How to hire the perfect farm dog

With so many breeds to choose from, selecting your next farm dog can seem daunting. Here are some tips to help you pick the perfect pup!

Everyone is excited! It’s time to welcome a new dog to the farm. But with nearly 200 AKC-recognized breeds, the choices can be overwhelming. Choosing the perfect farm dog goes beyond a quick trip to the local shelter, finding the cutest puppy on PetFinder, or searching for a beagle breeder just because your family always had beagles.

For lifelong success, you need to start by asking yourself this question: which dog will you enjoy owning today, tomorrow and for many years to come? To answer, you must honestly assess what traits and qualities you like and need from a dog, and what you are capable of providing him or her. You may also need to rein in your impulses and invest in some research time to minimize the risk of bringing the “wrong” dog home. That said, don’t overlook the emotional and aesthetic appeal of breeds that catch your eye. Though looks aren’t everything, they do matter – to a point. Pre-purchase or pre-adoption, there’s a lot to consider! Let’s take it step-by-step so you’re prepared to start your search.

What makes your tail wag?

Not to be superficial, but what canine looks catch your eye? Let’s make a fun list. At this point, you have permission to throw sensibility to the wind. Flip through dog books. Watch some funny online dog videos. Don’t worry about descriptions; simply write down the top ten breeds that make you smile. We’ll narrow your choices and discuss their appropriateness later. For now, the pet store is wide open!

Have your list? It probably includes some of the more traditional barn breeds like confident Pembroke Welsh Corgi or feisty Jack Russell Terrier. Maybe the “smarter than your fifth grader” Border Collie, the athletic Australian Cattle Dog or the loyal Australian Shepherds is on your list? You might even be considering natural livestock guardians like the impressive Great Pyrenees or the majestic Maremma. Perhaps you chose traditional favorites such as the Labrador and/or Golden Retrievers. There are probably a few surprises thrown in too, breeds not stereotypically regarded as classic barn dogs. Great idea – the more dogs you consider, the happier you’ll be with your ultimate choice.

The canine job description

Now that you have your top ten picks, let’s put our adult hat on and put attraction aside. It’s time to ask yourself what you really need (not just want) from your barn dog. Is he going to be a pet, a working dog or both? What’s your definition of “work”? Will he primarily be a companion to you and your horse(s) at your small barn? Or might he become your “assistant barn manager” at a busy training farm with lots of activity? Perhaps he will travel the show circuit with you and hang out ringside. Will you expect him to be more suspicious and guard your animals and the farm from predators and intruders? Can he be counted on to help work the cows, herd the sheep? Will your dog be asked to perform a variety of jobs?

The resume

Each of the above roles requires different mental and physical skills: some acquired through targeted training, and some genetic inclinations that can be fine-tuned to more precisely meet your needs. For your new “farmhand” to be the dog you want and need, it now becomes important to get serious – to dig deeper and narrow down your breed choices.

Purpose, potential and ability take center stage. While environment plays a large role in dog behavior, genetics drive that behavior just as much, or even more. Physical conformation and natural instinct can make or break the success of your dog in the years to come. Knowing not only what you want from a dog, but what each breed is designed for, will help you cut your initial list by at least half. Read up on the individual selections you made and become an educated consumer. This is crucial. You don’t want to end up with the wrong match. For example, a dog with a high prey drive who likes to chase will never be an appropriate guardian dog whose primary job is focused on serving and protecting your animals. Conversely, you cannot expect a guardian dog to be the sociable barn mascot who welcomes everyone to the farm. Matching the natural skill set with the job at hand is essential.

Knowing not only what you want from a dog, but what each breed is designed for, will help you cut your initial list by at least half.

Evaluating the candidates

At this point, your list of potentials should be shrinking, but there is still more investigating to be completed before the choice is made. Now is the time to reach out to those who own the breeds on your list. Ask about their experiences, what jobs they are using their dogs for, their likes and dislikes about their chosen breed, and if they would own the same breed again. If their favorite breed is also in the running for you, ask for breeder referrals, especially from a farm dog breeder. That gives your dog a foundation that money can’t buy. The best farm dogs are raised by proven farm dogs that were also raised by successful farm dogs.

If you don’t have multiple dog owners to talk to or are looking for additional information, consider calling a professional dog trainer (one who has been in the industry full-time for a decade or more) and ask for a breed consultation. You’ll get accurate and unbiased descriptions that go beyond what you’ll find in any book.

The job offer

You’ve now narrowed your decision down to a final couple of choices. The next step is to see what’s available. Do you want to adopt, purchase a puppy from a breeder, or buy an already trained dog? What is your timetable? Is the dog you are considering within driving distance? Affordable? Is it the right fit for you? Do you have a qualified trainer who can help set you and your new addition up for success?

If you have never owned a dog and there is no local trainer or educated dogs and owners to guide you, you may be better off purchasing a dog already trained for the work you need. If you have assistance (both human and canine), a less educated dog may be a good choice for you. Dogs are often the best teachers for other dogs, and what better way for a farm dog to start learning than from other dogs who already know the drill?

Whatever breed you choose, puppy or adult, purchased or adopted, be sure to meet the dog in person and evaluate his temperament before making this important ten-plus year commitment. If possible, take your trainer or a knowledgeable and objective friend along with you. While breed stereotypes are very true to form, each canine is an individual and they often have unique personality traits that you may or may not have time to address. For example, levels of sound or sight sensitivity, physical tolerance, prey drive and reactivity can vary tremendously, even within the same litter. Remember what it is that you are looking for, know what personality traits are needed for the job, and choose accordingly. Your dog, your farm family, and your other animals will thank you.


Jenifer Vickery, owner of The Pawsitive Dog in Boston, MA, has been a professional dog trainer for over 20 years. She is also the founder and president of Tomten Farm and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing peace, protection and possibility to all varieties of farm animals in need.,