Second only behind big, red barns, the farm dog is an iconic set piece in farm history. Thought of as companions, herders, guardians and more, these dogs fill a major need for farms, even still today. But what makes a farm dog a farm dog? What traits should you be looking for? What breeds fit those traits? These are important questions to ask when trying to determine what kind of dog you need on your farm.
Are you looking for a companion dog that can stay by your side through the day and at night protect your family and maybe some small livestock? Are you looking for something to herd a flock of a sheep or a large herd of cattle? Whether you are looking at getting a farm dog to to watch the chickens or a dog that will be out in the fields working with you all day, you have to get the right breed for the job. Selecting the proper breed, doing the proper training, and assigning a fitting job are all parts of successfully owning a farm dog.
Selecting the Right Breed
Selecting a breed isn’t as simple as going to a pet store and picking out a pup. You need to do your homework and prepare yourself for the next step. First, take a look at what you are trying to do. If you are needing to herd sheep, look for intelligent dogs that have a high work drive, low prey drive, and can protect the flock if needed from predators. If you are herding cattle, look at breeds that are small, low to the ground, and are practically fearless. They, too, will need that working instinct. If there are other jobs, such as pulling, guarding or pest control, you’ll need to factor these in as well.
Once you have done your research, you need to prepare yourself and your home for a new dog. This is no different than if you were getting a dog for personal companionship. Making sure you have the food, toys, a bed, a crate. They’ll still need training, everything from basic obedience and potty training to training for the job you intend them to do. Some dogs have a natural instinct to herd or guard, so training that as early as possible is a great way to capitalize on that instinct.
Let’s take a look at each specific job and understand what it is that is needed, and what breeds best fit those jobs.
Herding sheep requires a softer touch than herding cattle does. This is why it’s important to get the right breed for sheep herding. Working in tandem with their handler, a well-trained herding dog will listen to the commands (and in some areas of the world, whistles!) to determine where and how fast to move the sheep. Using these commands, the dog is able to herd the sheep wherever the owner needs them. This means they can move them into pens, new grazing areas, away from dangerous areas, or away from feeding pens so the owner can put out feed without being trampled.
To successfully control the sheep in such a way, you need a calm, yet authoritative, approach, or else the sheep may end up to riled up and won’t move the way you want them to. This is why it is imperative that your dog remain calm yet willful, without being too much to spook the sheep.
The best breeds for sheep herding are Border Collies and Australian Shepherds. There are other breeds that can herd sheep, but none do it with the grace of these two dogs. A border collie, for example, uses the commands it’s owner gives him, and moves the sheep through eye contact. A well trained border collie need not bark or move too much, as eye contact alone will get the sheep moving. This is called “active-eye” or “strong-eye” herding. Border collies, however, are extremely energetic dogs, and without a job to do, can become extremely destructive. This is why they make such good herding dogs.
If, however, your herding needs are less demanding, an Australian Shepherd may be a better choice for you. Aussies, while still having that high work drive, are not quite as energetic as border collies and are usually content with an honest days work. They herd the sheep by moving around them, gathering them into a group, and literally commanding them where to go by walking behind them. This is called “loose-eye” herding. Typically, aussies work in groups instead by themselves, and this allows them to work a herd of sheep easier, as the way they make them move requires lots of movement behind the flock, cutting behind the flock and forcing them to move in the direction they want.
Cattle herding requires a lot more than sheep herding. This is due, in part, to the large size of the animals. Aside from that, cattle are known to be stubborn, so you need a strong-willed dog (and a strong will of your own) to make it work. The biggest thing to remember is that herding cattle can be very dangerous, for you and the dogs working with them. One false step, one mis-timed nip, one mistake can lead to serious injury or worse. Again, this warning is not just for the dogs, but yourself as well.
Unlike sheep, cattle are typically herded physically. While the dogs still listen to commands, they are rougher with the much larger cattle. This is typically done by nipping at the heels, or cutting, similar to what aussies do for sheep (and can do with cattle, as well). Cattle herding is done, typically, with loose-eyed dogs.
Two great breeds for cattle herding may shock you. The Australian Cattle Dog and the Corgi (both breeds). Many people may assume you need a bigger, tougher dog to drive cattle, but the truth is, these two miniscule breeds have it where it counts. These two were bred extensively for cattle herding. Australian Cattle Dogs, specifically, were bred to work in the herd, running between cows, nipping at heels and driving them for stockyards. The Corgi was bred to drive cattle as well, and does it much the same way the Australian Cattle Dog does.
There are other jobs that happen on a farm that a dog can help with. For example, if you need something that can pull a cart, but would rather use a dog than a pony, a Bernese Mountain Dog makes a great puller! Another job could be pest control. If your farm is low on livestock but high on crops, pests can be a big problem. Thankfully, dogs like the Jack Russel Terrier were bred specifically to deal with pests.
Often times, a dog is needed to protect a flock of sheep from predators. Dogs like the Great Pyranese and German Shepherd can not only herd, but are great protectors as well. They act as guardians to the flock, and are able to hold their own against any would be predator.
Don’t Judge a Book
You’ve heard the phrase don’t judge a book by it’s cover. That principle applies to herding dogs as well. Just because it’s a Border Collie doesn’t mean it’s going to be fit for herding. Just because it’s a Corgi doesn’t mean it’s ready for cattle. You need to look for dogs from working lines, with strong working instinct. And don’t be pigeonholed into a certain breed based on what they are good at working. An Australian Shepherd can work cattle, and a Cattle Dog can work sheep and goats.
The important thing is finding the right dog for the job. If you follow the advice, do a lot of research, you’ll find the perfect match for your needs. Just keep learning and not only will you find the right dog for the job, but you’ll find a great companion as well.
by Kimberly LeMaster