The English Shepherd and the Diversified Small Farm
by Kristin Kimball of Essex, NY
A while back, with the farm slumbering under a full moon and a clear winter sky, my husband Mark and I decided to take a stroll down to the mail box, ostensibly to see if the outside world had delivered to us anything of interest, but really just to enjoy the night. Jet, my one-year-old English Shepherd, was with us.
Just out the door in the driveway, Jet suddenly puffed up and let loose with his woo woo woo bark that means, in his language, something’s wrong here, folks. Then Mark and I saw a big black shape lumbering toward us.
It took me a few fast beats of the heart to realize it was not a bear, it was not a ghost, it was Funnel, one of the full-grown pigs. Every time she came into heat, she’d break out of the pig pasture, though it’s fenced hot enough to fry a cat, and wander the farm looking for love. When she was in this mood, it was nearly impossible to move her. I envisioned a long and tiring shoving match ahead of us that night. “Uh-oh,” I said to Mark.
Hearing that, Jet sprang into action. He’d never been asked to work pigs before, but he was all over Funnel, experimenting with loud barks, growls, nips and lunges, until he found a combination that made her uncomfortable enough to actually move. Encouraged, Jet redoubled his effort, and Mark and I joined in to help. Soon Funnel was high-tailing it the quarter mile back to her pasture with Jet in hot pursuit. With the pig back on the right side of the fence, Jet got lavish amounts of praise and Mark and I got back to our romantic evening walk. The next time Funnel was in heat, Jet put her back inside the fence all by himself. After that, Funnel decided it was probably best to just stay put.
Jet had joined our team the previous winter, a nine week-old fuzzy black-and-white bundle that arrived on a cross-country flight from Oregon. It was hard to believe he’d ever be more than cute and vulnerable, but to fit in on our farm, he’d need to be. My husband Mark and I have our hands full on our year-round CSA in northern New York. On 500 acres, we raise beef cattle, egg and meat chickens, and pigs, hand milk a few Jerseys, and cultivate about eight acres of vegetables and small grains with horses. We’ve learned to get by without hired help by working with our animals. We have the Belgian geldings, who supply our tillage and draft power, and there are the pigs, who turn compost and till up new fields, and also the Scottish Highland cattle, who are excellent brush clearers.
So when Mark and I realized we were spending too much time and energy chasing stock – either during routine rotations or when catching the occasional escapee – we decided to hire a herding dog. We also wanted a dog to kill the rats that were bunkered in the granary, and one to stop the hawk and the raccoon that were thinning the ranks of my broilers. Did that mean we would need a border collie, a rat terrier, and some kind of livestock guardian dog? No way did we have the time or the budget for three new dogs!
Luckily, we’re not the first farmers in the world to need a multi-purpose working dog. A little internet research turned up the English Shepherd, a dog that sounded very much like the dog I was looking for. English Shepherds have been bred in America pretty much since there were farmers in America. For centuries, farmers selected them for a combination of herding, hunting, and guardian ability, plus a devotion to established rules and a desire to please their masters. Until the 1950s, they were practically ubiquitous on farms across the country, and plenty of grown farm kids remember them as the ‘Old Shep’ of their childhood, a steady worker and true friend. But you’d be forgiven if, like me, you’d never seen one. Like so many breeds of so many species useful to small farmers, they’ve become quite rare.
English Shepherds weren’t formalized into a breed registry until 1930. Though they were a definite type – descended in part from the dogs that came over to the New World from the British Isles with the first loads of livestock – the breed showed, and still shows, a wide range of variation. Some are small and wiry and excel at working in chutes and other tight spaces. Some have more bone and height, with the strength to keep larger predators at bay. They all suggest a collie in build and features, and they come in a range of colors: black and white like Jet; black and tan; sable and white; black, white and tan, and more. Until recent decades, these differences tended to be regional, and reflected what the dogs were selected for in the places where they worked. English Shepherds have never been an AKC breed, and as such they have not been widely shown, so they haven’t been selected for their looks. The breed standard allows for a wide range of physical types and emphasizes character and behavior. Mary Peaslee, President of the English Shepherd Club, says diversity has been a blessing for the breed. “Curiously, it seems that allowing for less standardization maintains type better over time. Dogs that are more standardized tend to get progressively more exaggerated in some direction as time goes by. Allowing for diversity seems to balance things out, so that the group as a whole stays quite stable.”
For all the physical variation, there is a high degree of consistency in the traits that make the breed valuable to the small, diversified farmer. The best English Shepherds are good herding dogs, but mellow enough to be trusted not to bother the stock when there is no work to be done. They are intelligent, and capable of thinking independently. They stay at home. They hunt, killing rodents around the farmyard and treeing small game. They also show a nurturing attitude toward ‘their’ livestock, and protect them from predators. They’re extremely biddable (that is, they want to do their person’s bidding), and they like to enforce their person’s established rules.
These last two traits can be extremely strong in these dogs, and have spawned among some English Shepherd owners a myth that the breed doesn’t need to be trained in the traditional sense, that the dogs will automatically pick up on what the farmer needs him to do. While breed experts remind us this is not true, I can see why the belief arose. In the story about the pig, for example, the word that triggered Jet’s reaction was my absent minded ‘uh-oh.’ Jet learned that word passively, the same way he learned to sit and look cute when I opened the cupboard where I keep the dog biscuits. To him, the cupboard meant ‘treat’, but ‘uh-oh’ meant something even better: there was something wrong in my world, and he had the opportunity to make it right. If he hears it while we’re in the barn, he springs into search mode, looking for a chicken in violation of the No Chickens in the Barn rule. (If he finds one, he’ll either herd her out the door or pin her gently with his mouth and wait for me to get there.) If he hears it while we are in the pasture, he checks to make sure the Jersey bull isn’t in violation of the No Bulls Near Humans rule. If he hears it as the milking cows are coming into the barn, he leaves his place behind the last cow to see if Delia is in June’s stanchion, a violation he corrects by backing her out of the wrong place and putting her in the right one. I taught Jet basic obedience and set firm boundaries, but most of the helpful things he does around the farm he has learned by keeping his eyes peeled for an opportunity to help out.
Sometimes, this desire to please shows up in young pups in amusing ways. Tish Toren, a breeder who uses her eight English Shepherds on her sheep farm in western New York, told me about a toddling pup who tried to help her move round bales. As Tish pushed, the pup heeled the giant bale. When she paused to pull out a hunk of hay to check its quality, the pup used his mouth to pull out a hunk of hay, too.
So if English Shepherds are so great, why are they so rare? The short answer is probably because we – small farmers – became so rare. In the late 20th century, as diversified farms became more specialized, so did their dogs, and the all-around English Shepherd was replaced by breeds like border collies for herding, and one of the livestock guardian breeds for protection. Then, as big farms ate up small farms and became mechanized, the very need for a working dog disappeared. I’m thinking of the robot-powered 1500 cow dairy across the lake from us, where the cows never see a blade of growing grass in their lives, and the ‘barn’ looks like a factory. How out of place a working dog would look there!
At the same time the need for an all-around dog was in decline, they fell out of style. The English Shepherd is a “loose-eyed” herder, meaning he doesn’t crouch and stare at stock like a border collie will, and he’s not as flashy a worker. Plus, he was homegrown, and the ‘imports’ breeds were being marketed as more ‘modern’. Jan Hilborn, an English Shepherd breeder who lives in Vermont and studies the history of the breed, says, “In the 1950’s, tractors finished replacing horses, beautiful hardwood floors were covered by linoleum, wooded kitchen tables gave way to chrome and formica and the all-purpose old-fashioned farmdog became equally unfashionable.”
Then, the breed is not right for every situation. They won’t always work for a person they’re not bonded to, so on a farm with lots of hired hands, they can disappoint. Because they’re independent thinkers, they don’t always take well to the kind of rote learning they’d get in obedience class, or the kind of push-button obedience expected at herding trials. They need owners willing to establish a set of rules, lest they make up their own. And they don’t do well in a home that doesn’t have enough time or work for them. “They’ll go bonkers without a job to do,” says Tish Toren. “They’ll get into trouble, become stranger-aggressive, nuisance bark. If they only have a postage stamp yard to guard they’ll take it too far and make it their life’s work.”
Which leads to my final point. These last three years have been good ones for our farm. The CSA membership is growing steadily, so we opened up a few more acres last fall. We could use another team this season to spell the geldings, Sam and Silver, who are getting up in years. This past winter we went horse shopping. We were looking for a versatile team, smaller and thriftier than the Belgians but tough, sensible, with heart. Something I could harness without the help of my tall husband, something that I might throw a saddle on and ride for fun every once in a while. Sounds exactly like what Morgans were bred for, doesn’t it? But Morgans, in our neck of the woods at least, have become something quite different, too high strung and delicate and leggy for our purposes. It makes sense, of course. There’s a much bigger market for pleasure horses like this than for the original sturdy farm-style Morgan, so this is what breeders are selecting for. But what a shame, what a loss – and what a lot of work to find the team we’re looking for! It’s not just horses, of course. Think of dual-purpose cattle, small-scale fruit and vegetable varieties, pigs that do well on pasture. Carolyn Christman, who has an English shepherd on a rural homestead in North, Carolina, reminded me recently that “the breeds that thrive under low inputs, and show economic traits such as longevity, fertility, maternal ability, grass efficiency and so forth, are all rare. And the multi-purpose dog breed who worked that stock is also endangered.”
I recently read a 1995 interview with one of the old-time breeders of English Shepherds in Ohio. Only about ten percent of the pups he sold went to working situations, and the rest went to pet homes. The breeder said it was a sign of the times, that there just wasn’t a lot of need for stock-dogs in his area anymore. But then, what happens to the breed if the majority pet owners and the minority farmers want slightly different dogs? I want a dog that will drive off stranger dogs and ruthlessly kill varmints, while pet owners will be more likely to want one that is not stranger-dog aggressive and will live in peace with the rabbits and foxes that travel through the backyard. I want a working dog that is more focused on his work than on snuggling up to me, but if I were looking for a pet, I’d want the opposite. As Mary Peaslee wrote to me recently, “Most of the popular or populous breeds have attained that status by departing from selection for traditional working traits — in favor of selection for ‘fancy’ features. There’s a bigger market for cute companions than there is for working farm-dogs, and you can sell them for more money… realities of the marketplace do influence what gets bred!” The English Shepherd is in no danger of flying up the charts of breed popularity at the moment, and in fact breeders are trying to maintain a critical mass of genetics in order to keep the breed healthy. And not every pup in a litter is even suited for farm work, so pet homes are a necessity. But the English Shepherd needs its small farm niche as much as the small farm needs the English Shepherd. “If the breed doesn’t gain back some of this ‘territory,’” says Carolyn Christman, “then its complete genetic package won’t survive either. Breeds have to be used in order to be valued enough to be conserved.”
So what do you say, small farmers? Why not give a good dog a job?
Information on the breed, breeders, training, and links to other sites of interest can be found at the English Shepherd Club website: www.englishshepherd.org