January 22, 2010

New Zealand farm working dogs. The NZ Huntaway

By Dr Clive Dalton

The monument to the New Zealand Huntaway at Hunterville.
Farmers can buy a paving stone around the bronze sculptor to record their own huntaway's name and dates of its loyal working career.
(Photo by Molly Dalton 2012)

Nobody knows the true history of the New Zealand Huntaway - it was never written down. The early shepherds had imported 'eye dogs' to go around sheep to gather (muster) them, but very soon they found they needed to move sheep off steep hill country and mountainous High Country runs where a dog with a lot more 'force' or 'punch' and with a good bark (noise) was needed. Shepherds wanted a dog that could 'hunt sheep away' from the handler, while the heading dog could go around them to stop them escaping.

But the Huntaway also had to 'head' sheep but without any 'eye' like the heading dog. The Huntaway's bark and dominant presence 'facing up' to the sheep was the secret in controlling and moving them. A Huntaway's bark can be switched on and off by command which is very important, as noise at the wrong time and in the wrong place, can lead to disasters such as a smothering of sheep where they pile up on top of each other and suffocate.

Bred solely for performance
The NZ Huntaway is one of the few animals that has been selected solely on the basis of 'performance'. Human 'fancy' and silly notions were never involved. If the pups from a mating didn't show any working instinct by about 6 months of age, they were euthanased as nobody wanted them for pets.

Also fortunately, there was no enthusiasts, breed society or Kennel Club to lay down rules about what a Huntaway should look like. Looks were the very last feature breeders were concerned about in a Huntaway as long as it did its job.

This is changing, (sadly in my view) as the Huntaway has been discovered to be a very loyal companion dog, and if we are not careful, their working genes will be weakened by selecting for 'pet' gens and diluting the working genes. This has happened with the Corgi, the Long-haired Collie (Lassie type) and the Sheltie. These were all working dogs before breeders started breeding them for the show ring and as companion animals.

This is happening at great pace in the Border Collie in New Zealand which is now a very popular companion dog for active people, and is now winning obedience competitions.

Functional traits
Huntaways have a hard life and on big farms they must easily cover up to 100km on a busy day, mustering and working sheep in yards and woolsheds. They need a great 'constitution', however that's measured. It involves a physique and physiology that doesn't break down under heavy load. The working dog is an athlete, and it's nutritional needs are similar to those identified by researchers studying sled dogs.

Legs, joint's, ligaments, and feet joints and pads are particularly vital parts. In recent years, hip dysplasia has been identified in the 'breed', if we dare call it a breed in the classical sense, which thankfully it is not. This weakness is being eliminated by X-ray idenitificaton, selection and culling. Twisted bowel also caused trouble in Huntaways for a number of years but breeders reckon it's been eliminated by honest pedigree recording and culling.

As Huntaway breeders bred larger dogs for more force and power, hip dysplasia developed more rapidly, and inbreeding to particular dogs that were regular winners at dog trials made things worse. It's both a genetic and an environmental (nutritional) problem and is being successfully managed from both these angles.

Mongrels or 'designer dogs'

A stockman's dog team
(L to R). NZ Huntaway, Australian Blue Heeler cattle dog, NZ Heading Dog
In the world of classical dog breeding, a Huntaway would be described as a 'mongel' (of unknown parentage). But in modern genetic terms, it's a wonderful example of using a 'gene pool' and throwing into the mix all the dog genes from around the place that have shown any ability to do the job required.

The story goes that farmers started with the Border Collie, mixed in some Beardie (Sheep dog from Northern Scotland), Old English sheepdog (from the English Downs), the Smithfield (working dogs from Smithfield market in London), Labrador, Fox hound, Retriever and goodness knows what else. German Shepherd was not involved.

A bit of Australian Kelpie could also have gone into the mix. The Kelpie was bred in Australia from Border Collies and breeders are adamant that no Dingo was used in their ancestry, though many don't believe this!

The Keplie and Queensland Blue Heeler in New Zealand are kept as breeds on their own, and you never let a Blue Heeler (also called the Australian Cattle dog) near sheep! The history of this dog has been well documented and is a fascinating story. There's Dalmation in its ancestry and the Dingo was used to remove its bark.

Both Kelpies and Blue Heelers are now popular companion dogs, so their working genes could be under threat over time, unless farmers protect their genetic working stock.

Stirring the pot
The next stage in Huntaway breeding was to give the pot a good stir, and select out ( solely on performance) pups that showed potential. These had to have a kind nature and show keen interest in sheep and/or cattle, and be keen to bark at stock with a good deep 'voice' when excited.

They have to do this by six months old as most farmers believe that feeding them beyond that is not economical. There are pups that are late starters, but they seldom get the chance to show potential.

This 'mixing pot' approach used by the early breeders - using Darwin's 'survival of the fittest', is in fact a very modern approach. It's what geneticists would recommend today if a new 'breed' or type of working dog had to be bred. The result would now be called a 'composite' or 'designer dog'.

Huntaway types
Look at the colours of the dogs in these pictures and guess what genes are in their ancestry. You can't be wrong as nobody really knows which is wonderful, and nobody is the least concerned as long as they do their job.

NZ Huntaway - classical black and tan colours. This is a young dog about
a year old and just starting full work. Note the solid body and legs, and great heart girth.

A dog trial veteran - black and tan classical Huntaway

NZ Huntaway with Beardie genes. Beardies are tough dogs and despite their
long hair, hot weather doesn't seem to slow them down.
Another example of Beardie ancestry

NZ Huntaway with Labrador genes or just a black dominant gene ?

Another example of way back Black Labrador ancestry ?

NZ Huntaway with red genes from Retriever (?) origins

NZ Huntaway with Beardie genes and possibly hound ancestry.
Who knows? Who cares?
Another couple with similar ancestry?

The 'Handy Dog'
Talking about 'handy dogs' can be controversial. These dogs are certainly not purposely bred any more, and farmers say that there are none around although they are needed. A handy dog will do everything - head sheep, hunt them away, catch ewes and lambs at lambing, work cattle and some farmers joke - they'll bring the paper from the gate.

Their main value is in working sheep in yards and the woolshed. They are sometimes called 'yard dogs'. They are generally the dog that will work for any member of staff which is a great advantage.

There's nothing worse than the one-man-dog who will only work for it's master, especially if someone else needs to use it in an emergency, such as when stock have escaped and you need a dog - badly! I speak from experience here as you end up having to run yourself!

Handy dogs apparently were common in the past but not any more as breeders are influenced by the requirements of dog trials. There used to be trials for handy dogs, and there have been recent attempts to revive them by running 'yarding trials' where dogs have to do general work moving sheep around yards. A good huntaway will of course do such work.

Heading - Huntaway crossing
No respectable breeder crosses a heading dog with a Hunatway to get a combination of both working skills to produce a 'handy dog'. But these dogs do exist on farms and probably happen by accidental matings, and with appropriate training, some turn out to be good for general farm work.

A Handy Dog - with both Heading and Huntaway genes which will do most
things and bark on command. This dog also has the Blue Merle recessive gene.


  1. This info on NZ Huntaways was really helpful for my project on working farm dogs... considering the fact that not much has been published in journals / books.. Thanks!

  2. Very Handy Info

  3. Thanks a lot for this very interesting background!
    NZ Huntaways are now widespread in Wales and Scotland where rough hilly conditions favour this tougher breed with more stamina than the Border Collie. We bought our now 1 year old bitch from a Scottish hill farm from two healthy working parents. The classic black and tan model, with short coarse hair and black "widows peak". Boisterous, strong and super-intelligent. However, she developed serious hip dysplasia very early on (about 6 months). I daresay that if she had been kept on the farm she would have been euthanised, alhough we were able to have her hips fixed by titanium plates and double-osteotomy. We will therefore not be breeding from her and she has been speyed.