About Expression

by Nannette Newbury © 2002 AKC Breed Column

General Appearance…He is attentive and animated.
Head…Expression----Showing attentiveness and intelligence, alert and eager. Gaze should be keen but friendly…

Australian Shepherd Breed Standard

While the Australian Shepherd is primarily a movement breed demanding the stamina to work a full day, one of the many breed characteristics is the breed’s ability to be expressive, utilizing not only their ears and eyes, but also their entire bodies. When working an Aussie on stock, the breed’s original purpose and function, this ability to be highly expressive is an incredible communication tool for the dog’s human counterpart, indicating a myriad of information to the herdsman about the stock. The Australian Shepherd’s popularity and success in all modern performance events is no accident and due in part to the breed’s capability of independent thinking and expression. Both traits, which combined with the breed’s willingness to work, make for some pretty incredible and successful teamwork.

The subject of expression however becomes a little more difficult to interpret and recognize in the breed ring. While no one could argue that the dog’s original purpose and function as a dog of strong herding and protection instincts are difficult to judge in the ring, movement is not. The Australian Shepherd is also highly intelligent, sensitive to their surroundings, expressive and loyal. How then can these additional breed characteristics be found in the breed ring?

The Australian Shepherd uses its eyes, ears, mouth, teeth, body and tail to indicate expression. For a bobtail breed you may find the use of the word “tail” here a misnomer. While having no tail, the Australian Shepherd is adept at wagging the “tail-end” of their bodies. This movement can range from a gentle wiggle of the rear, to a unique wagging where the dog actually moves into a u-shape with their tail up to their heads! Judges may see this in the breed ring, especially with young, unseasoned specimens. Many fanciers use the term “wiggle-butt” to describe this aspect of the breed.

While examining the head the judge can determine expression of the eyes and ears. You should be looking for a keen look, intelligence, and attentiveness. But the breed may not give you, the judge, this look. This loyal breed reserves many of these qualities for their owners and/or handlers. Some judges use a squeaky toy or jingle coins in the pocket to get the attention of the Aussie to look for expression. Judges appear disappointed when the dog does not “respond” to them or even waver their attention from the handler and may even make placements based on the animal’s lack of response to their stimulation. This is not a breed that should be judged with squeaky toys or artificial sounds. Make no mistake about it, the dog is aware of outside sounds. The Aussie is however exhibiting breed type by remaining aware of its handler and while recognizing the outside noise, processing it and choosing to ignore it or glance momentarily in the direction of the noise. This lack of response or expression for the judge should not be faulted in the breed ring. It becomes the primary responsibility of the handler to ensure that the judge is able to recognize expression in their individual dog.

While not as common perhaps in the breed ring, many Australian Shepherds expressively “grin.” This grin can range from a slight curling of the lips to completely rolling up the mouth exposing the teeth as in a snarl. Sometimes the eyes will squint when the dog grins. This use of the grin is generally accompanied with the wiggling of the rear end and can be distinguished from an actual snarl by judges familiar with the breed. A judge is most likely to see a grin when they approach the dog from the front to examine the head or place the their hands on the dog for examination.

Even more rare perhaps in the breed ring, another expression used by the Australian Shepherd is a snapping or clicking of their teeth when happy, excited or wanting to gain your attention. This is a playful breed that will easily use their noses under your hand to flip your hand in the air, asking for your touch. The Australian Shepherd is extremely adept at using their front paws for play and to get your attention. They can be extremely physical in their play with other Australian Shepherds. While you may not experience any of these expressions of the breed in the ring, more than likely you will.

While primarily quiet working dogs, the Australian Shepherd can be quite vocally expressive during play with people or other dogs. The vocals exhibited by this breed can range from a slight low growling sound to a high-pitched yip or yapping sound that can hurt your ears with its shrillness.

The remaining breed trait regarding expression that comes into play when judging the Australian Shepherd is that the breed can be reserved with strangers. This does not mean shy. A judge has the ability to determine shyness from reserved. The Australian Shepherd will become less reserved with strangers or a judge over time as they become familiar with the new person, but this may not happen in the short period of time allotted to the breed ring. A dog that is reserved with a judge should not be faulted. All other aspects being equal, a reserved animal should not be placed lower than a dog that is perhaps more interactive with a judge. This breed can be fun to judge, but the nuances and range of expressions within the breed can easily be misinterpreted in the breed ring.