What are working dogs?

Guardian dog in barn door. Photo credit: Becky Salinger DVM

A working dog is bred and trained to partner with people for joint or independent work activities, such as livestock guarding and herding, military and police, search and rescue, service and companion, etc.

The working dog category is extensive, encompassing dozens of breeds. Faithful guardians of livestock and property, working dogs earned their worth on the farm, bred for courage and strength to defend and herd, with compassion to protect and love their families. Today, working dogs continue this legacy in the agricultural community, while having successfully adapted to fill additional life-saving roles. Police, Military, and Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs serve proudly around the world in K-9 units; sled dogs honor their roots in the Iditarod; service, therapy and companion dogs dutifully assist owners across America.The canines in the working dog family vary, yet traditionally share fundamental characteristics – powerful, imposing, and majestic stature. A few of the recognizable breeds are:

  • Alaskan Malamutes & Huskies
  • Cattledogs
  • Collies
  • German Shepherd
  • Great Pyrenees
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Maremma Sheepdog
  • Newfoundland
  • Saint Bernard
  • And many more... 


What to Know About A Working Dog:

Many of these breeds are raised to think independently. Without proper training, some working dogs can be difficult to handle. They are intelligent, conscientious, and sometimes a bit headstrong. 

The Maremma and Great Pyrenees (two breeds that have been a part of our family) have been bred for thousands of years to live day and night with the flock. Analyzing their surroundings to evaluate potential threats, they are independent thinkers. These breeds are not pushovers, and may at times have a bit of an authority issue. Generally,  they have very little enthusiasm and motivation when asked to fetch, sit, lay down, or stay, but instead, do as they please. And, as our neighbors can attest, they bark. A lot. This barking can range from a grumble to a deafening roar, meant to warn everyone in the house. These dogs will guard you, and what they perceive to be their flock, from everything: butterflies, people, bags, kites, leaves, flags, and anything in between. However, these guardians are gentle giants, capable of unrivaled love, gentleness, and compassion.

Many unexpecting owners fall in love with these large dog breeds for the same reasons we have, yet unfortunately bring home puppies without understanding their traits, quirks, and emotional needs. When a home can no longer care or provide for one of these gentle giants, they end up in animal rescue, where they are sadly overlooked due to their size. Some of these dogs require special resources that make rehabilitation possible for adoption. Because of their loving, gentle nature many of these dogs not only make wonderful family pets but also perform excellently as therapy dogs.

Other breeds, such as German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Newfoundlands, also face their own issues. German Shepherds are incredibly smart and have very high energy, but love to please their owners. This is why the breed is specifically chosen for Police, Military and SAR service. German shepherds can recognise between 165 to 200 commands. For reference, this is about the same number of words a toddler can recognize. With lack of attention or improper training, these working dogs can become bored very easily, leading to bad habits. They need a job, a purpose, or some kind of  entertainment. Many shepherds end up in shelter situations because owners don't realize how intelligent these dogs really are. That same energy, that makes a great K-9 unit dog, becomes too much for owners to handle. Instead of learning how to accommodate these needs, some owners opt to send their once beloved companion to the local pound, where they suffer the same fate as thousands of other dogs. With the proper training and attention, German shepherds are explosively energetic, dutiful and loving, intelligent family pets, and amazing service dogs. 

Learn more at the American Kennel Club's "Working Group" page

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