Dog in the Barn - Delight or Danger?

Horse looking at this black dog strolling through their barn.
Horse looking at this black dog strolling through their barn.

Horses, dogs and humans have been working companions since the times of domestication. Through peacetime chores and wartime battles, these three species have helped each other. Do modern barns still have dogs around?

Golden retriever and horse

Dogs as a horse companion

Most horses and dogs get along after a proper introductory period.
© 2008 by Thomas Lieser

The answer is yes, though sometimes with qualifications. Many horse barns have resident or frequent visitor dogs who add to the atmosphere at the barn. The type of dogs, the work they perform and how much a part of the barn they really are varies both with individuals and the barn setup.

Dogs can be excellent for vermin control - equaling or surpassing a cat's abilities. Jack Russell and Parson Russell Terriers, along with Welsh Corgis (both Pembrokes and Cardigans) and Australian Cattle Dogs will keep your barn mouse and rat free. In addition, they will clear your pastures of woodchucks and gophers as well. Dogs who hunt on your property need to be up-to-date on rabies vaccinations. They should also receive regular parasite control treatments and get checked for tapeworms frequently.

Jack Russel Terrier

Jack Russell Terrier

Playful and highly intelligent, the Jack Russell also keeps vermin out of your barn.
© 2008 by Val

Looking for an alarm system that works in all weather even when the power goes out? Police forces agree that a barking dog is generally a big deterrent to robbers and vandals - including a small but loud dog. Most thieves simply want to get in quietly, take what they can and leave without any risk of human conflict. A loudly barking dog, even if it is not a guarding breed like a Rottweiler, is still a deterrent. If you camp and trail ride, a dog on guard can keep your campsite and equipment safe. The same is true for a dog along at big shows where the dog can guard your tack room and stall area.

For a woman who may be at the barn alone in the evening or early morning, a canine companion adds an element of safety. Plus, there is a nice feeling in having a companion along. People aren't the only ones who appreciate the companionship of a dog. Many equines develop strong friendships with the barn dogs. It is not just racehorses who want their animal companions along on trips and while being trailered!

Thief deterrent

Dog protective services

Dogs can provide safety and security for you and your barn.
© 2007 by Andrew Bardwell

A well-trained, calm dog can accompany you while trail riding or when you trailer out to new areas to ride. A steady dog helps keep your horse company and you safe. This is especially important if you ride alone or in fairly isolated areas. A young or green horse may be steadier and more confident with his canine companion along with him.

It is interesting to see the types of dogs that frequent different barns. A Western themed barn with reining horses and Western pleasure mounts most likely has an Australian Shepherd or two around. You may find a Jack Russell or an Australian Cattle Dog, but the Aussies dominate.

Ride at a dressage barn? Expect to spot a Corgi and maybe a Jack Russell. Hunter jumper barns seem to rely on Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers along with a number of the herding breeds. Driving barns often have Corgis, small terriers or Dalmatians as their canine mascots.

Welsh Corgi - show barn favorite

Welsh Corgi - show barn favorite

Many horse owners prefer a dog that is small, and self sufficient. The Welsh Corgi is a popular choice.
© 2010 by CarterselNew

So what makes a good barn dog? Most people want an easy care dog. Not too much grooming, easy to train, steady temperament and likely to stick around the barn. Many of the herding breeds fit this description, but there is a caveat with the herding breeds. These dogs will tend to chase or nip at horses unless taught otherwise. Their instinct is to get into the pasture and literally round up the horses. Border Collies often have very strong gather and fetch instincts. They need to learn to either stay out of the pastures or to go alongside a horse quietly.

Sporting breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers, have fewer urges to chase and nip. They can make excellent barn dogs and equine companions. Terriers are excellent at pest control. Don't rule out working breeds like Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers. They have easy to care for coats and tend to be very intelligent and athletic.

You may want a dog as a riding companion as well as a barn dog. Teaching a dog to accompany you while riding also means you need the "right" horse. This has to be a totally unflappable horse. It can be any breed, though some breeds are known for being calmer. Ideally you want to start with a helper. One of you is quietly walking on the horse while the helper has the dog on a leash walking next to the horse. Do not try to do this with a retractable lead - that would be a recipe for disaster!

Australian Cattle Dog

Australian Cattle Dog - working dog favorite

Hitting the trail, or working livestock, a favorite choice of many horse owners is the free ranging and livestock savvy Australian Cattle Dog.
© 2011 by mgstanton New

You can follow a similar protocol if you want your dog to come with you as you drive your horse. Some dogs will prefer to ride in the cart with you. Make sure they have a safe place to ride and know to lie down or sit quietly and stay.

If you want your dog to come with you on rides, always plan ahead. A trail ride where you go along a fairly busy road for a stretch is not a good choice for your dog. If you know that a ride will take you by homes with barking dogs or dogs who charge out at you, leave your dog at home. He could be accidentally kicked when your horse reacts to the charging dog.

There are some extra health concerns if you have a barn dog. Remember that if you use an ivermectin dewormer there are dogs who react badly to this medication. They can even become ill by eating manure a day or two after the deworming. Dogs of the suspect breeds, which include many herding breeds such as Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs and Australian Shepherds can be tested for this genetic mutation.

You also need to supervise when your farrier comes to make sure your dogs don't overdo the hoof trimming treats. A few fresh pieces are fine, but don't let your dog overdo it.

As mentioned, barn dogs need to be up-to-date on their vaccines, especially rabies. They should also have periodic fecal checks - looking for tapeworms and coccidia as well as the standard internal parasites.

With some extra care and attention, you can have a great barn dog as a companion for you and your horses!

Editor's note

While horses and dogs are traditional companions on the trail and in the barn, be very careful around horses and riders that may not have experienced canine companions. Unaware dogs can be kicked and severely hurt or killed, and unaccustomed horses can bolt placing both horse and rider in danger. Use common sense, and leave your dog at home unless you are sure of horse and rider safety.

About the Author

Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

Deb M. Eldredge, DVM is a Cornell graduate and horse lover from early childhood. She was active in 4-H and Pony Club, riding mostly huntseat but also Western. She has competed in various horse show venues as well as competitive trail rides and small three day events. At Cornell she was a member of the Women's Polo team.

Dr. Eldredge is a national award winning writer from both the Cat Writers Association and the Dog Writers Association of America. She lives in upstate NY on a small farm with 3 elderly horses, 1 miniature horse and 2 donkeys as well as various other animals.

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