The truth about how one of the smartest, most versatile dogs in the world came to be in Colorado.
At least in the national consciousness, Colorado is a state with two reputations. There is its historic, pioneering side, which conjures visions of wide-open space and libertarian freedoms and cowboys on horseback ranching sheep and cattle. And there is its modern-day connotation, of ski slopes and national parks and progressive idealism, where healthy, attractive men and women in microfiber garments jog and bike trails and appreciate the state’s natural beauty in more recreational fashion. And there, connecting these two worlds, is the Australian shepherd.
The Aussie, America’s 26th most popular breed, isn’t Colorado’s official state dog, but it really should be. (3) Considered a midsize dog of prodigious energy and high intelligence, its general appearance, according to the official American Kennel Club (AKC) breed standard, “is well-balanced, slightly longer than tall, of medium size and bone, with coloring that offers variety and individuality.” Unlike the standards for many of the fussier breeds, which focus largely on physical characteristics, the Aussie’s official definition is as much about its personality and agility: “He is attentive and animated, lithe and agile, solid and muscular without cloddiness.”
“The Aussie was selected specifically as a generalist,” (4) says Carol Ann Hartnagle, Ernie’s youngest daughter, and she would know. No family has held more sway over this breed than the Hartnagles of Colorado. The primary reason the Australian shepherd has become both the world’s best herding and adventure dog—as well as an excellent companion and a capable guardian—is that the Hartnagle family, and the handful of others who helped shape the breed over the past 75 or so years, embraced its intelligence, drive, and adaptability to create a dog that can and will do just about anything. “The Australian shepherd’s hallmark is its versatility,” Carol Ann, who’s 48, explains. “These dogs just have a high desire to please.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but for nearly 70 years the Hartnagles owned and grazed flocks of sheep inside Boulder’s current city limits. A blue heron rookery was just east of the ranch, and both Boulder and Dry creeks passed through the property. It was in large part on this land, which was also home to a 53-acre reservoir (known today as Hartnagle Lake), that the little blue bobtailed sheepdogs of the American West—defined, in look and character, by Rover, and others like him—became the breed we now know as the Australian shepherd.
There were dogs that looked and acted very much like today’s Aussies a long time before Rover, and certainly before the dogs bred by the Hartnagles. But you won’t find much unanimity in the Aussie community over the breed’s precise origins before the 1940s, at least in the distant sense. Everyone agrees that the dogs are not actually, despite their name, a product of Australia, but beyond that there’s little agreement. What is likely is that the breed as we know it arose semi-organically on sheep ranches in the middle and far West of the United States over a period of many years starting in the mid-1800s.
The best guess of what happened with the Aussie is that a variety of shepherd dogs were working in the western United States—Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and California in particular—interbreeding with whatever other herding dogs happened to be working nearby. The gene pool further diversified when dogs from Europe began to arrive in the late-19th century, along with reinforcement flocks meant to replace sheep that had originally arrived with the Spanish conquistadors, but which became lunch during the California gold rush and Civil War. These dogs accompanied sheep that may have been imported from Australia—which is one good guess as to how the name arose. Other shepherd dogs that existed in the West originated specifically in Spain—these were larger dogs—and so the argument can be made that Australian shepherds are largely Spanish, and specifically Basque. (5)
The reality is that it’s impossible to reconstruct an exact history of the Aussie. It’s not uncommon for dog breeds to lack a succinct, annotated history. Although many were very specifically engineered from a traceable set of forebears, (6) others—like the Aussie—just sort of happened by circumstance. The Australian shepherd isn’t Australian, or English, or Spanish. It’s all of the above. Though the best answer of all is that it’s American, with the West, and Colorado in particular, at its core.