Working Dogs on the Farm
While automation plays a larger and larger role in modern agriculture, many sheep farmers continue to find working dogs to be indispensable in managing and protecting their flocks.
Herding dogs are a tremendous asset in almost every piece of work that the shepherd needs to do with their stock, from moving them between the pasture and barn, to putting them through chutes for worming, to separating out sick animals for treatment or young lambs for vaccinations. And, while sheep tend to be the livestock most frequently moved by dogs, many cattle and goat farmers find them to be extremely helpful as well. They can also be trained to work ducks, geese, chickens and even pigs.
Border Collies are generally considered to be the premier herding dog in the world today. Breeders have worked hard to protect and improve the working ability of the breed by maintaining lines that are selected exclusively for herding talent. This talent is tested at herding trials that have grown immensely in popularity in the United States and around the world. These competitions have attracted hobby farmers and dog trainers who often end up owning sheep themselves primarily for the purpose of providing their dogs with the regular opportunity to work. The Northeast Border Collie Association sanctions dozens of competitions throughout the Northeastern US and eastern Canada every year. The United States Border Collie Handlers Association sanctions hundreds of trials across the United States and Canada. Trials vary from small Fair and Festival Trials where dogs are asked to move sheep around arenas or small fields with great precision, to farm trials where a dog must work sheep and obey commands when hundreds of yards away from their handler. Many competitors travel thousands of miles to compete in prestigious trials, earn points towards the annual national finals and gain experience for both themselves and their dogs that is needed to be consistently successful. A range ewe in Colorado or Texas is a very different animal than the sheep in a typical New England farm flock and the best dogs can handle them all with confidence and precision.
As an owner of a pack of 4 border collies, and the current President of the Northeast Border Collie Association, there is no doubt that I hold a bias for this remarkable breed. But certainly, there are a number of other herding breeds that can do effective work on the farm. I have several friends who have Australian Kelpies from working lines that can give the border collies a run for their money on the trial field. Australian Shepherds, Collies, Shetland sheepdogs, German Shepherds, Corgis, and other breeds were originally developed for herding and are all sometimes used for work on the farm today.
Protection from predators is another critical job for which farmers who raise sheep and other small livestock often depend on a dog. Dozens of breeds of Livestock Guardian Dogs have been developed around the world specifically for this purpose. The two that I see most commonly used for this work in the Northeast are the Great Pyrenees and the Maremma. These dogs typically live with a flock from the age of 4 to 5 weeks. Over time they develop a strong, protective bond with their charges. It is very rare for a coyote, feral dog or other predator to cause any trouble when they are on duty.
Written by: Chris Bowen
CCCD Associate Board Member