We recently spent some time in Memphis, visiting my brother and his wife, which meant six days of dog deprivation. Rhiannon and Gael went off to the kennel, which is harder on me than on them, I think. Greg and Ellen had just lost their Airedale, Ripley, the week before, so we were visiting a dogless home. I did see a couple of dogs at a distance, but none close enough to pet.
So, Monday, at the Memphis airport, I was delighted to see a small service dog, and even more delighted when we sat close to owner and dog while waiting for our flight. I asked if I might pet the dog, an adorable blue merle. I thought it might be a Pyrenean Shepherd, but I'm not very familiar with that breed, and wasn't sure if merle was an allowed color. I asked the owner what kind of dog it was, and she said it was a miniature Australian Shepherd, another breed that I barely knew existed.
It was great getting to pet the dog and chat about the breed, and it made me want to do some research when I got home. For starters, the Pyrenean shepherd really doesn't look much like a miniature Australian Shepherd, except for being about the same size, and coming in a variety of colors, including merles.
Next was the discovery that, with the miniature Australian Shepherd, the same dog seems to be classified in two different ways. This happens more often than you might imagine in the world of purebred dogs. First, there's the Miniature Australian Shepherd Club of America Inc., which is the parent club and registry for the "Australian Shepherd of the miniature variety." To quote from their website, "the mini Aussie remains a size variety of the Australian Shepherd, with a continuous gene pool. The dogs will not become a separate breed" Further, these small dogs, if registered with the American Kennel Club, are registered as an Australian Shepherd.
At the AKC website, I found the Miniature American Shepherd in the miscellaneous class. The AKC description does not reference Australian shepherds at all, just saying, "The Miniature American Shepherd is a small size herding dog that originated in the United States."
There are many similarities between the standard for the Miniature American Shepherd and the Australian Shepherd and the Internet photos for both the miniature Australian Shepherd and the Miniature American Shepherd are identical.
I don't know this breed (or breeds) well enough to know why the miniature Australian Shepherd club doesn't want to be part of the AKC family. Many times, there is a fear that once a dog is recognized by the AKC, it changes because people start to breed for traits that "show well" in the conformation ring at a dog show, rather than breeding for whatever ability a specific breed has. That's why, in sporting breeds, there are frequently two different types, the show type and the field type.
Whatever the reason, I can understand why a miniature Australian Shepherd would make a good service dog. The small size (14-18 inches tall, and no more than 30 pounds) makes the dog fairly portable, yet large enough to be seen easily. The dog I saw in the airport will have an easier time curling up beneath an airplane seat that a larger dog, who would need all available floor space. Aussies of any size are intelligent, quick to learn and willing to please. That last is an important trait in a dog with a job to do for a person. Malamutes are intelligent, but they aren't very concerned with pleasing people, unless that means pulling and running.
Miniature Australian Shepherds aren't suitable for all kinds of service work, but I think they'd be excellent as hearing assistance dogs, or for people with any kind of social anxiety or stress. I'm pretty sure my own blood pressure dropped a few points just from petting the dog and talking about him. I could have used him a couple of hours later at Reagan National Airport, where there was a complete lack of assistance in helping my mother navigate from one plane to the next. If they can't manage any human help or supply wheelchairs, maybe they need a dozen or so dogs to combat the stress. To be fair, it might have been the fault of US Airways. Either way, a dog would have relieved stress, or maybe bitten a few uniformed ankles, a satisfying thought.