New Zealand is embarking on a new project aimed at enhancing the breeding of working farm dogs. With a budget of NZ$1.7 million, the three-year initiative, supported by the government, will apply the same methodology used for elite sheep and cattle breeding to farm dogs. Currently, there are approximately 200,000 working dogs on farms throughout New Zealand. The project is receiving funding from the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund, with the Ministry for Primary Industries co-investing NZ$770,000. Additionally, Massey University, Focus Genetics, and VHL Genetics will contribute $1 million in cash and in-kind support.
The Minister for Agriculture, Damien O’Connor, explained that the goal of the project is to reduce the risk for farmers when selecting a new dog. He acknowledged the crucial role that working dogs play on New Zealand farms, assisting in the movement and herding of livestock. O’Connor emphasized the positive impact that a good dog can have on the well-being of farmers. He stated, “It’s a significant investment for a shepherd to put together a team of dogs and this project will help give them more certainty in selecting a pup.”
The AL Rae Centre for Genetics and Breeding, a satellite campus of Massey University located in Ruakura, will lead the project. The team will collaborate with industry partners, including Pamu, Beef and Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ), and the New Zealand Sheep Dog Trial Association, to engage farmers and their dogs across the country. O’Connor highlighted that the majority of rural canines in New Zealand are huntaway and heading dog breeds, with genetic stock unique to the country’s hill country. He emphasized the valuable contribution that these four-legged workers make to on-farm productivity, as well as to the mental health and well-being of farmers.
The project aims to conduct the most comprehensive genomic investigation of New Zealand working farm dog breeds to date. By identifying desired traits and developing new genomic prediction criteria, the project seeks to assist in the selection of improved dogs. Additionally, genome sequencing and genotyping will be carried out to establish a baseline understanding of recessive disease-causing mutations that may be present in these breeds. O’Connor expressed optimism about the project’s potential to enhance the health, welfare, and working performance of farm dogs. He concluded, “So in time, the farmer’s ‘best friend’ will become an ‘even more valuable’ friend.”