The humble working farm dog is about to go under the microscope in an industry-led project aimed at breeding more top quality canines.
The $1.77 million, three-year project is supported by the government through its Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, with the Ministry for Primary Industries co-investing $770,000. Massey University, Focus Genetics and VHL Genetics will contribute $1m in cash and kind.
The project will be led by the AL Rae Centre for Genetics and Breeding, a Massey satellite campus in Ruakura, with support from Pamu, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, and the NZ Sheep Dog Trial Association to engage farmers – and their dogs – across the country.
“We know working dogs play key roles on thousands of New Zealand farms, helping move and muster livestock across sheep and beef country. A good dog also does wonders for farmer wellbeing,” Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said.
The project will apply methodology already used for elite sheep and cattle breeding to farm dogs, and minimise risk when selecting a new dog.
“There are an estimated 200,000 working dogs across the country. It’s a significant investment for a shepherd to put together a team of dogs and this project will help give them more certainty in selecting a pup,” O’Connor said.
The project will be the most detailed genomic investigation of NZ working farm dog breeds, with potential to improve dogs’ health, welfare and working performance, he said.
One aspect of the project will identify the desired traits of working farm dogs, and develop new genomic prediction criteria to aid the selection of improved dogs. Genome sequencing and genotyping will be used to set a baseline understanding of recessive disease-causing mutations that can be carried by these breeds.
NZ Sheep Dog Trial Association president Pat Coogan welcomed the study.
“We support it. If you can eradicate any bad breeding traits within dogs it has to be a good thing.”
Coogan said the important traits of a working dog include good confirmation and feet, athleticism, a willingness to work and a good nature.
The quality of dog also comes down to its handler and its training.
“They’re no different to children. If they’re well reared, then generally they will turn out not too bad. But if there are no boundaries, guess what you’re going to get.”