In the 1800s, it was common to see “the little blue dogs” working side by side with the herders in the mountains and pastures of the western United States. Ranchers valued these dogs for their independent intelligence but also their willingness to work as a partner with their owner. Over the last 150+ years, these dogs, now more familiarly known as the Australian Shepherd or “Aussie,” can be found serving man in different capacities. While they can still be found in the fields and pastures throughout the world, they are also found in many other types of jobs.
For the Australian Shepherd, the history of working in partnership with their people lends itself well to the role of service and assistance dogs. While in some situations their intelligence may lead them to trouble, they thrive when given a job to do. As a natural herder and caretaker of their flocks, it is easy for them to adjust those skills of watching over and guiding the flock to taking care of their human family. They have developed a second sense in what is needed and know how to offer loyalty, comfort and assistance to those in need. There are thousands of stories of how the little blue dog baby sat the kids and made sure that they did not stray into danger, so it is only natural for them to take those skills into a more serious role.
As more people realize the benefits that dogs provide for those who are handicapped or have health issues, the Australian Shepherd has stepped up to fulfill that role. Due to their medium size and intelligence, they are perfect for those who need a dog to help maneuver their wheelchair, carry objects or retrieve dropped items. They have been trained to alert for those who are diabetic, have epilepsy, or high blood pressure and heart conditions. Allergy detection has become more common over the last few years. Some Australian Shepherds have been trained to detect gluten or peanuts for owners who have celiac disease or can go into anaphylactic shock if they have any foods with peanuts in it.
As service dogs, some have been trained as companions for autistic children, hearing ear dogs, seeing eye dogs, brace/mobility dog, as well as service dogs for veterans returning with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pippi, an Australian Shepherd, is trained to be her owner’s autistic son’s companion and is making inroads in reaching him. Phantom and Crystal are two Aussies who are also working with autistic children.
One female Aussie, Stewie, is one of In Situ’s top cancer detection dogs. She has been trained to detect early stage lung, ovarian and breast cancer and she is also on Duke University’s canine team for breast cancer.
Therapy dog Winston, an Australian Shepherd certified by Therapy Dogs International, is a member of their Tail-Wagging-Tutor Tours. This is a program that brings dogs into the library for kids to read to. Even children who read well enjoy the time spent reading to the dogs, and the parents become excited because their children are finding it easier to read.
Other places where Aussies can be found include nursing homes and adult day care centers.
Recently, dogs have been invited onto college and university campuses on exam days to help the students get through this time of stress. Bob is an Australian Shepherd owned by Lois Fair who can be found at the local campuses as well as at other places in the Augusta, GA, area. He can also be found at the Augusta airport helping travelers relieve stress as they wait for their planes.
Although not as common as the Labrador Retriever, Malinois or German Shepherd, Australian Shepherds have also been used successfully as search and rescue, avalanche, and cadaver dogs. Wylie is one example of an Aussie that has been trained as an avalanche dog. He helps his owner locate avalanche victims in the Tamarack Ski Resort in Idaho. Not to be out-done, Roof is a miniature Aussie that has successfully earned his SAR jacket in California.
Jay Sisler was famous in the rodeo world with his group of dogs that were trained to do tricks. Most of his dogs were Australian Shepherds and could do a myriad number of tricks, such as jumping rope, balance on a small rod and twirl a jump rope.
One can also find Aussies competing successfully as disc (frisbee) dogs and musical freestyle. And of course there are many Aussies that are very competent in agility, flyball, rally obedience and obedience.
These amazing “little blue dogs” have proven their worth in many facets of the dog world and will continue to impress those who live and work with them.