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Working Dogs


© Warren Fahey 2008

(From Wood’s Natural History Mammalia volume by the Rev. J.G Woods, circa 1862.) This exceptionally detailed account offers the best insight into the history of the working dog in Australia.

The Sheep Dog

– The most useful variety of the canine species is that sagacious creature on whose talent and energy depends the chief safety of the flock.

This animal seems to be, as far as can be judges from appearances, the original ancestor of the true British Dogs, and preserves its peculiar aspect in almost every country in Europe. It is a rather large Dog, as is necessary, in order to enable the animal to undergo the incessant labor which it is called on to perform, and is possessed of limbs sufficiently large and powerful to enable it to outrun the truant members of the flock, who, if bred on the mountain-side, are so swift and agile that they would readily baffle the efforts of any Dog less admirably fitted by nature for the task of keeping them together.

As the sheep-dog is constantly exposed to the weather, it needs the protection of very thick and closely-set fur, which, in this Dog, is rather woolly in its character, and is especially heavy about the neck and breast. The tail of the Sheep-dog is naturally long and bushy, but is generally removed in early youth, on account of the now obsolete laws, which refused to acknowledge any Dog as a Sheep-dog, or to exempt it from payment of a tax, unless it were deprived of its tail. This law, however, often defeated its own object, for many persons who liked the sport of coursing, and cared little for appearances, used to cut off the tails of their greyhounds, and evade the tax by describing them as Sheep-dogs.

The muzzle of this Dog is sharp, its head is of moderate size, its eyes are very bright and intelligent, as might be expected in an animal of so much sagacity and ready resource in time of need. Its feet are strongly made, and sufficiently well protected to endure severe work among the harsh stems of the heather on the hills, or the sharply-cutting stones of the high-road. Probably on account of its constant exercise in the open air, and the hardy manner in which it is brought up, the Sheep-dog is perhaps the most untiring of our domesticated animals.

There are many breeds of this animal, differing from each other in color and aspect, and deriving their varied forms from the Dog with which the family has been crossed. Nearly all the sporting Dogs are used for this purpose, so that some Sheep-dogs have something of the pointer nature in them, others of the foxhound, and others of the setter. This last cross is the most common. Together with the outward form the creature inherits much of the sporting predilections of its ancestry, and is capable of being trained into a capital sporting Dog.

Many of these animals are sad double-dealers in their characters, being by day most respectable Sheep-dogs, and by night most disreputable poachers. The mixed offspring of a Sheep-dog and a setter is as silently successful in discovering and marking game by night as he is openly useful in managing the flocks by day. As he spends the whole of his time in the society of his master, and learns from long companionship to comprehend the least gesture of hand or tone of voice, he is far better adapted for nocturnal poaching than the more legitimate setter or retriever, and causes far more deadly havoc among the furred and feathered game. Moreover, he often escapes the suspicion of the gamekeeper by his quiet and honorable demeanor during the daytime, and his devotion to his arduous task of guarding the fold, and reclaiming its wandering members. It seems hardly possible that an animal which works so hard during the day should be able to pass the night in beating for game.

Sometimes there is an infusion of the bull-dog blood into the Sheep-dog, but this mixture is thought to be unadvisable, as such Dogs are too apt to bite their charge, and so to alienate from themselves the confidence of the helpless creatures whom they are intended to protect, and not to injure. Unless the sheep can feel that the Dog is, next to the shepherd, their best friend, the chief value of the animal is lost.

It is well observed by Mr. Youatt, in his valuable work on these Dogs, that if the sheep do not crowd round the Dog when they are alarmed, and place themselves under his protection, there is something radically wrong in the management of the flock. He remarks that the Dog will seldom, if ever, bite a sheep, unless to do so by its master, and suggests that the shepherd should be liable to a certain fine for every tooth-mark upon his flock. Very great injury is done to the weakly sheep and tender lambs by the crowding and racing that takes place when a cruel Dog begins to run among the flock. However, the fault also lies more with the shepherd than with Dog, for as the man is, so will his Dog be. The reader must bear in mind that the barbarous treatment to which travelling flocks are so often subjected is caused by drovers and not shepherds, who, in almost every instance, know each sheep by its name, and are as careful of its well-being as if it were a member of their own family. The Dogs which so persecute the poor sheep in their bewilderments among cross-roads and the perplexity of crowded streets, are in turn treated by their masters quite as cruelly as they treat the sheep. In this, as in other instances, it is “like man and like Dog”.

As a general rule, the Sheep-dog cares little for any one but his master, and so far from courting the notice or caresses of a stranger will coldly withdraw from them, and keep his distance. Even with other Dogs he rarely makes companionship, contenting himself with the society of his master alone.