Story: Farm dogs

Page 3. Traits and defects of working dogs

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Dog traits explained

Specialised terms are used to describe the wide range of natural abilities that farmers look for in dogs.

Heading dogs

These traits are found in heading dogs:

  • Heading – ‘casting’ or going around sheep. Some dogs naturally take a wide cast, and others run straight at stock. The ideal is a pear-shaped cast. This trait is strongly inherited.
  • Eye – the ability to out-stare a sheep (which intimidates it and causes it to retreat), a trait that is strongly inherited. ‘Strong eye’ is where a dog approaches sheep in a low crawl like a predator. The dog often stands motionless with front feet raised ready to pounce. ‘Plain eye’ is where dogs have lost these natural hunting traits and walk erect when approaching sheep.
  • Shedding – the ability to separate one sheep from another, or from a group, at close quarters. This is useful at lambing time.
  • Leading – holding up sheep and then backing off to let them move forward.
  • Catching – catching a lamb and holding it down with open mouth, without biting. Skilled dogs will also catch and tip over a ewe and hold it down by the neck wool. The trait seems to be inherited, but can be taught.
  • Biting (or grabbing) – a bad trait in some strains of highly-strung heading dogs. Biting seems to have a fairly strong genetic base. Training can modify it, but such dogs always need to be watched. The remote-operated electric dog-collar, which gives a mild shock, has been a great training aid when the handler is at a distance.
  • Early maturity – refers to pups that work from a young age, a trait that is strongly inherited. Late-maturing pups are not wanted as they may never be inclined to work.


Like a heading dog, a huntaway must be good at heading and catching. Desirable traits are:

  • Backing – jumping on the backs of sheep packed in a yard or race, and walking over them. This trait varies between strains, so has a genetic base.
  • Barking – they must bark naturally on the command of ‘Speak up’. Such barking is strongly inherited.
  • Force – this is best seen in big dogs that will push among stock with no fear of getting hurt.

Driving them crazy

Writer D’Arcy Cresswell recorded his impressions of sheepdogs herding the flock ‘hither and thither, but in one general direction, like ships at sea when they tack. … When at work with the sheep, which they deal with in great mobs of hundreds and even thousands together, often, from lack of patience, men, sheep and dogs all lose their reason together, and scream and dance and altogether behave as if beyond hope of recovery. Nevertheless they quickly recover.’ 1

Temperament refers to the dog’s nature, and breeders say it is fairly strongly inherited. Huntaways are generally good-natured and anxious to please.

Threats to breeds

Some farm-dog breeds have become popular as pets, competitive dogs and show dogs, and breeders are concerned that this may lead to loss of their working genes. This has certainly happened with the Old English sheepdog, the long-haired ‘Lassie’ collie, the sheltie and the corgi, which were once farm dogs but are now unable to work with stock.

Inherited defects

Certain defects that affect a dog’s working ability are inherited. Examples are:

  • undershot jaw (the lower jaw is shorter than the upper)
  • overshot jaw (the lower jaw is longer than the upper)
  • hip dysplasia, where the ball comes out of the hip-joint socket. Inbreeding of top trial winners has increased this. It is made worse by high feeding levels and excess weight.
  • cleft palate
  • problems with the retina, causing early blindness.
  1. Philip Temple, ed., Lake, mountain, tree: an anthology of writing on New Zealand nature & landscape. Auckland: Godwit, 1998, p. 149. › Back
How to cite this page:

Clive Dalton, 'Farm dogs - Traits and defects of working dogs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Clive Dalton, published 24 Nov 2008