Working Farm Dogs
Story by Michael Durante Jr.
Photos: (Sheep Dog) Courtesy of Mary Anne Fallon; (Guard Dogs) Courtesy of Laurie Szostak
The Hudson Valley is well-loved for its working farms. Yet despite our region’s agricultural ideal, most homes in our area are centers of consumption, not production. This writer might venture to guess that folks in our region are as likely to ask Alexa to order their groceries as they are to pick beans from their own backyard garden. This context is important for understanding working farm dogs.
Contemporary Americans think of dogs as members of the family. Pet dogs have names and beds and toys and presents during the holidays. But of course, dogs have only recently been treated so. Humankind’s historical relationship with canines was usually set in a world of work. Whether protecting or retrieving or herding, dogs filled certain necessary niches better than people could, and they still do. Some breeds have become so specialized in their roles that to ask these dogs to live differently would be detrimental to them. This article celebrates these working farm dogs—which are highly effective but seldom used, at least in America—and the people who raise them.
Farm dogs can be split into two types: herding dogs and guardian dogs. Breeds that express one of these traits generally do not excel at the other, and the training for each trait differs drastically. Based on advice from people who raise these specialized breeds, true herding dogs and guard dogs do not make the best household pets.
Herding dogs are often referred to as sheepdogs, and they can herd goats, cattle and other livestock, though some are bred specifically to herd a certain type of livestock. For instance, Australian cattle dogs will nip at the legs of the cattle they are herding; that kind of behavior, if not trained away, could injure a goat or lamb.
Border collies are probably the best-known sheepdogs. Collies have been used by shepherds for hundreds of years in Europe. Etymology helps us understand our relationship with these dogs: “Collie” is a Gaelic word meaning useful and may be derived from the German word “kuli,” meaning useful or a laborer (similar to and pronounced like the English word for laborer, “coolie”). Even today, border collies are bred for ability, not for conformation or physical attributes, so their appearance varies widely but they tend to have intelligent, energetic and acrobatic behavior in common. Indeed, all border collies share an original sire: Old Hemp, an English collie born in 1893 whose working style became the breed standard.
Mary Anne and Mike Fallon have been training border collies from their Copake, NY, home for 25 years. Mary Anne began competing in sheepdog trials after seeing one while on vacation. She remembers, “I saw these dogs and I just said, ‘Mike, I’m doing this.’”
Mary Anne describes trained border collies as “keen.” They stare intensely, in the zone, eagerly awaiting commands from their trainers. One might imagine a sheepdog trial—a competition where each dog/trainer duo maneuvers through obstacles to herd a flock of sheep—as a hodgepodge of dogs running around, fetching and playing with Frisbees while one dog competes. The Fallons will tell you it is more like a tense sporting event where the other collies stare attentively, eyes fixed on the sheep everywhere they go. Not all border collies are keen, however. Some are “loose-eyed,” which might mean they just need more training, while others are naturally “strong-eyed.”
Perhaps predictably for a tradition with strong Irish and Scottish roots, sheepdog training is chock full of odd-sounding commands, at least to my American ears. Mary Anne Fallon tells her collie, “Come by,” and she runs clockwise around the sheep; “Away to me,” and she turns to run around the other way; “Walk up slow,” and the dog crouches down into the grass and approaches the sheep in what would be comical slow motion if she did not seem so serious about it; “Lay down,” and the collie immediately stops and returns to Mary Anne. After a basic obedience training, border collie training begins with these sorts of commands and then progresses to whistled commands, which are necessary at sheepdog trials when your dog might be hundreds of yards away and still listening to you.
In addition to the sheepdog competitions, Mary Anne runs Goose Watch (goosewatchers.com), what she calls “a hobby and a business.” Call Goose Watch and Mary Anne will bring a border collie to chase away undesirable geese—notorious for destroying sports fields and public parks—in an entirely humane and controlled fashion. But besides chasing geese, border collies are still used at some Hudson Valley farms for herding livestock. Sara Healy at Buckwheat Bridge Farm says, “A border collie takes two to three years of daily training to become a reliable herder.” Her dog, Riley, herds goats and sheep from field to field and even has time to add videos to his personal Instagram page @dogslifeofriley.
True sheepdogs, like border collies, tend to be difficult pets. They have a lot of energy that requires obedience training for direction and need to have time outside every day to expend that energy. Owners recount that trained collies try to herd the vacuum or even their children. “Worse,” Sara Healy explains, “if these dogs do not have tasks, they can become frustrated and exhibit undesirable behaviors that make them unwelcome in homes.”
At the very least, Mary Anne Fallon insists, “If you want to get a border collie, talk to a border collie owner.” For those for whom witnessing a border collie trial is enough, do not miss Fallon’s demonstrations at the Sheep & Wool Festival on October 21–22 in Rhinebeck—she runs three demonstrations each day of the festival. Go to www.sheepandwool.com for more details.
Livestock guardian dogs are not aggressive attack dogs, but instinctive defenders. Sara Healy, who has three Maremmas in addition to her border collie, explains, “The livestock guardian dogs do not rescue. They prevent and deter.” This is a big distinction. “They usually try to avoid the conflict by barking and warning the predator to stay away. They should not jump the fence to chase a predator. That would leave the remainder of the pack vulnerable.”
Roman writers from the first century AD recommend “white dogs” for their guardian skills, as well as for their coats, which distinguish them from common predators.
Brent Zimmerman of Lime Kiln Farm had just begun raising sheep in Tuscany when his neighbors introduced him to the breed. He has owned Maremmas to guard his sheep ever since, for the last 27 years. Unlike herding sheepdogs, these guard dogs will do their job without direct commands. Zimmerman describes them as “dogs that use their head.” That works out well, because Maremmas live out in the fields or the barn with the livestock in their care, not usually or even often in the presence of their human owner. When they sense a threat, they react independently. Zimmerman says this feature is “absolutely key against predators” like wolves and coyotes, which use sophisticated group predatory strategy when hunting livestock.
Healy and Zimmerman agree that the Maremmas’ independent streak is vital to their guardian abilities. Healy goes so far as to say, “I would not want to call a guardian dog and be able to call it off an outside predator. I would want that dog to ignore me and stand its ground protecting against whatever threat it deems is there.”
Maremmas are raised alongside the livestock they protect. They grow deeply attached. Zimmerman recalls his first Maremma chasing the truck that carried away the cattle she was guarding…for miles. Today, he just asks his dog, Pippa, “Where are your sheep?” and she’ll dart to wherever they are on his 400-acre farm. Sometimes Zimmerman would bring his goats back to the barn for milking, only to discover that one was missing. Sure enough, “If I was missing a goat, I’d be missing a dog.” The Maremma is so attached to its flock that the dog often knows better than the farmer if the livestock are threatened.
These guardian dogs do not require much training to protect livestock; they need only learn which livestock they are meant to protect, and the rest is instinct. However, both Healy and Zimmerman are sure to socialize their Maremmas with other animals that are neither under their guardianship nor predators to the flock, such as people. This is especially important in farming regions such as the Hudson Valley, where a livestock farm’s most likely neighbor is someone’s residence, and where many farms welcome customers to on-farm stores. Visitors to Lime Kiln Farm in West Coxsackie will be pleased to meet Brent Zimmerman’s Maremmas, Pippa and Bobo, who are trained well enough to know the difference between a hungry customer hunting for cheese and a hungry wolf hunting for goats.
Like herding dogs, Maremmas and other livestock guardian dogs make difficult household pets. Though Zimmerman describes them as “big, fluffy, white and gorgeous,” and his Maremmas seem perfectly friendly to farm visitors, they shed horribly and instinctively display aggressive behavior when threatened. Their job is to protect, and they will do so whether they are protecting livestock from predators or your mailbox from your mail carrier.
So When Can I Get One?
As has been stressed repeatedly in this article, working farm dogs are not ideal house pets. They are, however, beautiful breeds that display traits people have valued and perfected in dogs for millennia. If you want to raise dogs like this, the Hudson Valley is a wonderful place to buy a few acres and a flock of sheep.