Working Dogs - Part 1

Pet Tales
By Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Guide dogs, hearing dogs, service dogs, therapy dogs, police dogs, military dogs, search and rescue dogs, protection dogs and herding dogs - they all go to work every day. In the world of dogs kept as pets, sometimes we forget the work-a-day world that is normal for many canines.

Though certain breeds may dominate certain jobs, there are a surprisingly large number of breeds that can be called working dogs.

When one thinks of a herding dog, for most of us, it's the Border Collie that immediately comes to mind. They are the very embodiment of the alert, focused, high energy dog patiently directing a flock of sheep into a corral. Their eyes follow every move of the flock and their ears are finely tuned to the shepherd's vocal directions. Every move - slow walk, acceleration, run, freeze-frame, stop, crouch - is calculated for maximum effect and purpose. Yet, by no means, is this the only breed to be considered a herding dog. Once the idea of herding domestic animals took hold, 'man's best friend' quickly found itself employed in the effort. From the Appenzeller Mountain Dog to the Welsh Sheepdog there is an alphabet of canine breeds, developed in various parts of the world, to fill the need for a four-legged assistant to humans.

Sheep seem to be the herding animal that has spawned the greatest number of canine breeds to assist in their care. Hence we have Bergamasco Sheepdogs, Belgian Sheepdogs, Catalonian Sheepdogs, Icelandic Sheepdogs, Old English Sheepdogs, Portuguese Sheepdogs, Shetland Sheepdogs and Welsh Sheepdogs to name only a few breeds who can trace their name to an ability to work with sheep. The herding and care of cattle and goats is made easier and more efficient with the help of a dog. Therefore, we have a number of herding breeds that have been developed in response to that need. Some countries seem particularly adept at producing herders. Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Kelpies, Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dogs and Australian Koolies are all breeds who originated 'down under' as breeds skilled in herding. Oddly, contrary to what its name implies, the Australian Shepherd actually developed as a herding breed in the western United States.

There's another category of working dogs whose job profile is closely related to that of the herding breeds. Livestock guard dogs are breeds who are more involved with the protection of the herds they live with, rather than the actual herding of them. These breeds are usually medium to large in body size and able to socialize well with the herd of sheep, cattle or goats where they will spend their working days and nights. Maremma Sheepdogs, an Italian livestock guard dog, has been protecting flocks from predators for 2000 years. Spanish mastiffs originated in Spain to fill the same role in that country. Anatolian shepherd dogs guard sheep from cheetah in Namibia. Although sheep again are the most common animal to benefit from a bodyguard living amongst them, livestock guard dogs also are used to protect goats, alpacas, cow and calf herds and even poultry. Dogs working in this role are exposed to the animal species they will guard usually between 3 and 16 weeks of age, the stage in a puppy's development known as the primary socialization period.

Well, what if the herd you're thinking about protecting and that only occasionally requires herding, all walk on two legs and live in a small house, on a city lot, in an urban community in southern Ontario. Would any of these livestock guarding or herding breeds make an acceptable house pet? Certainly many of the qualities and attributes that allow these dogs to excel in their work are also desirable in a pet. Several of the breeds mentioned will be recognized as breeds now commonly kept as pets. Remember, the majority of dog breeds were developed for roles other than being an urban pet. Dogs can be very versatile in adjusting to different owner lifestyles.

Nevertheless, when considering the choice of a pet, it is always important to carefully consider breed characteristics and needs and try to determine how closely they can be matched in a life that will be quite different, perhaps, from the job for which they were originally bred.