The breed has been separated into two distinct varieties: the Show Kelpie and the Working Kelpie. The Show Kelpie is seen at conformation dog shows and are selected for appearance rather than mustering instinct. Working Kelpies are bred for working ability over appearance.
In Australia, there are two separate registries for Kelpies.
Working Kelpies are registered with the Working Kelpie Council (WKC), which is the primary authority on the breed standard, and/or the State Sheepdog Workers Association. The WKC encourages breeding for working ability, and allows a wide variety of coat colors. The Working Kelpie cannot be shown, due to the wide standards allowed by the WKC. Show Kelpies are registered with the Australian National Kennel Council, which encourages breeding for a certain appearance and limits dogs to certain colors. Only Show Kelpies may be shown in Australia.
The Working Kelpie comes in three coat types, smooth, short, and rough, with almost every colour from black through light tan or cream. Some Kelpies have a white blaze on the chest, a few have white points. Kelpies used to have a double coat, but this has largely disappeared, possibly due to environmental factors. Agouti is not unusual, and can look like a double coat.
Working Kelpies stand about 50cm (19.5 inches) at the withers for females, 55cm (21.5 inches) for males; weight would be between 14-21Kg (31-46lbs). Ears are pricked, but a few will have one or both ears flopped; the tail will often follow the coat type, and will vary between smooth to bushy. The dog's working ability is unrelated to appearance, so stockmen looking for capable working dogs disregard the dog's appearance.
A Working Kelpie can be a cheap and efficient worker which can save farmers and graziers the cost of several hands when mustering livestock. The good working Kelpies are heading dogs that will prevent stock from moving away from the stockman. This natural instinct is crucial when mustering stock in isolated gorge country, where a good dog will silently move ahead of the stockman and block up the stock (usually cattle) until the rider appears. The preferred dogs for cattle work are Kelpies, often of a special line, or a Kelpie cross. They will drive a mob of livestock long distances in extremes of climates and conditions. Kelpies have natural instincts for managing livestock. Kelpies will work sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, poultry, and other domestic livestock. The Kelpie's signature move is to jump on the backs of sheep and walk across the tops of the sheep to reach the other side and break up the jam. A good working Kelpie is a versatile dog—they can work all day on the farm, ranch, or station, and trial on the weekends. Kelpies are the most popular breed of dog used in the sport of cattle dog trials and (sheep) yard dog trials, which are becoming popular in Australia.
Kelpies are loyal, friendly, intelligent, energetic dogs that require a challenging job to be satisfactory companions. They need to be stimulated as idle and bored dogs become frustrated, noisy, and destructive. For the show or bench Kelpie, walks and socialisation may be sufficient to keep them happy. A working bred Kelpie must have a job to do and plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to remain healthy and companionable. A Kelpie is not aggressive towards people and cannot be considered a guard dog, though he will certainly bark when necessary. Working Kelpies may nip when working stock and should be taught early not to do so to humans.
Working bred Kelpies have done quite well in dog sports, search & rescue work, and can be good family dogs if they receive sufficient physical and mental exercise.
Show Kelpies generally excel in agility trials and may be shown in conformation in Australia. 'Riley' an Australian Kelpie set the world record for dog jumping when he jumped 2.91 metres at the Casterton, Victoria Kelpie Festival. In his previous 30 high jumping competitions he was only beaten twice.
Some people claim that Kelpies have some Dingo blood; as it was illegal to keep dingoes as pets, some dingo owners registered their animals as Kelpies or Kelpie crosses. It should be noted that Kelpies and Dingoes are very similar in conformation and colourin. There is no doubt that some have deliberately mated dingoes to their Kelpies, and some opinion holds that the best dilution is 1/16-1/32, but that 1/2 and 1/4 will work. As the Dingo has been regarded as a savage sheep-killer since the first white settlement of Australia, few will admit to the practice.
The first "Kelpie" was a black and tan bitch pup with floppy ears bought by Jack Gleeson about 1872 from a litter born on Warrock Station near Casterton, owned by George Robertson, a Scot. This dog was named after the mythological kelpie from Celtic folklore. Legend has it that "Kelpie" was sired by a Dingo, but there is little evidence for or against this. In later years she was referred to as "(Gleeson's) Kelpie", to differentiate her from "(King's) Kelpie", her daughter.
The second "Kelpie" was "(King's) Kelpie", another black and tan bitch out of "Kelpie" by "Caesar", a pup from two sheep-dogs imported from Scotland. Again, there are legends that these two sheep-dogs may never have seen Scotland, and may have had Dingo blood. "(King's) Kelpie" tied the prestigious Forbes Trial in 1879, and the strain was soon popularly referred to as "Kelpie's pups", or just Kelpies. The King brothers joined another breeder, McLeod, to form a dog breeding partnership whose dogs dominated trials during 1900 to 1920.
There is no Red Cloud Kelpie, beloved of Western Australians:, as far as Eastern Staters are concerned. However, the breed is widely recognised in W.A., where the niceties of Sydney and Melbourne-based dog breeders may be ignored, if not challenged. The W.A.Red Cloud is taller than the red-coated Kelpie, and has a rougher coat.
"There were a number of Kelpies called 'Red Cloud'.
"The first, and most famous was John Quinn's Red Cloud. I seem to remember that this dog may have been owned (or used) by the King & McLeod Stud. This was at the start of the 1900s. But this tradition in Western Australia of calling all red or Red & Tan Kelpies a 'Red Cloud' stems back to around the 1960s when a Kelpie called 'Red Cloud' became very well known."
- Reprinted by permission of Mary and Stephen Bilson
Kelpies have been exported to North America, South Africa, Holland, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and Japan. The demand for Kelpies continues to increase with some big prices obtained for trained working dogs.