Running a farm is not an easy job, as there are many tasks that must be done on a daily basis, and it’s important to not rely on one farmer to take care of it all. Not only are extra farm hands helpful to complete the daily tasks at the barn, but dogs can also be used to take some stress off the farmer’s back – but only if properly trained.

It’s believed that the first farm dog was used to assist sheepherders back in the 1570s, and they’ve commonly been used for a wide variety of farm tasks ever since. They provide protection, herd, keep away predators and more. There are Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) that sometimes sleep with the animals outside for constant protection, or even guard the outside of the fences to prevent predators from entering. Farm dogs can also protect workers during night/early morning chores, preventing animal or human predators from attacking. Farm dogs are much more common nowadays than in the 1570s, as it is thought that almost every farm in the U.S. has had a dog since the 1940s.

The most popular breeds for farm dogs depend on what the dogs will be used for. Some examples are Australian shepherds, Australian cattle dogs, border collies and Great Pyrenees. The breed of the dog isn’t as important as its ability to do the job, however. For example, Shetland sheepdogs were originally used to herd and protect sheep and keep predators away from gardens, but not all Shetland sheepdogs would be right for a farm dog job.

The ideal type of dog depends on the farming task they are expected to complete. In general, companionship is needed in order to instill trust between farmer and dog, allowing commands to be respected and preventing the dog from running away. Some dogs need high intelligence and athleticism; others may need protection instincts to fight off wildlife. No matter what, the dog must be able to listen to commands and be teachable, loyal, focused and fit. The dog must be trusted unsupervised with livestock.

When training a dog for farm protection and use, it’s critical to go through basic training first – sit, stay and come. Without basic training, you won’t be able to keep control of the dog and will have a much lower success rate with more advanced training, such as herding cattle. You must prioritize the safety of the dog and the farm animals, especially during the training period. For some canine breeds, it may be their instinct to go after livestock. If you are unable to control your dog, you are risking the lives of your farm animals and the dog.

It’s important to slowly introduce a new dog to the farm. There are a lot of new stimulants they may have never seen, such as large equipment, manure, large animals and lots of noises and smells. As the dog handler, you are in charge of the dog’s safety, so make sure to keep them on a leash when working on introductions and training. It will probably take multiple short visits before the dog will feel comfortable on the farm and around the area to be able to listen to you and focus on commands. Introducing the dog to each type of animal individually will limit the stress on both the dog and the farm animals. With less stress, the dog will be able to focus on the training and won’t be overstimulated by the chaos happening around them.

A basic farm dog guide

Not all Shetland sheepdogs would be right for a farm dog job. Take this Sheltie – he may be the right breed, but he does much better is the comfort of his own home. Photo by Kelsi Devolve

Remember, the dog is not at the farm to control the animals and scare them but to keep the animals in their specific spots and help herd the groups when needed. It’s not beneficial to allow the dog to bark and scare the animals – or chase them. This causes unnecessary stress for the livestock and can even decrease their production and wellness. Do not tolerate aggressive behavior. Keep a fence between the dog and new animals when initially introducing them and end the training session if aggression is displayed. Don’t forget to reward your dog for good behavior and not just punish them for unacceptable behavior.

Creating off-limit areas is key to safety for your dog. The perimeter of the farm should be fenced off to prevent running away. A roaming dog is at risk for getting hit by a car, attacking an animal or human, getting lost and getting into something toxic/dangerous. Keep in mind that some foods and plants are toxic to dogs. Sweet-smelling livestock food has high grain and fiber that can shift the pH in the dog’s stomach, causing gas and loose stool. Even livestock dewormers are toxic and can cause seizures and comas. Additionally, keep dogs away from any large farm equipment, including tractors and tillers. Even eating leftover hoof debris from hoof trimmings can irritate many of their digestive organs.

If you are hesitant on the training portion of getting a farm dog, consider getting a dog from a working farm. Dogs who have lived around livestock their whole lives are usually much better farm dogs than those who have never seen livestock before. They are already used to the other animals and the busy life at a farm, making the transition to your farm much less stressful. It’s a great idea to visit the farm the dog has been raised on to see how it interacts with their livestock and workers. It’s also crucial for the dog to be sociable with humans, especially if you’re expecting frequent visitors and strangers on the premises such as veterinarians, delivery trucks and customers at the farm stand.

There are many perks to owning a farm dog, but there are also potential problems to consider: the time it takes to train the dog and the risk of hurting the dog or the livestock if aggression breaks out, especially if farm animal is injured and bleeding. The smell of blood/flesh can cause the dog to react to their natural hunting instincts, and the training can go down the drain in the blink of an eye.

At the end of the day, make sure to prioritize your dog’s health, well-being and quality of life. Not all dogs are cut out for farm life, and that’s okay. Take care of your dog as a normal dog first, with regular vet visits, flea/tick/heartworm prevention, grooming, nail trims, diet and water, shelter, microchipping – and love and attention! You can always hire a dog trainer and get an official farm dog certification (from the American Kennel Club). Although there’s a lot of considerations and steps to training a farm dog, there are plenty of guidelines to help you through it. Remember, it is better to re-home a farm dog as a pet than to keep it at the farm if it is aggressive or non-trainable as a farm dog.

by Kelsi Devolve