Kōrero: Farm dogs

Whārangi 1. Heading dogs, huntaways and all-purpose dogs

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A vital workforce

There are about 200,000 working farm dogs in New Zealand. Without them, the costs of farming sheep and beef cattle would be much higher, because it would be difficult to muster extensive areas of hill and high country. A monument at Lake Tekapo honours the working dog’s contribution to the Mackenzie Country; no high-tech replacement for their skills is in sight.

Heading dogs

‘Heading’ or ‘casting’ means going around a flock of sheep.

New Zealand heading or eye dog

Bred from the border collie, this is an upstanding, long-legged and smooth-haired speedster that goes around and heads stock, and eyeballs them at close quarters to hold them. It is discouraged from barking. This dog is at its best with quick-reaction, close-quarters work such as catching or shedding (separating) sheep.

It is usually black and white, although there are some black and tan strains, as well as red or amber, with or without white.

Border collie

Imported by the first shepherds from the Scottish borders, the border collie is black and white, long-haired breed. It shows ‘strong eye’ like a predator, ‘claps’ (drops down) on its belly, and crawls along while stalking stock. However, on New Zealand’s large farms that practice makes it very difficult for both sheep and shepherd to get a good view of the dogs – for instance on rough pasture with stumps and scrub, and in the open spaces of the high country and mountains.


Huntaways are big, strongly-built dogs used for everything – heading, hunting, forcing sheep into pens and backing (jumping on their backs), as well as working them in yards and woolsheds. All huntaways are bred to bark, and are selected for a loud, deep bark rather than yapping. Their size and shape varies widely. Coats may be long and shaggy or smooth-haired, and are usually black and tan.

Bearded collie or beardie

Long-haired and with a beard, this breed from Scotland can be grey, white or black-and-tan. Beardies are good-natured and tireless, and despite their long hair they work well in hot conditions. They are good yard dogs, skilled at moving stock onto trucks.


It is said that the Smithfield is named after London’s Smithfield livestock market, where it was a drovers’ dog. It is like a small huntaway and may have a bobbed (short) tail.

Bred for success

Almost all sheepdogs imported into New Zealand between 1910 and 1930 have a dog known as Old Hemp somewhere in their pedigree. Born in 1893, he was bred in Northumberland, England. His sire was Roy – good tempered, easy moving and not crouching too much. His dam, Meg, was extremely strong-eyed. With these combined traits the dog became an outstanding worker and trials dog. His talents were passed on to over 200 pups, and all major British dog trial winners had his genes. These provided a source of sheepdogs for New Zealand.

All-purpose dogs

New Zealand handy dog

These general-purpose dogs work well for anyone – a very useful quality. The better handy dogs are a strain of huntaway and not a heading dog–huntaway cross, which are often disappointing workers. Farmers comment that the old handy dog strains are now very hard to find, as dog trials have encouraged dogs that specialise in certain tasks. There is now renewed interest in yard-dog trials.


An all-round working dog – the equivalent of the huntaway – the kelpie was selected from strains of border collie taken to Australia by early British shepherds. DNA testing has revealed that they are also related to the dingo, although it is unclear when these genes were introduced to the breed. These tough dogs are either black or chocolate-brown. In New Zealand, kelpies work with both sheep and cattle.

Australian cattle dog

Also known as the blue heeler, Australian heeler or Queensland blue heeler, this is the toughest of all farm dogs, bred to ‘heel’ and ‘nose’ cattle (nip them hard) in order to stop and turn them. Their genetic origin contains ‘black bobtail’ (a very short tail) and dingo (to eliminate barking) as well as kelpie, blue merle collie and dalmatian.

Canine A–Z

The famous sheepdog in Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats, a New Zealand cartoon series, is simply Dog. More colourful real-life names include Ajax, Bloke, Baldy, Biff, Bung, Cobber, Crafty, Diesel, Dodger, Girlie, Ferg, Friday, Grizz, Hobo, Jock, Kiwi, Leroy, Madge, Plod, Rag, Rebel, Smoke, Spud, Socks, Thug, Toff, Topsy, Trick, Wan, Witch, Yappy and Zac. Names with one or two syllables are preferred, because they are easy for handlers to call, and for dogs to hear.


New Zealand working dogs (heading dogs and huntaways) have never been registered by the New Zealand Kennel Club, which records the pedigrees of the country’s dogs. However, since 1968, because farm working dogs do well in obedience tests, they have been allowed separate registration as ‘non-pedigree, speyed and castrated working dogs’. This maintains a record of the genes in the farm dog population.

Only working dogs that win official dog trials can be recorded in the ‘studbook’ of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association. The association has no requirements on physical form or colour, as farmers are only interested in a dog’s ability to work, and looks are of little concern.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Clive Dalton, 'Farm dogs - Heading dogs, huntaways and all-purpose dogs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/farm-dogs/page-1 (accessed 20 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Clive Dalton, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008