Next to big red barns, free-range chickens, and the gentle lowing of cows in the pasture, probably one of the most iconic elements of any farm is the farm dog. Equal parts companion, helping hand and guardian, they have earned their place amongst farm lore. Talk to anyone who has spent time on a farm, and you’ll most likely hear a story or two about the farm dogs — both good and bad — that they have encountered along the way.
Dogs most commonly used around farms, both large and small, are often breeds that are able to work long days while performing some function, such as herding or guarding livestock. They are typically highly intelligent and high-energy breeds. While such traits make these dogs the hardworking, effective animals they are, those same traits can lead to big problems if proper training is not started early and if the dogs don’t have a job. Selecting the right breed, getting an early start with training, and giving these dogs an appropriate job are the keys to success for owning and enjoying a great farm dog.
Selecting the right breed
The first step a person should take in selecting the right breed of dog is to take a look at what kind of person you are, what kind of farm you have, and ask yourself what you realistically expect from a dog. This might be as simple as deciding that you really just want a companion to walk your acreage with you, alert you to intruders, and lay on the porch watching sunsets with the family. On the other hand, if you have livestock that needs tending on an expansive pasture, you and your companion will be working long days. Both are valid jobs for a farm dog, but they create different requirements for the breed to select, and that is where good research will come into play.
When looking into the many breeds available, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of how the dogs have been classified. The American Kennel Club offers a summary of behaviors and traits for more than 150 dog breeds. This is not meant to be a history of dog classifications by any means, but it is a good place to start. While any breed, when given the proper direction, may fit in fine on the farm — our Chihuahua thinks he is the “big dog” on the block around our small farm — there are certain breeds that seem to most commonly be found on and around rural properties.
The working group — a category containing some of the largest dog breeds, such as the Saint Bernard, Rottweiler and Mastiff — holds many of the breeds often selected as livestock guardian dogs. Breeds like the Anatolian Shepherd, Great Pyrenees and Kuvasz are heavy-coated to withstand long winters in the field with their charges. They were bred to be fiercely loyal, as well as strong and intelligent so they are able to detect and deter predators and intruders.
While bred initially to either work pulling small carts or to defend livestock against threats, these dogs also make wonderful companions. They are loyal and intelligent, and don’t require a lot of exercise. Walking around the property with you or wandering a pasture to keep an eye on the flock should easily keep them in good health, and it will also provide them with a purpose that will make them happy. Because of their instincts to prevent intruders, however, these dogs must be well-socialized to other dogs and people if their primary purpose is to be a companion. One important distinction to make: The guardian dog is not a herding dog, but rather a full-time member of the flock.
The herding or pastoral group, as the name implies, consists of dogs selected for their prowess in herding and handling livestock. This group holds some of the most intelligent breeds of all, including the English and Australian Shepherds, Collie and Heeler. While these dogs can and do make amazing companions, the high intelligence and high energy they have developed in order to herd livestock for long periods of time can become a problem to novice owners if not properly channeled. Many of the biggest problems owners of these breeds report — barking, chewing and digging, for instance — are directly attributed to boredom. A herding dog with no job and no other way to release that energy and intelligence can become a problematic pooch. But that doesn’t mean you have to be or become a shepherd to keep these dogs. Taking them for a daily run or a rousing round of fetch will give them a good release and make them feel like they’re working for you. After all, that’s what they want most — to please you and complete their high-energy job.
The last major group I’m going to outline in this article, I’m going to classify as companion breeds. This isn’t so much a technical category, because while many of these dogs are actually in the true “companion breed” group, many are also in other groups, such as terriers, hounds, or any of a variety of hunting dogs. I grouped these dogs together primarily because, while they can serve many useful functions around a farm, they are usually selected for other reasons and become wonderful companions in the process.
Hounds and retrievers, for instance, may be chosen because the owner intends to hunt with them. These dogs can be trained to hunt, but they can also be socialized as a member of the family, while at the same time serving to alert the owner to intruders. Terriers may serve primarily as companions around the farm while still having opportunities to serve the function that gave name to the breed by “going to ground” (in French, “terre” means earth) as ratters or rabbit, fox and even badger predators — a valuable service on any farm. One benefit of many of these breeds is that while they can be lively and energetic, they often don’t have high exercise requirements and can be happy with the everyday happenings around the farm.
Preparing for a puppy
Before taking the plunge and bringing home a new puppy, there are a number of things to take into consideration and to prepare for.
Where will your dog live? Will he be an indoor or outdoor dog? What kind of time will you have to dedicate to training her? Are you comfortable providing that training yourself? Do you have adequate fencing and safety measures in place to keep your dog safe, as well as proper consideration of your neighbors?
Having recently moved to a new homestead myself, I’ve had a great desire in the last year to bring a new farm dog into our family. However, as tempted as I’ve been, I’ve had to make myself wait because, due to the demands of building infrastructure on our new property, I know I haven’t had the time to dedicate to the training of a new dog. Also, before bringing home a puppy, proper shelter should be in place in order to make him feel comfortable and secure in his new surroundings. Because my intent is to add a dog as not only a companion, but also as a working part of our farm, I want him to be primarily an outdoor dog. This means I need to provide adequate shelter and a spacious doghouse to keep him comfortable through our harsh winters and extremely hot summers. Depending on the breed you choose, that may be as simple as purchasing an appropriately sized kennel for your home to serve as a “den” and safe haven for your puppy, or it may require building a warm and dry kennel or doghouse outdoors with protection from the sun and elements in order to keep your dog safe, comfortable and healthy throughout the seasons.
In the last year, a neighbor’s dogs have run through our yard and killed multiple free-range hens at another neighbor’s property. There are few faster ways to garner a poor reputation as an animal caretaker than to not control and restrict the access of your animals to your neighbors’ property and livestock. This is just one reason proper fencing and on-leash training should be an integral part of your puppy plan from the start, before allowing your farm dog to freely roam your property.
Whichever breed you choose to become a part of your family and your farm, a solid foundation of training, discipline and consistency is needed to allow the dog to live up to its fullest potential. I’ve found that one of the hardest parts of beginning training with a puppy is to be consistent. Because training should start immediately upon the pup’s arrival, the cute factor of all puppies will automatically work against you. Think of the size your puppy will become when you start to think his jumping and barking is cute; it will be much less so when he is full grown. If boundaries with dogs are not set early, just as with kids, it’s much harder to correct bad behavior later on.
The three most important commands for dogs — and, in my opinion, the bare minimum that should be taught — are “sit,” “stay” and “come.” These are the first things that any pup should learn. Only when you feel confident that your dog will come or stay as the case demands, and that he’ll do it without reser-vation, can you feel truly comfortable with your dog being off-leash and around the farm as you work or play — and that should be the goal for a farm dog.
“Heel” is another command that should be introduced to the puppy early on in the training process. It will not only make it easier for the owner and dog to work together as they move around the property and potentially hazardous equipment, it will also help to reinforce in the dog at an early age the position of the owner as the leader of this new “pack” into which the animal has been integrated.
It’s imperative that training start early with a farm dog — any dog really, but farm dogs have a lot to potentially contend with, from large livestock to heavy equipment or even firearms, and proper training is a must. However, training should be done slowly, in 15- to 20-minute sessions. Speak clearly and repeatedly, if necessary, until the young pup picks up on what it is he’s supposed to be doing. Just as older dogs can get bored with having no job to do, puppies can get bored, frustrated or overwhelmed with trying to learn what you want them to do. Since your dog ultimately wants to please you because you are the head of the pack, he will begin to dislike frustrating training sessions.
Once the basic obedience training requirements have been met, any number of specialized training options can be put into place with a much greater chance of success due to a solid foundation. If you don’t feel that you’re adequately qualified to complete this training yourself, there are usually a number of qualified professionals available locally who can either come to you or have you bring your dog to their facilities to train with their livestock. As with any decision with this sort of long-term impact, make sure to ask for references for these professionals.
Bringing a new puppy home to your farm should be a happy event. By researching the available breeds that will suit your needs best, making sure you have given appropriate consideration to the chosen breed’s personality and requirements, and by investing a consistent amount of time in basic obedience training, you can help ensure that your new dog will live long in your family’s fond memories as one of the great farm dogs of all times.
Read more: Learn top tips for keeping your farm dogs safe.
Blogger Paul Gardener lives in suburban Utah, where he plans to eventually bring a puppy into the family as a companion and co-worker.