Short Answer: Yes, if you can give them…
• 60-120 minutes of exercise a day
• mental stimulation with training and games
• Lots of interaction and bonding
No, if this describes your lifestyle…
• Everyone in the family is away for hours a day at work or school
• You don’t have time to exercise them enough
• You don’t have time to train the dog
Let’s look at some of the general traits of Australian Shepherds, and then:
• discover how to make them happy,
• how to train them to be an enjoyable addition to your family,
• and how to train them specifically to be great companions for children.
Are Australian Shepherds bred to be good family dogs?
Australian Shepherds are herders and protectors. They were bred in the high mountain terrain of the Pyrenese by the Basque people. *
As herders, they are highly energetic, intelligent and thrive on connection. Herding requires a super close bond between dog and handler, and the ability to communicate and work as a strong team.
It takes an incredible amount of energy to run up and down mountains all day at elevation and never tire. They have these high energy levels, want to be bonded with you, and need to “work”.
In the US and UK, they are known (and deliberately bred) as great “all-around farm dogs”: this means they all the “smarts” and energy just described, love to have jobs, as well as being friendly to animals and good with children.
I know several people who grew up with an Australian Shepherd. They all say that their Aussie helped raise them. One family I know have two very young children and two Aussies.
They were trained well from the beginning, and the dogs are amazing with both of them.
On the other hand, there are reports on the internet of people who are distressed because their Aussies bite heels and herd children.
(Not just their children – everyone’s children!)
Why is there such a wide variety of experience in families? Does it just depend on the individual dog you get?
No. Individuals do vary, but generally, it depends on:
1) the care and interaction for the dog
2) guidance given to the children raised with the dog.
Let’s look at what Aussies need generally, and then at specific training.
What does an Australian Shepherd need to be a good family dog?
Besides proper nutrition and shelter, the three major things your Aussie needs are exercise, mental stimulation and interaction with you.
• Your Aussie needs 60-120 minutes of exercise a day, depending on age. If they don’t get at least 30-60 minutes of exercise a day, they will tend to let out that energy in destructive ways such as chewing, hyperactivity and herding. Aim for more than an hour daily.
• Since Australian Shepherds are so smart, variety is a spice of life. Mix up and rotate through different kinds of exercise. You might find an activity that really sings to your individual dog; in that case, they may want to do it every day.
Here are some family-friendly exercise ideas:
• A game of fetch gets them running, but added interest is even better.
• Frisbee is excellent because they are running after the frisbee and mentally calculating when to jump for it. (Make sure you get a soft frisbee as hard ones can end up with bleeding/cut lips and broken teeth.)
• Flyball is great because it’s a combination of a bit of agility and fetching. The setup doesn’t have to be complicated; you can use things you have at home.
You can also find groups who do this and clubs you can join. Even though this isn’t “herding”, it is working with you as the handler, and the dog has to use their mind and body in various ways to get the ball.
• Dog Parks are good for socialization and can get them running. If your Aussie wants to bite the heels and herd other dogs, then wait till you’ve trained them.
After you have trained them, then a dog park is good practice for their impulse control and bonding with you. We talk about training for herding below.
• Mental Stimulation. Challenges like treat puzzles and fun toys
• Basic training plus a little “advanced” training (we’ll talk about that more below)
Craft your training to give them “work”. You don’t have to have a herd of livestock, but there are ways to interact with them that help their brains be happy and feel useful.
• Interaction and bonding. Part of being bred for herding is also being bred for attachment to their handler. Australian Shepherds love feeling “one”, as a team.
They love a lot of interaction with family members, as well. They are not just “one person” dogs.
Are they loyal, caring and affectionate?
• Yes, absolutely! They genuinely love their families and children enjoy them because they like to both play and cuddle.
• They don’t tend to wander; they will generally stay close to home or near you if off-leash.
• Aussies love to be petted, scratched and even snuggled after a day of enough exercise. They will run up and greet you with a full-body wag and want all the ear scratching and petting you can pack into a few moments.
The Australian Shepherd Club of America notes that “Aussies tend to form a stronger bond with their family and owners than some other breeds.”
How do I train my Australian Shepherd to be good with my kids?
Australian Shepherds are very trainable because they are so intelligent and desire a close connection with you.
Basic training (“Sit” “Stay” “Lie Down” “Leave It”) is great to do in a group class, especially if you’ve not trained a dog before.
Get these commands down and well established and then move on to some more advanced training and fun family games. It is great to do 10 minutes of focused basic training a day to reinforce the class learning.
Here’s a truth that might be surprising to you: To avoid or stop nuisance herding behavior, then train them to herd! This does two things:
1) You will be filling deep and strong needs in your Aussie: herding, connection and “work”. They will be happier, and less likely to do any destructive or bothersome behavior, herding or otherwise.
2) Part of training to herd is training to STOP herding! If YOU train to herd with your dog, this puts you in control of the behavior. Then the dog is not just running on their own.
You being in control and taking the lead is preferable to your dog. Australian Shepherds want the team, the connection, the whole experience.
How do I train my dog to herd if I don’t have any livestock?
This is where the fun begins! First, teach them directional commands when out on leash walks: Use either the classic herding commands “Come bye” for right and “Away to Me” for left (or make up your own if you aren’t going to herd in competitions or clubs).
Make your dog “lie down” or “leave” to train them to lie down on command while they are moving. If they are watching something ahead of them, all the better.
They should be able to lie down on command with a cat or squirrel running across the road ahead.
Your Australian Shepherd doesn’t need to be perfect, but needs to understand these commands before the extra stimulation of the game. (“Leave” or “lie down” when seeing a squirrel is a noble goal, don’t be discouraged by mixed success!)
When they’ve got the directional commands while on leash walks, teach them “the herding game”:
The Herding Game
Gather your dog and family in a circle together outside with some space. Start with a leash on your dog.
Tell your dog to “lie down” and “stay”. Then all the people (except you) slowly start moving out in random directions, scattering.
Use the commands for right and left and add in “lie down” or “leave” along the way to stop them and one by one herd your family back to the circle or another point in the space.
Remember to give lots of praise and celebration with the whole group!
After a couple of times on a leash, your Aussie will catch on and love this game.
Hide and Seek
It helps if the dog knows the names of your family.
- Tell your dog to “lie down” and “wait.”
- A family member hides
- Train them to learn “where’s ?” “Go find ”
- Help them at first; you might even get them to heel close to you, so you are doing it together until they catch on
- Celebration and praise when they find the person!
Train the Humans
• All humans, adults and children, need training too. Without this there is no consistency and the dog will be confused. This can cause anxiety.
• A dog will encourage empathy, compassion, and kindness in your children, but you have to teach them these things. Teach them to respect the dog and be kind. Give them boundaries and teach them about the dog’s boundaries.
• Teach your children assertiveness. I know two toddlers living with energetic Aussies who were taught at a very young age to hold out their arm with their hand up and move past the dog. Assertiveness and being firm while still being gentle and kind is a valuable life skill.
• Make sure that the whole family, adults and children, are consistent with commands and training of the dog. No one will be happy if you confuse your dog. Everybody needs to be on the same page with rules, commands and corrections.
Are Miniature Australian Shepherds good for families?
Mini Australian Shepherds are an excellent choice for families, especially if you have a smaller indoor space. They have the same intelligence and trainability as the full-size Australian Shepherd, just smaller.
They also have the same energy as a full-size Australian Shepherd – so don’t think they might need less exercise. They are not hyperactive or nervous as some miniature breeds can be, but all of the needs are the same for a mini Aussie as the full-sized dogs.
Both full-sized and mini Australian Shepherds are beautiful dogs that can become wonderful members of your family. If you think this might be the breed for you, make sure that you can provide them with:
• 60-120 minutes of exercise a day
• Mental stimulation with training and games
• Lots of interaction and bonding
Unless you are experienced and confident with training basic commands to dogs, I recommend that you join a basic obedience training class. For herding, you can also find a trainer who knows how to work with herding or join a herding group; groups and clubs can also be super fun family activities.
If it sounds like an Australian Shepherd is the right dog for your family, you will enjoy years of companionship and your children will be gifted with a friend that is like no other.
Australian Shepherds were originally from the Pyrenese Mountains (between France and Spain), bred and trained by the Basque people. Many of these shepherds travelled to Australia in the 1800s and continued to change and fine-tune the breed.
After a time, many of these Basques moved from Australia to California with their dogs. The California ranchers loved this breed and called these impressive herders “Australian Shepherds”.