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Working Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

12 min read

Working dog breeds are canines on a mission. They love nothing more than a job to do and will work tirelessly to get it done. Here is what you can expect if you decide to bring a working dog home.

Working breeds are dogs with a job to do and a body ready to work hard at it. But they show off plenty of different characteristics across the group: from agile guarding dogs, to gentle giants and sled dog, also known as the long-distance runners of the canine world. Here is everything you need to know about these beloved dog breeds.


A working dog's job description

Working dog breeds come from all over the world and are, as their name suggests, hard-working breeds specifically developed to excel in specialist, non-herding jobs. This is primarily guarding and protection for people, livestock or property - but they also include sledging, draught work and rescue. Many of these dogs could historically also turn their paw to other working roles where needed.


Sizes and coat types for working dog breeds

These dogs are all large or giant breeds, and have a variety of coat types depending on the country they called home and the jobs they were called upon to do. Larger breeds usually come from colder climates and this is the case with the majority of this group.


The natural instincts of working dog breeds

Like all the different breeds, working dogs utilise their natural canine behaviours to do the jobs that humans have developed them to do. Their instincts have been honed to perfection by successive breeding to watch for intruders and then take the necessary action.

Working breeds vary in how they use these instincts. Guarding dog breeds are extremely watchful and always on the alert for intruders or anything that could threaten their charges. Once an intruder or danger is spotted, they vary in their response as to whether they stalk it and then chase, or if they just chase. Once they have caught up to their target, they might grab-bite to stop them or bite far harder to disable them (or in the case of the Bullmastiff, pull them to the ground and sit on them!).

But not all of the working breeds guard. Some (Bernese and Newfoundland as examples) are known as the gentle giants of the dog world even though they are equally hard-workers. While others, such as the sled dogs, are the long-distance runners of the dog world.

Bear in mind that the predatory behaviour is self-rewarding for working dog breeds, which means they will need an outlet for these hard-wired instincts to manifest. However, don't think you need a country estate for your dog to protect or an arctic wasteland to sledge over, but it does mean that you need to be aware of these natural instincts and work hard to make sure your dog is fulfilled, happy and is a safe member of canine society.


Working dog breeds' behaviour and personality

In order to do their job successfully, working breeds have particular skills and characteristics.

Strong and determined

Many working breeds would be expected to confront any threat to their charges and so most are fully able to walk the walk and not just bark the bark! Others may be called upon to pull sledges or heavy carts which needs both strength and stamina.

But whether sledging or seeing off intruders, working breeds are the ‘never give up’ members of the dog world who have both stamina and perseverance in their DNA. 


While not as active as the pastoral or gundog breeds who are bred to be active all day, every day, most working breeds are still fairly active. Some will happily lazy around waiting for those moments when they are called upon to work.

Others, like the sledging dogs, can literally run all day and love to do so.


Working dog breeds are able to deter even the most determined of adversaries or work tirelessly in their specialist jobs theses dogs are often as strong minded as they are strong in body.


Unlike some breeds who will alert owners to any perceived threat because of fear, these dogs are usually far more sure of themselves.

And since these are dogs better suited for experienced owners, here is what you can expect when you welcome these large dogs, strong in both body and mind, into the family.

  • May be suspicious of strangers (human and canine).
  • Need training and good management/handling.
  • Can be highly territorial.
  • Devoted to their owner and family.
  • In the case of the flock guards, they may be happy being left for longer periods of time than other breeds.
  • Quiet (apart from the sled dogs!).
  • Surprisingly sensitive and need reward-based training.
  • In the case of the heavily coated dogs (especially the sled dogs), they may shed heavily.
  • These are dogs who are bred to have a job to do - and so without appropriate exercise, training and owner interaction can become bored and frustrated which can lead to destructiveness and potentially aggression.
  • With good management and training, these can be the gentle giants of the dog world who will protect their family with an adoration that can't be matched.


Is a working breed right for you?

If you think a member of the working group is right for you, here are a few things to take into consideration.

The working dog owner checklist

If you think a working dog breed is the companion for you, here are some of the things that make a dog owner compatible with such an active breed:

  • Experienced owner with good knowledge of handling large dogs.
  • Have plenty of space both inside and out - rural locations preferred (working dogs are definitely not city dogs).
  • Very secure garden - some of these breeds are escape artists.
  • Lots of time to spend training and socialising - and giving appropriate and safe outlets for exercise.


Bonding with your working dog

The best way to bond with your working dog is to give them a job to do. However, make sure that the job is under your control and don't let them go 'self employed'. Find ways to exercise their minds and their bodies to prevent boredom and frustration - a good reward-based trainer can help you with this.

Your dog might sometimes seem reserved, but they will form close bonds with their family and have been known to defend them with great vigour. Strangers will often be viewed with initial suspicion, but friends and visitors, once introduced and accepted, will be seen as part of the group.

Some guard dogs are more demonstrative in their affection than others. Protective dogs such as Rottweilers, Dobermanns and German Shepherds are generally devoted to their owners, hanging on their every word, but some of the guarding breeds, particularly Mastiff types, are more independent.

If you want to know how to keep a guardian dog happy through training and socialisation, check out our article, next.


Discover all the working dog breeds (as recognised by the Kennel Club, February 2020)