Breed Stories Australian Shepherds

The Plant-Based Recipe Cookbook

The Essential Guide to Raw Vegan Diets

Get Instant Access

If anything is certain about Australian shepherd origins, it is that no one knows how the name came about, and no one knows all of the kinds of dogs tied into the ancestry of these talented herders. Perhaps the surest thing is that the dogs should be called the United States western ranch dog. Not "American," but "United States." Let me explain why that matters, especially since most (but far from all) of the ancestors are probably varieties of collie types that emigrated with their people from the British Isles to the East Coast of North America from early colonial times on. The California gold rush and the aftermath of the Civil War are the keys to my regional national story. These epic events made vast swathes of the North American West into part of the United States. I don't want to inherit these violent histories, as Cayenne, Roland, and I run our agility courses and conduct our cross-species family affairs. But, like it or not, flesh-to-flesh and face-to-face, I have inherited these histories through touch with my dogs, and my obligations in the world are different because of that fact. That's why I have to tell these stories—to tease out the personal and collective response required now, not centuries ago. Companion species cannot afford evolutionary, personal, or historical amnesia. Amnesia will corrupt sign and flesh and make love petty. If I tell the story of the gold rush and the Civil War, then maybe I can also remember the other stories about the dogs and their people—stories about immigration, indigenous worlds, work, hope, love, play, and the possibility of cohabitation through reconsidering sovereignty and ecological developmental naturecultures.

Romantic-origin stories about Aussies tell of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Basque herders bringing their little blue merle dogs with them in steerage as they headed for the ranches of California and Nevada to tend the sheep of a timeless pastoral West after a sojourn of herding sheep in Australia. "In steerage" gives the game away; working-class men in steerage were in no position to bring their dogs to Australia or to California. Besides, the Basques who immigrated to Australia did not become herders; they became sugarcane workers; and they did not go to that frontier called Down Under until the twentieth century. Not necessarily shepherds before, the Basques came to California, sometimes via South America and Mexico, in the nineteenth century with the millions lusting for gold, and ended up herding sheep to feed other disappointed miners. The Basques also established popular restaurants, heavy on lamb dishes, in Nevada on what became the interstate highway system after World War II. The Basques acquired their sheep dogs from among local working herding dogs, who were a mixed lot, to say the least.2

Spanish missions favored the coercion of sheep ranching to "civilize" the Indians, but in her online history of Australian shepherds, Linda Rorem notes that by the 1840s the number of sheep in the far West had greatly declined (not to mention human reductions from the killing and dislocation of Native peoples), and the pastoral economy was depressed.3 The mission sheep were descendants of the Iberian Churra, which the Spanish valued for hardiness, fecundity, and adaptability. Originally accompanying the conquistadors for food and fiber, the Churra (called Churro by Anglos and later by Native Americans too) were the mainstay of New Spain's ranches and villages by the seventeenth century. Acquiring these sheep for themselves through both raids and trade, other Native American peoples bred them for over three hundred years for adaptation to rugged native pastoral conditions. The Churro became the famous Pueblo and Navajo sheep, whose wool was spun and woven into the Southwest

Indians' exquisite textiles. In Navajo communities, sheep are primarily owned by women, and weaving has always been women's labor. Further, hopeful projects to reintegrate twenty-first-century Navajo young people into the community by splicing the so-called modern and traditional rely on a reinvigorated, cosmopolitan Navajo-Churro sheep culture. Gender and generation grow with the fibers of a lamb's coat and muscle.

In the 1850s, thousands of Churro were herded into the West to supply the people of the gold rush. The U.S. Army slaughtered most of the Navajo flocks in the 1860s in retribution for Indian resistance to conquest and relocation to Bosque Redondo, and"improved" European sheep breeds and stock reductions were forced on the Navajo throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, in response to drought, U.S. federal government agents went hogan-to-hogan to shoot mandated percentages of sheep. In front of their human households, the agents killed every Navajo-Churro sheep they found under the mistaken belief that these tough-looking animals were especially worthless. In both experiential and scientific fact, Navajo-Churro ovines need less grass and water, thrive on less human labor, produce a higher-quality wool fiber and a meat of higher protein and less fat content than "progressive" European breeds in comparable naturalcultural conditions. Even in the early twenty-first-century, Navajo elders can narrate the details of each sheep shot. Few survived, and in the 1970s, there were only around 450 of this hardy kind of sheep in Diné Bikéyah, also known as the Navaho Nation. In the first decade of the 2000s, the kind of sheep, the people committed to them, and the traditional-modern ways of life that these companion species knit together seem to have a chance for a multispecies future in technocultural agropastoralism and its many-threaded coalitions and freedom projects.

My California historian colleagues tell me they find very little mention of herding dogs associated with Spanish missionization and Indian labor. However, at some point the Navajo did enlist the work of dogs for their sheep, mostly for protection from predators who surely came from the same motley of dogs in the West, both English and Iberian in lineage and imaginably even some preconquest dogs,4 who contributed to Australian shepherds. Never standardized into a closed breed and always open to the contributions of whatever dogs proved useful to the Navajo, these hardy, diverse dogs still labor today for the Diné, protecting their miraculously still-surviving but endangered Navajo-Churro sheep, as well as their "improved" sheep flocks. Restoration and preservation projects involving the Navajo-Churro sheep breed are now part of the biopolitics of the West and Southwest, including online and local niche-marketing of their meat and fiber, festivals crucial both to indigenous community building and to transregional tourism, rare-sheep breeding labs, written ovine breed standards and genetic databases (for example, the Navajo-Churro genetic material collections of the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation [NCGRP] in Fort Collins, Colorado), Hispano and Navajo cultural-political action and educational projects, guard llamas favored over working livestock guardian dogs, spay-neuter projects for surplus Navajo Nation dogs, and range restoration work. Started in 1977 by Lyle McNeal, an Anglo animal scientist working with the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Sheep Project aimed "to establish a breeding Navajo-Churro flock, from which livestock is returned to Navajo and Hispanic weavers and sheep raisers. Recognizing the intimate relationship between sheep, wool, weaving, land, and traditional cultures, the project seeks to support agro-pastoralism and create culturally-relevant economic support for the continuation of these cultures."5 In 1991, the Diné bí' íína' (Navajo Lifeways) registered as a nonprofit organization in Arizona. "Diné bí' íína' represents the Navajo Nation Sheep and Goat Producers, providing leadership, technical information, and economic development assistance to individuals and families and supporting traditional lifeways associated with sheep, wool, and goat producing. The organization seeks to restore status to sheep herding and to promote the education that is necessary for its pursuit in the modern world."6

This story tells me again that following the dogs (and their herbivores) cannot help but make their human traveling companions more worldly, more enmeshed in webs of history that demand response today. In my view, response should include, but not be limited to, supporting agroecological ranching; opposing factory-system meat and fiber production; working for genetic diversity and ecological restoration for many domestic and wild species; joining with indigenous economic and political struggles over land and biowealth; becoming smarter about the complex biopolitics of human class, nation, and ethnicity that are entangled with kinds as well as with institutionalized breeds of nonhuman animals; and, hardly least, taking personal and collective action for the animals' well-being in their relations with diverse contemporary people. Alerted by that minimal checklist for response, I return to the branch of the story that led to Australian shepherds and some of the responses enmeshed in telling the tale.

Discovery of gold radically and permanently changed the food economy, species assemblages, politics, human and more-than-human demographies, and naturalsocial ecology of California and other parts of the North American West.7 Large sheep flocks were transported by sailing them from the east coast around Cape Horn, driving them overland from the Midwest and New Mexico, and shipping them from that other white settler colony with a strong market-oriented pastoral economy, Australia.8 What the gold rush began, the aftermath of the Civil War finished, with the military reduction and containment of western Native Americans; consolidations of land expropriated from Mexicans, Californios, and Indians; and the vast influx of Anglo (and significant numbers of always parenthetical African American) settlers.

All of these movements of sheep also meant movements of their herding dogs. These were not the guardian dogs of the old transhumant Eurasian pastoral ecologies and economies, with their established market routes, seasonal pasturages, and local bears and wolves (who were, nonetheless, heavily depleted, especially where progress held sway). The white settler colonies in Australia and the United States adopted an even more aggressive attitude than their European forebears to nonhuman predators, building fences around most of Queensland to keep out dingoes and trapping, poisoning, and shooting anything with serious canine teeth that moved on the land in the U.S. West.9 Guardian breeds, such as Great Pyrenees and Akbash dogs, did not appear in the U.S. western sheep economy until after these eradication tactics became illegal in the queer times of effective environmental movements from the 1970s onward, when collaboration with the slightly mad white women of purebred livestock guardian dog land began to seem rational to at least some manly ranchers of both genders. But that is another story, more wolfish in nature and consequences.

The herding dogs accompanying the immigrant sheep from both the U.S. East Coast and Australia were mainly of the old working collie or shepherd types. These were strong, multipurpose dogs with a "loose eye" and upstanding working posture—rather than with a sheep trial-selected, border collie hard eye and crouch—from which several kennel-club breeds derive. Among the dogs coming to the U.S. West from Australia were the frequently merle-colored "German coulies," who look a lot like modern Australian shepherds. These were British-derived, all-purpose herding'col-lies," called German because German settlers lived in an area of Australia where these dogs were common. Dogs that look like contemporary Aussies might have acquired their name early from association with flocks arriving on boats from Down Under, whether or not they, too, came on those ships. Or, associated with later immigrant dogs, these types might have acquired the name "Australian shepherd" as late as World War I. Written records are scarce. And there wasn't a "purebred" in sight for a long time.

Identifiable lines, however, were developing in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona by the 1940s. The Australian Shepherd Club of America met for the first time in 1957 in Himmel Park, Arizona, and comprising about twenty people, the new parent club asked the National Stock Dog Registry to handle the breed. Registration was not common until the mid- to late 1970s.10 The range of types was still wide, and styles of dogs were associated with particular families and ranches. Curiously, a rodeo performer from Idaho named Jay Sisler is part of the story of molding a kind of dog into a contemporary breed, complete with its clubs and politics. He began training two smart pups, Shorty and Stub, in 1949 on an Idaho ranch, and he subsequently worked with several other Aussies and with a high-jumping greyhound. For over twenty years, Sisler's "blue dogs" performed for his popular rodeo trick show.11 Although many of his dogs are behind Australian shepherd pedigrees, he was proud of never owning a registered dog. He knew the parents of most of these dogs, but that is as deep as genealogy went in the beginning. Sisler obtained his dogs from various ranchers, several of whose Aussies became foundation stock of the breed. Among the identified 1,371 dogs out of 2,046 ancestors in my Cayenne's ten-generation pedigree, I count seven Sisler dogs in her family. (Many with names such as "Redding Ranch Dog" and "Blue Dog," 6,170 out of over 1 million ancestors are known in her twenty-generation tree; that leaves a few gaps. Most of the really early Aussies were never registered.)

An accomplished trainer of the type Vicki Hearne would have loved,12 Sisler considered Keno, whom he acquired around 1945, to be his first really good dog. Keno contributed offspring to what became the breed, but the Sisler dog who made the biggest impact (percentage ancestry) to the current population of Aussies was John, a dog with unknown antecedents who wandered one day onto the Sisler ranch and into written pedigrees. There are many such stories of foundation dogs. They could all be microcosms for thinking about companion species and the invention of tradition in the flesh as well as in the text.

The Aussie parent club, ASCA, wrote a preliminary standard in 1961 and a firm one in 1977 and got its own breed club registry going in 1971. Organized in 1969, the ASCA Stock Dog Committee organized herding trials and titles, and working ranch dogs began their considerable reeducation for the trial ring.13 Conformation competitions and other events became popular, and sizable numbers of Aussie people saw AKC

Jay Sisler and some of his rodeo performing canine partners.

affiliation as the next step. Other Aussie people saw AKC recognition as the road to perdition for any working breed. The pro-AKC people broke away to found their own club, the United States Australian Shepherd Association (USASA), which was given full AKC recognition in 1993.

All of the biosocial apparatus of modern breeds emerged, including savvy lay health and genetics activists; scientists researching gene-linked illnesses common in the breed and establishing companies to market resultant vet biomedical products; scientists and entrepreneurs engaged in comparative genomics, postgenomics, and stem cell research hinged on the published complete DNA sequences of a growing array of taxonomic species as well as of entities such as distinct breeds of dogs; Aussie-themed small businesses; performers passionate about the dogs in agility, flyball, obedience, and dancing; both suburban weekend and rural ranching stock dog trialers; search and rescue workers, both dogs and humans; therapy dogs and their people; termite-detection businesses employing Aussies as sniffer dogs; breeders committed to maintaining the versatile and diverse herding dogs they inherited; other breeders enamored of big-coated, gorgeous show dogs with untested herding talent; puppy millers

Beret's Dogon Grit winning High in Sheep at the 2002 Australian Shepherd Club of America National Stock Dog Finals in Bakersfield, California. Courtesy of Glo Photo and Gayle Oxford.

cashing in on a popular breed no matter the suffering of their reproducing dog "stock" or their offspring; abundant backyard breeders despised by all of the above but self-justified by the fantasy (and sometimes reality) of their children witnessing the "miracle of birth" just once; and much more.

Cayenne's breeders, Gayle and Shannon Oxford in California's Central Valley, are active in both the USASA and ASCA. Committed to breeding and training working stock dogs and also showing in conformation and agility, the Oxfords taught me about "the versatile Aussie," a discourse that I see as analogous to the Great Pyrenees people's 'dual purpose" or "whole dog." These idioms work to prevent the splitting up of breeds into ever more isolated gene pools, each dedicated to a specialist's limited goal, whether that be sports, beauty, or something else. The bedrock test of an Australian shepherd, however, remains the ability to herd with consummate skill. If "versatility" does not start there, the working breed will not survive.

That fact concentrates my question about how to inherit the history of touch with these dogs and so how to shape becoming with them in a potentially less violent future. The working dogs are the means and offspring of colonial conquest, the international meat and fiber animal trade, U.S. western ranch economies and ecologies, Native American resistance to the U.S. Army, and sports and entertainment cultures. The nonwork-ing dogs are the offspring of class, race, and gender formations that are rooted in the conformation show world and affectional pet culture.14 Further, no one can live with a herding (or hunting) dog seriously and remain above the debates about their working partners, the domestic and wild meat- and fiber-producing herbivores. Living in response to these histories is not about guilt and its resultant exterminationist nonsolutions, such as shutting down all stock ranching, encouraging only vegan diets, and working against the deliberate breeding of herding, pet, and show dogs.

I believe that ethical veganism, for example, enacts a necessary truth, as well as bears crucial witness to the extremity of the brutality in our "normal" relations with other animals.15 However, I also am also convinced that multispecies coflourishing requires simultaneous, contradictory truths if we take seriously not the command that grounds human exceptionalism, "Thou shalt not kill," but rather the command that makes us face nurturing and killing as an inescapable part of mortal companion species entanglements, namely, "Thou shalt not make killable." There is no category that makes killing innocent; there is no category or strategy that removes one from killing. Killing sentient animals is killing someone, not something; knowing this is not the end but the beginning of serious accountability inside worldly complexities. Facing up to the outrage of human exceptionalism will, in my view, require severely reducing human demands on the more-than-human world and also radically reducing the number of human beings (not by murder, genocide, racism, war, neglect, disease, and starvation—all means that the daily news shows to be common as sand grains on the beach).

Facing up to the outrage of human exceptionalism also requires working for the mortal entanglements of human beings and other organisms in ways that one judges, without guarantees, to be good, that is, to deserve a future. From the point of view of situated histories in the United States, I have proposed modern agropastoralism connected to indigenous as well as other struggles, and also embedded in technoculture, as something I find good, that is, requiring response, feeling, and work. Except as museum, rescue, or novelty heritage critters, most kinds (and individuals) of domestic animals and their ways of living and dying with people would disappear unless this hard matter is approached without moral absolutes. I find that disappearance to be as unacceptable as human murder, genocide, racism, and war. Moral absolutes contribute to what I mean by ex-terminism. Faced with hard origin stories and irreducible entanglement, we should not go postal, wiping out the source of our well-earned disease, but instead deepen responsibility to get on together without the dream of past, present, or future peace.

That is part of what the philosopher Isabelle Stengers means by cosmopolitics. Forbidding both the dream (and nightmare) of a final solution and also the fantasy of transparent and innocent communication, cosmopolitics is a practice for going on, for remaining exposed to consequences, for entangling materially with as many of the messy players as possible.16 Unwilling to denounce the present world in favor of an ideal world, the dog people I admire are those who act in companion-species webs with complexity, care, and curiosity. To explore further this kind of examined life, I will tell a story about one remarkable dog woman who began in the conformation culture of the show Aussies but who serves the whole dogland community through her health and genetics knowledge and activism.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
25 of Grandpas Top Tips

25 of Grandpas Top Tips

Everything from making a Camp Stove that you can Carry in Your Pocket and a Magical Fish Bait Formula to Get the Big Ones! through to How to Make an Emergency Clothes Brush.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment