For many farmers and ranchers, farm dogs are family. In addition to the numerous useful traits and attributes, including herding livestock and providing livestock protection from predators, many of these four-legged friends provide companionship and emotional support.
But as with every member of the family, there comes a difficult time to say goodbye — an unfortunate inevitability, considering the shorter lifespan compared to our own.
In late October, our family said goodbye our own loyal farm dog, Summer. A husky mix, Summer had been with us since early 2003 — nearly 16 years. It's a hard loss to swallow. As a member of our family who was around for over half my life, and watched my siblings and I grow up, Summer was around for some of the most pivotal, difficult moments of our lives.
Dogs have had a place on the farm for literally thousands of years. Most border collies trace their gene pool back to "Old Hemp," a dog used to herd sheep back in the late 1800s in northern England. But dogs used to guard livestock trace their origins back even further — at least 6,000 years ago, when ancestors to breeds like the Anatolian shepherd were used to help guard livestock in Eurasia.
It's often said that in range country, a good cattle dog — i.e. a border collie or Australian shepherd — can replace three horseback ranch hands. Likewise, keeping a guard dog to protect livestock from predators has proven invaluable for those grazing pasture and rangeland — often the mere presence of a guardian dog will prevent predators from killing livestock.
Perhaps most important, however, is the companionship these dogs provide — many ag journalists such as myself are greeted at farm interviews by the family dog when first stepping out of the car. It's no surprise that Prairie Farmer, a sister publication of Nebraska Farmer, names a "Favorite Farm Dog" in Illinois each year.
There are even organizations dedicated to this kind of support. PHARM (Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri) Dog provides trained border collies for disabled cattle producers to help with herding, and trained Labrador retrievers to help disabled farmers with everyday tasks such as carrying buckets, picking up dropped tools and opening gates. Of course, there's also an incredible value to the emotional support these dogs provide. And PHARM Dog assists farmers in other Midwestern states, too — they often have a booth at the Hospitality Tent at Husker Harvest Days.
Our Summer may not have herded cattle, but like many other farm dogs, she served as an indispensable companion while feeding cattle, building fence and fixing farm equipment. Our family farm has been home to several farm dogs through the years — including Kojak, our husky-malamute mix and Summer's long-time companion — but Summer was around longer than any other.
It's a story many farm families are familiar with. Man's best friend has deep roots in agriculture — as a guardian, herder, retriever and companion. Before dogs were man's best friend, they were the farmer's best friend.