There are stockdog circles in which the description of "chore dog" is a term of faint praise, in some cases so faint the praise aspect has nearly disappeared.
In this hierarchy, it means a dog capable of being useful around the farm, but lacking some or all those qualities which could cause him to be a dog of greatness upon the trial field. "Well, I suppose he'll be all right as a chore dog . . ."
It is probably a smallish percentage of stockdogs, even of Border Collies bred to the life, who have these qualities. It would be hard to find an Aussie with them. And if you did, it might well work so much like a Border Collie as would make no difference.
Trialing is a very recent overlay upon the stock dog selection process. The first formal sheepdog trial was in Wales, in 1873, not even a hundred and forty years ago. But the shepherd's dog is most likely as old as domestic sheep, seeing as dogs pre-date sheep by at least four thousand years and possibly much more. Lacking fences, something the Neolithic was probably short on, it is extremely difficult to manage sheep without a trained dog. So it doesn't seem unreasonable to call the shepherd's dog a creation in the neighborhood of ten thousand years old.
The photograph above is of my grandparents on their Wisconsin dairy farm, with their farm collie, Napoleon. Napoleon was such an intelligent and useful dog that stories about him were carried down in my family when almost no other particular animal was remembered. He fetched the cows from the field and was my grandfather's hunting dog as well. I didn't realize that the famous Napoleon was a true farm collie or English Shepherd, unti I recently came upon this picture, because he was always described as "some kind of collie-german shepherd cross". The show type, with its long narrow nose, small eyes, and massive coat, had completely displaced the farm type collie as the only 'real collie' in people's minds by the 1940's, apparently. From the photograph, it's easy to see Napoleon was not a mere farm tool, but a loved companion.
When I started making a strong effort to give Ty at least fifty percent of the chore work around here and at practice sites, I was amazed at the difference in him. Sure, he still messed up sometimes. But his keenness, biddability, and the speed at which he learned tasks accelerated markedly. At formal practice sessions he still feels reluctant, not quite all there, but he gives a hundred percent when asked to take the goats to pasture, gate-sort lambs, or hold stock off the feeder while I pour in the grain.
"He just loves chores," I told Derek, who replied, "No, YOU love chores.Your attitude is what forms his attitude." And I had to admit this was true. When I have a task to accomplish with a dog, I am not thinking, "is he turning that lead sheep exactly at the right time? Push that flank out squarer!" No, I am not thinking about the dog at all. I'm thinking, is that the pregnant doe I need to set aside, or is that just the fat one? That ewe had two lambs, where the heck is the other one? Bonnie, turn that sheep before she gets away up the hill! NOW! I don't get in my dog's way or nag, because there is neither time for it nor room in my head. No wonder my dogs love chores.
A couple days ago, I went out to a friend's ranch and found myself, as so very often is the case, with a problem to solve. I had a mix of newly-kidded and pregnant goats together with a lot of sheep with older lambs. My friend wanted me to work the lambs and sheep to get the lambs dogbroke. Goats with new kids are so difficult I wasn't going to even try with them. I knew Bonnie would never be able to sort these animals, as the goats would immediately run her off. So I started off with Ty — on the other side of the fence. I could easily flank him back and forth and because sheep move so much more easily than goats, I was able to get most of them sorted by species.
But, not all. I was working in ankle-deep mud, which was not exactly conducive to nimbleness, and I was getting tired of trying to move those last stubborn goats out. So, I brought Ty inside the pen. Mistake there. The first thing that happened was a mama goat attacked him. He bit her between the horns. The fight was on, and I had no choice but to back up my dog. She couldn't face both of us, and as soon as she turned I put Ty back on the other side of the fence. Finally I was able to grab one of her kids and carry it out, and she followed. Not exactly something you would do at a dog trial but a very common move in real life.
Ty is a powerful dog with a hard grip, so I was rather worried about how he would work a flock of ewes and lambs, but true to his adaptable Aussie nature, he was just fine with the babies. He did pull wool on a big ewe, the one who was determined to get away from the flock, but he never offered to do more than shoulder the squirrely little lambs, even when they split and ran. This is typical of Ty, I have found; he reacts very differently to the young and small.
On four doggy sheep in a pen, it's hard to get him to get all the way to head both ways. It's as though he doesn't see the need to make such an effort as it is obvious the sheep are going to go to me anyway, and in any case there is no place for them to get away. He would rather fall in behind and not wear at all. On forty sheep and lambs, he was a different dog. It was the largest flock he'd ever worked by a long way.You bet he wore, and you bet he got to head; otherwise he would have lost his sheep. Indeed he was better than Bonnie on the large flock. I was impressed.
Chore work doesn't teach a dog the finesse, the instant reaction to handler cues, that make a trial dog successful. But it teaches innumerable other things. For example, saving energy. Moving five cows through a ten minute course is one thing. Moving five hundred cows ten miles is quite another. And, adaptability. In the course of a day a dog might have to bite a cow on the nose, locate and extricate a chicken from the feed room without damaging it, and put twenty lambs in a squeeze for deworming.
Another vital but often overlooked part of a real stockdog's education is quitting. A dog who fully understands quitting can walk through a field without the sheep even raising their heads because the dog has no intentions toward them. Many highly-wound trial bred dogs cannot be around stock without "working" them in their minds. This is not restful nor useful.
A big part of what Ty is learning is also what I found Bonnie to learn from chores: responsibility. I try to show them what the picture is that I want: the goats grazing on the unfenced hill but not in the road, the chickens in the coop, the sheep walking behind me. Then it is their job to make that picture happen.
Ty and Bonnie are present-day representatives of an unbroken line of chore dogs that have come down through the ages to us, through dogs much like my grandparents' collie Napoleon. Trialing, although it has had such a strong recent effect upon sheepdogs, is an infant in comparison with the thousands of years of chore dogs. Trialing as a sport may pass away, but as long as we raise livestock, we will have chore dogs. Or so I hope.