The Australian Shepherd is from: A) Australia, B) England, C) Spain, D) None of the Above

The truth about how one of the smartest, most versatile dogs in the world came to be in Colorado.

February 2012

Back home in Boulder, Ernie and Elaine began to mate one good bobtail to another with the sole criterion in selection being the dog’s aptitude to work, and the Australian shepherd as we know it today began to take shape. The idea, at the time, wasn’t to build a kennel. “We just liked the dogs. And we liked what we had,” Ernie says. “But I got to thinking, ‘Boy, everybody with livestock should have one of these dogs.’ ”

The Hartnagles started by breeding dogs for themselves in 1955, but word of the Hartnagles’ dogs soon spread across Colorado, and then across the entire western United States: If you needed a good cow or sheep dog, you went to Boulder to see the Hartnagles. Las Rocosa (8) Kennel was christened in 1970, and by then the Hartnagles were averaging about eight litters a year. Today there are four recognized colors for purebred Aussies: the blue merle, the red merle, the red tri, and the black tri, and among the landmark accomplishments to originate at Las Rocosa was the introduction of the red-colored Aussie (in 1970) and the recognition that black dogs, in addition to reds, were just as capable as the legendary blues. “We lifted the black dog out of the cheap seats,” Ernie says. “We said we believed that color doesn’t make any difference. You may like one better, but the black dogs are just as good as the blue dogs.”

To make that statement as clearly as possible, the Hartnagles set a single price for their puppies, regardless of color. This wasn’t just unprecedented; it was revolutionary. Years ago, before the Hartnagles vouched for the quality of red and black Aussies, ranchers often killed the puppies to save themselves from having to raise a dog that couldn’t work. As Ernie explains it now: “People did not understand breeding these dogs.”

Very quickly, red came into vogue, and the Hartnagles figured out that, because the color was a recessive trait, the only way to produce red out of non-red dogs was if both parents had the gene in their backgrounds. Today, breeders can learn the genetic makeup of their dogs through simple DNA tests, but back then, Ernie says, “It was just a step-by-step process. The only way you learned something is you made a mistake.” And when you did, “you made a rule so you wouldn’t make that mistake again.”

The Hartnagles weren’t alone. Colorado became the hub of Aussie activity, mostly because it was a center for American livestock. (The National Western Stock Show was an unofficial gathering for Aussie breeders and enthusiasts.) Las Rocosa—which, in 1991, would become the first kennel awarded Hall of Fame status by the Australian Shepherd Club of America and later became the first to be given Hall of Fame Excellence status—provided many of the foundation dogs you’ll find in the Aussies of today. (9)

The Hartnagles weren’t the only ones pursuing the perfect Aussie. Ernie says that pretty much every Aussie in America has its origins in five basic foundation lines, and all but one of those lines comes from a Colorado breeder. First and foremost, obviously, is Las Rocosa, with the other key players being Juanita Ely, Fletcher Wood, and Dr. Weldon Heard. Whereas Ernie Hartnagle was in pursuit of the ideal herding dog, Heard, through his Flintridge kennel, was chasing a different sort of perfection and was focused more on structure and appearance, which translated well into the conformation ring. (10) Specifically, Heard studied and followed the strategy of old German Weimaraner breeders, who would allow only the top two puppies from each litter to reproduce.

Heard’s impact on aesthetics was especially huge. “Of all the foundation bloodlines,” the Hartnagles write in The Total Australian Shepherd, “the Flintridge line exhibited the greatest influence on the modern show Australian shepherd.” Heard died in 2008, and by that time had stopped breeding dogs. Likewise, the lines of Juanita Ely, Fletcher Wood, and Jay Sisler have also long since ceased. Of the five foundation lines of the Australian shepherd, only Las Rocosa is still active, through the work of Ernie’s two Colorado-based children, Carol Ann and Jimmy.