A pioneering study of New Zealand's sheepdogs could result in best practice guidelines for farmers.

More than 1000 farm dogs were examined during the last five years in TeamMate - The New Zealand working dog project.

When preliminary findings were presented at roadshow meetings late last month, the researchers said they hoped it would eventually improve dogs' lives.

Vetlife veterinarians led by Alexandra's Lori Linney visited farms throughout the lower South Island to record details of the dogs' feeding regimes, housing, health, training, working conditions, injuries, risk factors, and when and why they stopped working.

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Vetlife clients were asked if they would like to be involved: 127 dog owners on 118 farms signed up.

All dogs studied were over 18 months old and working.

Dr Linney said the vets were "hands on", thoroughly examining each dog on six-monthly visits during the five years.

"A couple of dogs declined," she said.

TeamMate working dog project researchers Lori Linney (left), Helen Williamson and Naomi Cogger. Photo / Sally Brooke
TeamMate working dog project researchers Lori Linney (left), Helen Williamson and Naomi Cogger. Photo / Sally Brooke

However, most were happy to be handled and their owners were forthcoming.

The vets were impressed by how well the farmers knew their dogs and the lengths some went to to cater for individual preferences in diet and accommodation.

Linney said the change in how dogs are managed had been "enormous" in the last five years.

In decades past, some were fed every second day.

Now, farmers are constructing purpose-built, insulated kennels, and dog coats are becoming commonplace.

Project manager Helen Williamson, of Vetlife Timaru, said one farmer's dogs would not go into their kennels without their coats on.

"We got information on the farmers as well as the dogs," Linney said.

It included age, gender, experience in handling dogs, farm size and topography, and livestock type and numbers.

Massey University Associate Professor Naomi Cogger, director of the Centre for Service and Working Dog Health, said 92 per cent of the farmers were male, most aged 31 to 60, and had four or five dogs.

Half the dogs were huntaways and half were heading dogs, there were slightly more males than females, and very low rates of neutering.

Body condition scores were mostly in the "ideal" range.

Where abnormalities were recorded, 42 per cent were musculoskeletal and 32 per cent mouth and teeth.

Although huntaways had more musculoskeletal abnormalities than heading dogs, the margin of error showed it was not significantly different, Dr Cogger said.

Hips were the major concern, especially in huntaways, and the biggest cause of skin lacerations was dog fights.

There were also a lot of fractured, missing, and worn teeth.

Age was important in ending working dogs' careers - around 7 or 8, the likelihood of retiring increased markedly, Cogger said.

She was keen to study career longevity in greater depth. More was known about it for police and customs dogs than for sheepdogs.

Finding optimal body condition was another goal from the project.

It could also lead to recommendations for feeding and housing the dogs, and possibly modifying working environments to avoid traumatic injuries from fences.

"We would like to compile good practice guidelines," Cogger said.

The project's findings would be sent to participants, made available to the wider public, and included in Vetlife newsletters.

"Hats off to everyone involved," Cogger said.

"There's been nothing like it done in the world and nothing like it in New Zealand.

"It's going to be shaping what happens for years to come."