Australian Cattle Dogs & Sheep Dogs, Dingoes & Pigdogs

Most dogs that work with sheep and cattle in Australia are either kelpies or border collies.  And to a lesser extent, with cattle – blue or red heelers (also known as ‘Queensland heelers’ or ‘Australian cattle dogs’).

Australian kelpies are black and tan, short-haired, bouncy dogs that will usually wag their tails when you rouse on them. It takes a lot to offend them. A kelpie that has natural ability and instinct that has been well trained is an absolute joy to watch in action (just as an idiot or poorly trained dog is enough to make you tear your hair in exasperation). The Working Kelpie Association of Australia has detailed information on the Australian kelpies.

Border Collies — great sheep dogs & dog trial winners

Border Collies are black and white, and traditionally long haired although there are short-haired dogs around also. A good border collie will use their eyes to control the stock, unlike kelpies which tend to be noisier and more boisterous, working closer to the stock. It often takes more patience and skill to train a border collie, but a good dog is worth the effort because they’ll beat any other dog on the job when it comes to brains. Border collies tend to have long memories and are sensitive. They never forget it if you lose your cool, and they are more likely to be ‘one man’ dogs than kelpies. Unfortunately because they’re not as forgiving and tolerant as kelpies, quite a few border collies have snapped at people (especially children) who have annoyed them or got them overexcited. Consequently they feature prominently around the top of the list of breeds that have bitten people. They also feature around the top of the list of obedience trial winners. Just like smart horses (or people), the smartest can be the hardest to train, but can turn out to be far more capable than the average.

Comparison of Australian Kelpies and Border Collies

Australian kelpies are very tough dogs and border collies are generally not as hardy. Collies are of course less suited to the heat in the north, being hairier, and are completely unsuited to the combination of heat and humidity, it exhausts them (unsurprisingly, given that they originated in Scotland).

The personality of the average kelpie is quite different to the average border collie. Discussions on which breed is best for working stock are rather pointless because it depends on the situation/environmental considerations, on the quality of the specific dog and the training it has received, and the ability of the owner. But ultimately what has most influence on which breed people prefer, is what sort of dog personality the owner prefers.

Blue Heelers & Red Heelers

Blue and red heelers (also known as ‘Queensland heelers’ or ‘Australian cattle dogs’) are not used with sheep because of their tendency to bite (hence the term ‘heeler’) and no-one wants their sheep hamstrung. Blue and red heelers aren’t usually the brightest lights on the street however they are loyal and exceedingly tough dogs, the type that have all sorts of mishaps (run-ins with feral pigs, falls off the back of the ute etc) yet they have a habit of surviving close shaves that would fell purebred dogs. They are ideal for bringing wilder cattle into the mob and keeping them in the mob (perhaps it takes wisdom to be worried? Fear doesn’t seem to be part of a heeler’s personality). No beast likes having it’s nose or legs snapped at, so cattle will usually retreat to the middle of the mob after just a couple of attempts to escape. Heelers are popular pets and are great guard dogs when left with a ute full of valuables. Some are great characters with very distinctive personalities.

Pig Dogs

Pigdogs are not a registered or specifically recognisable breed, they are crossbred dogs used to catch and hold feral pigs for hunters. ‘Bull Arabs’ are popular – a crossbred dog that is generally accepted as being part Staffordshire Bull Terrier, English Pointer and Greyhound. Other types of hounds (i.e. breeds originally bred to be hunters) are sometimes included such as Irish Wolfhounds, Bloodhounds and Staghounds; as well as Bull Mastiffs and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. While these dogs are bred to be fearless when tackling feral pigs, if they are socialised properly by sensible owners they are usually great pets – very gentle and tolerant with children.

Unfortunately some owners fail to discipline or socialise their dogs properly, and don’t get rid of dogs that show unstable tendencies, resulting in a dog that is savage and/or unreliable. Media hysteria regarding occasional attacks by pig dogs has encouraged the general public to be terrified of any canine that looks remotely like a ‘pig dog’, when in actual fact border collies are the breed that consistently feature up the top of the list of dogs that bite people.

Many people say that if a dog is trained to catch pigs they can’t be smart enough to discern between pigs and anything else, eg young children. Pig dogs might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but it is very doubtful any are this thick.

Panicky people are ignoring the reality that most dogs breeds have been deliberately developed over centuries to be good at specific types of hunting (even poodles), and in any case most dogs still have some remnants of the basic instinct to hunt, because that’s how they survived for eons. Dogs that had no instinct to hunt died out back in cave man times!

Unfortunately many dogs will happily while-away hours savaging any native animal that wanders into the backyard domain, including lizards, frogs and birds (well, they do try). Try to stop a terrier digging for rats or mice – they get obsessed and can’t think of anything else, in the same way that a good bloodhound becomes blind, deaf and dumb when following a scent. Most dogs find cats and chooks absolutely irresistible, in fact once a dog has killed a chook it’s an addiction they cannot ever seem to recover from. They can certainly never ever be trusted near the chookyard again. One small, hysterical cackle from a panicking fowl and the addict is possessed again. Logically, why should a chook, rat or cat-addicted dog be considered any less dangerous than a dog trained to catch pigs? Any small dog owner knows that dogs don’t assess the size of a foe – either they want to fight it or they don’t.

There are separate problematic issues of some pig hunters trespassing onto private land, or losing dogs that are then left behind to breed with dingoes or other wild dogs, thus adding to the problem of attacks on domestic sheep, cattle, horse and goats.

Dingoes — native Australian dogs

Dingoes, ‘dingos’ or ‘warrigals’ are wild dogs native to mainland Australia (not Tasmania) and parts of South-East Asia. Their dimensions are similar to Kelpies but dingoes are usually lighter in colour, although dark brown/black dingoes have appeared in areas where crossbreeding with domestic dogs was unlikely to be the cause. Dingoes do not bark but they have a much more mournful, higher pitched howl than domestic dogs.

Dingoes did not come to Australia when the first aboriginals arrived tens of thousands of years ago, instead they are thought to have been brought to the Australian continent by traders from Asia, only a few thousand years ago. It is thought that dingoes were responsible for a number of extinctions on the Australian mainland, such as the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine), which continued to thrive in dingo-free Tasmania until the 1930s when they were tragically hunted into extinction. Dingoes are clever dogs and excellent hunters however like most wild animals, they can only be domesticated completely if raised with humans from birth. Even then some owners say they are not entirely reliable. There has been a debate for a long time about whether anyone should be allowed to own and breed dingoes.

Because numbers of dingoes skyrocketed when easy lamb and calf dinners were provided, it has been standard practice to bait with 1080 to keep the population in check in some parts of Australia. 1080 is a natural poison found in a particular type of gidyea tree, an Australian native, so most native animals are not affected – only environmentally damaging introduced species of animals such as dogs, cats and pigs.


Maremmas are large, hairy shepherd dogs originating in Italy. Since the 1980s they have become increasingly popular with owners of sheep, goats and alpacas in areas where foxes, dingoes and feral dogs are a problem, because the maremmas will stay with the mob they are bonded with 24 hours/day and guard ‘their’ mob against any threats. Maremmas are working dogs, bred to live independently on their own with the mob they instinctively guard, so they are not ideal as domestic pets.

New Zealand Huntaways

New Zealand Huntaways are sheep dogs in the land of the long white cloud that have really become a kiwi national icon, though they are not a formally recognised breed. Purely bred for working purposes and rarely kept as pets as the loud bark essential for shifting stock on distant steep hills and abundant energy, are attributes clearly not chosen to suit suburban living.

Most Huntaways are black and tan, sometimes with white too, and they are often described as looking like large Kelpies. However some are brindle. Most have a short thick coat but others are long haired. Huntaways are based on the original border collie dogs used to herd sheep, crossed with other breeds such as Irish Setter, Bloodhound, Old English Sheepdog, German Shepherd, Rottweiler and Labrador.

Health of Working Dogs

If buying a working dog it is essential to buy one that comes from a working dog strain, rather than a show dog strain. Obviously a working dog breeder will choose to breed from the hardiest dogs with the best working abilities, whereas a show dog breeder will choose to breed from dogs with the best aesthetic qualities, thus potentially compromising attributes such as stock sense and ideal physical health. This is why so many pet breeds end up with physical faults that would have been easily avoided if breeders had refused to breed from dogs with genetically heritable problems.

Genuine working strains of breeds such as the Australian kelpie have relatively few health problems and are unlikely to need veterinary care.

Fit, healthy working dogs can easily trot 20km or more over a day however they obviously can’t muster this distance day after day, and care must be taken in hot weather to ensure they don’t overheat and die. Traditionally few dogs have been used with cattle on the largest stations, due to a combination of factors including the huge distances involved, extreme heat and problems with burrs such as khaki weed and bindi-eyes, and seeds that are more than just an annoyance, such as spear grass seeds. Some people swear by dog boots however I can’t say we found them to be a practical solution. Problems with dingoes also complicate matters, especially with female working dogs, who have been known to disappear into the scrub at particular times of year. In recent years dogs have been increasingly used very successfully on middle-sized properties however, due to labour shortages and increased ‘working dog schools’, and on some of the largest stations where there is a headstockmen or manager keen on working dogs.

Training and Cost of Sheep and Cattle Dogs

Pedigreed kelpies and border collies that have been ‘started’ (stock handling training has commenced) can cost $1,000 and more, up to $10,000 plus for fully trained, exceptional quality working dogs. Brilliant dogs are usually the result of careful breeding – i.e. good parent dogs, however fancy breeding doesn’t guarantee a useful or smart dog – there will inevitably be some lemons amongst the pack (though they have good parents and a good start in life – rather like human beings, come to think of it). Breeders are unlikely to ever sell their most brilliant dogs because they keep them to breed from – but you are likely to get a good quality dog if you pay a reasonable amount from a respected or well established breeder. Many breeders will be prepared to offer a guarantee however for the guarantee to be valid, you would be expected to have the necessary handling skill. You cannot expect a dog to train it’s owner.

A few hundred dollars can buy sheep or cattle dog pups, either purebreds without papers or crossbreeds (sometimes crossed with other breeds such as German Coolies). As in the rest of life, if someone has something they are sure is good quality, they will want to be paid accordingly if they are to part with it, however you can get lucky and pick up a potentially good dog for relatively little (a bit like buying a ‘renovator’ house – you’ll just have to put the elbow grease in, and take a risk). Bargain dogs most often appear when someone without much knowledge or skill buys a good quality dog and ends up with pups they are not capable of training. (We once bought a fabulous border collie that the owner swore was completely deaf. It was a young dog, and when working stock it used eyes rather than ears; a fairly typical border collie trait.) Training can take quantities of patience and persistence that most people don’t possess. It is a real skill, that some people have a gift for and others do not (I do not – no patience!).

It is the combination of natural instinct and good training that results in a quality working dog. Both the owner and the dog need to have skills and knowledge. It’s pointless buying a good quality car without learning how to drive it properly, you’re never going to get good results unless your skills match what you’re working with.

These days there are many ‘working dog schools’ run by breeders and handlers, for people who didn’t grow up amongst working dogs and those who did but who would like to improve their knowledge or change techniques. Some owners of sheep and cattle dogs enjoy honing their ability and pitting their skills against their neighbours, at local working dog trials. A lot can be learnt by simply watching others who are good at handling dogs.

Dog training methods go in and out of fashion in the same way that horse handling techniques to. Many people say that you can’t work cows and calves with dogs however it can be done with obedient dogs (that keep the right distance), though it is much easier to train cattle to accept dogs when they are weaners. Then when these heifers have calves they don’t worry unduly about dogs because they’re used to them already, and they pass this attitude of healthy respect onto their offspring.

Some people also worry that training cattle to accept the presence of dogs will mean the cows won’t protect their calves properly when confronted with dingoes, but others disagree and say this is not a problem, given that working dogs are used to encourage cows to stay with their calves and to stay in a mob, rather than singling them out or separating them.

Attitudes change, but basically, training and handling working dogs is similar to domestic dogs, horses and even children. Common sense, discipline, patience and persistence are essential for the best results. And if there’s gaps in your knowledge, seek out the advice and example of others who are obviously good at it. But it is wise to view fancy bandwagons touting you-beaut latest-fashion ideas with a sensible amount of . These ideas are usually old ones dressed up as new, or they’re dumb ideas and will be out of favour before long.