Herding breeds, such as the Border Collie, are intelligent, driven and energetic. They thrive when kept busy.
Illustration By Elayne Sears
A working dog can be your best farmhand ever, if you have a breed and an individual fitted to the work. Typically, three types of specialty dogs are used for specific farm tasks: herders, livestock guardians and vermin controllers. Specialized dogs do best on farms that require enough of the specific type of work the dogs crave. For an all-purpose farm, an all-purpose dog may be the best choice. With any type, you’ll need to commit time and effort to developing the mutual understanding and affection that is the foundation of a successful dog-human partnership.
General-Purpose Working Dogs: Jacks of All Trades
Throughout history, farmers and ranchers have bred their dogs to be competent farming and hunting companions. Rather than purchasing an expensive purebred dog, your neighbors may be able to supply a good “farm dog” descended from many generations of general-purpose dogs.
On small-scale, diversified homesteads, a general-purpose breed such as an English Shepherd is a good choice. Heather Houlahan, who breeds and trains shepherds for search-and-rescue operations as well as for helping on her small homestead, says, “These general-purpose dogs can bring in the goats, kill a groundhog and keep the rooster under control. They can pick all that up without a lot of explicit instruction. They’re focused on their people and their tasks.
“Training a general-purpose dog is mostly a matter of taking it with you as you go about your daily rounds. If at all possible, have the puppy there with you, unless you’re working with equipment. Focus on teaching it things and allowing it to absorb the routine. Try to avoid yelling; instead, guide the puppy and eventually it will learn,” Houlahan says.
Herding Dogs: Nipping at the Heels of Your Flock
For help with managing livestock, you can’t beat a good herding dog. “A Border Collie is a great all-around sheepdog,” says Pearse Ward, president of the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association. “There are other herding breeds, such as Australian Shepherds and Kelpies, but it’s much harder to find a good working dog from those breeds, because for a long time so many in this country have not been bred specifically for working. It only takes one or two generations of selecting for something other than labor, such as coat color, to begin losing the working instincts.”
Herding breeds are exceptionally intelligent, driven and energetic, so they need some kind of work to do as well as extensive training. “When it comes to livestock, having a badly trained dog around is worse than having no dog at all,” Ward says. “You have to put the time into learning how to train one and how to work with one — how to form that partnership with them. If you’ve never trained working dogs before, consider finding someone in your area who knows about and uses dogs in working situations to mentor you.” Ward recommends visiting a sheepdog website, such as Little Hats, to get started.
Ward says a herding dog is not necessary for small flocks, which can be trained and managed some other way. A herding dog will come into its own managing larger groups.
Guardian Dogs: All Paws on Deck
Livestock guardians have been used for centuries to deter or destroy livestock predators. But the myth that you can throw the dog in with the livestock and forget about it is just that — a myth. Angie Meroshnekoff, who has bred and worked with Great Pyrenees dogs for 40 years, says, “For the first couple of months you need to be extra-involved with the dog. Fix the territory limits by walking the fence line together. Protect the puppy from predators for the first nine months to a year, until it’s big enough to defend itself. New dogs will often want to play with the livestock, and you’ll need to discourage that.”
Livestock guardians don’t just protect sheep and cattle — many owners use them to guard poultry flocks, too. Guard dogs can be invaluable to the maintenance of free-range flocks. They keep predators away and alert you when something is wrong. Carrie Stuart Parks, president of the Great Pyrenees Club of America, says, “As long as the dog knows that the chickens need to be protected, it will guard them from anything. It’s not really necessary for a livestock guardian to be raised with chickens, but it’s nice if you have other dogs already there who know not to touch the chickens. The guardian will learn from them.”
Livestock-guardian dogs need work and space; they are bred to be independent thinkers and to be alert for danger. Many of them are standoffish and suspicious with strangers, says Janet Vorwald Dohner, author of Livestock Guardians: Using Dogs, Donkeys and Llamas to Protect Your Herd. “They may bark a lot at night, and because they’re large dogs and determined to go after something they see as a threat, they need good fencing. They get frustrated if they don’t have a job where they’re outside a lot, patrolling around.”
Dohner cautions that some guardian breeds are not suited for small homesteads. Eastern European and Russian breeds (such as Central Asian Shepherds and South Russian Ovcharkas) can be more difficult to control and can have aggressive tendencies. Western European breeds (such as the Great Pyrenees) are generally more suited to life on smaller farms, but owners should be prepared to deal with some of their less engaging traits, Meroshnekoff says. “We tell people three things about guardian breeds: They bark, they dig and they shed.”
Though a guard dog’s job is to guard, they also absolutely have to obey. If your dog attacks someone on your farm in your presence without you telling it to, then your dog will probably be put down, you’ll end up paying the medical bills of the victim and you may end up in court. A guard dog should be trained to obey you when you’re present, and to defend the livestock and the farm when you’re absent. This is achieved by establishing that you are the leader of the pack — no exceptions. To do this takes an approach that combines affection, firmness and consistency. You will also want to make sure your dog is exposed to many different situations and trained to the leash. The rest follows naturally from the dog’s own instincts. If you can’t get your dog to refrain from threatening visitors in your presence, it should be restrained or kenneled.
Burrow Down With a Terrier: Vermin-Control Dogs
“I am hooked on terriers,” says Jamie Lee Herman, president of the American Working Terrier Association. “They can be argumentative and a challenge, they might hold a grudge, and they’re not always as tolerant as some other types of dogs, but once you build a strong relationship, I don’t know of any greater reward.”
Some breeds specialize in “earth work” — going into burrows — while others concentrate on aboveground hunting. Herman uses terriers to control opossums, groundhogs, badgers, foxes, raccoons and rats. They can also protect poultry flocks and grain stores. Training is recommended to avoid injury — especially with dogs performing underground work.
Terriers may not be the best choice for families with young children. A Jack Russell, for example, will tolerate some ear pulling, but then it may snap. Herman says, however, that older children who know how to treat animals gently and with respect will have no problems.
Rescue Dogs and Crossbreeds
Dogs of unknown parentage may also make excellent farm dogs. According to Houlahan, however, you’re not going to be able to predict with any accuracy what they’re going to be able to do. If you know the breeds of the parents, you’ll have a better idea of what the dog’s inclinations for work might be.
On the other hand, purebred “rescue” dogs — dogs that have been given up or abandoned by their owners — can be an excellent choice if they are obtained from a rescue organization whose staff has extensive knowledge of the breed. “They usually know the dogs and know which ones have the potential to really be successful,” recommends Dohner.
Ward says a lot of good working dogs end up in rescue centers and people who are looking for one should go there first. “The reason many working dogs are in rescue centers is that people think they come ready to go — that you just turn the key and they’ll do what you want. Then the owners get tired of the dog chasing livestock. It takes time and patience to train a young dog.”
Bringing Home a Puppy
Make sure the puppy’s parents know how to work before you invest your love and money into a future farm dog. Dogs quickly lose their ability to work if the trait is not selected for in every generation.
Pass over the puppy that’s so shy it hides in the corner, the bully, and the overly friendly pup. Pick the one that’s confident and curious.
Lastly, make sure both parents are healthy and have no genetic defects, such as hip dysplasia (all too common in many breeds). If you can’t assess both parents with your own eyes, ask about whether they have been screened for potential problems. Since many genetic health problems don’t show up until later in a dog’s life, taking these precautions can save you the heartbreak of building a relationship with a dog only for it to become disabled at a young age.
Popular Working Dogs
A general-purpose farm dog should be descended from many generations of dual-purpose working and hunting dogs. Many mixes of breeds will work, but popular choices include farm Collies, English Shepherds and Cur dogs.
Australian Cattle Dog
Central Asian Shepherd
Polish Tatra Sheepdog
South Russian Ovcharka
West Highland White
Ann Larkin Hansen and her family have two dogs on their farm. She is the author of The Organic Farming Manual and Finding Good Farmland . Hansen also leads workshops at our MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fairs.