian Cattle Dog could make a great canine companion, since they need a lot of exercise (two or three hours a day). A walk around the block isn’t going to do it, but if you like a morning run, an ACD would likely love to keep you company.
Alternately, if you live on the farm with animals, it would be tough to find a dog better suited for herding work. They’ll work hard for hours, which would eliminate the need for additional exercise. If you don’t have a flock that needs herding but you have a large yard, an Australian Cattle Dog would love running around and exploring the grounds.
Just remember that these are intelligent dogs who need stimulation—don’t expect them to keep themselves entertained all of the time. If you’re someone who is excited by the prospect of moving and playing with a dog, an Australian Cattle Dog could be the perfect fit.
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