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Cracking Working Dog Code

08 July 2014
Meat & Livestock Australia

AUSTRALIA - Working dogs typically provide their owners with a five-fold return on investment. Research, partly funded by MLA, using genomic technologies to predict working dog trainability aims to save livestock producers more time and money.

The University of Sydney’s Farm Dog Project is already providing valuable information – starting with a list of the most desirable traits of a good working dog and the calculation of the return on investment of a typical dog.

The project seeks to measure and record behavioural and health attributes in farm dogs, aiming to create simple tests for pups as young as six months old to predict trainability and working life success.

It is a three-year collaboration between university researchers, the Working Kelpie Council of Australia, MLA and the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

The project began in 2012, and principal researcher Professor Paul McGreevy said it had already provided valuable information.

“We started by conducting the Australian Farm Dog Survey in early 2013, which drew a great response from 812 working dog owners around Australia,” Paul said.

“Results revealed the median cost of owning a working dog was estimated to be $7,763 for its working life. The work performed by the dog throughout this time was estimated to have a median value of $40,000.

“So, working dogs typically provided their owners with a 5.2-fold return on investment.”

The survey also asked owners to rate a selection of behavioural traits within three working environments – mustering, yard and all-round – and the trial arena.

“The traits considered of most value varied according to the working environment, but included the ability to cast, gather and force livestock, and intelligence, calmness and control,” Paul said.

“Boldness, in particular, was considered of high value.”

The team is now developing objective and subjective measures of the desirable traits, using DNA samples from more than 160 Kelpies, video footage of these dogs working, behavioural coding software, GPS tracking of dogs during peak work periods and interviews with owners.

Several litters of pups are being followed through to maturity to see how stable the traits are over time.

“We will also examine pedigrees to calculate the heritability of these traits and then use modern genetic mapping to identify DNA sequences associated with the most important traits,” Paul said.

“These genetic markers will be combined with the key behavioural traits to develop Estimated Breeding Values that can be used in selecting dogs for training and breeding programs.”

The project’s major goal is to develop simple, repeatable tests that will reveal working traits in puppies as early as possible and can be conducted by a novice owner. It’s a task Paul and his team have already completed for guide dog breeders.

“Using the tests we developed we’ve been able to identify dogs at six months old that are up to four times more likely to pass training than the average intake,” he said.

“We hope to achieve something similar for Kelpies to ultimately improve on-farm efficiency.”

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