Studying the different traits of working dogs on Australian farms has the potential to improve efficiency for farmers and the welfare of their dogs. Natasha Phillimore talks to Dr Liz Arnott about the Farm Dog Project
Dr Elizabeth Arnott may have come to veterinary science in a conventional way—“such a boring story; I always had an interest in animals and animal welfare, and I really enjoyed science”—but her upbringing cast the career die long before it was a conscious decision.
“My parents were always big softies when it came to animals,” the 34-year-old says from her home in the Australian country-music stronghold of Tamworth in northern NSW. “We were always second in line after the pets in terms of priority! As a kid I remember my mother caring for wildlife and having the occasional joey in a pillow sack on the back of a door handle. I think I’m a product of my environment.”
Perhaps it’s surprising to learn that her upbringing was nowhere near as rural as her existence now. Dr Arnott breathed the rarified air of Sydney’s north shore until taking a year’s sojourn in the UK as a mixed-animal practitioner.
Moving from Sydney to Tamworth (via the UK) was a learning curve, not least the need to offer emergency and after-hours responsibilities which Dr Arnott says takes its own toll on rural vets.
“It’s not a financially rewarding set-up to offer that service but there’s an obligation to the community—one that’s undervalued by the public,” she says. “In terms of the work itself, in regional areas—especially in a large referral practice, such as where I work—case diversity is interesting and challenging. Fewer clinics means there’s a large case load; this is a very good way to develop skills. You do, however, need to be cognisant of dealing with people’s financial situations. As a result, there can be a slightly different attitude to animal care, which can be upsetting.”
She admits the job is as much dealing in humanities as animal care, but her love of the practice hasn’t dimmed throughout the years. “It’s an extremely challenging, unusual environment,” she says enthusiastically. “You’re advocating for an animal on the paediatric model, but have a quandary as it’s an owned animal so there’s sometimes a disparity in dealing with the requests and limitations of the owner, and the needs of the animal. For the vet, this can be a source of significant emotional stress.”
The diversity has always appealed to Dr Arnott. Whether it’s a difficult case physically or mentally, working inside a practice or out in the battlefield, the range from clinical practice to industry is huge. “For someone trying to get across it all, it is challenging,” she says, “in comparison to the medical field, which can become super-specialised.”
That said, the vet has channelled her energies into one area in particular—she’s focusing on an animal that has a long and intimate relationship with Australia and its farmers (and now international celluloid fame): the cattle dog.
The Farm Dog Project seeks to better understand the contribution of stock working dogs to the rural economy, an impact that is significant but undocumented.
Based on the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics data, the ‘Contribution of the Pet Care Industry to the Australian Economy’ report compiled by the Australian Companion Animal Council assumed that every farm with sheep has two working dogs. Using that assumption means there were over 83,000 dogs working on Australian farms in 2005.
“It’s an area that hasn’t received a lot of research interest,” Dr Arnott says. “Really, it’s about defining the economic contribution of working dogs. The major phase of the project is identifying what are the valuable and desirable traits, whether these traits are inherited and to what degree, and what the environmental influences might be. The degree to which these traits are inherited surprised me. As someone who was naïve about working dogs, I assumed many of the behaviours were trained. After speaking to experienced dog people, I’ve learnt that natural ability is a large part of the game. Very good dogs are bred to be that way.”
Like many vets and animal lovers, Dr Arnott is someone who believes strongly in the importance of reducing numbers of unwanted dogs and cats. So, working on a dog breeding study throws up its own internal dilemma.
“It does go a little against the grain for me,” she admits, “but I’ve learnt the importance of experienced breeders [working] with valuable breeding stocks, and dog users who are prepared to pay for quality dogs. This is important to reduce ad hoc mating and increase the perceived worth of the animal. Results in our 2013 survey found a third of the dogs were given away or obtained for free, which means a lot of farmers are picking up dogs that could be perceived as dispensable.”
If a dog is not worth anything, an owner—particularly a farmer who expects work in exchange for food and board—is less encouraged to spend money on health care.
However, in regards to breeding, there is one important thing to note, says Dr Arnott. “It’s the difference of breeding for form—say, a pushed-in nose or very short legs—over function. When it comes to breeding for form, there may be health issues if you neglect to prioritise them. A working kelpie is a good example; it is selected for health, fitness, stamina and ability rather than appearance. We found its average retiring age is 10 years.”
Dr Arnott hopes to shine a light onto the importance of dogs to the livestock industry; to show that they have a specific skill set not easily replaced by man or technology. She also wants to assist farmers and breeders in achieving their goals, saving them time and money in the process and, as she says diplomatically, reducing the numbers of “unsuitable dogs that are bred”.
It’s a delicate balance—the gruff farmer for whom a dog works for his keep and wouldn’t dream of coming inside the house, and urban veterinarians more used to a ‘whatever it takes, doctor’ mindset—and budget.
“Because these dogs are so motivated and driven to work, and they’re valued for their toughness and stamina, they don’t receive the same level of spoiling or comfort as pets, and are kept in different ways as a result of this,” Dr Arnott says. “Farmers can own large numbers of dogs, and this impacts on how they’re able to house and keep them. I’ve been to properties where people value their dogs and will work to keep them happy and healthy, but you can see the difference. There’s also sometimes a belief that overly pampered dogs won’t work as well, but our research reveals owners who do spend a lot of time with their dogs get more out of them.”
That said, when the farmers were put on the spot, the results were less indicative of the head, and more of the heart. “One of the questions to the farmers was how they viewed their dog—as a workplace resource, a companion, an employee or a workmate,” says Dr Arnott. “The majority of farmers said as a workmate or companion. This tells us that there is definitely a relationship there beyond a resource.”
Despite being hard at work on the Farm Dog Project, Dr Arnott still finds the time to practise part-time at Greencross Vets South Tamworth Animal Hospital, with boss and mentor Peter Best.
“He’s a specialist in anaesthesia, which is pretty special here,” Dr Arnott says. “He told me that I wouldn’t enjoy practice if I didn’t continue to learn and study.” Now that he’s lost Dr Arnott at least partly to a research lab, Dr Best might feel that the advice was perhaps to his own detriment.
“That is true,” he muses, “but every practice owner has an obligation to encourage vets towards further education, and if they happen to grow and leave as a result, that’s the price you pay. It’s a duty to the practice.”
Dr Best has no shortage of respect for Dr Arnott, but does take the opportunity to share what he calls “her ‘special’ animal relationships”. Take Minty the sheep who, following extensive radiation on a squamous cell carcinoma of the eye, is now recovering on a lush paddock opposite Dr Arnott and feed-lot-consultant husband Dr Tony Batterham’s home in Quirindi, an hour south of Tamworth. “She also has a pet cow she rescued at university. If you become an animal member of the Batterham-Anrott household, you’ll want for nothing. It’s quite extraordinary.”
So what’s next? “I’m looking for a job,” she says. “I’m going to continue working in practice while looking for opportunities. I have a keen interest in animal welfare policy and legislation. And I’ll always have a bit of a passion for practice.”
Any job opportunity, she says, will probably be in Sydney, which means big changes ahead. “I love a good restaurant,” Dr Arnott says, “but you can definitely indulge your pets [here] with all the space.”
Ultimately, Dr Arnott’s pets are the truest reflection of who she is as a vet. Kelpies, right? “No,” she says with a laugh. “I foster dogs, all the strays! I currently have a Rott-cross-labrador looking for a home. The big lug.”