by Wendy Komancheck
Do you need help herding your livestock? If so, you might want to consider hiring a working dog to help you get your animals in line--literally. There are many canine breeds that could be considered working dogs. Four breeds will be highlighted in this article: border collies, English shepherds, Australian shepherds and Australian kelpies.
Like anything else on earth, these dogs have their positive and negative traits. And not all dogs of the same breed can be strictly put in a categorical box. However, this article should serve as food for thought when considering which breed may work best for you and your farming operation.
Border collies: Bred for their herding abilities
Border collies are perhaps the most well-known working dogs. The breed was developed in northern England about 300 years ago to help herd sheep. Today, border collies still perform herding duties on the farm.
According to the American Border Collie Association (www.americanbordercollie.org/Choosing_Your_Border_Collie.html
), "Border collies are the most widely employed stock dogs in the world and work sheep, cattle, goats, hogs--even poultry. Because of their trainability and athleticism, they also dominate obedience, agility and flyball competitions."
Carol Campion of Hampton, Conn., has worked with border collies for 30 years on her farm. She doesn't train her borders for agility or sport. Instead, she says she chose to work with this breed because "I need them to help me on the farm and help with my farm work."
She finds the breed to be smart, loyal and responsive. However, the dogs tend to be "on" all the time, and Campion believes that borders need an "off" switch when they're not working.
Campion thinks a border collie will save a farmer from "many hours of work."
Border collies were not bred to be guard dogs. They do make good watchdogs by barking at strangers, but don't expect them to fight to the death to save you or your farm.
Australian shepherds: Close cousin of the border collie
Australian shepherds are closely related to border collies; they almost look like the same breed. These dogs didn't originate in Australia. The breed was developed in the western U.S. and was first seen in the 1800s.
Tenley Dexter of Makin' 8 Working Aussies in Gaylordsville, Conn., owns Australian shepherds that help out on her farm. She's owned Aussies for over 20 years because, she says, "I wanted a dog who likes me first and stock second."
Dexter will occasionally breed Aussies, and she helps others train their Aussies for farm work.
"Aussies are mostly heading dogs that like to turn stock, but they can be taught to drive, and as a whole tend to be fairly pushy, assertive dogs with stock. They can be authoritative on cattle, and yet gentle on sheep and ducks or poultry," Dexter said.
Border collies and Australian shepherds are known as "heading" dogs, meaning they keep their charges in control using their intense stare.
"Aussies can show the eye of intensity, but not usually the eye of stickiness that many border collies have. All non-border collies can show eye--cattle dogs, rotties, etc., not just border collies," Dexter said.
Dexter stated that the Australian shepherd breed is very loyal, and that's the one quality she loves about them.
"They are very loyal dogs and like their people a lot. Although they are enthusiastic workers, their people are more important. They tend to be very authoritative dogs on stock, rarely sticky, even though they may show eye," Dexter added.
That authoritarian manner can also be an Australian shepherd's downfall.
"They are very smart and fairly dominant dogs that need leaders. Raise the dog to know its place in life, and who's the boss, right from the beginning," Dexter advised.
Dexter also noted that Aussies are "very properly protective in general, either to people or strange dogs or varmints. [They make] great companions as well as enthusiastic workers."
Australian kelpies: Canine lone rangers
Vern and Susan Thorp of New Sharon, Iowa, raise Boer goats on their farm. They use Australian kelpies to keep their livestock under control.
Vern owns two kelpies and one border collie; Susan owns three kelpies. The couple received their first kelpie in 1981 from an international trading group.
"He was an amazing dog," Vern Thorp recalled. "That triggered my interest in kelpies, and the rest is history.
"When I was given my first kelpie, I began looking into the breed. The kelpie and the border collie most likely come from the same roots in Scotland. Kelpies were developed in Australia to w
ork large numbers of sheep in huge areas, much different from what is needed in the U.K.," he added.
"I believe that they are the best dog to work on their own; they have an uncanny ability to read livestock and act accordingly. I've seen them work in Australia, miles from their handler, on wild sheep. One top Australian stockman explained to me the difference he saw between the kelpie and the border collie. He said, 'The border collie is a lonely dog and he needs you to command so he can do the job that is needed. The kelpie is like an Aussie; you just tell him what the job is and get out of his way!'"
Thorp continued with his observations: "Kelpies are very self-reliant. They are quite capable of thinking for themselves. Kelpies can often solve the problems of handling livestock on their own and don't work well when screwed down as tight as most border collies."
Thorp also stated that the dogs' handlers decide what type of livestock their kelpies should oversee.
"I lived by a sale barn and often was asked to catch their livestock that escaped. They could tell you some pretty exciting stories about what my dogs could do," Thorp said.
However, kelpies aren't natural guard dogs. "If you have a kelpie as a guard dog, you will need a security system; most kelpies are very friendly. I have never had one that would guard anything," he added.
Despite his fondness for kelpies, Thor
p often recommends border collies for livestock handling because borders love to be around people.
"However, if a person is a livestock person and needs a hired hand with whom to work, there is nothing better than a kelpie. You must understand that there are two types of kelpies: the working Australian kelpie that is registered by the Working Kelpie Council of Australia, and the Australian kelpie that has its own registry, more like AKC," Thorp noted.
"People need to learn more about herding livestock so that they can understand their dog better and what needs to be done," he added.
Susan Thorp stated simply: "If you're a person who wants to stand out there and be in total control of your dog, don't get a kelpie--get a border collie."
English shepherds: The versatile breed
English shepherds make great working dogs. Not only will they guide your livestock, but they'll also protect them, your property and your family.
Cheryl Johnson of Halifax, Pa., has owned English shepherds since she was 8 years old. Johnson finds the breed versatile, loyal and extremely intelligent. They can also be trusted more than border collies to stay on the farmer's property.
"The difference between a border collie and an English shepherd is that the border collie would possibly get into trouble if left unpenned when no one is around and it's not working. The English shepherds, if left alone, can be found sitting facing different ways on the farmstead, keeping an eye out on the whole farm when [they're] not working. If something's out of order, the English shepherd will come tell you an
d/or try to get things in order.
"[Once] I had one come to alert while the other held a stray dog in a corner so I could capture the intruder. One main factor [why] we had English shepherds was the fact that they were gritty dogs that would get the job done, no matter what. This meant that they could be kicked by a cow square in the jaw and go back to get the job done," Johnson explained. "They're devoted."
According to Johnson, English shepherds actually gather and drive rather than perform straight herding. She described the breed as "upright dominant herders, who herd to maintain order. They are bossy, especially the females, and this 'bossy' drive helps them to maintain order. Without this bossy nature, they wouldn't be motivated to work. These dogs want to rise in pack position, right below their human family and above all the other animals. Dogs that work primarily from prey drive, [such as] border collies, rather than pack drive, [like] English shepherds, do it because they're compelled to respond to/control the motion of the stock rather than from a motivation to maintain order in that territory. This is why border collies are not generally as good for situations needing a manager rather than just a herding dog for the sheep flock."
Johnson also stated that English shepherd females are the alphas, with the authoritarian and managerial skills. Male English shepherds like to secure the farm and surrounding property.
"My females are great examples of this. Since we have no animals now, they manage the other dogs, actually grabbing the males by the scruff of the neck if they don't respond to shoulder butts and dragging them to the location that they feel they should be in, such as next to me or into the house. The males always run the perimeter of the property in the morning to check out their territory," Johnson said.
Every farm and farmer is different. And each farmer needs to find the dog that best fits with the farm family and the farm operation.
Which dog is best for your farm--the famous border collie, the Australian shepherd, the kelpie, or the English shepherd? You decide.
Komancheck writes about Pennsylvania farming from her home in Lancaster County, Pa. She loves helping small and medium-sized agriculture businesses with their marketing. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From top, photos 1, 3, 5 and 6 are courtesy of Cheryl Johnson. Photos 2, 4 and 7 are courtesy of Tenley Dexter.