Making the Most of the Iconic Work Dog

Thursday, January 30, 2020

By Tiffany Bennett, Livestock Consultant

It is estimated that there are more than 270,000 stock working dogs across Australia with most being Kelpie and Border Collie or their crosses. Work dogs are recognised as hardworking loyal companions, contributing significantly to agriculture, with a good dog recognised as doing the work of at least one stockperson.

For many people work dogs are more than just a tool. Owners of work dogs often view them as a companion or work colleague and may form very close bonds with their dogs.

A study undertaken in 2015 by the University of Sydney collected information from producers to evaluate the economic worth and valuable behavioural phenotypes of the Australian livestock herding dog. In addition environmental and genetic factors influencing canine success were explored.  

The study found that the economic value of the Australian livestock working dog represents a 5.2 fold return on investment. This was calculated using the number of hours a typical dog worked over its lifetime as a function of the costs of a dog over its lifetime.

The team also found that working dog success rates are significantly associated with a series of environmental factors such as management and handler attributes. Housing dogs with others in a yard or pen was associated with a higher probability of being successful than individual housing on a chain or in a cage. Other factors significantly associated with success rates reported by working dog owners include: whether dogs are acquired as unstarted, started or fully trained, training with positive reinforcement, the frequency a dog is exercised, and the handler’s view of their dogs. Owners who are higher in the personality trait of conscientiousness tended to have more successful dogs, as well as handlers who viewed their dogs as work mates and companions rather than just a workplace resource.

Across Australia, the study found that very few producers used electric shock collars, and those who did tended to have lower than average success with their working dogs. It is important to note that under the Animal Welfare Act in South Australia electric shock collars are illegal.

There is a common misconception that work dogs are driven by a desire to please their handlers but in fact their primary motivation is they love their job. Misunderstanding this can lead to situations where handlers can become frustrated and interpret that the dog is being defiant.

The athletic performance and workload during shearing was also studied. This revealed that during these peak periods, dogs typically work for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and may travel up to 40km per day with speeds of 37km per hour recorded.

Yard dog trials have long been part of rural life and feature heavily on the programs of most rural shows and field days. The study verified that dog and livestock interactions in yard trials are a useful means of verifying the efficiency of a dog in yard work. High scoring dogs tended to minimise stress in sheep, which would come as no surprise to many.

In addition to environmental factors, the pedigrees of over 80, 000 working kelpies were collated. They found that many of the valued traits handlers and breeders value in kelpies such as trainability, calmness, force and stamina to name a few, are highly heritable which has the potential to form the basis of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for kelpies.

Studies such as this are important to the rural sector given the financial and social return the Australian work dog provides producers. Ensuring work dog success to minimise wastage and maximise dog welfare and performance is something that all producers should strive for.

This article was compiled by Tiffany Bennett, PIRSA, with information obtained from the research project ‘Valuable behavioural phenotypes in Australian farm dogs’ undertaken by the University of Sydney & funded by Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and Meat and Livestock Australia with support from the Working Kelpie Council of Australia.