Farm dogs are often essential members of livestock operations, providing much-needed services, including corralling of farm animals, herding and providing guarding of the farm.
But did you know that many of today’s best farm dogs breeds started out generations ago in rural communities as working dogs?
What do farm dogs do?
Jobs performed by farm dogs can be broken down into three general categories: herding, guarding and pest control.
Some breeds are better at certain jobs than others, but all have one thing in common — they are the eyes and ears of the farmer and rancher who can’t be everywhere at once watching the animals and taking care of myriad other farm chores.
That’s where the farm dog comes in.
When it comes to herding and controlling everything from cows to sheep to fowl, the most capable breeds are the Australian Cattle Dog, the Belgian Shepherd, the Border Collie, the German Shepherd, the Old English Sheepdog, the Rottweiler and the Welsh Corgi.
These breeds are known for their abilities to lead animals out to pasture and herd them back into their pens or coops when needed. They are are highly intelligent and can quickly learn to respond to their owners’ voice commands or hand gestures.
They are also alert and very agile, able to follow their flocks or herds and quickly change directions to control them.
If it’s a livestock guard that is needed, the best breeds to consider are ones that can get along with and even live among the animals they are guarding, can defend them from predators and be alert day or night as needed. These breeds tend to be large, have intimidating barks and often depend on the element of surprise to drive off threats.
The more popular breeds for guarding livestock are the Anatolian Shepherd, the Great Pyranees, the Komondor and the Mastiff.
There are all kinds of jobs on a working farm for dog, and even the tiniest can find steady employment controlling small rodents, badgers, possums or raccoons that can infest and severely damage crops in the field or in storage.
Commonly referred to as “ratters” many of these breeds have become popular companion animals like the Brussels Griffon, the Daschund, the Jack Russell Terrier, the Miniature Pinscher, the Rat Terrier, the West Highland Terrier and the Yorkshire Terrier.
On the job
“Our dogs allow us to do things on our farms we could not do without them,” said John Simmons, who, with his wife Doreen, runs Stoneheart Farms in South Paris. “They have the instinct and are trained to work. Work is their first love.”
The Simmons raise about 200 sheep on their farm and rely heavily on rotational grazing on land that is 2 miles down the road.
Every spring Simmons and his two Border Collies, Bea and Gwen, escort the flock down the road to their summer pasture.
“With the dogs, it’s really not a big deal to move the sheep down there or back home again,” John Simmons said. “It’s orderly, there is no chaos and it’s as easy as walking down the road with friends.”
That control is maintained by Gwen and Bea who take up position in front and behind the flock.
“Gwen is behind and keeps them moving and picks up any stragglers or any sheep trying to go into a neighbor’s yard,” John Simmons said. “Bea is out in the front, and she acts like the brakes to keep any of the sheep from getting past me.”
Border Collie behavior
The two dogs accomplish these jobs through simple predatory intimidation, John Simmons said.
“Bea has a look that could peel wallpaper off a wall,” he said. “The sheep know better than to make a move past her.”
Despite their intimidating stares, the dogs are not aggressive and would not harm the sheep, John Simmons said.
“But the sheep don’t know that,” he added.
Once the sheep are in the summer pasture, they are contained in portable electric fencing and remain in one spot for five days.
On the sixth day. John Simmons, Bea and Gwen move the sheep to a new grazing location.
“On moving day I take the fence down and the sheep go wherever they want, which is usually to the closest green grass they can find,” he said. “Then I move the fence, the dogs gather them all back up and herd them inside the fence and they are set for another five days.”
With the help of the dogs, John Simmons said the entire process takes about an hour.
The two dogs also help control the sheep during feeding time.
“The sheep are not very polite and don’t wait to be served,” he said. “They will knock you over to get the the food. The dogs bring order and a little decorum to that chaos.”
Gwen and Bea also help sort and load lambs that head off to slaughter every two weeks during market season.
“There is always something for [the dogs] to do,” John Simmons said. “Even if we are not working, they are with us playing or going for walks. They are part of the family.”