Blue Heeler vs Australian Shepherd - A Closer Look At These Herding Breeds
Looking for an active, hardworking and smart dog? Then maybe the Australian Shepherd or the Blue Heeler is the right option for you!
Their smarts, energy and looks make them an attractive choice as family pets. However, you need to be ready for the challenges that come with them! If you’re interested in adopting one of these two breeds, we’ll share all the details to make an informed decision.
Dr. Sara Redding Ochoa | Doctor Of Veterinary Medicine
Sara is Wileypup’s Veterinarian Adviser and helped compose this article to ensure the information is up to date and accurate. For more information on Sara click here
Interested in how the Australian Shepherd and/or Blue Heeler shapes up against some other breeds? Check out our guides below:
Blue Heeler vs. Australian Shepherd: Similarities
Australian Shepherd vs. Blue Heeler: Differences
Australian Cattle Dog vs Australian Shepherd: Their Origins
The Australian Cattle Dog, sometimes simply called Cattle Dog or Australian Blue Heeler, has a very diverse heritage. The energetic, smart dog we know today comes from a mix of Collies, Bull terriers, Dalmatians, Kelpies and even Dingoes (which aren’t actually dogs!)
Initially, in the late nineteenth century, George Elliott of Queensland crossed the Australian native Dingo with Smithfield and Highland Collies. This resulted in a powerful herding dog. Then, Jack and Harry Bagust crossed it with Dalmatians: this made the breed more comfortable around horses and humans.
Finally, to bring back some of the working abilities lost with Dalmatians, the Cattle dog was crossed with Kelpies. The result? A sturdy, medium-sized dog with incredible endurance and work ethic. These Dingo-looking dogs have different markings than their wild counterpart, but share their unstoppable energy! If you want to learn more about some blue heeler cross breeds check out the below:
- Blue Heeler Australian Shepherd Mix
- Blue Heeler German Shepherd Mix
- Blue Heeler Lab Mix
- Blue Heeler Border Collie Mix
Then we have the Australian Shepherd. This smart and hardworking breed remains somewhat of a mystery. What we do know? They were developed in the US, not in Australia. Surprised? Let’s explain a little.
The Australian Shepherd’s ancestors were herding dogs from the Pyrenees, between France and Spain. During the 1800s, many Basque shepherds emigrated from Spain to Australia, taking their dogs with them. For decades, these immigrant shepherds crossed the Pyrenees shepherd with the British dogs on the island, mainly collies. Eventually, the Basques left Australia for California, with their dogs, of course! Cali farmers and ranchers were impressed by the new dogs and assumed they were native Aussies (hence the name). In the US, shepherds and breeders perfected the breed, resulting in the dog we know today.
“The Australian Shepherd, a lean, tough ranch dog, is one of those “only in America” stories: a European breed perfected in California by way of Australia.” – American Kennel Club
After decades of existence, the Australian Shepherd was registered as an official breed in 1993 by the AKC and in 1979 by the UKC. Now, it’s one of the most popular breeds and according to the American Kennel Club, it stands in position 17 out of 195 breeds .
To learn more about Australian Shepherd mix breeds check out the below:
Australian Shepherd vs Blue Heeler (Cattle dog): How To Tell Them Apart?
In spite of their somewhat similar name, these two dogs don’t look alike!
On the one hand, we have Australian Shepherds. These agile dogs have slender bodies, powerful legs and straight, medium-length hair. They also have round, smart eyes and triangle-shaped ears that softly flop over their head. Their most prominent feature is their tail: they almost don’t have one! In the dog world, this is called a bobtail, and it’s a very short tail: less than 4 inches long .
On the other hand, there’s Blue Heelers. These dogs are slightly stockier than the Australian Shepherd, thanks to its Dingo genes. They’re muscular and square, with triangle-shaped, erect ears and round eyes. In contrast to Aussie shepherds, the Cattle dog has a regular, low-set tail.
These two breeds have very different coats.
The Australian Shepherd has medium-length hair that feathers at the back of the legs and the neck. Most individuals also have a moderate mane and they all have a fluffy undercoat that gets denser in winter. In contrast, the Blue Heeler has short, straight hair with a dense undercoat that protects them from the Australian heat.
Then, we have their color. If their different coat texture and length wasn’t enough, it’s easy to tell these two dogs apart by their distinct colors.
In the case of Australian Shepherds, they have different colorings: black, liver or a combination of those, merle pattern, and two trim patterns (white and tan). Many Australian Shepherds have patches of merle coloring. “Merle” is a term to designate dogs with darker patches over a white or cream background.
PRO TIP: Never buy an Aussie sold as a “white Australian Shepherd” with two Merle parents. These pups are carriers of a double merle gene and their breeding isn’t allowed for health reasons. Double merle pups have a greater risk of having hearing problems and will almost always be blind. A responsible breeder will avoid double-Merles and offer advice if your puppy happens to have sight or hearing troubles. White Aussies with a non-merle parent can happen, and will usually be as healthy as their brothers and sisters.
As for Cattle dogs, or Blue Heelers, their name actually comes from their unique pattern. Even though they’re born white, as they grow puppies start showing “blue” markings. These are usually black, gray (blue) or tan, and mingle with the white to create a spotted coat that’s eventually on the darker side, with white speckles here and there.
Even though many people still recognize the breed as “Blue Heeler”, they also come in red! So-called Red Heelers have the same spotted markings, but in a reddish-tan color .
All Cattle dogs have spotted patches, and many have solid-colored sections as well in the legs and face. With Blue Heelers, these are gray or black, and with Red Heelers these are the same reddish brown. White patches can also happen.
Blue Heelers aren’t only blue! In fact, the Australian Cattle Dogs can be “blue” or “red”
Differences In Grooming Needs Between The Blue Heeler & The Australian Shepherd
These two breeds have very different grooming needs because of their type of hair. In the case of the Cattle dog or Blue Heeler, they’re also known as “wash and go” dogs. That means they need minimal grooming, and a brushing once a week will suffice. Plus, when you give them a bath, they won’t need any extra work other than drying.
On the other hand, Australian Shepherds are higher maintenance. They have an undercoat, and can shed A LOT if you don’t brush them at least two to three times a week.
Other than that, the grooming routines of these two dogs will be fairly similar and straightforward, and shouldn’t take you more than a couple hours every week.
Australian Shepherds & Cattle Dogs Health Concerns
In general, and like other working breeds, these two dogs are fairly healthy. As other medium to large dogs, you should check their health history for elbow and hip dysplasia. Of course, there are some specific health concerns you should be aware of:
To start, Australian Shepherds are slightly more prone to deafness and blindness than other breeds thanks to the Merle gene. As we mentioned, this gene is responsible for the speckled coloration of some individuals. Normal merles (with just 1 copy of the gene) are healthy.
Nevertheless, so-called “double-merles” (dogs that inherit 2 copies the gene, one from each parent) almost always suffer from blindness and might also be deaf. In general, a double merle will be healthy in spite of their disabilities but they shouldn’t be used to breed more litters.
According to the Australian Shepherd Genetic Institute:
On top of issues with the Merle gene, this breed is more likely to suffer from other genetic eye problems like cataracts, retinal atrophy and detached retinas. They are also prone to have multiple drug sensitivities (MDS). These are life-threatening allergies to common veterinary drugs, a condition they share with Collie-type dogs. Screening your puppy as soon as you get them from the breeder, as well as asking for their parent’s drug sensitivities, is your best option.
In general, if you get a puppy from a responsible breeder and do regular checkups at the vet, your dog won’t have any issues.
PRO TIP: Make sure your Aussie Shepherd’s parents were certified to have normal eyes by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Check that the results that the CERF (Canine Eye Registry) recorded the results and ask your breeder to meet your puppy’s parents whenever possible.
As for the Cattle Dog (AKA the Blue Heeler) they are also pretty healthy. Nevertheless, you can ask your breeder for screenings for these common conditions :
Australian Shepherd vs. Australian Cattle Dog: Behavior & Training
When it comes to training, there aren’t many differences between Australian Shepherds and Australian Cattle dogs.
These are working dogs. As such, they have a lot of energy, they’re smart, loyal and dedicated workers. In general, they will tend to guard what’s “theirs”: from their toys, to their home and even their family. On the flip side to their smarts: they can have a hard time behaving if they’re bored.
The answer? Consistent exercise and training.
Australian Shepherds are very enthusiastic workers. This breed will usually take on their responsibilities with a great attitude. This is a very active dog that loves being part of your day to day, and prefers consistency. That means you’ll want to have the same routines, pretty much every day. These dogs do better with positive reinforcement, will usually want to please their owners and are fairly easy to train. The only downside is that they learn pretty fast, and when they get bored, they won’t want to listen to you!
Blue Heelers, on the other hand, are significantly harder to train. Not impossible, but here is where their Dingo past shines. These dogs were bred to herd cattle on their own. That’s why they have high stamina and a strong attitude. You need to be the authority figure in their life so they trust you to handle issues as they come up. Once trained, this dog will want to be a part of your daily life, and will love to cuddle after a long day of work (or play).
PRO TIP: Never tolerate nipping (or “heeling”) from your Cattle dog. Their jaws and teeth are very strong, and this nipping can turn into an issue very fast. To avoid mouthiness, you should redirect their behavior, socialize them as puppies and make sure you’re the dominant figure in their life.
Specific Training Needs
Of course, training is key regardless of the dog you choose. Due to their herding past, these two breeds are independent thinkers and might need some convincing when training. In general, it’s important to offer variety and a gentle but firm tone when giving orders.
With these two breeds, it’s important to assert your dominance as leader of the pack in a positive manner. Yelling and snapping at your dog won’t work, and in fact, might unleash aggressive tendencies.
Besides keeping them active, these dogs need mental exercise as well. For you, that means training throughout their lives. They will get bored –and destructive- if they don’t learn anything new in weeks.
Fun Fact: “With these two breeds, you will have to provide consistent training and mental stimulation. If not, they can become destructive!”
If you’ve chosen one of these dogs as a pet, you’ll want to train them to do weird tricks, enroll them in agility training and teach them to do chores with you. It’s the only way to keep their brain entertained. Once you accomplish that, they’ll stay focused, happy, and well-behaved.
Finally, both of these breeds need plenty of socialization since puppyhood. You need to do this in a gentle, safe environment. Even then, don’t expect a dog that walks up to strangers and wants a pet on the head. When properly socialized, both the Australian Shepherd and the Blue Heeler are confident in foreign situations but will still be wary of strangers.
Blue Heeler & Australian Shepherd Dogs: Are These Breeds Fit For Apartment Living?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: These two working breeds are medium-sized and full of energy. This makes them better suited for a backyard: they want to be with you, but they also need lots of space to play and guard.
In the case of the Blue Heeler, this is especially important. Because they were bred to have incredible endurance when herding cattle in the hot Australian sun, this dog will need more than a brisk walk around the block. Cattle dogs NEED long active periods, every day, holidays included!
They will the happiest with an owner that brings them along their long, daily runs, and can easily learn to keep you company while cycling and hiking once they’ve grown up.
Australian Shepherds might do better in smaller spaces, but even they will need at least an hour of vigorous exercise to be happy. Because of their smarts, they not only need consistent exercise but also mental stimulation. For owners, this can be anything from teaching them random tricks (like “play dead”) to signing them up for agility training.
Australian Shepherd or Australian Cattle Dog: Which One Is The Right Fit For Your Family?
When choosing between the Australian Shepherd vs Cattle dog, it might boil down to your personal experience with dogs.
In general, due to their Dingo ancestry, Blue Heelers are better suited for experienced dog owners. That way, you’ll already have a variety of redirection techniques to retrain unwanted behaviors, provide ample distraction for their minds and will know what to expect from a very active breed.
On the other hand, Australian Shepherds usually have a milder temperament, although they will still need plenty of exercise and distractions to keep them busy. This breed is easier to train than the Blue Heeler, but will still need gentle guidance to understand their place in your family.
Still unsure? Here’s our final recap.
The Blue Heeler might be a better fit if you
The Australian Shepherd might be the best fit if you
In general, we recommend talking to current dog owners if you’re looking into adopting either of these breeds. They will be able to offer guidance and answer your doubts. Remember, these two dogs will require you to change your lifestyle, so it’s best to be prepared!
- American Kennel Club. “Australian Cattle Dog”. Retrieved on June 2020 from [https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/australian-cattle-dog/]
- American Kennel Club. “Australian Shepherd”. Retrieved on June 2020 from [https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/australian-shepherd/]
- Australian Shepherd Genetic Institute. “What’s wrong with White Aussies”. Retrieved on June 2020 from [ http://www.ashgi.org/home-page/genetics-info/coat-color/whats-wrong-with-white-aussies ]
- United Kennel Club. “Australian Cattle Dog”. Retrieved on June 2020 from [https://www.ukcdogs.com/docs/breeds/australian-cattle-dog.pdf]
- United Kennel Club. “Australian Shepherd”. Retrieved on June 2020 from [https://www.ukcdogs.com/docs/breeds/australian-shepherd.pdf]
Vedrana Nikolić (B.A. in Cultural Anthropology) - Professional Writer.
Vedrana is a writer, anthropologist & dog lover. Currently pursuing a Masters degree in Semiotics studying, among other things, the communication between animals and humans.
For more info on Vedrana click here