Farm Dogs, Trial Dogs.



There are a number of farmers in Western Australia who both trial their dogs and do farm work.

I have spoken to some of them who admit it is difficult to get a dog to be the best at both. This is more the case for three sheep trialing wheras in Utility trialing a more farm type of dog is favoured and many of the top three sheepers do not do utility or yard trials. Most farmers who trial will look for a dog who will be a farm dog first as well as always being aware of what is needed in a trial dog. So a good farm dog, who may have some problem which will lose points on the trial ground, such as a turn tail or lack of a good cast will not make a great trial dog, and may not be retained. A lot of farmers will allow their dogs to work on the farm for a while before they do any trialing. This can settle a full on type of dog but also can have its down side in that the dogs can develop some bad habits along the way. For experienced handlers this is probably not too much of a problem but others need to be aware of certain things like allowing the dog to cross when he can easily go behind us. While doing farm work it is not always practical to make the dog go right around behind us if the sheep are a bit of a distance away on a drive, or on a long cast. Or if the sheep suddenly turn and race the wrong way or string out along a fence it is far easier for the dog to cross to cover them.

Most farmers say that once the dog is quite mature ie. getting to 4 or 5 years old, they learn the difference between farm work and trial work and adapt to the situation.

There are a number of people who just trial as a sport and don’t do farm work. These dogs will always excell at trialing as that is all they do and they dont learn to cross, slice or otherwise do things which are handy on a farm dog but not neccessary in a trial dog.

If anyone has tried to turn a large mob of sheep which are running flat out,then a slice and often a bark is an important tool. A dog which casts out really wide and tries to stop in front and head the sheep may only succeed in being run over or splitting the sheep up unless he is a very strong dog. Some bounce can be a help too. My Driftz is a great bouncer, handy on the farm but a bit of a disaster on the trial ground. It can be frustrating having a dog you know is a great farm dog but all people ever see on the trial ground is a full on, bouncing dog who doesen’t always listen to commands. We know their real abilities however, and to me it is more satisfying having completed a hard day on the farm with your dog than putting on a good show on the trial ground. (Admittedly though it would be nice to do both and we all aim for that in our dogs.)

To me utilitywork is important and after getting a mob in out of the paddock I dont want to have to go and change dogs to draft out or yard the sheep (unless the dogs are worn out) so like to use the same dogs. Most dogs will be better at one than the other so we utilize their strengths and work around their weaknesses. Lara is better in the paddock and better on ewes and lambs so I use her mostly for these jobs. Driftz is good at both but a bit too pushy on wild sheep and better on hoggets or dry sheep. Rio and Angel are both calm wide workers better on wild sheep or just for moving a mob a long way slowly. If I needed to get the job done in a hurry I would also bring a dog to push them along a bit as well as a dog like Rio to cover out wide. Lara is good in the yard just to keep the back held up as is Rio, whereas Driftz and Caleb will work the sides or back them to keep them moving. So different dogs for different jobs.

Wheras a trial dog is just that. People who select just for three sheep trial work will choose a dog who works wide and calm naturally, is biddable, gets on with the sheep and can be placed wherever they want to place them. Some of these dogs can lack strength on a trial ground where the sheep are strong and can find it difficult to move the sheep around. Most handlers will train these dogs to do a strong walk up in a race or similar but a lot of the time it is not naturally in the dog and the dog can look good on the trial ground but lack genuine strength, and so may not cope on a farm. Some trialers will admit their nice trial dogs would not be much good on a farm. Some people have even suggested that we have segerate these ‘trial dogs’ from the farm dogs but this would be too difficult. Some good trial dogs never get the chance to do farm work so wether they would handle it is never known.

Strength on a few sheep or on a one on one situation is very different to moving a big mob though. I have seen dogs who appeared really strong turn and run when faced with a mob of stampeding sheep. I have found that time and experience teach the dog how best to move big mobs. Young sheep can be tricky in that they will turn and face the dog or even run up to the dog as they are often curious. So a dog needs to be able to walk towards the sheep to get them moving.

Utility trialing was developed to more closely resemble farm work, but unfortunately along the way too many rules and regulations were introduced and the course became simple enough that a weaker type of dog could win here and yet still not be considered a good farm dog. This is not the case for all dogs though, as many that win in utility are indeed top farm dogs.

Here in WA we only have a few straight yard dog trials, whereas in some of the eastern states they may have as many as 50 odd trials a year.

Over there a specialized type of dog is used for these trials which is bred and trained just for yard work. This is fine for these events but unfortunatly these dogs are short heading in the paddock and a lot of casting ability or other paddock traits have been bred out.

This is such a shame as the true utility dog is the utmost dog in my opinion.

Farm dogs need to show initiative in their work, we dont want to be commanding their every move, so allow them to do what needs to be done. On the trial ground of course this does not always work. So the dog needs to understand that trialing is different and adjust accordingly, but this will take time.

With farm work the dogs do learn how to work independently, read stock and cope with all sorts of different situations. There is a lot more to a farm dog though, than just the right ability. They must work ewes and lambs, rams, very big mobs or just a few, work in hilly rocky ground often where the sheep are out of sight, push sheep over creeks etc. and also work with a number of other dogs.

Dogs that ride happily on a motor bike are an assett. There are some dogs who seem to be born with an innate fear of bikes which makes it hard to teach them to ride one. I have found that this is more the case with Border Collies, Kelpies seem to naturally enjoy bike riding.

A farm dog must also deal with stressful situations, when the sheep need to be yarded quickly, it is hot and dusty and everyone is bad tempered. Stamina being an important issue here. There is a world of difference between doing a 15 min trial and working all day in the heat, but if your dog has never done it there is no indication of how much stamina the dog has, or wether his constitution will cope with this. Also a good farm dog has to be able to jump fences easily, wire or wood. One can’t be opening gates all the time, and also if the sheep have bolted along the fence it is sometimes easier if the dog can jump over the fence and get to the front to head them. And when moving a mob through a gate if the sheep turn and race the wrong way and you cannot get past due to the gateway being blocked by the sheep, it is useful if the dog can go over the fence to head them back before they go too far and perhaps mix with another mob.


So to breed a dog that is a good utility farm dog and also good on the trial ground is the aim here. Dogs that are from proven utility lines will always have value as a farm dog.

Most farmers in my district want a utility type of dog that has a leaning more to yard work. If we breed just for the trial ground then the ‘extra’ pups from these litters are of little use for the average farmer, so it is important to keep the ‘farmdog’ in the lines. Admittedly some farmers may require a more paddocky type of dog but mostly they seem to prefer to use bikes to bring in the mobs. To me the bike is a mode of transport to get to where the mob is and the dogs do most of the work. But I prefer not to rush the sheep, whereas some farmers are always in a hurry to yard the mob.

I know of some of the more trialing bred pups that have gone to sporting (agility etc) or pet homes which is ok in my opinion, but to market dogs such as these to farmers can cause them to lose faith in buying from people who trial their dogs.

Off course there are always exceptions. I recently sold a pup that should have been soft, and slow maturing ( by this I mean probably not as full on as a farmer might require or as early starting) to a farmer after explaining to him it may be a while before it is working well. Anyway at three months he is already using it in the yard and it appears very forward and keen. But the farming bloodlines are in the dog and as long as we don’t breed them out completely the dogs will still have that ability. It is hard to choose the more trialing type of pup until we see them work and as we cannot run them all on we keep a couple and make our selection. I always offer money back or find a replacement if the pup I sold to a farmer turns out unsuitable for his needs. In this way I may end up with a pup that is more trially and the farmer does not have to shoot the pup or rehome him to a more unsuitable place.

Temperament in our dogs too must be considered as a lot of farmers have young families. To me a dog that is the best farm dog/trial dog in the world is of no use if he bites kids or strangers although I guess some people will cope with this if the dog was strictly a trial dog and had no interaction with children. Still to me I want to be able to trust my dog with anyone. Some dogs are very dog aggressive also a problem on a farm but not so much on a trial ground as long as it is kept away from other dogs.

Also something to note is that all farms are different. The type of dog I need for my farm will be different to the type another farmer may require. We breed big strong sheep who often require some strength to move them but can also be a bit wild. So the dog at his first time on the trial ground may treat the trial sheep like the ones he has worked at home with ordinary results. So only by trialing at a lot of venues will he learn to cope with different sheep. Also training at other places is of benefit.

And speaking from my own point of view, and perhaps from others as well, my dogs are great farm dogs but would most definately be better trial dogs if I was dedicated enough and had the spare time to finish them off. I tend to get them to great farm dog stage and don’t do the extra that is required to turn them into good trial dogs as well. It is harder if you have children etc or are busy working but I suppose if I was a really dedicated trialer I would do the extra. Perhaps one day when I am retired. (one can dream)