What it takes to make a working farm dog

1 May 2012

Working dogs are the unsung heroes of Australian farming life, said Professor Paul McGreevy.
Working dogs are the unsung heroes of Australian farming life, said Professor Paul McGreevy.

The secret to breeding a successful working farm dog is the focus of a new national University of Sydney study.

Professor Paul McGreevy and Professor Claire Wade, both from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, are working on a three-year research program to explore what distinguishes the best working dogs on Australian farms.

The end result will be better tools for breeding working dogs that will save time and money by increasing the aptitude of the dogs chosen to be trained.

"Working dogs are the unsung heroes of Australian farming life, now more valued than ever in times of high labour costs and a shortage of skilled labour," said Professor McGreevy, the coordinator of the program.

"A good farm stock dog is a critical member of the farm team and their contribution is comparable to that of a human staff member."

The project is in collaboration with the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Meat and Livestock Australia and the Working Kelpie Council of Australia.

"For the first time we'll measure behavioural and health attributes in farm dogs, focusing on Australian sheep and beef producers," said Professor McGreevy.

"We are currently talking to farmers and breeders to help us determine exactly what traits are desirable and undesirable, for example those known as strong eye (keeping a visual focus on an individual in the herd or flock) and keenness."

The researchers then face the challenge of developing valid measures of these attributes. Traits such as enthusiasm and a good eye appear to be strongly inherited so it is anticipated that good progress can be made by selecting parents who are well endowed with them.

"We will follow numerous litters of pups through to maturity to see how stable these characteristics are over time. We'll see which are strongly heritable and hope to identify DNA markers that will help us identify dogs with good working potential for important traits," said Professor McGreevy.

At the end of the study the team plan to create a website, for those with an interest in working dogs, consolidating their knowledge of desirable traits and how to select for them.

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