Behavioural Care of the Elderly Farm Dog Retired (or Not) from Work

Written by Pat Tagg M.Sc, CABC


Summary: After their working careers are over, senior farm dogs are still a vital part of the life of the farm. They’re role models for puppies learning on the job, as well as trusted companions for the humans living and working in this often isolated rural environment. Like all senior dogs, farm dogs will need care and support so they can stay physically and behaviorally healthy as they age. This article uses examples of different ways humans and older dogs can navigate changes in their relationship with foresight and care. 

Recently I was asked to contribute to a project about elderly working dogs. What did I think about the life of the older farm dog? Over a period of about 40 years I have worked in agriculture with my own German Shepherd Dogs and farm livestock, both in the U.K. and Germany. Along the way I also had an 18-year professional role with the National Farmers Union, working with about 3,500 farmers. Reflecting on the question, I realised that a significant number of us had some things in common.

We all seem to have populations of very elderly dogs knocking around our farm yards, and we all have stories of their great escapadesfrom their younger days,” eagerly shared with other farmers:I remember the day when….” Its even better when another farmer says,I remember when your old Jack fetched the ewes off the hill in the winter of….” We swell with pride at the shared admiration of our working canine colleagues.

It occurs to me that we owe these old dogs gratitude, not only their own work, but for their contribution to the next generation. Is this the signature of the care of the old farm dog?

Visit any farm house to be met by the unmistakable smell of old dogwith notes of cow poo warmly wafting from where the old timer sleeps in front of the kitchen range. Travel in any farm vehicle and wipe the muddy smudges off the glass where dog noses have eagerly scanned the landscape. And the puppy. Theres always a puppy. Home bred or bought from Mr. Farmer down the road whose livestock and land type are similar to yours. Traipsing around the yard behind the old dog, the next generation is in safe guiding paws.

Dogs that work on farms generally have a different life and learning experience to those that are destined to live and learn in a pet dog environment. Dogs that work on farms generally have an increased opportunity for free ranging exploration when compared with their urban counterparts. And what exploratory opportunities they are.

Free-ranging exploration often means that during daytime hours, dogs are able to move at will around the farm yard and local fields, to climb on things such as hay or straw stacks, to dig anywhere for any purpose, to sniff, to exercise or toilet where and when desired, to sleep wherever preferred. Most farm properties have a resident rodent population providing hunting opportunities. Free-range dogs get to eat anything they discover that they consider edible and to roll in various odorous items, including the ever-present poo. Moreover, farm work normally requires teams of dogs with different and complementary skills. Therefore, farm dogs are rarely singletons, so exploration, sleeping and feeding are likely to be social activities.

Agricultural enterprise changes slowly over time. Mixed farming operates on an annual rotational basis, which means that the background environment will always be relatively stable. Whilst day-to-day life and work varies according to season, weather, necessary animal husbandry tasks, and so on, in general the range of stimuli that a farm dog will be exposed to are defined by the farming enterprises particular to each holding; therefore, life is largely predictable, and the pace is slow.

It is likely that the farm dog will have reduced pressure to socialise with unfamiliar canines or humans, reducing the risk of negative social encounters that might impact developing emotional resilience.1,2 The urban landscape by comparison is, by virtue of being more populated by humans, more unpredictable, with a faster rate of change. As Puurenen et al. (2020) point out, both dogs and humans have a behavioural struggle to keep pace with urbanisation.3

Whilst the farm puppy might have reduced opportunity to regularly meet unfamiliar canines and humans, they are likely to have regular social experience with a greater number of other species. In a rural environment farm dogs are likely to have increased experience with both domestic livestock and wildlife. It seems that these differences between a rural or urban experience may represent a behavioural advantage for the country canine. Because of three key factors: adequacy of socialisation, activity levels, and lack of urbanisation, rural dogs are likely to be less fearful than their urban counterparts. Socialisation, whilst different, is likely to be self-directed and adequate, meaning that farm dogs are empowered to be active and they and their people escape the pressures of urbanisation.3

In some ways farms are less hectic than urban spaces, but they are also comparatively dangerous. Dangers include other animals that could kill a dog, such as cows, bulls, and rams, bulk commodities that could slip or fall, for example siloed or stacked feedstuff, and an increased and varied risk of disease. And from my personal experience the biggest risk to life is farm machinery. Machinery accounts for about half of all human fatalities on a farm, but I have no data about canine lives lost to machinery accidents.

How do dogs not only survive farm life but thrive into old age? The environment in which farm dogs live and work is an enriched ecology that promotes exploration. Exploration of rich environments is a highly individual experience that promotes complex interaction between genes and changing external stimuli, resulting in the shaping of the structure and function of each dogs brain across its lifetime.4  In other words, they develop fit bodies and good memories that equip them for their purpose.

Views expressed here are partly informed by the literature relating to the anticipation of reward that motivates exploratory locomotion, the dopamine reward and prediction error learning mechanisms that tell” the brain to tell” the body to repeat behaviour and the enhanced memory that results from neurobiological changes that are an outcome of exploration. A detailed discussion of this literature is outside the scope of this article. For those who are curious, lines of further inquiry might include (for an overview) Gruber and Ranganath (2019)5 or (by individual topic) Berridge et al., 2009; Schultz, 20166,7 for a description of dopamine reward and prediction error learning mechanisms; Christensen et al. (2021) for an examination of the relationship between curiosity and learning;8 and for a review of the mechanisms and functions of hippocampal memory during exploration, Drieu and Zugaro (2019).9

One of the key factors to longevity in a farm environment is the development of a sharp and effective memory. Neuroscience informs us that animals that engage in more exploratory behaviour develop more cells in the hippocampus, which is involved in enhanced memory.9 Whereas wild animals need these attributes to avoid danger and find dinner, the farm dog will normally have dinner provided, but danger is ever present. Being able to recall what is and isnt safe is a fundamentally critical skill. Is that the sound of the engine that meant a near squishing last time I heard it?”Does that animal smell like the one that licks faces or the one that kicks?How wobbly can a haystack be before my muscles cannot stabilise my curiously sniffing and climbing body?

It is normally accepted that secure attachment facilitates emotional regulation during separation and exploration. And that is exactly what I imagined was happening between the old dogs and the puppies. The elderly cohabitant represents a secure attachment base for the younger generation, enabling puppies to explore these magnetic but tricky places with confidence. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that research can not fully support the idea that attachment bonds form between canine housemates.

Investigations by Mariti et al., 2014 and 2017, found evidence of human-dog attachment and maternal dog-offspring attachment but their findings did not fully support evidence for cohabitant dog-dog attachment.10,11 Our farming observations will need to be treated as anecdotal, although it would be hard to find one amongst us who feels that the farm dog team isnt attached or that attachment bonds arent significantly important to the development of our farming puppies.

The life and learning experience of working farm dogs can be considered a bidirectional spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, mental and physical fitness are largely acquired through exploration of the farm (empowered by the company of experienced older dogs). And at the other end is learning through shaping to apply naturally occurring behaviour to the task of working with livestock.  Facilitation of the use of these natural parts of their ethology is often through a combination of social learning with the experienced dogs and elicitation through contact with the behaviour of livestock. This can be quite different by comparison with some of our pet dogs, who might be taught a number of less natural tasks requiring a different attentional focus.

As the farm working dog ages, they will travel across this spectrum as the learner in one direction and then return across the spectrum as the teacher in the other.

That working life, health permitting, doesnt seem to include retirement, at least not in the sense of leaving a job and ceasing to work. As the wheel turns,” so the elder dog returns to the slower pace of the farm yard and to grandparenting” duties of the next generation. The speedily paced field work becomes the province of the middle aged” members of the team.

A dog who survives the farm environment matures into the CEO of the farm yard, and that dog does not need to retire, but rather to be part of a continuance of a very rich mental life: an employed retirement worthy of the expansive experience gained over a working career, with comfort adjustments made to support a retired athlete’s body. Protecting the mental health of the old farm dog is relatively easy. Passing them a new charge and providing increased support for their bodies should suffice.

Photo credit: Rachel Wynn

The kindergarten and the old folks home

Normally we are warned about the potential negative impact of bringing a puppy into the home where there is an existing older dog. But what about the potential for positive impact? Studies into the impact of intergenerational programmes in humans demonstrate physical and psychological benefits to both young and old alike.12 I couldnt find any specific research relating to dogs. As a result of a lifetime of farming experience, its my view that the rejuvenating and beneficial effects of bringing nursery age children into the residential care facility environments of elderly people are as relevant to puppies and old dogs that worked for a living as they are for older and younger humans.

Sheeba and Hannah explain:

Sheeba was a GSD whose working life was long. She came to me in the late 1970s from a shepherd in Lancashire who was working her mother with sheep on the Lancashire Fells. She was intended to be a show dog. I collected her as an 11-month-old pup, and we went to work together on the farm. Her career was mainly as chief herding expert on a 3,000 strong outdoor pig unit. She was happy to turn her hand to work with bovines, ovines, and equines, but she excelled in these vast outdoor situations helping to bring benign order to relationships with so many cognitively skilled others, the pigs. Then along came Hannah.

Hannah was not specifically bred for farm work either. At 8 weeks old this busy pup attached herself to me and to Sheeba. As Sheeba ran back and forth working with the pigs, young Hannah literally held on to the thick hair at Sheebas tail head. They moved around the unit like this, one behind the other, on and off for months. Every now and then Hannah let go and managed a small part of the work by herself and then latched herself back on to Sheebie.

Gradually, very gradually, they separated. They worked together for the next ten years, as independent and complementary workers. Their work had an intuitive quality. Our work together had an intuitive quality, and their bond was always inclusive of me (cemented in cuddles, fueled by oxytocin). As Sheeba grew older she spent more and more time riding on the tractor wheel arch watching very keenly as her protege dealt with the day-to-day work, leaping off to assist whenever she was needed.

Sheeba never retired. Her transition to more riding and less running was governed by her. It would never have occurred to me to retire her, to leave her home. Pigs are dangerous animals. They have a powerful bite, are fleet of foot when they need to be, are independent thinkers, and are more than capable of crushing a puppy. Frankly I could never have guided Hannah safely without Sheeba. The mental and physical dexterity required are beyond my skills. I could not rob Sheeba of engagement with work just because of age. I do not believe that working dogs should be retired. I believe that they should be the recipients of active support, just like puppies, to enable them to do as much or as little, whilst staying present, as they desire.

Sheeba was killed by a negligent farm worker while she slept in the sun at work aged nearly 13. There are certainly risks associated with a working life. She was fit and bright and I believed she would have lived forever.

Age-friendly workplace?

much recent work that relates age to working life is mis-cast in looking at specific age groups in isolation. Rather than addressing the problem of younger or older workers […] we need to develop a framework which can more centrally accommodate the inter-generational structures of the social reproduction of the collective worker.13

Developing frameworks to keep working dogs at work and consequently alive, vibrant, valued, and healthy is not in my view difficult. And in my experience, it is not unusual to find that farmers everywhere are indeed putting this into practice.

Krusty and Lara explain:

Krusty was a GSD who had a long working life. He was an excellent cattle dog. To work with cows a dog needs to have a courageous and calm disposition. He had that in bucketloads. During his life Krusty helped me to raise Lara. He also taught nearly 200 animal behaviour students about behavioural rehabilitation techniques and became an expert in exploratory work.

Krusty and Lara were in demand from private landowners to conduct search and tracking work, exploring huge rural and wooded areas locating missing or injured animals and seeking sites and evidence of undesired human behaviour. Krusty and Lara were an astonishingly successful team credited with many finds. They (we) worked intuitively together for nine years. Krusty was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy when he was 10 years old. We continued to work together, walking for miles and miles every day. The hope was that muscle memory would keep him walking for a long time after his nervous system failed.

This proved to be the case. Krusty was almost 14 years old when he died at home with the help of his vet. In the years after diagnosis, however, we implemented a framework of action to keep Krusty at work. In addition to the walking, aided in the late stages by various bits of supportive and protective equipment, we made an agreement to continue to travel to new places just as we always had.

We surmounted the issues of getting into and out of a vehicle without causing pain or distress largely by making a serious commitment to start getting ready to go in plenty of time and to make more time. No short temper, no rushing, no exclusion of anyone. Wed been a team for years, and age would not change that as far as we were concerned. We packed the van with a memory foam bed so that we could sit comfortably in green spaces wherever we stopped, and our exploration adventures continued until 48 hours before Krusty left us.

At the end, his formal tracking was enabled by purposely laying a track to a post, and on the post I fixed a ladle into which I dropped some food. Using a sling to support his back end, I followed where Krusty led. He was definitely still in charge of tracking. He sniffed his way toward the post, and the ladle helped him by negating the need to drop his head to the floor, which might have left him unbalanced. Where theres a will, theres a way. I wouldnt swap those memories from his later years for all the tea in China. I do not believe that a diagnosis of disease should automatically consign an old dog to retirement. I believe that that is the time to step up, work with the vet, and conduct a risk assessment for enhancing quality of life and for recognising when enough is enough.

Progression at work doesnt need to mean that the work gets harder and harder in a linear way. It might mean that work evolves to accommodate the changing state of mental and physical fitness.

Lara explains:

Lara was a GSD. She lived a long life and worked in two concurrent careers. She, along with her mentor Krusty, was a legend in the exploration, search, and tracking world, permanently in demand to help private landowners as described above. Lara introduced hundreds of people to the concept of tracking with dogs and to the idea of upskilling humans to be more effective partners for canine trackers.

She was also the first GSD on hand to help condition a new flock of Poll Dorset sheep in the U.K. to be managed in the transhumance style of the hiking shepherds of Europe. Lara wasnt specifically bred to work on a farm. In fact, she was what some people call a working line” GSD (whatever that is!). She was bold and talented in the arts of being a dog. She was a tenacious individual who some described in a rather derogatory way when she was young. As far as I was concerned she was perfect, and given time to develop a structurally and functionally resolute brain she was able to be the executive director of her own incredible abilities.

She became a wise and absolutely reliable old dog. Anna, a puppy from Germany, destined to continue the sheep project, was entrusted to Lara and benefited enormously from her wise and broad knowledge. In the early days of teaching the sheep, they were contained inside a square paddock made from non-energised electric netting. One of the purposes of this was to help the sheep feel comfortable with a working dog on the perimeter.

Although Lara was fit and strong and still running easily beside the farm buggy at the age of nearly 12 years old, the shepherding dog needs more than endurance and strength. The shepherding dog needs the turn of speed that youth affords them. At that age, Lara was no longer fast enough to make it around the borders of the field quickly enough to prevent sheep excursions into prohibited places. This old lady was not ready to slow down, but slow down she had. I believe that many social interactions go wrong because of a lack of fitness in one or both participants. We could do worse than look at the physical fitness of dogs who play together and then suddenly become aggressive, frustrated at not being able to sustain the energy to keep playing. Their behaviour then leaches into anger and aggression.

What to do for Lara? Rather than assuming she could no longer do the task, the nursery nets were reintroduced and the old girl had two or three sessions a week pounding around these smaller areas where the sheep were a little more contained. I would hate to have met a frustrated Lara. We persuaded her that this rather ordinary level work was essential and invited her to take the puppy Anna with her. Of course, she easily succeeded in this form of herding work.

Reverse mentoring for the older worker

Speaking as an older worker I can see the benefits of being supported by a different generation. But this is tempered with a slight twinge of concern that respect might be diminishing for skills that seem to be obsolete. In a human sense, feeling respected is probably the most needed sign of approval in order to maintain self-esteem and good mental health in older workers.

Does this apply to canine working populations? Do dogs have respect for each other’s skills? Another discussion for another time. The importance, in respect to welfare, of considering animal morality is discussed in Monso et al. 201814 and by authors such as Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff. For now, it is worth commenting on the observed quality and longevity of the bonds formed in intergenerational work and living.

Heres how the story of Lara and Krusty continued:

When Lara was about 12 weeks old, three loose dogs broke through a fence and flew at her. Krusty quietly stepped in front of her and stood still. The interlopers were confused. They retreated.

When Krusty was older and infirm, three loose dogs broke under a gate and flew at him. Lara stepped in front of him. The loose dogs grabbed her, rolled her over and over, punctured her ear and muzzle, but could not reach the old dog. She got free and came to me. I threatened one of these dogs, and they left.

Does it involve respect? Respect is something farming folk talk about liberally when describing the relationships that their animals have with each other and that we have for our animals. Its a difficult one. There is an inherent meaning in this that is not flippant but is often lost in translation. Its probably not confined to the elderly dog, except that a lifetime deepens the richness and reverence with which these intertwined lives are bound and held.

Photo credit: Rachel Wynn

And finally

When I first met Georg, my first Schaefermeister mentor in Germany, I walked into his small house to be met by a sea of GSDs. There were five adults. Two were in various stages of illness with cancer, one was very elderly, and the others were still full-time workers. How did this all work then? The ill or older dogs were still going to work periodically. Georg chose where the sheep would be grazing each day so that he could gauge what the effort would be like, and on the easier days he would take the old codgers out to keep them busy. The dogs challenged with illness all lived in the house. On a daily basis, the younger, fitter dogs were rotated so that one or two came home to the house in the evenings and the others bunked up with the sheep in the barn. All of them were prepared, from puppyhood to their last day, to know that home was, well, everywhere.

The next time I was able to visit, months later, only one young dog was in the house. Georg and I went to work with his dogs, my dog, and his sheep. I didnt ask about the passing of his wonderful old timers. Georg, with tears in his eyes, hugged my dog Anna. She is like Dana,” he said. They come, and they go.” And then he looked around the green hills as if he was seeing them still there. I cant bear the idea of people discounting the feelings of the farmers who live and work with these old dogs. We hang on to them because their working experience is beyond measure. They are loved as companions and as a workforce and as family. Every farm vehicle, on every trip, is inhabited by a dog. Every warm space in the farm house is reserved for an arthritic old dog, and every farm vet will have heard us all say, I cant lose her. I dont know how Ill manage when shes gone.”


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