Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Farm dogs

by  Clive Dalton

New Zealand’s hard-working farm dogs are worth gold to their owners, who often give them affectionate names such as Girlie, Fly, Stride, Beaut and Loyal. These huntaways, beardies and other purpose-bred herders muster thousands of sheep and cattle across hill and high country – a tough job that can’t be done any other way.

Heading dogs, huntaways and all-purpose dogs

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.

Choosing a farm dog

The success of any working dog depends on the bond between dog and handler, so obtaining a well-bred dog is important. Buyers can choose to purchase:

  • A pup. It is hard to predict how a pup will turn out when viewed before weaning, so it is important to go to a reputable breeder to check the pedigree and see the parents working.
  • A half-broken dog. This dog is usually aged from six to nine months, has started to work, and responds to basic commands. It is important to check the reasons for sale, and whether you will be able to form a bond.
  • A fully trained dog. This is a good option, as you can take plenty of time to see the dog working and learn the commands that it understands. A reputable breeder will guarantee the dog and replace it or refund your money if it proves unsuitable.
  • A dog bought at an auction. Dogs are available at special dog sales and sometimes at farm dispersals. There is limited time to see them work, and the final price depends on the competition.

The New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association offers advice on these points.

Preferred sex

Male dogs are often preferred, because female dogs come on heat, become pregnant and need time away. Some farmers claim that female dogs have a softer nature and may be less headstrong. But temperament depends more on strain than sex.

No chips on Rusty

Since July 1 2006, dogs in New Zealand have been required to have a microchip inserted (by a vet or council officer) under the skin on the neck. The tiny transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, contain information about the dog and its owner, and can be read remotely. The aim is to keep closer tabs on dogs and their owners, thereby minimising attacks, especially on children. However, farm dogs are exempt from the rule.

It is not popular to de-sex working dogs, or bitches not needed for breeding, as many believe this leads to obesity and sluggishness. Veterinarians do not support this view.

Selecting for colour

As shepherds need to see a dog at long distances, the preferred colours are black-and-white, or black-and-tan, rather than solid black. Red and ginger dogs are not easy to see, and white dogs look too much like sheep.

Traits and defects of working dogs

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


Early training

Training starts as soon as the pup shows an interest in stock. From the age of six weeks well-bred heading pups will start eyeing anything that moves, and they and huntaways would be expected to take a serious interest in sheep by six months. They must not be injured or frightened at this stage, or their enthusiasm may be delayed.

Basic training covers commands to get the pup to come to the handler, sit and stay. It is critical that in these early stages the pup is socialised, and (under strictly controlled conditions) experiences all the environmental hazards it will be working with later – for example, travelling in vehicles or on bikes, and getting through fences and gates.

Training with sheep

A young dog is then taught to go around sheep, and learns right- and left-hand commands. With regular lessons, at first for about 10–15 minutes twice a day, the dog gains confidence and becomes strong enough to do full-time work as part of a team – usually one heading dog to two or three huntaways.

Training for trials

Dogs that are trained for trials need extra schooling on top of their daily work. The key in training is to build a strong bond between dog and handler, always making sure the dog sees the handler as its ‘pack leader’.


Here are some of the basic voice commands:

  • ‘Stand’, ‘Stand there’ – Stop, and remain standing. This is preferred to ‘Sit’ or ‘Lie down’.
  • ‘Away’, ‘Come away’ – Move to the right
  • ‘Bye’ or ‘Come bye’ – Move to the left
  • ‘Go back’ – Recast and gather more sheep
  • ‘Get in behind’, ‘Get in’ – Move beside the handler and wait
  • ‘Wayleggo’ – Leave the sheep and return to the handler
  • ‘Keep out’ – Take a wider cast
  • ‘Speak’, ‘Speak up’ – Bark.

Whistle commands are then added to the voice commands, and the dog responds to both.

Feeding, housing and health


A working dog is an athlete, regularly covering 60–100 kilometres a day or more on big hill-country musters – much of it at 20–30 kilometres per hour. Understanding this has led to massive improvements in diets available for high-performance dogs. This was badly needed as dogs were traditionally fed on frozen mutton, which is grossly deficient in energy and vitamin B complex. The excessive amount of bones also caused digestive injuries and constipation.

There is a wide range of dog tucker that can be used both wet or dry, with extra energy and protein for dogs with special working needs, or during pregnancy and lactation.

Dog Friday

One of New Zealand’s folk heroes is James Mackenzie, who in 1855 was found at an inland pass in South Canterbury with 1,000 sheep from The Levels station, near Timaru. It was largely through the skills of his dog Friday that he was able to drive so many sheep such a distance, without being discovered. Mackenzie was jailed for theft of the sheep, but later pardoned.


Dog housing has greatly improved in recent years. It is now rare to see working dogs tied up under trees, in holes in a bank, or in old rusty oil drums. Modern housing ranges from individual insulated kennels to purpose-built units with sleeping quarters and outside runs. Some shepherds prefer a dog to be chained to a single, transportable kennel on the ground – there is more chance to pat and talk to the dog than when it leaps into a fenced run at the end of the day.


Farm dogs are susceptible to all canine diseases. They are also at risk from internal parasites (worms) and tapeworms where the dog and the sheep are intermediate hosts. These are hookworm (Uncinaria), roundworm (Toxocara canis) and whipworm (Trichuris).

Hydatids is caused by tapeworm larvae that live in the gut of dogs. The tapeworm’s life cycle also involves an intermediate host, such as sheep. The hosts do not show clinical signs, so it is difficult to determine whether they are infected. True hydatids is caused by the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, ‘fleaworm’ by Didylidium caninum, and false hydatids by Taenia hydatigena. True hydatids can cause serious illness in humans, through contact with infected dogs. In New Zealand, where hydatids was once a significant health risk, a prolonged programme of dog dosing has eliminated the disease.

Another tapeworm (Taenia ovis) shared between dog and sheep causes ‘sheep measles’. Infected sheep carcasses must be trimmed or rejected for export. The disease is not a human health risk.

External parasites of dogs include fleas and lice. The cattle tick (Haemophysalis longicornis), which is also found on deer, can be a problem in warmer areas.


Farm dogs are very prone to injuries such as broken legs, dislocated stifle joints (equivalent to the human knee joint) from getting caught in fences and gates, and cuts and tears from barbed wire and stakes. Bruising from falling off farm bikes is also common. Poisoning from baits laid for vermin is a very serious risk to farm dogs, so a shepherd’s knowledge of first aid can be crucial when veterinary help is far away.

Sheepdog trials

Sheepdog trials are a competitive sport in which handlers direct their dogs to move sheep around a field and into fences and/or enclosures. Three sheep are always used in New Zealand, as this is the most challenging combination for the dog: the sheep form a two-and-one, with the single sheep always being unpredictable.

The popular television series A dog’s show and Wonder dogs have shown the skills of these dogs to a wider audience.


Dog trials are part of New Zealand farming history and probably date back to a trial in Wānaka in 1867. There are reports of trials at Waitangi and Te Aka in 1868, at Wānaka in 1869 and Haldon Station in the Mackenzie Country, in 1870 – all before an 1873 trial at Bala in North Wales, which is claimed to be the first ever. The first huntaway events were at Black Forest station near Lake Benmore, in 1870.


Dog trialling in New Zealand is controlled by the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association (NZSDTA), which started in 1940 and is made up of affiliated member clubs. The meetings start with the summer A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows and culminate in regional and national finals around June (winter). There are shepherds’ trials and maiden dog trials for less experienced handlers throughout the year.

Standard classes

There are four standard classes for trials run under the NZSDTA.

Class 1: Heading dogs – long head or long pull

The dog has to cast out, lift (move) and pull (drive) the sheep, usually held on a distant hill, in a straight line into a ring of 20–30 metres’ diameter on a flat area, towards the handler. Time allowed is 9–14 minutes.

Class 2: Heading dogs – short head and yard

The dog has to cast out, lift and pull the sheep, which are held much nearer than in the long head, towards a marked quadrangle. It then has to drive the sheep along a pegged lane, through hurdles and work them into a 2-metre-square yard or pen. The handler is restricted to holding the gate. Time allowed is 10–14 minutes.

Class 3: Huntaways – zigzag hunt

The sheep are released at the bottom of a steep hill, and the dog has to drive (hunt) them up a zigzag marked course. The dog must always ‘face-up’ and bark at the sheep and not the handler. Time allowed is 8–10 minutes.

Class 4: Huntaways – straight hunt

In this event the only markers are at the top of the course. The sheep have to be hunted directly up the centre of the course to the top markers, in as straight a line as possible. Time allowed is 8–10 minutes.

Other trials

Although sheep dogs also work cattle, trials to demonstrate their skill with cattle alone have not been popular in New Zealand.

Acknowledgements to Maggie McCoward of the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Clive Dalton, 'Farm dogs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Clive Dalton, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008