The Australian shepherd is a globally loved dog breed, admired for its sharp wits, bubbly personality, enthusiastic butt wiggles, and of course, incomparable herding abilities.
Now, this famed breed is available in a bite-sized package.
See the overview below to learn more about the “toy” Australian shepherd and how it came to be.
What Is a “Toy” Australian Shepherd?
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like if your dog remained a puppy forever?
Although it’s impossible, some breeders found a way to make it seem like that’s the case.
“Toy” breeds are essentially miniature versions of official dog breeds, usually those with medium or large body sizes.
Take the toy Australian shepherd, for example.
This breed is essentially a miniature Aussie.
As you might expect, getting a 50-65 lbs, 18-23″-tall pup down to 40 lbs and 18″ tall maximum takes extensive selective breeding.
The breeding practices changed the genetic lines so much that the American Kennel Club (AKC) no longer recognizes the toy or mini Aussie as an authentic Australian shepherd.
Instead, they’re now known as variants of the “Miniature American Shepherd.”
Here are the most important things you need to know about this little canine.
Miniature vs. Toy vs. Teacup Australian Shepherd
Admittedly, it can be a bit confusing to decipher between all the different Aussie breed sizes.
Part of the reason for the perplexion is the loose manner in which people in the canine community use these terms.
Many people use the names “miniature Australian shepherd” and “toy Australian shepherd” interchangeably.
In fact, many organizations list the two names as alternatives for a single breed.
The best way to remember the difference is to know that toy breeds are just one step up from teacup types. (Yes, teacup Australian shepherds do exist.)
Essentially, the toy breed is a mini-mini version of the original dog.
They weigh roughly half the size of their miniature Aussie relatives but share many of the same outward physical attributes, such as color and body shape.
It’s easy to distinguish toy Aussies from teacups since the latter is meant to be “tiny” in the truest sense for these canine companions.
The teacup category is generally reserved for dogs that weigh less than five pounds.
Their sheer size will clue you into the difference straight away.
Keep in mind that the AKC does not recognize an official teacup Australian shepherd breed, nor do they endorse the breeding of these types of dogs.
Read on for more about the toy Aussie and how it differs from the miniature variant.
Toy Aussies: The Basics
The Australian toy shepherd is a compact little pup.
It’s got a robust, stout body with relatively short legs and a short tail as well.
Like the standard Aussie, their coats are long and luscious.
The most common colors are black, red, and blue or red merle.
You might also see toy Aussies with tricolor coats.
This means that they have relatively evenly-sized patches of white, brown, and black. (The “irregularly shaped” patches distinguish merle coats.)
The white is usually restricted to the legs, feet, and maybe the chest.
There might also be a white stripe down the middle of the face, extending on top of or around the muzzle.
The dog will usually have brown “eyebrows” (spots above the eyes) and brown patches on the hind legs and the sides of the muzzle.
As mentioned above, they weigh 25 lbs less than the standard and miniature Australian shepherd’s maximum size.
Like most dog breeds, the males and females differ in size and weight.
However, the exact numbers depend on what you refer to as a “toy” Aussie and a mini Aussie.
Regarding miniature Australian shepherds, the boys typically reach 14-18″ in height, while the girls stand between 13″ to 17″ tall.
There is generally no difference in their weights.
Both male and female mini Aussies weigh 20-40 lbs.
On the other hand, the generally accepted breed standard for the toy Australian shepherd is 12-17 lbs and 10-14″ tall.
Since this isn’t recognized as an official breed by the AKC, as mentioned above – not even as an official member of the miniature American shepherd breed – these standards are independently upheld by breeders and not necessarily an authoritative organization.
Toy Australian Shepherd Energy and Temperament
Toy Australian shepherds are great additions to lively families, especially those who engage in outdoor activities frequently.
These pups are little balls of energy!
They certainly should be, considering that they’re a part of the AKC Herding Group.
This category was formed in 1983 after being separated from the Working Group.
The AKC describes herding breeds as having an “instinctual ability to control the movement of other animals.”
As herding dogs, they are naturally inclined to have high energy levels, which drives their strong enthusiasm for learning.
Their quickness to train is also supported by their impressive intelligence levels, another trait many herding dogs share.
If you don’t have a flock of sheep for your pup to chase, make sure to take it on several walks a day or go for a long jog.
Otherwise, it may get frustrated with inactivity and may even start to “herd” you and its other human companions!
What Is a Merle Coat on a Toy Aussie?
“Merle” coats have splotches or specks of the “blue” or “red” color.
Red coats often have shades of brown incorporated into the coat as well, with most of the hair being white.
Many merle coats will have grey spots, too.
Grey patches would be more common for the blue toy Aussies, as “blue” typically means various light shades of grey in the canine community.
Similarly, the term “red,” when discussing dog coat colors, doesn’t refer to the bright hue bricks are often adorned with.
Rather, dog owners describing red canines usually mean a light brownish-orange color.
The genetic inheritance of a merle coat is surprisingly complicated.
The gene also affects the eyes’ shade in addition to hair color.
Most merle Aussies, toy or otherwise, have fully or partially blue eyes.
These are some of the most beloved features that toy Australian shepherds retain from their ancestor breed.
Although merle coats can occur in other breeds, Aussies are undeniably well-known for it.
This coat pattern arises from a “mode of inheritance” – meaning how a genetic trait is passed from parent to offspring – known as “incomplete dominance.”
In most cases, an Aussie with a merle coat will have many patches with varying intensities of color.
For instance, one spot will be darker than another, but they’ll be the same hue.
However, dogs might also display “phantom” or “ghost merle” coats too.
This just means that the merle pattern is “diluted” or barely visible on their coat.
According to geneticist Leigh Anne Clark, breeders should be careful about reproducing with ghost merles (officially known as “cryptic” merles).
She says, “If a cryptic merle is mated with another merle, one in four of the puppies will be a double merle and at risk for deafness and blindness.”
These deformities are especially likely for “double merle” dogs, meaning they have two copies of a merle gene variant.
These pups often have issues affecting the following organ systems:
For this reason, experts recommend against breeding two merle dogs, as these disorders could be enhanced in their offspring.
Toy Australian Shepherd Lifespan
The average toy Australian shepherd will live 12-13 years.
This is quite a long time for a dog, so be sure that you’re ready to commit to supporting and caring for your pup for a while.
Still, as you might assume, a dog’s lifespan is not a guarantee.
It may have more or fewer years with you, depending on your lifestyle, the dog’s diet, illnesses, and more.
Further, you’ll have a bit more to consider in terms of health and longevity than people with standard dog breeds.
Toy breeds can often be more vulnerable to sickness and disorders due to the extensive genetic manipulation required to produce desirable lines from the original breed.
Here are the most significant breed-specific illnesses for Australian shepherds and the most notable concerns for toy Aussies to prepare you for your pup’s potential veterinary needs.
History of the Toy Australian Shepherd
The toy Aussie shares a history with its predecessor, the standard breed.
Unlike most breeds named after their country of origin, the Australian Shepherd’s existence has little to do with its namesake at all.
Instead, this breed is entirely American and was developed in several states, including:
No one truly knows why the breed was named after Australia.
Additionally, historical records aren’t entirely clear on the specific breeds that led to this dog’s creation.
Still, experts have taken some well-informed guesses on what could have been the genesis of this beloved canine companion.
Presently, the consensus is that the Australian shepherd arose in the 1500s, bred by Spanish Conquistadors who erected some of the first adobe missions in what is now the United States.
Early records only contain vague statements about the dog’s presence, describing a “wolf-like” canine with yellow, black, and tan coloring.
Its behavior seemed to be more of a livestock guardian than a dedicated herder.
Jumping to the mid-1800s, around the time of the California Gold Rush, the need for sheep herds exploded along with the need for herding dogs.
A similar surge occurred after the Civil War, too.
During this time, there was an influx of British sheepdogs, many of them with tricolor, merle, and black or tan coats mixed with white.
They also lacked a tail or had only a short one, about half the size of a normal tail.
Then came the “little blue dogs” from Australia with even more sheep.
The breed could have earned its name from the fact that the original dogs, which, at the time, were not seen as an official breed, came with German-bred Merinos from Australia.
Americans merely noted that they arrived from “down under,” and the name “Australian shepherd” stuck.
Still, the dogs were descended from British lines and are suspected to be a mixture of several breeds.
It wasn’t until 1957 that the Australian shepherd was officially named a bona fide breed.
This paved the way for its two mini-me’s, the most recent of which is the toy variant.
When Did the Toy Australian Shepherd Come About?
The toy Australian shepherd came into existence many years after the introduction of the miniature kind, which arose in the 1960s, shortly after the AKC accepted the standard type.
They were particularly popular at rodeos, and their small size made them perfect for traveling with their human companions to and from each new event.
It’s not exactly clear when breeders developed the toy Aussie after that.
There wasn’t one specific period in which this community banded together to create bite-sized versions of the world’s favorite dogs.
Many toy breeds are ancient and are much older than the original Aussie itself.
The timeline from mini to toy Aussies is best perceived as a continuum rather than separated by definite starting and ending points.
Why Toy Breeds are Controversial
The development of toy breeds is a hot-button topic, much like the continued breeding of brachycephalic dogs (those with seemingly “pushed-in” faces).
Part of the reason for this is that, as the breed standards grow more unnatural yet more specific (i.e., restricting the body weight and dimensions), the gene pool is further limited.
This predisposes the dog to many physiological weaknesses, making them more likely to develop and succumb to various illnesses.
Another reason why the toy Australian shepherd might specifically be controversial is that it’s a type of “designer” breed.
This means that it was not bred for practical purposes but for companionship and aesthetics.
In other words, there’s no real reason to shrink a perfectly fine Australian shepherd into a 12-lb pup.
To some, this means breeders are potentially exposing their dogs to poorer health for the sake of having a cute dog.
Of course, this isn’t the case for all breeders, as many are very careful and attentive in how they cultivate their genetic lines.
Great care can be taken to develop these dogs, and it is not always done in vain.
Plus, a toy Australian shepherd can be perfect for families who can’t quite accommodate a medium-sized dog but desire the energy level, loyalty, and intelligence an Aussie offers.
Further, the smaller dog is much more manageable for elderly folks and those with limited mobility due to physical disabilities.
There are many reasons why toy Australian shepherds can be beneficial to prospective dog owners.
You just have to be mindful of the breeder you’re working with and get your dog veterinary care as early and often as possible.
How to Care for Your Toy Aussie
The most important thing you must do when caring for an Australian shepherd is to provide plenty of exercise opportunities daily.
As mentioned previously, this is a high-energy breed that needs several walks each day and even regular engagement in a sport, such as dock diving or herding competitions, if you can manage it.
It’s best to provide lots of mental stimulation as well, given their high intelligence level.
Smart dogs will grow frustrated if they are not cognitively challenged.
Simple training exercises in obedience or tricks will do just fine.
Since a toy Aussie only weighs about 17 lbs maximum, it may be able to adapt to apartment life.
However, you must be vigilant about giving your dog time outside since an enclosed yard is ideal for these pups.
You’ll also need to be prepared to groom that beautiful coat.
They can shed quite extensively, so your dog will appreciate a bit of help dislodging that loose hair with regular brushing.
Any frequency from daily to weekly touch-ups is suitable.
You will need to get the coat trimmed now and then, but avoid shaving the coat.
This harms the dog’s natural ability to insulate itself and may cause long-term damage.
Finally, the amount of food you feed your toy Aussie will vary, depending on the formula and feeding schedule.
Generally, given this breed’s maximum weight, you’ll want to feed it less than 25 g of protein and less than 14 g of fat per day, as this is the standard for adult dogs weighing an average of 33 lbs.
What Diseases are Common in Australian Shepherds?
As mentioned above, one thing you must pay careful attention to when you adopt a toy Australian Shepherd is the potential for merle-related health effects.
These issues normally affect the eyes and ears.
Dogs that inherit the double merle condition will develop their eyes abnormally, which can lead to blindness.
On the other hand, the loss of hearing is due to missing pigment in the inner ear.
Merle toy Aussies with white spots around the ears are more likely to have this type of deafness.
It can affect an Australian shepherd whether it has double merle or a single merle gene.
Toy Australian shepherds may have sensitive skin, too.
Normally, they have pink skin underneath the white patches of hair.
Because this skin is so light, it’s vulnerable to damage from excessive UV exposure.
Keep in mind that this skin might not always be under white hair – mini Aussies also have spots of pink on their nose and on the eye rims, too.
You don’t necessarily need to be too well-versed in standard Australian shepherds’ health conditions since these and toy Aussies are not the same breed.
However, it is useful to be aware of the basics since the standard Aussie is the genetic foundation for your tiny pup.
The most notable health issues to be aware of for Australian shepherds include those described below.
Aussies are susceptible to several types of autoimmune disorders.
The most common is thyroid disease, also known as autoimmune thyroiditis.
This condition is relatively cheap and easy to treat.
Plus, the symptoms aren’t too severe.
Typically, affected dogs struggle with weight gain, skin issues, and coldness.
This kind of cancer affects the dog’s blood vessels and normally starts in the spleen, heart, or skin.
It can spread very quickly since it travels through the cardiovascular system.
Sadly, the prognosis is often poor for this condition.
This affects the white blood cells and is most often found in any of the organs listed below:
- Lymph nodes (these are important for immune functioning)
- Spleen (this plays a part in immunity, too, essentially “cleaning” the blood)
- Bone marrow
- Gastric system
- Thymus gland (this gland makes white blood cells)
Dogs with this type of cancer suffer from lethargy and may even lose weight to the point of becoming anorexic.
It might also have swelling in the legs or the face.
This is the most widespread eye disease in Australian shepherds.
Interestingly though, cataracts can arise from causes apart from genetic inheritance.
For example, an Aussie might develop cataracts from falling ill, as a side effect of an injury, or dietary problems.
The trick to recognizing hereditary cataracts is to remember that the inherited trait is bilateral.
This means both eyes will be affected.
Still, whether it affects one or two eyes, the cataract will cause gradual vision loss.
Elbow Dysplasia (ED)
This term refers to a collection of closely related physical defects, including:
- Fragmented medial coronoid process (FCP): This means that part of the dog’s ulna is separated from the bone underneath it. It’s the most common type of ED.
- Ununited anconeal process (UAP): This can arise when the dog is 4-5 months old or due to injury. UAP is characterized by the ulna (one of the arm bones) to detach partially or completely.
- Osteochondritis desicans (OCD): Sixty percent of Aussies with FCP also have this condition. Those affected have a spot of cartilage that cannot mature, causing it to separate from the tissue beneath it.
Dogs with ED have a higher risk of developing hip dysplasia.
The disorder is more likely to be inherited than developed due to environmental factors.
Still, things like frequent physical activity, dietary choices, and spaying or neutering can exacerbate hip dysplasia’s chances of developing.
Dogs don’t always show signs, but they may be severely affected, even in youth.
There are numerous causes and triggers of epilepsy and the seizures related to the condition.
Anything from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) to an imbalance in the body’s chemical composition can lead a dog to develop this condition.
This is the most common neurological disorder in all dogs, but Aussies have it more than other breeds.
Drug Sensitivity Related to MDR1
Multi-drug resistance 1, or MDR1, can cause a dog to develop sensitivities to specific medications.
In more severe cases, it can also lead to serious neurological problems and even potentially be fatal.
Estimates show that approximately half of all Australian shepherds have at least one copy of this mutation.
Ivermectin, acepromazine, and Imodium are all drugs to avoid.
Health Concerns for Toy Breeds
Since toy Aussies were bred from mini Australian shepherds as well, the health effects could be compounded.
Mini Australian shepherds are also likely to develop hip dysplasia, but there are a few more eye disorders to know about.
- Iris coloboma: Experts say that this could be the most widespread eye disorder in mini Aussies, meaning it can be just as prevalent in the toy breed. With this condition, the dog’s iris doesn’t form correctly, resulting in a “hole” that lets excess light into the eye.
- Collie eye anomaly: Fortunately, this condition is relatively uncommon in Aussies. It’s marked by the lack of a tapetum, which is the part of the eyeball that supports night vision and protects the retina from glare. The retina might also lack pigment, and blood vessels might develop and spread unusually.
- Persistent pupillary membrane: The pupillary membrane is a layer of cells covering the eye’s front surface when the dog is a fetus. Normally, the membrane fades away before its birth. This condition causes the layer to stay after the dog is born, leading to cataracts and other related issues.
- Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA): There are two variations of this disease, centralized and generalized. Both are genetically inherited and affect the retina. However, the generalized type affects how well your dog can see at night, whereas centralized PRA can cost your dog its central vision, ultimately causing blindness.
Again, there’s no guarantee that your toy Aussie will experience any of these issues.
After all, it’s an entirely separate breed from the standard and miniature types.
However, since the toy breed was created from those two gene pools, many breed-specific illnesses were carried over.
If you’re buying from a breeder, it’s best to ask for the parent dogs’ medical records as proof of a healthy family line.
Visiting the breeding facility is also a good idea.
An in-person look at the place will help you ensure that there are no significant health or safety hazards where your pup is growing up.
Toy Australian shepherds are an adorable little package of fun and joy, full of Aussie spunk with less than half the body size to go with it.
Although there are health concerns to be aware of, these dogs can make the perfect companions for those who want a high-energy dog without the risks that come with a medium or large body size.
Be mindful about the risks when you reach out to a breeder and ensure you check the line’s medical history to ensure your toy Aussie is as healthy as can be when it comes home.