Working Farm Dogs

September 2017

Understanding the health and physiology of working farm dogs at Massey University

Research is currently underway that is aimed at giving researchers and farmers a clearer idea about farm dog health and physiology. It has been estimated that New Zealand's working farm dogs travel around 20km every day during peak periods.

Dr Naomi Cogger is a Senior Lecturer of Epidemiology at Massey University. She says farm dogs are the “high performance athletes” of our farms, but until now, very little data about Kiwi farm dogs' health and physiology existed. 

A study of Australian working dogs estimated that if dogs were paid a salary for the hours worked they would have a median lifetime earning of $40,000 AUD, which represents a 5.2 fold return on investment. It would be reasonable to assume that dogs in New Zealand would earn at least the same amount; in fact the economic value would exceed that if you take into account the labour units that are replaced by a single working dog.

Naomi says farmers in New Zealand will readily agree that some hill country farms would not viable without dogs because of the labour that would be required to replace the work they do. "They are actually quite a huge investment in time and emotional investment for the farm, so farmers want to keep them running longer.”

A dog owner typically has a team of between four to six dogs, a mixture of huntaway, heading and handy. The farm dogs’ work with stock, around vehicles and with high activity levels places them at risk of injury and disease.

The collar monitor project is part of a wider five-year study Naomi is running, with 600 dogs being visited every six months by a vet for a full physical. Each dog has been fitted out with the equivalent of a Fitbit. Additional readings for types of activities, energy expenditure, sleep quality and environmental temperature will be taken for a year. The information will then be cross-referenced with health data collected from the same dogs in the long-term study.

The device is fitted with Heyrex monitors, a FitBit-like device, to learn more about the dogs’ lives. Heyrex monitors will be attached to the collars of 150 working dogs and will record information about their activity, sleep quality and temperature. The project is part of the much larger TeamMate study initiated by Vetlife, one of the largest veterinary organisations in the South Island. 

TeamMate is a five-year observational study of New Zealand working dog health, wellbeing and longevity. It is a collaboration between Massey University and Vetlife.

Dr Lori Linney is the project lead veterinarian. TeamMate was launched in 2013 with 145 owners agreeing to participate. Dogs in the study have a full physical exam performed twice a year by veterinarians from Vetlife. 

Until recently, research on health in working dogs focused on specific diseases.

Additionally, although studies have been undertaken around farm dogs presenting at veterinary hospitals, and surveys of owner-reported health conditions have been done, not all dogs with health problems are taken to veterinary clinics, and owners may not detect all health problems, so there are gaps in knowledge of working dogs’ health. The TeamMate study addresses these gaps. The results will provide farmers with information on breeds, workloads, diet, housing and information on impacts of disease and injury.

Since the study was announced, farmers have inundated Naomi with questions to help them care for their dogs.  She believes there are about 200,000 working farm dogs in New Zealand and about 85% of them are worked solely by their owners.

The checks were "to find out what goes wrong with their health and if we can give them a longer and healthier career”. That project started in 2014. It could give vets and farmers insight into ideal body condition, energy intake versus activity levels, and how other stresses affect a working dog's health.

"We'll look at what sort of activity they're doing and any increase in the risk of injury," says Naomi.  "Right now, nobody has any idea what it takes for a dog to go out and do its job each day and how much dogs work." The majority of farm dogs are cared for well, though many farmers want more information about ideal weights for their dogs, she said.

Some of the other questions farmers wanted answers to were:

  • How genetic deformities work
  • What are the signs/types of poisoning
  • What virus’ can affect an entire team /what are the symptoms
  • Best type of housing
  • What are the best foods and how do we know what to give our dogs – how to read dog food labels
  • How to deal with timid dogs
  • Inability to keep on weight- is this a myth – what can be done
  • Dealing with arthritis
  • How to avoid breaking legs off motorbikes
  • What types of vaccinations to use and why
  • To socialise or not to socialise a pup
  • How to fix/prevent a weak bark
  • Is worming/de-fleaing/vaccination necessary
  • What's better: a big or a small huntaway?
  • What should a pregnant bitch and/or pups be feed

She says townies might look at a farm dog and say 'gee that dog's skinny', but they have to run up hills, they have to work really hard so it's in their interest to be light.

However, the data could open up the debate about heated kennels. Some farmers in the South Island have started heating kennels to keep their dogs warm during those cold Otago and Southland winters. "It's a valid concern. We know that once they get below a certain ambient temperature you have to burn more energy to maintain body heat. So it may be worth heating them because if you don't heat them, you've got to feed them more." The study concludes in 2019, but Naomi says they’re hoping to release some information before that.