Cheyenne Nicholson

The average working dog is estimated to travel around 20km every day during peak periods, making them the high-performance athletes of farming. A collaborative research effort by Massey University Working Dog Centre and Vetlife has recently wrapped after collecting four years’ worth of data on feeding, housing, general health practices, training and condition, disease and injury, career duration and risk factors for disease, injury and end of career.

Helen Williamson, TeamMate project manager, says the project which is the first of its kind focusing on working dogs, was first undertaken in an effort to understand more about the factors that contribute towards career longevity and overall health and wellbeing.

“No-one has looked at New Zealand working dogs over a period of time before. Massey has done a few studies at one point in time but not hands-on fit, healthy dogs or following a dog through their career so it’s been an exciting project to work on,” she says.

‘We got to see a lot of things that never make it to the vet clinic and record the incidence of many conditions.’

Although previous studies have been undertaken around farm dogs presenting at veterinary practices, not all dogs with health problems are taken into clinics and many owners may not even know their dog has an issue, so there are gaps in the knowledge of working dog health. The TeamMate project has helped fill that gap for many farmers.

“We got to see a lot of things that never make it to the vet clinic and record the incidence of many conditions. A lot of dogs injure themselves and recover, a sprained joint for example. These can heal with scar tissue that can reduce range of motion. Many farmers weren’t aware because their dog just keeps doing the job at hand,” project lead veterinarian Lori Linney says.

Although the data is still being processed there have been some preliminary findings that the team are hoping will be of great value to dog owners. Dogs with an abnormal range of joint motion were found to be 3.3 times more likely to be retired or dead at the next visit (about six months) than those with no problems. Dogs with an abnormal gait were 2.8 times more likely to be retired or dead at the next visit.

“When we actually talked to farmers about their process of buying a dog, barely any actually put their hands on the dog to check joints or get them to do a trot up, from the data we collected, there’s definitely a need to start,” Helen says.

A common occurrence in the equestrian world, trot ups are used to assess if an animal is sound. This is done in a ‘trot’ as other gaits can often mask soundness issues.

“It’s proved to be quite a thought-provoking topic for farmers. When you think about the amount of money people spend on dogs, it’s a really important thing to do. In collaboration with Massey University Working Dog Centre we’re hoping to produce some sort of learning aid to teach people how to test range of joint motion, trot up and what to look for.”

“I think when buying dogs, we need to be aware of some of the things we can use to decide if the dogs are fit for purpose. Farmers are paying good money for dogs now so having some ability to see what injuries, arthritic change etc that they are carrying now and how that might affect their abilities is a really great thing for dog owners and that’s what we’re trying to do with this project.”

Along with the importance of looking at soundness of dogs, pre-conditioning has been another major point to come out of the data so far.

“These dogs are athletes, and they have to be fed and trained like athletes. Some dogs go from not very much work to a lot of work depending where we are in the season. Although most people will exercise their dogs every day, it might be that we need to pay more attention to a concentrated pre-conditioning regime in the lead up to a block of big hill work,” Lori says.

With more recommendations and results coming out of the data sets over the coming months through PhD research papers, both Helen and Lori are hoping to provide farmers with more guidelines, tips and resources to help keep their working dogs in tip-top health and fit for purpose.