Updated November 29, 2020
“Watch out. Those dogs are crazy, they bark and dig and destroy things.” This is what Daisy’s owner was warned when he told his friends he wanted a heeler.
Luckily for him and Daisy he didn’t listen and followed his instincts. And he is now able to enjoy one of the closest and happiest dog-owner relationships you will ever see. Read how he did it.
It’s not something that happens by accident. It’s sadly true that many of these breeds do develop severe behaviour problems which lead to suffering, euthanasia or relinquishment to a shelter. The important point is that it’s almost always a result of how they are managed by their owners.
What Working Dogs Are Like
What Border Collies, Kelpies, Cattle Dogs (Heelers) and their crosses have in common is that they are working dogs. Thousands of years of selection by farmers has produced the canine equivalent of workaholics.
These dogs should be sold with a little warning tag. It would say something like “For active owners only. Must be kept amused and challenged”.
They can be the best of dogs or the worst of dogs. They are quite possibly the most intelligent of all the dog breeds, the most trainable and loyal. However, if they are not entertained or challenged, they will seek entertainment themselves. This is nearly always something unwelcome, such as digging, chewing, barking at birds, running along fences etc. With time, many of these under-stimulated dogs develop anxiety disorders which mimic OCD conditions of humans.
In the right hands these dogs are simply awesome; look at YouTube clips of amazing dogs and you’ll see how many are these breeds. They don’t just learn quickly, they love to learn.
To give you an idea, this is Daisy’s daily routine. Every morning she goes to the oval with her frisbee. She loves to chase it and it is her motivator for training. So her owner (with no formal teaching) has taught her tricks just by using a frisbee throw as a reward. That’s her (above) doing a few in the clinic (though it’s not as good as in a less-distracting environment you can get the idea). In the evening, she gets more training and play in the yard.
This is what it takes to have a happy working dog. I really like the idea of using a frisbee instead of a ball.
Jack pictured here chases balls and like so many in middle age, he’s getting quite sore afterwards. A frisbee should be easier on the joints but still be a good target to chase.
Jack was a stray rescued from a shelter, but his previous owners clearly looked after him; he’s well-behaved and healthy. His new owners know what he needs and have kept up his daily exercise even with a baby almost due. It’s only been the owner’s reduced ability to do other exercise with him that has made the ball chasing more of a problem.
Looking After Working Dogs
They’re not too old to learn new tricks as well! Working dogs’ lives are also improved by attending regular dog training classes. A common mistake is to think dog training is all about sit-drop-stay when it’s really more about so much more. Just like we enjoy learning new skills, so do they.
So when choosing a dog for your lifestyle, consider these breeds if you like to be busy and want to include your dog. I don’t think you need to be physically fit or active as long as you challenge your dog’s mind with daily training (which is really just structured play) and take them out every day; having a big backyard means nothing to them. Also important is environmental enrichment for when your dog is at home. These can include:
- Bob-a-lot or other food dispensers
- Areas where digging is encouraged
- A wading pool (great in summer)
- A variety of toys and puzzles
- Stuffed Kongs or raw marrowbones
- old cardboard tubes, boxes, soft drink or milk containers filled with food (as long as your dog won’t swallow plastic)
When choosing the puppy, it is often possible to predict their personality at the first meeting, so ask the breeder’s advice. Remember that behaviour traits are highly inherited, so also make sure you meet the parents if you can. And here’s to the thousands of cross breeds straight off the farm that keep vets poor by never being sick.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!