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How to Choose the Best Breed of Dog for Your Barn

I'm a horse rider, role-playing gamer, and science fiction and fantasy fan. I've also been married for 15 happy years.

Bear dog 'Fester'.

Bear dog 'Fester'.

Barn Dogs

So, you want a dog for your barn? There are quite a few things to consider, including climate and the exact circumstances. Will this dog live mostly outside? Will you be taking the dog into your home or will it live at the barn full time?

Do you have a problem with rats and need a dog that can deal with them? Or are you thinking of a theft deterrent? Will the dog be going on trail rides with you? If so, in what climate and circumstances? Given all of this, there is no one "best breed," but here are some things to consider.

Which Dog Will Hunt Rats and Other Rodents?

Rats are often a problem around stables. If you live in an area afflicted by large rats, then it is entirely possible, even probable, that a barn cat will not be able to deal with them. Cats will catch all the mice in sight, but if the rats are almost as big as they are...

Best Dog Breeds to Control Rats

For rat control, you need a terrier. The two best breeds, in my opinion, are the Jack Russell Terrier and the aptly named Rat Terrier. Both are very similar dogs, but rat terriers tend to be a little larger. Be warned that all terriers will dig...and not necessarily just to get at the rats.

Things to consider with rat terriers:

  1. They bark. And it's a very shrill, high bark. This may be desirable - they make great burglar alarms.
  2. Rat terriers generally do not like strangers that much. If your barn is public, then it's advisable to warn people not to pet the dog. They are seldom aggressive, but can be very standoffish.

Things to consider with Jack Russell Terriers:

  1. Some lines of JRT have major temperament faults. The most genuinely vicious dog I ever knew was a Jack Russell Terrier. That dog would go for anyone other than one tolerated handler. If buying a JRT puppy, ask to handle both the sire and the dam. If the sire is not available, then also ask about siblings from previous litters. A good JRT should not be aggressive to humans or other dogs. Even a 'good' Jack Russell can be somewhat strong-willed and it is important to socialize them properly from an early age.
  2. Like rat terriers, Jack Russell Terriers like to bark.
  3. Jack Russells are very bouncy and active dogs with lots of energy.

Make sure that your dog comes from working lines rather than show lines.

Other good breeds are the West Highland Terrier and the Dachshund. You can consider any breed of short-legged terrier. (Yorkshire Terriers, however, have been mostly show-bred into uselessness).

Which Dog Breeds Will Protect Livestock?

You need a stock protection dog if you have problems with predators or live in bear country. Stock protection dogs can go out with your horses and/or accompany you on trail rides. One particular outfitter uses stock protection dogs to protect horses and clients from bears—and in thirty years has only had to shoot one bear to protect his customers.

Best Breeds for Stock Protection

Contrary to their name and what some people believe, German Shepherds do NOT make good stock protection dogs. The two best breeds are the Great Pyrenees and Bernese Mountain Dogs, both of which were bred to keep off wolves. Bear in mind that both of these count as giant breeds and Great Pyrs in particular tend towards a shorter lifespan. Also, there are some lines of Great Pyr that have temperament faults—and the last thing you want is a 120-pound dog that is aggressive towards humans or other dogs. However, a good Great Pyrenees will be one of the best dogs you have ever had, deeply affectionate towards his 'pack' and willing to protect you from anything...although be aware that they can and will use lethal force against other predators to do so. My mother-in-law's Great Pyrenees killed another dog that was about to go for her without any hesitation at all, and he was otherwise the most gentle animal imaginable. The other stock protection breeds are Akbash, Anatolian, Komondor, Kuvasz, Tibetan Mastiff and Maremma.

What if I have a coyote problem?

Any large and intimidating dog will do. Coyotes are natural cowards and will generally not take on any canines larger than they are.

Which dog will protect livestock from bears?

In bear country, the best dog is a cross between a livestock guardian breed and a herding breed (the dog pictured above is a Great Pyrenees x Border Collie - an excellent bear dog who is also very affectionate and enjoys everyone's company). However, if you do go for a bear dog, talk to the experts. Bear dogs are specifically trained...among other things, they do not attack bears but rather herd them away from the stock or you. It's best to get help training them.

Great Pyrenees and other livestock guardians need to be socialized to the stock they are going to guard. Your stock protection puppy should spend as much time around the horses as possible, in order to learn that they are 'his'.

A very well behaved Aussie barn dog.

A very well behaved Aussie barn dog.

Best Breeds for Barn Companionship

Okay. So you don't have a rat problem and the coyotes already stay away. You just want a dog to hang out at the barn with.

If you want a dog that will also go on trail rides with you, you will need a medium or larger dog so they can keep up. If the dog will basically live in the tack room, then it's fine to get something smaller.

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Best breed to go on trail rides?

  • For a trail dog, get a breed with high energy and stamina. The breed does not matter as much as the temperament. You do not want a high prey drive dog that might chase off after rabbits. Nor do you want (see below) a dog with a high herding drive, although many people swear by Australian Cattle Dogs as the best barn dog.
  • Labs and lab mixes are good if you can handle their tendency to still be puppies at eight or ten years old. Golden retrievers are also good trail riding dogs. Bulldogs and mastiffs should be avoided as they tend to run out of steam halfway through the ride. Rottweilers also make good trail and barn dogs, despite their reputation (Personally, I have never met a remotely aggressive Rottie).
  • Dalmatians are traditional in carriage barns and sometimes seen in riding barns. As they were bred to follow carriages...for days...they are great dogs if you like long trail rides. Unfortunately, the breed does have a genetic flaw that makes them extremely prone to bladder stones. It is impossible to avoid this flaw if you buy a purebred Dalmatian. I recommend the beautiful, but sadly unregisterable, dogs from the Dalmatian Backcross Project.
  • Finally, many great barn dogs are mixes from the local pound. Look for something with good size and energy levels. Avoid older dogs—anything over two is likely to have problems getting used to horses—unless they were a barn dog before, in which case they might be your dream dog.

A Note on Herding Breeds

Australian Shepherd dogs are amongst the most popular in the horse world. However, I generally do not recommend getting other herding breeds as barn dogs, most especially border collies or mixes.

Many people think that because these dogs have been 'farm dogs' for generations, they are ideal barn dogs. The truth is, sadly, quite different.

All herding breed dogs are intelligent and have an extreme drive to herd. If they are not being used for herding, they need a job in order to be happy - this is why you see so many border collies in obedience and agility. They love it, but they also need it.

A bored, untrained herding breed dog will, and I mean will, not might or maybe, look for something to herd. Guess what that something is likely to be?

If you really want a herding dog, you will need to train it properly. Otherwise, it will run your horses. Possibly while you are trying to ride. This puts you, your horse, and everyone around you in danger. For most horse people, who have enough trouble finding time to train their horse, it is best to avoid any dog with a high herd drive. (Although, as mentioned before, a stock protection x herding cross is a dream for keeping off certain predators).

© 2012 jenniferrpovey


Amanda from Michigan on March 13, 2015:

I knew an Aussie/Shepherd cross at a barn in Pennsylvania before I moved to Michigan. He was quite the little troublemaker. He was sweet, but also very independent. I remember him bringing I GIANT dead gopher in from the fields trotting happily along the barn aisle. I think you made an excellent post that there is no one specific breed made for the barn. It not only depends on what traits you are looking for in a breed, but in the individual dog as well. Individual personality is very important. Thanks for posting, voted up! :)

If you would like, I would love for you to check out my article about choosing a breed. Same general philosophy. When it comes to picking a dog there are a lot of factors to consider.

jenniferrpovey (author) on April 01, 2013:

Aww! Terriers are so cute.

Donna Seldomridge from Delaware on April 01, 2013:

My rat terrier loves to follow us on rides. When I lunge the horses she runs around the outside in a circle. It's hilarious! I loved your advice though. You had some great suggestions

jenniferrpovey (author) on July 05, 2012:

URLs are not allowed in comments, so I suggest googling it, but I might do a hub about the dalmatian's issues at some point. It's a bit of a mess.

If UK dalmatians don't get them that might provide a solution to the overall problem...I'll have to research that. Thanks!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on July 05, 2012:

Interesting read - I hadn't heard of dalmatians having bladder stone susceptibility before. Perhaps it's not something UK ones are as prone to - I'll have to go and find out. I'm also intrigued to know more about the backcross project if you have any info.

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