The Making of a Model Farm Dog

Good farm dogs are hard to come by. Learn how to train your pooch to become a model citizen.

Glorified by fond memories, our old Doberman-mix, Kai, was the model farm dog.

He enjoyed napping peacefully in a patch of sunlight, never bothered livestock, and—while keen to warn us of intruders with a suitably scary bark—he worshipped all humans.

In reality, of course, Kai was somewhat less than perfect. He relished snacking on manure (ugh!) and, given the opportunity, would have embarked on an exciting but short career as a car-chaser.

Farm Dog Checklist

Help keep your country canine happy, healthy and safe by providing the following:

1. A yearly veterinary exam and needed vaccinations.

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2. Protection from and treatment for parasites like tapeworm, heartworm, fleas and ticks.

3. Regular grooming and nail-clipping.

4. A healthy diet and fresh, clean water.

5. Shelter from the elements.

6. An identification tag, license and microchip.

7. Plenty of exercise.

8. Basic obedience training.

9. Supervision and protection from rural dangers.

10. Love and attention!

Kai, however, seems like a saint compared to our current canine.

An active Coonhound mix, Pippin lives for three things: to eat any substance vaguely resembling food; to sniff out and chase innocent, little furred or feathered creatures; and to bark at our horses in as obnoxious a tone as possible.

As a puppy, he was in perpetual motion and constantly in trouble. Need I say he seldom took naps in the sunshine? Fortunately, thanks to dog-proofing and much training on our part, plus several years of mellowing maturity on his, Pippin is no longer the scourge of the farmstead. Still, he’s got a long way to go if he hopes to achieve doggy sainthood.

What about your country dog? Does he terrorize your sheep, wander into the road or demolish your vegetable garden? Whether you’re already dealing with a troublesome canine or currently contemplating a tail-wagging addition to your farm family, check out these tips for helping Spot meld safely and harmoniously into rural life.

Obedience 101 for Farm Dogs
Sadly, too many dogs wind up in shelters due to behavioral problems or a failure to fit into their owner’s lifestyle; country dogs are no exception. While obedience training won’t prevent every problem, it can go a long way toward making any dog-city, suburban or rural—easier to live with.  “Farm dogs need to know the basics, such as ‘come,’ ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ ‘lie down’ and ‘leave it,’” says Eve Marshark, Ph.D., a certified dog behavior consultant who, along with her helpful Border Collies, tends a small flock of sheep on her farm in Bedminster, Pa. “Understanding these commands will allow you to walk with your dog and keep him under control in many situations. Of course, for training and in truly hazardous situations, you must use a leash or long line for safety.”

Dana Agresta, a Rottweiler rescuer whose menagerie at Hidden Oak Farm in Chuluota, Fla. includes miniature donkeys, horses and sheep, also believes in the power of basic obedience. “Dogs need to be taught right from wrong just like a child,” she says.  “Learning the simple commands such as sit, down and stay makes them an asset as a companion and a farm dog.”

What’s so special about these commands? Imagine somebody left your gate open and you see your dog preparing to dash into the road. If he’s learned “come” or a solid “sit/stay,” it could save his life. Or say an elderly relative drops by; instead of letting your enthusiastic hound jump on her, you can spare her some bruises by commanding him to “down/stay.” “Leave it” is a helpful command to use when your best friend steals your work gloves, gobbles manure or chases chickens. You’ll find these commands come in handy in many other farm situations as well.

Of course, with time and patience you can teach your dog much more than the basics. Agresta’s seven Rottweilers know how to bring her items like the water hose, pitchfork and buckets, and they herd her sheep into the barn. Once, when her elderly horse fell and couldn’t rise, she instructed her dog, Mo, to sit/stay, ran to grab a halter and lead, slipped it on the gelding, and gave Mo the end of the lead rope. Grabbing her horse’s tail, she instructed Mo to “bring it” as she started to pull. The dog backed up, yanking hard, and with their combined efforts the horse gained enough leverage to get up.

To Roam or Not to Roam?

Roaming dogs are a pet peeve of mine, and for good reason.

As a child I was bitten by a neighbor’s Boxer while bicycling and knocked flat when a German Shepherd jumped me from behind en route to school.

During my short stint as a veterinary assistant, I saw dogs suffer and die after being crushed by cars. Once, an unleashed American Pit Bull Terrier attacked my gentle, old dog and had to be pried off his foreleg; on another occasion I found my daughter’s favorite ewe lying dead and torn in our pasture with the two culprits—a Labrador and Shepherd—still at the scene.

Think your dog will lead a happier life cavorting across the countryside?  Maybe, but probably not for long.

Roaming dogs risk deadly encounters with cars and irate farmers as well as injury by wild animals and livestock. They can bite people, cause vehicle and bicycle accidents, and kill stock, wildlife and pets.  Depending on your local animal control laws, your dog could be impounded and you could receive a hefty fine. You might even find yourself facing litigation.

Here’s how four rural dog owners weigh in on the issue:

“I don’t leave my dogs outside unattended, and we’re all fenced in. Many people today still think that a dog needs to be free to run in order to be happy.  That’s simply just not true.”—Eve Marschark, Bedminster, Pa.

“I strongly believe that all my animals—livestock and dogs—need to be kept safe and secure on my property.”—Dana Agresta, Chuluota, Fla.

“I don’t believe in allowing dogs to roam. Dogs are pack animals… even a well-trained herding dog in a pack will revert to its natural instinct to hunt and kill prey.”—Terry Workman, Bennet, Neb.

“The most trouble I’ve had in country living is the neighbor dog that ‘never does anything wrong’ and ‘wouldn’t harm a flea’ who came over and destroyed livestock and chased pregnant ewes until they aborted.”—Diana Dyer, Port Townsend, Wash. 

Whether you decide to attend an organized obedience class with your dog, hire a trainer or try teaching him on your own, consistent positive reinforcement training will produce the best results. “I’m a firm believer in positive reinforcement,” says Terry Workman, a herding dog trainer who owns four Border Collies and one Bearded Collie, as well as keeps hair sheep, Fainting goats and waterfowl on her farm, Way to Me Acres, in Bennet, Neb. “In other words, I use a lot of praise and never strike a dog in training. The only negative reinforcement I use is to change the pitch of my voice.”

Agresta also uses plenty of praise and treats when training her dogs and steering them away from undesirable behavior. If a dog chases a horse through the fence, for example, she’ll give him a command to sit or lie down. Obeying brings praise and a canine cookie; continuing to act crazy earns the offender a “time-out” on the leash or in a portable pen. “If a dog wants the privilege of being loose with the other dogs, he has to learn appropriate behavior,” Agresta says.

To find a local dog trainer knowledgeable in positive reinforcement techniques, Marschark recommends checking the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) website.

“There are also some good books that can help you select and train a new dog. Anything by Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell or Pat Miller can help with training,” she says.

Dog-Proofing Your Farm
With its wide-open spaces and animals to sniff out, the country may seem like an idyllic place for a dog to live, but it’s also fraught with dangers from gun-toting neighbors to pooch-stomping horses.

And dogs—especially if they’re young, untrained, unsupervised or bored—can wreak havoc on your stock, belongings and property.

“The most important thing I can recommend is to be 100 percent proactive with your dog,” says Marschark. “Know what he is doing at all times by supervising his activities indoors and out until he’s at least three years old. Use fences, a crate or kennel when you can’t devote your undivided attention to his safety. This sounds like a burden, but once you get a routine established, it isn’t too difficult.”

Well-maintained fencing, for which you have various options, will help keep your dog from wandering onto the road, harassing your neighbor’s expensive alpacas or chomping on an unwary bicyclist. “The first thing we had installed when we moved to our farm was a chain link fence and in the last year we had a kennel with four dog runs built,” says Workman. “In the time we’ve lived on our farm, we’ve seen numerous dogs and cats killed along the road. I believe good fencing is just as important in the country as in the city; we may have less traffic, but we still have traffic.”

The right fence can also protect your dog from hazardous encounters with livestock and wild animals. Diana Dyer of Whisky Hill Farm in Port Townsend, Wash., uses a combination of ElectroBraid™ electric fencing (five strands) and square-wire fencing around her property to keep her two Welsh Corgis and two mixed breed dogs in, and coyotes out. “The horses and goats are fenced in their own paddocks; the dogs patrol the farm but aren’t invited to run loose with the livestock. This keeps them from playing with the stock and hurting a goat or getting kicked by a horse,” she says.

Agresta has surrounded her entire property with no-climb horse wire and panel mesh gates. She posts signs to inform visitors that dogs and livestock live on the property and to keep the gates closed. As an extra security measure, she always keeps the dogs inside the house when she’s away.

“I’m a big fan of stock fencing and woven wire to keep dogs on the property,” Marschark says.  “I don’t like invisible fences, since dogs are vulnerable to attack from outside dogs that come onto the property and since they can still get run over by a car coming up the driveway. The invisible-fenced-in dog will take the shock when he’s chasing after a squirrel, but not want to come home through the fence for fear of the shock. Also, the equipment can be triggered by things like electric garage-door openers.”

Fences will help keep your dog from trampling or digging in your vegetable and flower gardens, too. Keep in mind, however, that since many dogs excel at digging, jumping and even climbing, it’s difficult to make a fence completely canine-proof. If you want to ensure your bored pet stays home while you’re away at work, keep your dog confined in the house or in a secure kennel.

Other safety basics include storing antifreeze, pesticides and other poisons safely out of your pet’s reach, and confining your dog when operating tractors or other potentially dangerous farm machinery. Although it may be common rural practice, don’t let your dog ride in an open pick-up bed, no matter how happy it makes him; even tied dogs have fallen to their deaths, and in the event of an accident your pet doesn’t stand a chance.

Country Canine Etiquette
Of course, it’s just as important to be a good neighbor in the country as it is in the city, and that means not letting your dog wander over to your neighbor’s property to defecate, dig or bother livestock and people (fencing will help here). Folks who live close by will also appreciate it if you keep the countryside smelling sweet by picking up pet waste on your farm and disposing of it properly. If you’re invited to another farm and want to bring your pet, ask first. “I’ve had many people come over with their dog in tow, thinking it would be great if their dog could practice herding my goats. Not so,” Dyer says. “People need to realize that maybe their dogs aren’t welcome at another’s farm.” Even kept at home, your dog can annoy neighbors with excessive barking and howling, especially if he’s bored or seldom exercised—or worse, chained to a doghouse all day. “I see barking as a lack of interaction between the person and the dog,” explains Marschark. “Remember that dogs co-evolved with people, which means they were meant to be with people, not kept in solitary isolation tied to a doghouse. Dogs are social creatures and they need someone with whom to interact, play ball, walk or do farm chores.”

That would be you and me, so let’s go have some fun with our farm dogs.

*This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Subscribe to Hobby Farms today!

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