Working dog handlers and breeders have very different behavioural requirements in the animals that they employ for managing livestock. The Australian Working Kelpie breed may be used in several working contexts, notably yards, paddocks and a combination of both. The working context influences the skillsets required and gives rise to three corresponding work-types: Yard, Paddock and Utility Kelpies. In particular, dogs used for working stock in the confines of yards and trucks interact with stock more forcefully than those mustering in larger areas (paddocks) where they can herd stock effectively from a greater distance. This article explores owner assessments of dog working quality and assessment of genomic similarity by multidimensional scaling, to ask whether it is sufficient for breeders to aim for a multipurpose breeding objective, or whether breeding only specialist lines maximises user satisfaction for yard and paddock work.
Reported owner perceptions of 298 dogs assessed with the Livestock Herding Dog assessment tool showed that dog handlers across all working types were very happy with their dogs’ level of general skills.
Compared with both Yard and Utility Kelpies, Paddock Kelpies had significantly lower trait scores for force (pressure applied by the dog to move livestock), willingness to back the stock (run along a sheep’s dorsum) and bite (frequency of using the mouth to grab or bite the livestock). Meanwhile, compared with both Paddock and Utility Kelpies, the Yard Kelpies had significantly higher scores for hyperactivity and excitability (both with and without stock) and impulsiveness without stock. As one would predict for all-rounders, Utility Kelpies had intermediate scores for all behaviours and working traits.
Specialist characteristics were displayed by dogs in the Yard Kelpie and Paddock Kelpie groups. In particular, Yard Kelpies demonstrate higher excitability, willingness to back the stock, and a higher tendency to bark and bite the stock. Conversely, Paddock Kelpies rarely display these characteristics. Utility Kelpies, as the name suggests, are intermediate between the other two groups and display the characteristics of both. Genetic analysis suggests that the Yard, Utility and Paddock Kelpies are not distinguishable at a DNA level. In conclusion, at this time there is no suggestion of a breed split in the Australian Working Kelpie generated by selection for work type. A common breeding objective should enable dogs to be produced that fulfil all potential working requirements. This reinforces the importance of breeder skill in recognising the phenotypic potential of pups in order to place them in appropriate working contexts.