But what makes a good farm dog? The answer to this question can be at once incredibly complex and incredibly simple.
Complex in that there are hundreds of different breeds of dog, each with a unique genetic makeup and skill set that make them suited to specific farm tasks. Simple in that a good farm dog is any dog of any breed or breed combination that provides assistance in the multitude of day-to-day jobs on the farm. From guarding sheep to driving cattle, even just being the dependable companion on long days, dogs contribute in countless ways to farm life.
But even among those with a history of working with livestock, some are more suited for one job over another. Making sure you match the right dog with the right job description can go a long way to creating a happy, lifelong partnership. The key is to understand the job you need done and match the breed to the role.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the breeds and types of dogs commonly found on the farm, and the jobs they are best suited for.
Herding dogs have an innately hardwired drive to herd. This is a result of selecting for a strong prey drive, or the ability to stalk a group of animals much like a wild predator would. Over centuries of training and selection, this drive has been channeled and controlled into the herding dog specialists we have today. They are keenly intelligent and need to work, or they will become unhappy. And when they are unhappy, they are legendary for their ability to find things to do that might not be on your most desirable task list. Herding dogs with a strong drive have been known to herd children, chickens, or other animals, often with negative results.
Herding dogs such as the Australian Cattle Dog, also known as the Blue Heeler, or the Border Collie are strong, serious-minded dogs that thrive on hard work. Herding breeds such as the Australian Shepherd also possess strong instincts, but are also willing to chill out and relax with you in the house. If you do not have enough work for a strong herding breed, be prepared to help channel that energy and drive in other ways, and be prepared to give them the time they need to be fulfilled.
When we speak of guard dogs, we are talking about true livestock guardian dogs (LGD), not watchdogs. These breeds have been selected for centuries, but for exactly the opposite traits of a herding dog. They will not stalk or chase their charges, and they can be trusted to spend all their time living among a flock of sheep. These dogs tend to be large in size, and generally white, to blend in with their flocks just enough, but yet be recognizable to their shepherd.
They are more placid and laid-back with a lower prey drive, but because of being selected for having to work independently, won’t always be able to turn off that independence when it’s convenient for you. Guardian dogs can be incredibly loyal companions, yet always remain a little aloof, especially with strangers. They are also happiest when they have a job to do, but that job is hanging out with a flock of sheep or patrolling the boundaries of your farm. LGDs are most comfortable when they have a larger area to watch, at least a half-acre minimum. They cannot be expected to be plunked down in a backyard to watch a half-dozen chickens. They need more to do.
The Great Pyrenees, or Pyr, is the breed that most commonly comes to mind when thinking about livestock guardians. These dogs have been in the United States for many years, and some strains have been more heavily selected as companion dogs. The Maremma Sheepdog is an ancient Italian breed well known in ancient Rome for their guardian ability. And the Anatolian Shepherd, known since the earliest days of sheep herding in Turkey, is a relative newcomer to the U.S., but is now one of the most numerous guardian breeds in the country.
Vermin dogs like Rat Terriers are often overlooked as farm dogs, but they have fulfilled an important role for centuries. “People used to love terriers,” Janet Vorwald Dohner, author of Farm Dogs (A Comprehensive Breed Guide to 93 Guardians, Herders, Terriers, and Other Canine Working Partners) says. “And some made a really good living hiring out as ratters.” But as agriculture changed and people migrated from the farm to the cities, the need for ratters decreased, and the breeds became less popular. Terriers make good loyal family dogs, but again, they are bred for a specific job, and need an outlet for all that energy. Be prepared to fulfill that need.
As Dohner points out in her book, “Crossbreeding is not like mixing paint. Genes sort themselves out randomly.” Breeding a LGD to a herding dog won’t give you a general all-purpose dog that can herd when you want it to and guard when you want it to. Those two jobs are very different and require different instincts and physical abilities. You won’t always get the best of each breed, and it’s entirely possible that you will get the worst.
Crossbreeding among types usually works well, for example herding breeds such as Border Collies crossed with Australian Shepherds, or guardian breeds such Pyrenees and Maremma, because the genes and instinctive behaviors won’t fight with one another.
That being said, occasionally a mutt will inherit the right mix, or receive the right training early on that might allow him to be a good general purpose farm dog, but he’s likely going to be a little better at one part of the job than the other.
No one breed can perform all the types of jobs well, but there are a couple that have a bit more versatile nature. The English Shepherd, sometimes known as the Farm Collie, is generally classed with the herding dogs, as they have natural instinct and ability, but they are a lower energy breed and able to relax more than the high-power breeds. They make good, loyal companions and farm watchdogs, but lack the size and power to be a true LGD. The breed is actually an American creation, descended from dogs brought to the New World, and at one time was a common fixture on the family farm. There is some variability within this breed as you might expect, and some strains are better suited to certain tasks than others.
Whatever breed you choose, take the time to visit with the breeder. Responsible breeders will be happy to answer any of your questions, and are keen to get their dogs into the right homes with the right owners.
So what’s the most important thing in making a good country dog? First off, an owner that is honest with themselves about their situation, abilities, and needs.
Farms that are open to the public will not want a dog that is highly territorial. They need a dog that is more approachable and sociable. A backyard farmer with a dozen chickens doesn’t need a LGD to protect their small flock from predators, they need a good enclosure at night. Take a moment to assess what you truly need, and make sure you don’t fall in love with a breed at the expense of logic.
Probably the most important thing, Dohner says, is to “Be honest with yourselves,” about your needs, abilities, and expectations. “The average family, or small family homestead, needs a lower energy breed.” Many livestock guardian dogs need rehomed every year, partly because people often confuse LGDs with guard dogs or watchdogs, and are upset because they don’t quite fit that role in their family.
Before getting that farm dog, do some research into breeds that will do the job you need, and above all else, have a good honest conversation with yourself about your situation, what you need, and what you can handle. And be open-minded. The dog you need may not be the dog you think you want, but might turn out to be the best dog you’ve ever had.
Basic job skills
Regardless of the breed chosen, there are a handful of traits and behaviors a good farm dog, or any dog for that matter, should exhibit.
1. A good farm dog should obey their handler. Nothing is more frustrating than a dog that will not listen or come when it’s called, and when working around livestock, it can be downright dangerous: for the livestock, the dog, and the handler.
If your farm dog is more of a companion animal than a herding or guarding dog, make sure it is well trained enough that even when exposed to livestock, the livestock is not so distracting that any attention to the handler goes out the window. Spend a little time in a controlled situation making sure your dog understands the rules.
2. A good farm dog can be aloof with strangers and even bark loudly at them, but should never be aggressive. This is especially important if you have a farm business, or a lot of visitors. One nip can land you in more hot water than you can imagine. Spend the time to make sure they are well socialized and used to people coming and going. Socialization doesn’t just mean how they behave around people and other dogs, it also refers to how they handle novel situations and stimuli.
3. Whenever possible, get your dog young, and be consistent in your training. You can’t expect your dog to be consistent in its behavior and obedience if you are not consistent and fair in your expectations. It is often very difficult to correct problems and bad habits when your dog gets older.
4. Give your farm dog the proper care. Just because he lives and works outside doesn’t mean he doesn’t need access to fresh water, proper food, and appropriate shelter. Vaccinations are important, especially if he will be encountering wildlife. And make sure he stays where he belongs. Good owners do not let their dogs run where they can become a nuisance to neighbors.
By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas.