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Working Dog Welfare and Behavioural Genetics

Elizabeth Arnott Department of Primary Industries

Jonathan B. Early1, Claire M. Wade2, Paul D. McGreevy1

1 Sydney School of Veterinary Science, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
2 School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Posted Flock & Herd December 2019


Working dogs contribute to many human endeavours. However, minimal research exists into Australia’s largest group of working dogs – livestock herding dogs. This knowledge gap exposes the sector to the risks of sub-optimal efficiency, compromised productivity and unacceptable animal welfare outcomes. This research aims to address this void by characterising the problem of livestock herding dog wastage and contributing to the incremental process of improving management, selection and breeding practices.

Data from a questionnaire completed by 812 livestock herding dog owners on 4,027 dogs revealed that livestock working dogs typically provide a lifelong working contribution valued at approximately A$40,000, representing a 5.2-fold return on investment1.

Study participants reported a mean wastage rate of 20% of the dogs they acquire or breed for work. Behavioral causes were cited for 89% of these failures. Regression analysis was used to identify significant associations (p<0.05) between the participants’ reported wastage rates and 33 variables related to husbandry, training techniques and owner characteristics. The following factors were significantly associated with wastage rates: method of housing dogs (p<0.001), participation in dog trials (p=0.034), the age (p=0.002) and training level (p=0.03) of the dog at acquisition, electric collar use (p=0.001) and the owner’s conscientiousness personality score (p=0.007). In addition to these environmental influences on herding dog success, a study was undertaken to identify genetic influences on herding dog behaviour2.

The genomic haplotype architecture of the Australian Working Kelpie (n=40) was compared to that of the Australian Kelpie (n=22), a non-working Kelpie breed derived from the same founder stock. A selective sweep was identified on chromosome 3 in the region of genes that suggest that the Australian working Kelpie has been bred primarily for gene loci influencing pain perception and fear memory formation. These results are consistent with our research indicating that the behavioural traits of boldness, confidence, calmness and persistence are correlated with the overall ability of the working Kelpie3.


This research was undertaken at The University of Sydney thanks to generous funding from Meat and Livestock Australia and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. The Working Kelpie Council of Australia provided valuable assistance.


  1. Arnott, E.R., Early, J.B., Wade, C.M. & McGreevy, P.D. Estimating the economic value of Australian stock herding dogs. Animal Welfare 23, 189-197 (2014)
  2. Arnott, E.R., Early, J.B., Wade, C.M. & McGreevy, P.D. Environmental Factors Associated with Success Rates of Australian Stock Herding Dogs. PLoS ONE 9(2014).
  3. 3. Arnott, E.R., et al. Strong selection for behavioural resilience in Australian stock working dogs identified by selective sweep analysis. Canine Genetics and Epidemiology 2, 6 (2015).


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