It is important to keep in mind that the Australian Cattle Dog breed, like most of the herding and working breeds and some of the sporting breeds, actually has two different categories of dogs. There are those that are used for show, which means they are judged on their conformation and their physical appearance and temperament as judged against the breed standards.
The second category of Australian Cattle Dogs are those dogs that are used as actual working dogs as well as in herding or working types of events and competitions. In this category the dog's appearance is secondary to their actual abilities and performance, although they do have to fall within the generally accepted conformation range. Many Australian Cattle Dogs are shown in both conformation as well as competitive events while others are used only in one or the other.
The breed standards provided below are used the major Kennel Clubs including the American, Canadian, Australian and the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom. There may be some slight variation between registries, however they are very slight.
The general appearance of the Australian Cattle Dog is one of athletic ability, strength, muscle and endurance without appearing muscle-bound, bulky or cobby. In addition they should not appear to be rangy and the legs should be in proportion to the body, not overly long or stubby in appearance. The dog should be longer than he or she is tall and the exact proportion is 10 to 9 with the distance from the breastbone to the rump longer than the height from the ground to the withers.
The topline or the profile of the back should be level, although when in a working stance the dog's will slightly drop their entire body, especially lowering the head and neck to a parallel position to the rest of the body.
The front legs of the Australian Cattle Dog are very straight and parallel to each other when viewed from any direction. The feet are rounded and thick and face squarely forward, not turning in or out. The chest is moderately wide and deep but not so pronounced as to give the dog a heavy front appearance.
The hind quarters are very muscular and the legs are carried square to the body. The lower legs are straight and parallel both with each other as well as the front quarters. The thighs are long and sloping, with the impression of coiled springs ready to move at the blink of an eye.
The tail of the Australian Cattle Dog is not naturally bobbed and should be of moderate length and well plumed unless docked. It is carried down close to the hocks with a gentle upward curve. When the dog is paying attention the tail may be slightly raised but for show dogs it cannot be carried higher than the hips. No curling over the back is permitted in either show or working dogs. In many areas docking is not longer allowed, however dogs that have had their tail docked are not faulted in the ring. It is interesting to note that docking was commonly done to prevent injury to the dog's tail, however recent research in the study of dog's movement has suggested that the tail is actually important in helping the dog to make sudden directional changes, obviously much needed when working with livestock. In reality the injury to a dog's tail, even when working, is greatly over-reported and very unlikely to ever occur. Working dogs are much more likely to be injured by being kicked or injuring a foot or leg than ever injuring their tail.
The neck of the Australian Cattle Dog is thick and solid, very muscular and strong in appearance. It blends into the shoulders without a marked ruff or any signs of arching. The skull itself is slightly rounded between the ears then flat over the forehead area, with a moderate stop that is still clearly defined. The stop is the drop or plane between the forehead the muzzle, located between the eyes.
The eyes are moderate in size and almost almond shaped, and should be a dark brown. They will be very alert and should be watching all movement in the environment, even when the dog is at rest. They often appear to be studying what is going on, which is a form of learning for the Australian Cattle Dog. The muzzle is solid and in proportion to the rest of the dog, neither too long nor too short. The teeth should meet in a scissor type of bite and should be moderately long, thick and healthy in appearance. Missing teeth in working dogs may be common due to injuries sustained while working.
The ears of the Australian Cattle Dog are set well to the side of the head and are moderately small and triangular in size. The base should be noticeable wide and the actual leather of the ears will be thicker than on other breeds. Unlike some breeds the inside of the ears should have a moderate coating of hair. In some working Australian Cattle Dogs a more turned over ear, similar to a Dalmatians ear, may be seen. This will be a significant fault in the ring so these dogs are not shown, but they do still make outstanding working and competing Australian Cattle Dogs.
The coat of the Australian Cattle Dog is moderately short, approximately 1 to 1.5 inches in length over the body but shorter still on the lower legs and the face. The coat is double with a stiffer, harsh rain proof outer coat over a very dense inner coat. The colors of the Australian Cattle Dog are blue and red, with solid colors as well as ticking allowed in both color varieties. These dogs are not merle in coloration, it is a true mixture of white and black and gray hairs that makes the blue coloration and white and red that makes the red color. White is permissible on the face and legs and the tip of the tail. Tri-colors with brown or red markings are common on the blue coat color but black markings are not desirable on the body.
The Bentley mark, a small to medium sized white blaze on the forehead area of the Australian Cattle Dog is a breed trait and may or may not be present. This mark, along with a black spot at the base on of the tail on blue Australian Cattle Dogs is said to trace back to one dog. This dog, known only as Bentley's Dog was owned by Tom Bentley. Bentley's Dog was an original Hall's Heeler used extensively in early Australian Cattle Dog working dog breeding programs of the later 1800's.