Origins of the Australian Cattle Dog

The Current HISTORY of the Australian Cattle Dog

The history of the Australian Cattle Dog is as long and varied as the history of Australia itself and controversy that surrounds this history will be subject to debate for years to come as there were few written records.

Many years prior to European settlement on this vast island continent lived a wolflike dog that was known to the aboriginal population as "Warrigal" or Dingo.

These dogs were primarily red in colour with a few that were white or black and tan. They also carried a white tail tip and usually had white feet. These dogs were taken from their mothers even before they were able to see and were hand rared by the aborigines to produce a relatively tame dog that was taught to hunt and track.

In the early 1800's, the first settlers, having limited availability of labour to control the large herds of cattle that grazed on unfenced properties and rugged bushland, set about to create a breed of dog to assist in mustering and moving wild cattle. The principal requirement of this breed of dog was that it be strong, possess great stamina, and be able to bite. Initially, the cattlemen used a bob-tailed dog known as "Smithfields". They were big rough coated, square bodied dogs, with flat, wedge shaped heads, saddle flap ears and bob tails. Black in colour, with white markings around the neck extending down the front. They were faithful, hardy and sensible, but like all bob tailed dogs had an awkward cumbersome gait, were slow on their feet, unable to cope with the heat, severe biters and barked too much. As the colony opened up and the herds increased, the need for a more active dog, with less voice, became pressing.

In about 1830 a drover named Timmins from the Hawkesbury River approximately 60 miles north of Sydney, drove cattle down from Bathurst over the Blue Mountains to the Homebush Saleyards in Sydney. Timmins conceived the idea of crossing his dogs with the red native dog to produce the animal required and thus originated the red bob tail or "Timmins Biters" as they were commonly called. Dogs of  this cross were a great improvement on the Smithfield. They were very active and almost silent. Unfortunately they possessed one very bad fault. If they got out of the drover's sight they would chew the calf or beast nearly to pieces, the Dingo instinct coming to the fore when out of control. After a time, most of them died out and the rough haired collie was tried next. They were except in a small number of cases also a failure, as they tried to work the cattle as if they were sheep, rushing to the head and barking. This action made the cattle wild, and was particularly bad for fat cattle as they would break and rush in all directions with such a dog and therefore lose all their condition. A cross of the Rough Collie and Russian Poodle was tried next. Even today a few survivors may still be seen in old country towns. A blue, rusty, brown or black dog with a coat like that of an Otterhound. They were very severe dogs, biting anywhere from head to tail, and the long coat made it particularly unsuitable for our harsh summer conditions. They soon died out. Crosses of the Bull Terrier and Collie were tried but they proved to be too slow, too heavy and too severe on the stock. In places where the cattle were very fierce, crosses of Bull Terrier and Kangaroo Dog were also tried. They were very good for catching and throwing outlaws, but useless for quiet cattle, so they died out too.

In 1840, a landowner by the name of Thomas Hall, living on "Dartbrook" at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, approximately 150 miles north west of Sydney imported two smooth-haired blue merle Highland Collies (called at that time by the ignorant people Welsh Heelers) from Scotland. Although these were considerably better than the common collie, they proved to be less suitable for work with fractious cattle in the new, hostile and unaccustomed environment as they displayed some of the heading traits that were undesirable. Therefore, Hall experimented with native Dingo blood infusions; with the resulting litters becoming known as "Hall's Heelers". As the Dingo trait is to creep silently from behind and bite, the pups followed this style of heeling, nipping at the fetlocks of the stragglers until they rejoined the herd. Immediately the cattle dog nipped it would flatten itself against the ground to avoid any kick a stubborn bovine might suddenly lash out. This dog was welcomed by grazier and drover alike for their ability to handle wild cattle, their stamina to travel great distances over all types of terrain, and their endurance in extremes of temperature. The physical appearance of the progeny closely resembled small, thickset Dingos, with their heads tending to be rather broad of skull, bluntly wedge shaped, with brown glinty eyes and pricked ears. The colour being either red or blue merle. Hall continued his experimental breeding until his death in 1870.

Word of Hall's new and superior Cattle Dog variety soon became widespread. Demand for the young stock spread rapidly thoughout New South Wales, eventually reaching Northern Queensland. Around this time another landowner, George Elliot of Queensland was experimenting with the crossing of the Dingo and Collie, producing some excellent workers. He entered into his diary on the 12th of February 1873 that his two month old quarter Dingo worked so silently on cattle, he called her "Munya", which is aboriginal for silent.

In the early 1870's these cattle dogs found their way to the Sydney markets and it was here that some breeders decided to refine Hall's Heelers. A butcher named Fred Davis was the first to proudly displayed the ability of a pair of Hall's Heelers at the cattle saleyards in Sydney. Two brothers, Jack and Harry Bagust of Canterbury in Sydney, were among several cattlemen to purchase pups from Davis. Kaleski writes, "Then a blue dog came on the field, called Bentley's dog, who was crossed through these dogs, and from whom all the latter day blue dogs of any note claim their descent. He was owned by a butcher working on Glebe Island, called Tom Bentley, and was a marvel for work and appearance. Although his pedigree was never set out, we know beyond doubt that he was one of the pure Hall strain. From this on selected bitches, Messers Jack and Harry Bagust, C Pettie, J Brennan, A Davis (Fred Davis's son who was my partner in the blue dogs for years) many other breeders and myself made a start breeding the blue dogs. About 15 years ago we had them practically perfect".

The Dalmatian was introduced to improve the breed's rapport with horses, which was a fundamental requirement to satisfactory station and property work. The infusion of the Dalmatian changed the merle colour to red or blue speckle. As with Dalmatians, the pups are born white, developing their colour gradually from approximately three weeks of age. As much as the Dalmatian influence improved the dog's relationship to both horse and man, unfortunately, some of the working ability was lost with this cross, so, the Bagust brothers, after admiring the working ability of the Black and Tan Kelpie, opted to introduce this cross with their speckled dogs, thus obtaining a line of compact, highly intelligent, active, controllable workers, similar in type and construction to the Dingo,  but chunkier of build with unique colouring and peculiar markings known to no other dog. The blue variety had black eye patches, black ears and brown eyes and all featured a small star in the centre of the forehead region known as the "Bentley Star"  due to the influence of Tom Bentley's dog, with the body colour being dark blue, often with a black saddle and tan markings on legs, chest and head. The red variety displayed dark red markings in place of the black on an even speckled base.

In 1893, Mr. Robert Kaleski, an avid canine enthusiast and journalist of the day took particular interest in this breed, and started showing the breed in 1897. His involvement proved of great assistance in fixing type and colour for he soon realised that there was no check on the judge giving the award in any way he fancied. In Kaleski's own words: "My partner and I showed a practically perfect Blue Cattle Dog by the name of Spot at one big show who was passed over for a lop-eared mongrel worth about five shillings. Alex showed Spot at the RAS afterwards and was credited champion with him in a big class.

I realised then that it was no use breeding good dogs true to type if this sort of thing went on, so I set to work to draw up a standard by which dogs could be judged and by which the judge was compelled to abide". Kaleski developing and stabilising the standard and it was endorsed initially by the Cattle and Sheepdog Club of Australia, then the Kennel Club of New South Wales in 1903. He also drew up the standard for the Kelpie and Barb. 

Kaleski's standard has been expanded over the years, but the essence of it is still very much a part of the official standard approved and adopted by the Australian National Kennel Council in 1963. Coincidental with the writing of Kaleski's standard, the breed's name became official as the Australian Cattle Dog, commonly known as the Blue Heeler, the Australian Heeler, or the Queensland Blue. From these unique beginnings the Australian Cattle Dog has developed into one of the most popular breeds of dog in Australia today.