My wife and I are homesteading dog-trainers. In our duties as dog trainers, we have brought almost every conceivable breed of dog onto our homestead. One dramatic day, I was about to process a dozen meat chickens for the freezer. The chickens were still alive, on the ground in a temporary pen made from a folding dog-playpen.
My wife opened the car door and said, “Look at who I’m training this week!” A two-year-old Boston Terrier jumped out of her car, ran across the yard, knocked the chicken pen over and proceeded to grab each chicken by the head, shake until dead, then immediately go after another one. Chickens were running all over; they couldn’t outrun the dog. By the time we caught him, two minutes later, he had killed ten of the twelve chickens. Based on this experience, I would say Boston Terriers aren’t “Farm Friendly” in my book.
What Makes a Dog “Farm Friendly”?
Every homestead is different, but most have a few things in common. The commonalities include: open space including fields and ponds, gardening, chickens and other small animals, possibly goats, cows or horses, and finally predators. Let’s take them each in turn.
One word before I start is that none of this is set in stone. If you look up low prey-drive dogs you will see Doberman Pincers. If you look up high prey-drive dogs you will see Doberman Pincers. So, there isn’t 100% agreement on any of this. It is just my experience… which is limited to about 50 breeds that I have actually had out on my homestead. Keep reading for some additional recommendations on picking the “right” dog.
Open Spaces including Fields and Ponds
As I’m writing this story I have a client’s Shih Tzu sitting next to me in my chair. Shih Tzu’s are small, loyal, friendly, good alert dogs, and great lap dogs. But they are not great dogs for open fields and ponds. Why? This one took a happy run through my field and pond yesterday only to return covered in thorny sticks, briers, and filth. He had to get both a bath and a blow dry. It took nearly an hour to deburr the dog’s long hair (not fur) from all the junk it picked up, bath it and blow dry it. This is not an “all-weather” dog by any means.
Some dogs have hair instead of fur. This includes dogs like Shih Tzu’s, Yorkies, mini Poodles, and Maltese. These dogs may be hypo-allergenic, but they are not field-friendly. Field-friendly dogs have fur not hair, preferably slick fur like Pointers or durable fur like Great Pyrenees. We had a long haired Spanish Mountain Mastiff dog on our farm who never got a bath in his whole life.
Dogs with fur instead of hair shed. The shedding keeps them clean and renews their coat. Dogs with fur instead of hair generally have two coats. The undercoat is like a T-shirt, soft, comfy and warm. The outer coat is like an armored raincoat, waterproof, and biologically tough as fingernails. Our Mountain Mastiff didn’t need a dog house, he wore one on his back 24/7.
Another issue with open spaces is that they require good Homing Instincts. If you have acreage there are ways for dogs to get off the reservation. When dogs wander onto other farm and ranch properties they can (and do) get shot, or lost, or get you in trouble. You want a dog that knows how to “stay home.” Great Pyrenees are great at this, as are labs, sheepdogs, mastiffs, and golden retrievers. Lots of smaller dogs also stay close to home like chihuahuas, pugs, spaniels, and corgis.
Finally, fields have snakes and other critters in them. I prefer to have a dog who is alert to such things. My preference when I walk through a field is to have my dog off leash tracking back and forth about 10 feet in front of me, looking for trouble. Dogs that are good at this are pointers, hounds, labs, and spaniels.
General rules for a good “field dog” are dogs that:
- Have durable slick coats of fur, not fluffy hair.
- Can shed water and rain so they don’t constantly need baths.
- Don’t wander too far from home.
- Are active and alert to dangers.
Dogs and Gardening
This issue is simple. You don’t want a dog that digs for fun and profit. This makes spaniels a little less farm-friendly than some others. This is not a non-starter because you can teach your dog to stay out of the garden (see Training); it’s just easier to not have the issue in the first place.
What dogs really love to dig? Think terriers and hounds. Jack Russel Terriers, Dachshunds, Highlands Terriers, and Beagles all love to dig. Dogs that are made to find moles and gophers will dig your property from one fence line to the other.
Generally, the larger breeds aren’t really diggers. A lab might dig a round hole to lay in, but they generally don’t dig holes like it’s their job, unless they are really bored. Shepherds (Australian and German) don’t dig much. My favorite farm dog, Great Pyrenees, don’t dig. Mastiffs are another example of non-diggers.
General Rules for good “garden” dogs are dogs that:
- Don’t dig for fun and profit.
- Can stay out of restricted areas when trained to do so.
Dogs with Chickens and other Small Animals
I believe that chickens lay so many eggs because they are so easy (and fun) to kill. I’ve seen a snake kill a chicken, raccoons kill chickens, birds of prey kill chickens, and dogs very often kill chickens. What you are looking to avoid in dog speak is called “prey drive.”
Prey drive is a tendency of a dog to want to sight, chase, grab, play with, and kill (on purpose or accidentally while playing) small animals. Some dogs with high prey-drive are terriers (Jack Russel and Yorkshire), Doberman Pincers, Beagles, Australian Cattle Dogs (different from Australian Shepherds), Weimaraners, Whippets… and Boston Terriers as noted previously.
Prey drive works for dogs that need to hunt, corner, and kill small animals. It’s not so good for dogs that need to co-exist or even protect them. I had a Spanish Mountain Mastiff as one of my personal dogs on the homestead. At first, he wanted to kill chickens, but I trained it out of him in a day (see Training.) So “some” prey drive isn’t a non-starter if you are willing to fix it early. Mostly, however, you want to avoid it.
Dogs with very little prey-drive are Pugs, Brussels Griffon (a dog I really like personally), Labs and Labradoodles, Golden Retrievers and Goldendoodles, some Mastiff breeds, and my perennial favorite homestead dog, Great Pyrenees.
Good small-animal dogs:
- Don’t kill small animals.
Dogs with Large Animals
Some dogs are made to work with large animals. Any dog with the word “cattle” or “shepherd” in its name is probably a good cattle dog. Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, German Shepherds (particularly the low, stocky lines), Sheepdogs, Collies, and Corgies are also good with larger farm-animals.
The question is this: do you want your dog to “run” the herd, “guard” the herd, or just “ignore” the horse? It depends on the types of animals you have and your goals. Cattle can be run, herded, and moved. But if you have a single horse and a dog that wants to pester it while you are trying to ride, that can be a problem for you, the dog, and the horse. You could get thrown, the dog could get kicked, or the horse could run into a fence and get hurt.
I have never, personally, run cattle. I had a cow once and I had a client’s 8-month-old Australian Shepherd. The dog, with no training or encouragement from me, knew exactly what to do. He had never seen a cow before, but his instincts kicked in 100%. With a little exposure and minimal training, that dog could have helped me move a herd across a pasture, I’m sure.
I also worked with a young low-body German Shepherd around a small herd of cattle. He seemed to know what he needed to do. The cows didn’t like it, and he needed a little training to tamp down his enthusiasm, but I could tell that he “knew.”
With my small goat-herd, I used my favorite field and farm dog, the gentle Great Pyrenees. They are not only calm around all animals, they look like a sheep or a white goat, so they are good at guarding a flock against predators. In this case, I wasn’t looking for help herding. I was looking for a “shepherd” to look over the flock.
The Spanish Mountain Mastiff I had was also great with guarding. One night, I was out camping in the woods. No tent, just sleeping on the ground under the trees. The next morning my mastiff came walking up with a giant gash that went up the side of his ribs. It was deep, almost to the bone. Why? Some wild bores (who have razor sharp tusks) tried to come into the woods where I was sleeping. The mastiff fought them off, receiving a deep gash in the process for one of those tusks. Not to worry, he was fine. I sprayed the cut with Blue-Kote (an antiseptic for cattle) twice a day and it healed up within a week.
Good large-animal dogs:
- Work the herd (if that’s your preference)
- Protect the herd (if that’s your preference)
- Or, just leave the horse, or whatever, alone.
Dogs for Homestead Predators
This brings us to predators. Chickens, rabbits, goats, calves, sheep, quail, ducks, rabbits, they are all dinner on the hoof (or paw) for coyotes, wolves, birds of prey, snakes, raccoons, cougars, bobcats, lynx, and more. That’s where homestead dogs earn their keep.
Barking, chasing away, and defending; depending on the dog, it will do one or more of those three. Let’s take my precious Great Pyrenees and my Spanish Mountain Mastiff as examples. They lay around in the middle of the field or at the edge of the herd all day. They barely move. The Pyrenees, in particular, can look dead they move so little. But when something shows up on the edge of the field they get up, stare at it and bark. If it doesn’t run away then they start moving toward it, barking more. In the end, if the doesn’t leave then they will attack it and run it off. That’s a good field-dog.
The other type of predator walks on two legs and wants to steal your riding lawn mower so he can buy methamphetamine. The mastiff was good for that work as well. The Great Pyrenees, less so. German Shepherds, Doberman Pincers, and Rottweilers are good at active defense against people. Smaller dogs and dogs that bark are good at intrusion alert, but less so at actual defense.
With over ten years of dog training experience, I can say that my personal choice is to alert me, and possibly scare away an intruder, not to have a dog that literally attacks people. Here’s why. An “attack” dog is like a loaded gun with a brain of its own. Does the Rottweiler know the difference between a pillow fight and an assault, or can it tell if Billy from next door is a danger or just selling cookies for the band fundraiser?
I don’t like families, particularly with children, owning dogs that can seriously hurt people and who have the mentality to attack (aggressive Pit Bulls, Bull Mastiffs, some Great Danes, and Rottweilers, in my experience) I train these dogs regularly, and people who own them will swear they are gentle giants. But 275 people every year are killed by dogs. Over 50% are family members or friends of the family. About 75% of the dogs that kill are Pit Bulls, and Mastiffs (including Great Danes). Rottweilers and German Shepherds also make the list, just as a minor contributor. I would never personally own a Pit Bull. Not because they are all bad, but because there are BETTER BREEDS that I can trust 100%.
One last word on guard dogs. I hate Chows. Get one if you want… but don’t get one. They are very often mean and they bite people. They don’t kill people, but they bite them and they aren’t good family dogs.
That being said, I had a Spanish Mountain Mastiff that was a great dog. He did corner two people in his life and scared the pee out of them (I think they needed to be cornered). Luckily he didn’t actually attack them. If he had, I would not have been able to stop him. Balance these thoughts with the actual dog you are considering.
If you EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER (is that enough?) think that your dog is in ANY WAY a real danger to children or family members (or even people walking by your fence) then get rid of the dog. I don’t care what people on TV say about “it’s the owner, not the dog” or what breed apologists say about their breed. NO CHILD EVER DESERVES TO BE BITTEN OR ATTACKED BY A DOG. It is always 100% the dog’s fault. Get rid of the dog. That’s ten years of experience and 6,000 dogs trained giving that advice.
Dogs should not be used as weapons. Buy a gun if you want a weapon, not an attack dog. At least the gun has a safety and can be locked in a safe when not needed.
Good predator-protection dogs:
- Know their role
- Have the body type to fulfill their role (like staying outside 24/7)
- Can be scary looking… but…
- Are safe to family, friends… and also safe to (well-intentioned) strangers.
I’m a dog trainer. I train indoor dogs to not bark, jump on people, pee on the floor. I also teach family dogs to behave, calm down, and walk properly on a leash. Finally, I deal with dog “behavioral issues” such as biting, leash aggressiveness, prey drive toward other family pets, etc. I’m not primarily a “farm dog” trainer.
Some people will disagree with this advice, but I use an electric collar with a remote control for most of my field- and farm-dog training. Most of the issues you have with a homestead dog will be excessive barking (particularly at night), digging or getting in the garden, and small prey drive (chickens in particular). A shock (yes it should shock) collar like the Micro IDT Plus by D.T. Systems is a great solution for those problems.
Get some training or find a good video from someone like D.T. Systems. Shock collars that also vibrate are an excellent tool when you are trying to train a dog to not do certain things at a distance… like killing chickens. Obedience trainers will disagree. That’s their choice. I think a little training with a quality shock collar gives a homestead dog a great life of work and joy.
All dogs are different, but there are strong “breed tendencies.” If you can try a dog out before you keep it, that’s a good thing to do. If you get a puppy, introduce it to homestead animals very early in its life. If you want the dog to bark, encourage it when it happens. If you don’t want the dog to bark, discourage it with proper training. If you know your goal for your dog, you can pick the dog for your homestead.
Bank on one thing: whatever issues the dog has when you’re picking it out will probably continue throughout its life. If the dog seems skittish, then it is skittish. If the dog pees on itself when you go to pet it, it’s too timid. If the dog is overly confident and doesn’t seem to care about you, then it probably won’t care about what you want when you get it home. Don’t just take a dog because it is cute. They are all cute.
What dogs do I have? I had a Spanish Mountain Mastiff for my field work and a pug for my personal lap dog. They both passed away not too long ago. For a while, I had an old, Great Pyrenees who was old when we got him and only lived a couple years. I have since moved away from farm animals, so I don’t currently have a personal dog. I do, however, board and train dogs for others. Right now I have a client’s Doberman Pincer laying with her head on my leg and a Shih Tzu curled up on the pillow next to me.
My 3 year old Kangle Sheep dog won’t stop rolling in the horse manure. Other than that she’s great.