The aim of the TeamMate project is to investigate health, career duration and loss of dogs over time. This initial paper describes the 641 working farm dogs that were enrolled in the study, their owners’ feeding and husbandry practices, their work, population features, and prevalence of abnormal findings on clinical examination.
Dogs were almost equally divided between males and females, and almost all dogs belonged to the Heading dog and Huntaway types, with only 19 of the 641 enrolled dogs classified as another type. We saw a clear division in the types of work done by Heading dogs and Huntaways, with Heading dogs mostly used to head and Huntaways mostly used to hunt. The differences seen in working roles between dogs described as Heading dogs and Huntaways in this study were expected, as these dogs are generally used for different types of stock work [5, 7, 9, 19, 20]. However, there was a degree of overlap, suggesting that the division of work is not the only criteria used to define a dog as a Heading dog or Huntaway. Heading dogs and Huntaways do not have defined phenotypes, pedigrees or genetics in the way that conventional dog breeds do. Consequently, we made the decision to avoid using the word ‘breed’ when referring to them. Although Heading dogs and Huntaways can be recognised based on appearance, their phenotypes are said to vary widely [5, 19, 20]. Generally, Heading dogs resemble short-haired Border Collies, from which they are thought to descend. They are mainly trained to ‘head’ and often to ‘catch’ which puts them at closer proximity to stock than Huntaways when moving stock in open areas (see Table 4 for definitions of work). Huntaways tend to be heavier than Heading dogs (Figure 4), and have different colouring and more variability in coat length. They are trained to use their loud barks to drive or ‘hunt’ stock, and they are often used in yard work, which is a more confined environment. Huntaways are used for fine manoeuvring of stock less often than Heading dogs. Instead, they are used to apply pressure from behind and keep the herd moving while Heading dogs direct where they should go. When used as teams, Heading dogs and Huntaways can move large herds very effectively across long distances. However, the differences in the ways they work may put them at risk of developing different types of injuries. While no major differences between types of dogs were seen in the prevalence of clinical abnormalities, this will be more re-examined when analysing data on the incidence of new abnormalities on follow-up and rate of dogs being lost from the workforce.
Seventy-five percent of dogs had at least one abnormal finding on clinical examination. Musculoskeletal system, skin and teeth abnormalities were by far the most common, and were recorded in a higher proportion of dogs than in the surveys by Sheard  and Cave et al. . This is to be expected, as TeamMate was deliberately designed to capture all abnormalities in dogs and not just ones that were clinically significant at the time the data were collected. The earlier surveys recorded instances of illness or injury that were serious enough that owners thought to report them at a later date, or took the dogs to be seen by a veterinarian. Unlike these surveys, in TeamMate the term ‘abnormality’ encompasses any change to a dog, including healed scars, callouses and minor tooth wear that are unlikely to be considered a problem by the owner, or to directly impact on dogs’ health and welfare. However, these abnormalities illustrate the most common types of problems working farm dogs are likely to acquire, and they may be contributing factors to subsequent disease, retirement or death.
Several veterinarians participated in data collection, creating a possibility that different individuals assessed and described similar types of abnormalities in in different ways. However, in order to minimise bias in the data, veterinarians were asked to describe physical signs rather than to give overall diagnoses. While differences in data collected by different veterinarians are impossible to rule out, we have worked to minimised the risk of bias through our data collection, coding and data entry procedures. Additionally, a random sampling procedure may have resulted in a sample that was more representative of the farm dog population as a whole. However, in order to avoid a low response rate and to enable data collection to be carried out in a timely manner, a convenience sample of existing Vetlife clients was chosen.
Thirty percent of dogs in TeamMate were given a body condition score of three or below which places them in the ‘under ideal’ range according to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association . This is in general agreement with Sheard’s data that dog owners considered one in five of their dogs to be underweight . However, in Sheard’s study no data on body weight or body condition scores were collected that could have confirmed or negated owners’ assessments. O’Connell et al.  reports similarly low BCS in their sample population, but did not find a correlation between BCS and the presence of parasites in faecal samples, or dogs’ sex, age or housing. It should be noted that body condition scoring for dogs was developed with the aim of estimating body fat in overweight dogs [22, 23] and is poorly validated for athletic, lean dogs. In such dogs, loss of muscle mass may be a more relevant cause for concern. The ratio of lean body mass to skeletal size may be a better way to assess condition in lean dogs than BCS , although it remains to be seen which method has the greatest utility. Nonetheless, it has not been established what the ideal BCS or lean mass for a working farm dog is, or whether there are proportions of body fat or lean mass associated with an increased risk of disease or injury. An aim of the wider TeamMate project is to use the longitudinal data to investigate whether BCS and lean mass in farm dogs is related to injury, disease, or loss from work.
Similarly to dogs surveyed by Singh et al. and O’Connell et al. [6, 18] most dogs in this study were fed a combination of meat sourced on the farm and commercial dog food, and only one dog owner reported to having feed their dogs only meat in the previous six months. However, we were not able to record the amounts of food given, the quality of the food or the ratios of meat to commercial food. As such it is impossible to comment on whether the food given was adequate to their needs. However, un-supplemented meat is deficient in several minerals and vitamins , and if it is fed as the main proportion of the diet rather than as a supplement to a complete and balanced diet, it may result in malnutrition. To determine whether current feeding practices are associated with disease, injury or shortened lifespans, more detailed information is needed about the dogs, their energy expenditure and the exact size and composition of their meals. Most dog owners reported that the meat fed to dogs had been frozen, and that offal had been cooked. Working farm dogs are at risk of infection from a range of parasites that could be spread through untreated meat . In addition to regular anthelmintic treatment, freezing or cooking meat and offal that is to be fed to dogs is recommended to reduce the spread of these parasites, especially those that might be spread to livestock [6, 26].
Over 80% of dogs in this study were housed in un-insulated kennels, less than half had bedding in their kennel and at least half of all dogs did not wear a coat for warmth at the time of enrolment. A dog’s energy expenditure can be affected by the quality of its housing, as ambient temperatures have an impact on dogs’ energy requirements, both if they are too hot and too cold . Dogs that are housed in warm kennels use less energy on thermoregulation, and consequently have lower energy requirements. The recommended range of ambient temperature in order to maintain health and welfare in laboratory dogs is 20 – 26oC . In comparison, temperatures on the South Island can drop to well below 0oC in the winter months . Additionally, it has been shown that low temperatures are associated with increased levels of stress hormones, while dogs housed in actively heated kennels tend to rest more . Though there is a great deal of variety in their phenotypes, most working farm dogs in New Zealand have relatively short, smooth coats that are likely to offer limited protection from cold temperatures. In this respect, comparing them to laboratory dogs such as Beagles is not unreasonable. Due to their athleticism and high activity levels, farm dogs are also likely to have less insulating subcutaneous fat than most laboratory dogs. In addition to helping with thermoregulation, providing appropriate bedding can help with preventing pressure sores on dogs’ elbows and hocks . Three out of every 20 dogs in this study were reported to have callouses that were probably caused by lying on hard surfaces. It should be noted that in this study some of the questions relating to housing had relatively low response rates, and that some dogs were noted to have rejected the coats and bedding provided to them. Nonetheless, improving the housing for working farm dogs could have a positive effect on their health, welfare and career longevity.
Only six percent of farm dogs were reported to be neutered. Farm dog owners may have a desire to be able to breed from dogs that prove to be good workers, causing them to only neuter dogs if they have a specific reason to do so. The rate of neutering was twice as high in females than in males, with most females having been neutered due to medical issues. In comparison, most male dogs had been neutered to stop unwanted mating and behavioural issues such as fighting. Some dog owners noted that neutering a male was done due to having one male in an otherwise all-female team, which is likely to make it more difficult than usual to isolate females in heat. Cave et al.  found that nine percent of clinic presentations of farm dogs involved a reproductive issue. The majority of these were mismatings, with mammary neoplasia being the second most common. An increased rate of neutering would decrease the rate of mismatings and might also reduce injuries caused by males fighting. However, it is uncertain whether neutering is beneficial for dogs’ overall health beyond removing risk directly related to the testes, ovaries and uterus. Most of the reproductive system abnormalities recorded in this study were mammary tumours or mammary hyperplasia. In the past it was believed that neutering reduces the risk of mammary tumours in female dogs, but the evidence supporting this claim is of variable quality [31, 32].
In the TeamMate population, only 24% of dogs were vaccinated as adults, from yearly to sporadically, although another 45% were known to have been vaccinated as a puppy. In comparison, a study of 196 working farm dogs on the North Island of New Zealand reported that 53% of dogs were vaccinated annually or every two years . The majority of dogs in O’Connell et al.’s study were recruited from a veterinary practice in the Waikato region, with the remainder being recruited at a North Island sheepdog trial event . Possibly, dog owners in Canterbury and Otago tend to live further from veterinary clinics than those in the Waikato region, making it more difficult for them to get their dogs vaccinated regularly. Additionally, dogs are barred from competing in trial events if they are ill with an infectious disease . This may act as an incentive for owners to vaccinate their dogs.
For TeamMate we did not record the nature of the vaccines administered, though it is assumed the majority of vaccinations cover the core viral pathogens (distemper, adenovirus-2, parvovirus, ± parainfluenza). The duration of immunity elicited by the core vaccines is likely to extend beyond 3 years, and is probably life-long in many animals [34, 35]. Thus, it is very likely that a large proportion of dogs are sufficiently immunised against the core viral pathogens. Additionally, as farm dogs in New Zealand rarely move off the farm property, their risk of infection is much lower than in pet dogs. This is reflected in the low prevalence of suspected parvoviral enteritis in the study by Cave et al. . Other vaccines that may be given to farm dogs include those protecting against leptospirosis and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Leptospirosis is common in New Zealand livestock, and seropositivity is relatively common in unvaccinated working farm dogs . In addition, outbreaks of acute tracheobronchitis in working farm dogs have been seen by the authors, notably following trial meetings. Nonetheless, the significance of vaccination status to the health and career longevity of working farm dogs is not known. Depending on the results of future studies, more focus may need to be placed on ensuring appropriate vaccination coverage in working farm dogs.
Nearly 35% of farm dogs in the current study were covered by an insurance policy. This is higher than the 20% insurance coverage reported in Golden retrievers enrolled in a longitudinal study in the United States . Additionally, in Australia it has been estimated that about 7% of dog owners have pet insurance , however it has been suggested that this might be an underestimate . Due to the inherent differences between these populations, the validity of these comparisons could be disputed. However, little data is available on insurance rates in dogs, and no such data exists on pet dogs in New Zealand. The comparatively high rate of insurance in farm dogs might be explained by the fact that in New Zealand many insurance policies that cover assets related to farming also include the option to cover working farm dogs [40–42].
Over two thirds of participating farm dog owners were aged 30 to 59 years and three quarters reported having between 20 and 40 years of experience working with dogs, suggesting that those who work with farm dogs as adults often start learning at a very young age. A large majority of dog owners in our dataset report being the farm’s owner or manager, and very few recorded farms had more than one dog owner associated with it. Many farm managers employ farm hands and shepherds to help with the running of the farm. These shepherds usually own and work with their own team of dogs. As such, there is a possibility that there were dogs and owners working on participating farms that were not enrolled in TeamMate.
One aim of TeamMate was to try to gain a better understanding of the size of the farm dog population in New Zealand. Numbers are available on how many farming operations are present in New Zealand, but not on how many people on those farms own and work with dogs. However, due to the uncertainty surrounding the number of dogs and owners working on enrolled farms, we reported the median number of dogs per participating dog owner, not per farm. Previous studies have been unclear in whether they reported the number of dogs belonging to each owner surveyed or the number of dogs working on each farm. Most gathered data from a single owner on each property and reported the number of dogs per farm [16–18]. None mentioned whether or not other owners have worked with their dogs on the same farms. Jerram and Sheard analysed data from the same set of dogs, although Sheard included one less farm and 79 fewer dogs [16, 17]. They enrolled dogs from six months of age and included all dogs that had been working on the farm in the 12 months preceding the survey. Jerram reported a median of seven dogs and Sheard a mean of nine dogs per farm. Singh et al. included all dogs above 12 months of age and reported a median of six dogs per farm . These are all higher than our result of four dogs per owner, but because TeamMate excluded any dog below 18 months of age or that were not in full work, the difference is not unexpected.
A majority of dogs were not fully trained when acquired, being either purchased as young puppies or bred by the current owner. Most dogs came at little or no cost, although some, usually fully trained adults, were occasionally bought for several thousand NZ dollars. Some farmers may want to teach dogs to work according to their own preferences, causing them to prefer self-bred and/or untrained pups over adults trained by others. However, there is no guarantee that a young pup will develop into a useful working dog and this may not be apparent until a substantial amount of time has been spent on training. In this light it makes sense that farm dogs are not seen as having much monetary value until they are older and better trained.