When Luc Goossens and his family decided to get an Australian shepherd dog for their rural property in Hasselt, Belgium, about 20 years ago, it wasn’t an easy task finding one of the pups.
Despite the breed’s name, it’s actually an American dog, and an American breeder traveled to Belgium with a purebred puppy in hand for the Goossens. Now the family has 17 Australian shepherds that produce two litters each year.
On Wednesday, Goossens was one of 13 Belgians at the Australian Shepherd Club of America National Specialty shows and trials at the Brazos County Expo — an event that has drawn more than 1,000 Australian shepherds competing in feats of speed, accuracy, intelligence and obedience.
While this is the first year at the American competition that European branches of the ASCA were invited to show off their animals in a special pre-event performance, Goossens said he and his family have brought dogs to compete in the United States for several years in places such as New Jersey and Wisconsin.
“We try to participate every year,” he said. “We have to be selected for finals, though. My kids were selected for [junior level] finals and had to work all year earning points. … It’s always nice to meet everyone again. We all try to be a big family. The dogs are important, but the people we get to know here are even more important. We’ve made friendships we’ve had now for many, many years.”
The ASCA is celebrating 60 years of international recognition as a breed-specific society, and the National Speciality is hosted in a different American city each year. The event draws owners and breeders from the United States, as well as from Europe, Australia and Africa. Bryan serves as the ASCA’s international headquarters, and for the second time in recent history, the major competition has been hosted at the Expo.
“We were here in 2014, and we just love the facility,” ASCA president Laura Gibson said. “It’s the best facility in the whole country for our purposes. We rotate every four years and will come here again in four years. People doing this say this is the best site.”
About 1,300 black, brown, marbled grey and cream-colored Australian shepherds of varying sizes currently fill the Expo for the event, which kicked off Oct. 27 and lasts through Saturday. Though dogs can be judged by their looks and stature in what is called “conformation,” similar to the Westminster Dog Show, a majority of the programs that the dogs compete in have to do with ability. Dogs can participate in herding ducks, geese and cattle; dock jumping into water to retrieve a toy; feats of agility; obstacle course runs; and tests of obedience. By Wednesday night, much of these competitions had already come to a near-conclusion, and many dogs are now being judged at national conformation.
“Now they’re judging, looking for structure in the dogs, comparing to our standard ideal Australian shepherd,” Gibson explained, watching the dogs trot in a circle around an indoor arena Wednesday evening. “They judge the way a dog looks and the way it moves. Does the dog move like they’re supposed to? The judges watch them [walk] down and go back. What’s the bone structure under each coat?”
All shepherds must be registered full-blooded members of their breed, though Gibson pointed out not all of the animals came from breeders, stating that several are from Aussie rescue organizations. There are 318 ASCA-affiliated clubs in the world, and dog owners bring in both breeding canines and spayed/neutered competitors.
Renee Watson, an owner from Atlanta, was at the National Specialty with her 4-year-old Aussie, named Degen. Degen has a blue merle coat, with salt-and-pepper black and grey spots, brown marks in certain areas of his body, and white on his nose, mane and legs. So far, he has competed in herding of various farm animals, dock jumping, obedience and agility. He has yet to place highly, but he still has more competitions ahead, Watson noted.
Unlike the Goossens, Watson does not breed Aussies, but rather purchases and owns them two at a time. Though the breed is relatively low-maintenance, she noted, they are considered high-energy and need much exercise. She takes Degen and his younger counterpart to obedience and agility classes twice each week, and Degen also attends a herding class once a week. It’s all worth the work, though, Watson said, as Aussies are a rewarding dog to own.
“They are incredibly loyal,” she said. “They are not a ‘guard dog,’ but they are protective of their people and their surroundings.”
Watson stated that animal advocates need not worry about ASCA members mistreating their dogs or spawning “puppy mills.”
“This is a very passionate group of people who really love this breed,” she said. “The ASCA is one of few parent organizations of a breed that has stayed strong and viable… [And] for the most part this crowd is the cream of the crop in producing sound, healthy shepherds. We are very concerned about health clearances, making sure the blood line as clear as possible. This is as good as it gets for conscientious breeding.”