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What is a Farm Dog? Making the Best Choices for Working Partners on the Farm or Ranch.

Quick answer – a dog that lives on a farm.

A more complete answer would describe the breeds that traditionally worked on farms or ranches and were developed specifically for that work. Fast and clever herding dogs; noble and protective livestock guardian dogs; plucky terriers in the stable or field; and the multi-purpose breeds that weren’t specialists but could lend a hand to a hard working farmer or even pull a cart. In addition to their other jobs, most of these farm dog breeds also served as watchdogs for the homestead and companions for a more isolated lifestyle. These breeds remain an excellent fit for farm life as both a true working partner or a family companion in the country.

My new book Farm Dogs focuses exclusively on these breeds and the work they perform. The primary purpose of this book was to help people choose the right dog for their needs. The detailed breed profiles include specific aptitudes and inherited behaviors. Instead of the breed groups used by the kennel clubs, I choose to group these breeds by the actual work they traditionally performed for farming and livestock people.

Livestock Guardian Dogs

Among the oldest of the dog breed types are the shepherd’s dogs or livestock guardians, developed by the transhumant cultures that grazed open land and moved flocks from winter to high summer mountain pastures in places from Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy; through the countries of the Balkans and Carpathians; down into Turkey; over to the Caucasus; and throughout Central Asia into Tibet. In the company of shepherds, they protected sheep, goats, and occasionally other stock from predation.

Selected over many centuries, these breeds all have physical and behavioral traits in common. Most look a bit like huge, overgrown puppies with curling tails, floppy drop ears, and warm double coats. They are also independent thinkers, strongly protective, low in energy, and nurturing towards their smallest charges. They should exhibit no prey or chase drive directed toward their animals.

Only very specific breeds are livestock guardians – this not a job any other breed can be trained to perform. About 20 of these breeds are found today in North America. Some are well known - the Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Komondor, Kuvasz, Maremma, and Anatolian Shepherd. Less common are breeds such as the Estrela, Central Asian Shepherd, Kangal, Karakachan, Sarplaniac, and the Spanish and Tibetan Mastiffs. Other breeds are even more rare – the Pyrenean Mastiff, Gampr, Tornjak, or Tatra.

Herding Dogs

Long after the development of livestock guardian dogs, in some areas shepherds began to utilize another kind of dog with their flocks. Some of these herding dogs were bred specifically to fetch and gather animals. Herding dogs might also drive stock between distant pastures or to market, while still others acted as a “living fence” to keep grazing animals out of crops. They also emigrated with their sheep, goats, and cattle to other countries around the world, where they were sometimes changed to fit into new situations. Today, herding breeds are also very popular as companions and in dog sports or activities.

Herding dogs can vary in appearance, temperament, and behavior much more than livestock guardian dogs; however, they are generally medium-sized with coats that range from short and smooth to long and rough, often reflecting the climate and conditions of their homeland. Ears are often pricked, erect, or folded over and tails may be bobbed or long. All herding dogs possess a significant prey or chase drive, which is channeled towards work, along with specific herding traits such as eye, grip, and others. Herding dogs are usually higher in energy, as well as willing, smart, and trainable, but they also vary a great deal in their intensity or ability to relax in the home.

Popular herding breeds include the Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, Pembroke corgi, Rough collie, the Old English sheepdog, and German Shepherd. Lesser known breeds include the English and Dutch Shepherd, Bearded collie, Australian Cattle Dog, Cardigan corgi, Lapphund, Catahoula Leopard Dog, and engaging or delightful breeds like the Icelandic Sheepdog, Samoyed, Pyrenean Shepherd, Mudi, Puli, and others.

Working Terriers and Earthdogs

Small vermin hunting dogs were common around barns, stables, and warehouses. Terriers were a more recent development in Britain and Ireland, where they hunted foxes, badgers, and otters in the countryside and rats in the cities. In Germany, the dachshunde and smaller pinschers did the same work. Terriers also emigrated with their owners to new homes in Australia and North America, where they were also selected to fit new purposes.

Traditionally, working terriers and other earthdogs were no larger around the chest than a man’s hands - or spannable - to insure they could slip in burrows and tunnels after their prey. Although their sizes were similar, their coats could be diverse; but they all share common behavioral and temperament traits. Terriers are full of energy, plucky and tough, with strong prey drives. Many are easily aroused and somewhat dog aggressive, unless they were traditionally worked in packs. There are some notable exceptions that make more easygoing family companions.

We are certainly familiar with the Jack Russell, Dachshund, and Miniature Schnauzer, but perhaps less so with the Australian, Border, Cairn, Fox, and Patterdale terriers, as well as the American original - the Rat terrier.

Traditional Multi-purpose Farm Dogs

These breeds – often jack-of-trades – are the most diverse in appearance and behavior. They served both as an extra farmhand and rural companion rather than a specialist worker. Some breeds worked with stock in the farmyard, while others pulled a farm cart, accompanied cattle to market, or controlled vermin. Many of these breeds remain very alert watchdogs, as well as loyal and devoted companions to their families.

These breeds are tremendously diverse in temperament, behaviors, working abilities, and appearance. Some breeds have high energy and prey drive, and need serious work every day, while others are more laid-back and content as family companions.

The Bernese Mountain Dog, Rottweiler, Leonberger, Newfoundland, and Belgians Shepherds are familiar multi-purpose breeds. New to the America, are breeds like the Danish Swedish Farmdog, Hovawart, Pumi, Entlebucher, and Appenzeller. In their homelands, the larger Irish terriers and the Schnauzers were also traditional farm dogs.

The Farm Dog

Focusing on traditional, hard working farm dogs, the profiled breeds were selected for their real working abilities on a farm or ranch, and they remain well suited for country life. In future posts, we will be looking at each of these breeds groups. My hope is that you will discover a new working partner or family companion, perfectly suited to your needs and preferences.

Terrier and boots by @Alamy

Sarplaninac @Louise Liebenberg, Grazerie, Alberta

English Shepherd @ Mars Vilaubi

Sennenhund @Leuchtender Hund, Wikicommons

With more than 35 years of hands-on LGD experience, Jan Dohner writes for Mother Earth News and Storey Publishing. Farm Dogs is the first comprehensive book on working farm dogs, including color photography and comprehensive descriptions, history, and working traits of 93 livestock guardians; herders; working terriers and earthdogs; and traditional farm and working partners.

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