Commentary: Farm Dogs

  • Farm dogs like Pip, shown, are serious professionals. Photo: Laura Sanborne

August 30, 2013

Pip had a choice to make. The puppy—just a little over two months old, still a little fur ball of black, white, and tan -- could either follow my wife Heather around a corner, or not. Her decision proved to be momentous.

As a professional dog trainer, Heather had done dozens of puppy evaluations. She was conducting this one to assist the breeder, and to help our search-and-rescue teammate, Barb, to pick out a new working partner. With our older German shepherd, Lilly, approaching retirement age, we were looking for a search-and-rescue trainee as well.

Selecting the breed, the English shepherd, had initially been Barb's idea. But Heather, who always seems to have read two or three books on anything to do with dogs, immediately recognized their potential for search and rescue as well. Like the related border collies and Australian shepherds, they're intelligent, independent herding dogs, bred to interact strongly with human partners and to, literally, find the lost sheep.

It's ironic that I have to tell you about English shepherds. Today they are rare, but at one time they were the most common dog in America, the classic farm collie. Not to be confused with the chicken-brained hairballs called show collies, they once served the role of the all-American, all-purpose farm dog. They did just about every job a dog could do on a farm, and in a home. The name, we think, came from the Amish—these dogs were the ones you bought from the "English"—though we don't know for sure.  The fate of the English shepherd paralleled that of America's small family farms. As big agribusiness and the industrial exodus choked the small family farm to death, the farm collie went with it.

But you can't keep a good dog—or a good idea—down. With the homesteading and local farming movement, the American family farm is back, and its new owners are discovering that, just as our grandparents' heritage breeds of crops and livestock serve the purpose far better than any poor factory-bred creature, so do our grandparents' dogs. A good farm dog can help you manage your livestock, making it possible to move stock without ATVs, electric prods, and the like. She can keep pests down, improving vegetable and grain production and eliminating the need for traps and poisons. She can curtail livestock losses to predators, again eliminating more environmentally damaging measures.

Homesteading is a momentous choice that caps a chain of decisions—political, moral, economic—that are returning more of us to the land every year.

For us, the first choice was Pip's. Follow Heather or not, and display her degree of attachment to people. In theory. What we didn't expect—what we came to learn would be typical for this puppy—was that she'd create a third choice. She took off after Heather, and hit an unfortunately placed fence. Shaking herself off, distracted, she got another idea, and trotted back to the box that held a toy she'd found so wonderful in the earlier play test. She nosed the box open, and pulled the toy out, chewing on it it cheerfully.

Technically, it was a fail for the human-orientation test. But as Heather always reminds people, you have to look beyond the strict confines of the test scoring and see what the context tells you. We realized that Pip would be a motivated, independent, intelligent searcher. But she would need experienced human partners to live up to her potential. We had found our search-and-rescue partner.

A farm—a quarter-million-dollar dog toy, as the joke goes—followed almost inevitably, once we'd saved up the money. Today we don't just own English shepherds. In a real sense, we belong to the breed, and its wellbeing.  We're raising our own fourth litter as breeders. We average a litter about every three years. Pip is gone; her daughter, and our search-and-rescue partner and all-around farm dog, Rosie, is now the mother. Our work, and theirs, continues.