Most farms have at least one dog hanging around, and that dog may even do something to justify his free supper. If you are new to homesteading, or have somehow managed to remain dog-free and are just now thinking “hmmm, I think we need a dog”, the following information may be useful.
Dogs have been the farmer’s companions ever since the first dogs figured out that if they helped the farmer with the livestock instead of eating the livestock, the farmer was less likely to supplement his own diet with canine cutlets. Dogs have worn many hats on the farm and still do. Since dogs come in many sizes and forms, they are a natural for specialization.
Your first inclination when thinking of a farm dog is probably Lassie.
Have a seat.
AKC Registered Rough Collie Lassie is a myth. So mythical in fact that the dog actor playing Lassie wasn’t even female. Lassie was always played by male collies. (Good thing they have long hair, huh?)
Now, I have nothing against collies. I love collies. I’ve had collies and you will not find a sweeter, better-natured dog around. But your general run of the mill purebred collie of today will have some issues. Collies are known for eye problems. Seems the breeders liked the look of the almond-shaped eye better than the nice round eye that can actually be seen out of and have bred collies with eyes that are literally suffocated for lack of air. A sleek narrow head was also found to be more attractive so they bred for that over a nice round skull. Now there’s no room for a brain. Clearly, a dog who cannot see properly and has a squished in brain is not going to be a very good working dog. If you are itching for a good old fashioned ‘farm collie’ there really is such a thing. They don’t look a lot like Lassie, but then, Timmy’s yard did not look like a farmyard either.
Of course, there’s the OTHER collie: the Border Collie, and they are a completely different animal. Imagine Lassie on speed.
If you have a very busy farm with a lot of stuff that needs tending, herding, sorting, worrying, then a Border Collie is perfect. Border Collies are arguably smarter than a lot of people and have a whole lot more stamina. Where Border Collies (and their families) get into trouble is when the dog does not have ENOUGH to do. Border Collies need to work and if you do not give them a job, they will make one up. Tearing up an entire household worth of linoleum is a short afternoon’s work for a B.C. Escaping from the yard just in case the neighbor has something to do takes about a split second if you have an average fence. If your fence is fashioned after the one at the maximum security prison set into 3 feet of cement, it will take an entire second.
On a farm with plenty of work to do, a Border Collie can be an invaluable companion—sharp, quick, always ready for any adventure you may have to go on no matter the weather—just the chance to be DOING something with you will be met with an exuberance that’s rarely found for something short of winning the lottery. The big one.
Farms harbor vermin. It’s a fact. You can deny it, you can ignore it, but they are still there—mice and rats will be wherever there is a food source and that means your farm. Terriers have been bred to dig out vermin—the word “terrier” comes from the Latin word “terra’ or earth, so they are literally dogs bred to “go to earth”. The most commonly known terrier right now is the Jack Russell Terrier, thanks to the TV show Frasier and Eddie, their dog. Today’s terrier will kill mice and rats. Unfortunately, like the Collies, the terriers of today are usually so far away from being working dogs, that they are indiscriminate in their prey and will seriously deplete your flock of chickens as quickly as your mice.
Back in high school, I worked on a poultry farm where the house pet dog was a Cairn Terrier. Like Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Now, if you recall, Toto was a farm dog and there were chickens blowing by during the tornado that he had not killed. The terrier on the poultry farm, however, was kept firmly chained when outside because if loose, he had been timed at killing a chicken EVERY 30 SECONDS till caught. My own flock of hens was recently diminished by the Jack Russell Terrier down the street, and the neighbor gave up on chickens because her rat terrier made short work of them.
For a large terrier, an Airedale is a good choice. When used as working farm dogs they are more for guarding and pulling carts, but individuals can be gifted as herders and hunting dogs as well. They are usually good babysitters and are strikingly handsome.
Be very careful with small terriers. I currently have a crossbred terrier who is wonderful at not killing chickens. She does not kill mice either. She will absolutely tear up a rogue cookie, however. In fact, my best mouser, up to and including any cats I’ve had is my four-pound toy poodle. Go figure.
There are a lot of other “specialty” dogs who fit in on the farm—previously we discussed the Livestock Guardian Dogs in an article devoted just to them.
The hunting dogs: pointers, hounds, spaniels, and retrievers are all good choices for farms where hunting is part of the routine.
Every once in a while you will find, by accident, a dog who is completely suited for a job on your farm—my four-pound poodle is a good example.
And of course, there’s nothing quite like a good mutt. Employing a mixed breed dog can be a very good thing. They are usually much more inexpensive as far the initial outlay for purchase. There are people who believe that the mixed breeds possess ‘hybrid vigor’ making them less prone to health problems. This is not true. I’ve seen just as many mixes with hip dysplasia and skin conditions as purebreds. The best reason for getting a mutt is that they usually really need the home, and although I’m not one for anthropomorphism, I truly think rescue dogs tend to try a little harder to be Good Dogs than their counterparts who were born into good situations.
Even with the best of intentions, common sense must play a factor in choosing your mixed breed. Collie/Shepherd/Retriever crosses are a good bet. Chow/Pit/Rott crosses may not be. Individual dogs will be as varied in temperament as in looks, so blanket assumptions should just be guidelines, not set in stone rules.
Just like everything else on the farm, your dog will need regular maintenance and upkeep. A good quality dry dog food should be given twice daily—especially with the larger breeds, multiple small meals lessen the possibility of gastric torsion (usually fatal, always expensive), and in all breeds, food is just assimilated better if not given in one big meal. Regular worming and vaccination schedules should be adhered to according to your local laws and climate. External parasites need to be kept to a minimum. Expect yearly upkeep expenses on your dog (not counting food and squeaky toys) to be several hundred dollars.
A good dog is as valuable an asset as anything else on your homestead, with the added benefit of also being your friend.