Farm Dogs: Guarding, Herding and Helping

Learn how to train and care for farm dogs to help with herding and guarding.


| June/July 1998



168-030-01

Unlike the herding dog, this guard dog is a full-time member of the flock.


PHOTO: GORDON FISHNER/TONY STONE IMAGES

When I visit a farm for the first time, it is always the farm dogs that greet me first, barking to alert their owners of the arrival of a stranger. These dogs are integral members of every farm, regardless of their shape and size, because they all have a purpose: to provide companionship or protection, or to assist with livestock movement.

There are two broad categories of working farm dogs that are differentiated on the basis of their interactions with livestock. The herding dogs were bred to assist with the movement of livestock, and livestock guardian dogs were developed to protect domestic animals from predators. These two groups of dogs were developed through centuries of selective breeding, which modifies instinctive canine behavior. As pups, wolves and coyotes display sequences of mixed social, submissive, play and investigative patterns. As the pups mature to adults, they gain predatory patterns which include the stalking and lethal crush-bite-kill patterns of the true predator. With the development of working farm dogs, these two characteristics — the social and predator behavior patterns — have been channeled into a working relationship between dog and livestock. Obviously, herding and guarding dogs need special training and care.

Herding Dogs

The specific purpose of herding dogs is to move large numbers of livestock effectively and efficiently at the command of the owner or livestock producer. There are breeds that are better with sheep, others better with cattle, and some work many species of herd animals. Some examples of gathering dogs include the collie, border collie and Australian shepherd. The cattle dogs include the Welsh corgi, bouviers of Flanders, and the Queensland blue heeler or Australian heeler. Through centuries of breeding, herding dogs have been developed by selection of particular behavioral characteristics. Herding dogs are selected to show hunting characteristics that include eye (staring at livestock), stalk, and grip or heel (chase). The herding dogs have been selected to display the eye, stalk and chase, but to mature before the deadly crush-bite-kill patterns of the predator develop.

Gathering dogs, such as the border collie, circle the livestock and work the flight zone of the animal, moving the lead animals with their presence and eye. The dog will instinctively position itself directly opposite the handler on the other side of the livestock. When the handler moves to the left, the dog will move to the right and vice-versa. This gathering instinct is part of the predatory pattern, but the dog can be taught to go out, circle the livestock, and bring the animals towards the handler.

There are three known heritable instincts of the border collie: clapping (crouching), eye (staring at the sheep), and barking. These are not done when herding but under other conditions. These characteristics are desirable and are selected for when breeding. Acoustic signals are used to command the herding dogs, usually in the form of whistles, which can be heard over the distances involved when gathering large flocks of sheep in a vast pasture.

The physical characteristics and behavior of herding dogs differ from those of guarding dogs. Herding dogs are within the 10 to 20 kilogram weight range (22 to 42 pounds) with ears that are often pricked. The color of the breeds is often dark with white or brown markings, though some are white or gray with darker spots.





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