As the name suggests, working dogs are breeds that do just that – they work for people. In order to do this work, most of the breeds in the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Working Group are large and extremely strong. Their size and strength are what made them useful, but also can present a challenge for their human families.
Although some of the AKC’s categories are limited to one specific type of dog, as in the herding group or sporting group, the working dog category is much more diverse. Ranging from family guardians to water rescue dogs, this category runs the gamut of helpful jobs dogs can do. Most breeds in the Working Group are gentle giants, although their characteristics vary per breed.
The period when humans began domesticating wolves is still debatable, but it was likely between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. Although the human and wolf populations initially competed for the same food sources, early humans may have fed these early wolves the excess lean protein they could not use.
Ancient humans needed more nutrients than protein to survive during the most bitter months of these Ice Age years. Wolf pups captured and domesticated likely became pets. Sharing these food resources strengthened the bond between species and allowed the two to coexist for mutual benefit.
Archaeologists and researchers have found evidence suggesting humans used dogs as hunters between 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. These artifacts and fossils support the idea that early civilizations used dogs for hunting. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest written story, there is a reference to the goddess Ishtar’s seven hunting dogs. This proves that when people came together to live in cities, dogs were working for people.
Types Of Working Dogs
Although the AKC has different functional groups within the greater Working Dogs category, there are some main types of working dogs bred for historical purposes. Dogs have been used to guard home and property, to guard livestock, as rescue dogs on land and in water, and as means of transport pulling sleds.
Farming & Multipurpose
Working dogs have traditionally performed duties that humans were unable to perform as individuals. On many continents, agriculture and farming sustained part of the population. Dogs performed many functions on the farm, and some breeds were general farm helpers.
Bernese Mountain Dog
The ancestors of the Bernese Mountain Dog were brought to Switzerland by invading Roman soldiers in the early years of the Common Era. They stand 27 or more inches at the shoulder. A sturdy farm companion, Berners helped drive cattle to market, guard the farmstead from predators and strangers, and served as gentle family companions in the home when the day was done.
Like draft horses, Bernese Mountain Dogs were used to help pull heavy loads on the farm. Modern Berners are loving family companions, but still have the ability to pull carts in modern drafting and carting events.
The Boxer’s most recent direct ancestors are believed to be a small form of Bullenbeiser bred on estates of German nobles after the Napoleonic wars. These Bullenbeisers originated from the three types that emerged after the middle ages, the heavy Bullenbeiser or Mastiff type, the large hound type that came from crossing the Bullenbeiser on Wolf or Deerhounds to produce the Great Dane, and the small Bullenbeiser, which evolved into the Boxer and English Bulldog.
These smaller Bullenbeiser-type dogs became no longer hunters of wild boar and bear for the nobility, but the guardian and companion of the butcher and the cattle dealer. His transition to family and guard dog kept the breed from disappearing or evolving into another type. Modern Boxers are fun-loving, active family companions who love children and are up for any adventure, as long as it keeps them beside their family.
The Giant Schnauzer was created as a versatile farm dog and family guardian. He has genetic roots as the “bear Schnauzer” of Munich. These dogs were related to the Old German shaggy shepherd used to drive cattle. This breed was crossed back to the black Great Dane, which added color, strength, and the protective nature for which the breed is known today. The modern breed is not only a working family companion but excels in other roles, such as police and army service dog.
With a temperament that combines an alert spirit with a reliable character, this courageous breed is intensely loyal to its family. Breed fanciers label him a “bold and valiant figure of a dog.” They’re vocal when on duty and make an excellent alarm system.
Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog lives up to its name as he stands up to twenty-eight and a half inches at the shoulder, and males can weigh as much as one hundred and forty pounds. Gentle with children and affectionate with his family, the Greater Swiss is a powerful farm worker who can both drive herds of cattle and haul heavy loads around the family farm.
Although there are a few conjectures about the origin of the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the agreed upon theory is that his ancestors came across the Alps with Caesar’s troops in the first century BCE. The Swiss bred these early Mastiff-type dogs with their own mountain dogs, and the Greater Swiss is the largest and oldest of the breeds developed from these crosses.
The Leonberger is another giant breed who loves children but whose size can make him difficult to own. Although many Leos are calm as adults, the Leo can be a handful as an enthusiastic youngster and requires consistent handling to mature into a well-behaved adult. Leo owners must also make accommodations for his size and heavy hair coat.
Male Leonbergers stand up to 31.5″ at the shoulder and may weigh nearly 170 lbs. Their long, waterproof coat has a ruff, or mane, around the neck and chest much like a lion’s. Leos are excellent watchdogs but also solid farm dogs. The Leonberger was created as a breed “fit for a king” by an entrepreneur in Leonberg, Germany, in the 1800s. Large breeds like the Saint Bernard and the Newfoundland were part of his royal lineage.
A smaller ancestor of the Giant Schnauzer, the Standard Schnauzer, was created as a versatile farm worker in the Middle Ages. Schnauzers have long been equally at home in the farm yard as the farmhouse. Farmers in different parts of the world created breeds to fill a similar niche. They needed a dog to eliminate vermin, guard the stable and home, herd livestock, and help with the hunt. Originally called a Wire-haired Pinscher, the breed was renamed by the beginning of the 20th century as the “schnauzer” for its distinctive whiskered snout.
The Schnauzer checks the boxes if you want a guard dog who takes his job seriously but has an overall calm disposition. They hate being alone, so separation anxiety may cause a ripple in his otherwise quiet disposition. Ensure your Schnauzer has opportunities to exercise on and off during the day.
The independent-minded Akita originated in Japan as a guardian of the home. Naturally protective, the Akita benefits from extensive early socialization as he tends to be suspicious of strangers. The Akita has a playful side he shares with his family, and he does need to be raised with his family and not relegated to life in a backyard. They are relatively quiet and don’t need as much exercise as many other dogs their size. A good walk or jog per day meets their exercise needs.
The Akita sees himself as the pack’s leader, so he must learn his place within the family, be treated respectfully, and be allowed his independence. He is somewhat catlike in nature and grooms himself, but his thick coat and signature curly tail do require regular brushing and maintenance.
Black Russian Terrier
Naturally aloof with strangers, the massive Black Russian Terrier weighs up to 140 pounds and may stand as high as thirty inches at the shoulder. The breed was purposefully developed in the 1930s at the Red Star Kennel in Moscow as an asset for the Russian army. At least seventeen breeds were brought together in the development of the breed, which took a new turn after World War II when German bloodlines were brought in as spoils of war.
The Black Russian Terrier is only a minor percentage terrier by lineage but has a similar tenacity. Strong enough to wrestle down a prisoner and sporting a coat thick enough to guard against the bitter Siberian cold, the BRT is a force with which to be reckoned. Modern BRTs need ample time with family to avoid developing aggressive tendencies and benefit from at least thirty to forty minutes of exercise daily.
The Boerboel’s protective instincts are innate and require no special training to develop, but uncontrollable aggression or fearfulness should have no place in the breed. The Boerboel’s massive head reflects his power. All parts of the Boerboel’s physique are designed for strength, from his deep, broad chest to the muscular hindquarters that propel him forward.
Boerboels may not be white nor mainly white, and diluted colors may not be bred to dilutes. Breeders hold overall health to the highest standard. A distinctly utilitarian breed with origins in the ancient molloser-type dogs that have given us modern mastiffs, this South African breed is one of the most agile of the mastiff-type dogs. Spend time training him early to establish his place in the family. Due to his instinct and power, the Boerboel, like many of these guard dog breeds, may be a bad choice for the novice owner.
The Bullmastiff is another dog whose origins are with the Molloser-type dogs of ancient times. The breed was developed from English Mastiff and the now-extinct Olde English Bulldog in the 1860s to guard estates from poachers. This calm, loyal breed intimidates with his power and size, which in males can be up to 27 inches at the shoulder and 130 pounds. The only colors recognized by the American Kennel Club are fawn, red, and brindle, although the fawn and red base coats can vary greatly in depth.
The Bullmastiff is not a dog for everyone, and is best suited for an owner experienced with breeds with Molloser ancestry. Bullmastiffs have an innate sense of who belongs on their property and who does not. Raise your Bullmastiff pup to understand his place within the family. He must realize he is subservient to all human members of the family.
The Cane Corso embodies the term “working dog” because he requires a job, or behavior problems may ensue. One of the most visually intimidating breeds, the Cane Corso is versatile enough to guard, herd, and participate in canine sports but won’t receive enough mental stimulation to stay mentally satisfied from only doggy daycare or from just playing in the yard while you go to work. If he needs to find ways to focus his energy, he’ll probably find ways that get him in some trouble.
Because of the Cane Corso’s size and personality, each member of the family other than small children should help train him. He’s intelligent and retains lessons well, and needs to understand his place within the family. If you’re not interested in a dog who is more likely to fight back than run away, a Cane Corso is not the dog for you.
Although the Doberman has a long history in pop culture, it is a modern breed that came of age in the 20th century. Based on a combination of terrier, guard, and herding breeds, breeders created the Doberman as a military and police dog who also made an ideal medium-sized family home guardian.
Dobermans are not small dogs but are lighter and more agile than many other guard breeds. Standing from 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weighing from 55 to 90 pounds, with males being taller and heavier, the breed is a manageable size for many households. Today’s Doberman is as versatile as the early members of the breed.
Passersby often mistake The Dogo Argentino for a white Pit Bull. Males can be up to 26 1/2″ and weigh up to one hundred pounds. Two Argentine brothers who wanted to combine the courage of the now extinct Fighting Dog of Cordoba, the tracking ability of a hunting dog, the family friendly nature of the Boxer, and the white coat of the Great Pyrenees originally created the Dogo in the early 1900s.
The Dogo Argentino is an all-around dog that can hunt in a pack but also be a family guard dog. He is gentle with children and other pets if raised with them and properly socialized by someone who understands how to work with powerful breeds who may consider themselves the leader of the pack. The Dogo fits best in households experienced in handling such challenging dogs.
Dogue de Bordeaux
With a history that reaches back in time to before France was officially a country, the Dogue de Bordeaux is such an ancient breed that its history is only conjecture. One theory is that the Dogue is indigenous, while another suggests the breed’s ancestors arrived with Caesar’s conquering armies of the first century BCE. These mastiff types were used in war and in the fighting arena, and only the larger of its original types withstood the test of time.
Over the centuries, these giants were used to guard estates, hunt, and even as draft animals. They were eventually employed by butchers to move livestock from point A to point B. A sensitive dog who must not be trained with undue force, the Dogue de Bordeaux must trust his owner and be given early socialization and basic obedience training to be a good canine citizen when he reaches his massive adult size.
The Neapolitan Mastiff hails from the Naples area of Italy, and his ancestors may have been the Mastiffs of Epirus. Some believe the Neapolitan Mastiff and Cane Corso are most directly related to the original Roman Molossus. The Dogue de Bordeaux was a farm hand who was used to pull heavy carts. They guarded the farm against predators as well, and the loose skin around his neck protected him from the jaws of predators.
The isolation of these farming communities meant that the breed was largely a secret to the rest of the world. In the 1940s, the breed was noticed by a local journalist in the area. He created the breed standard and wrote glowingly about this historic breed.
Traditionally, the Rottweiler was used in Germany to haul carts and herd cattle. Fairly mild-mannered, the Rottweiler is not afraid to go after anyone who would harm his family, but he dotes on small children. His musculature allows him to pull carts and work as a draft animal. When motorized vehicles replaced the Rottweiler as a delivery dog, he lost his place as a butcher’s dog. The breed was nearly lost, but German dog lovers made an effort to keep the breed alive.
The Rottweiler today is a favorite in the United States and around the world. This distinctive black and tan breed performs well as a service dog or therapy dog as well as in the more standard fields of police work. Rottweilers can be used as farm dogs and do well in obedience training.
The Tibetan Mastiff is such an ancient breed that nobody knows how they originated or came to Tibet. They may be the earliest known Mastiffs and the progenitor of all Mastiff-type breeds. The Tibetan Mastiff has retained primitive traits like a single yearly estrus and full maturity is reached between three and four years in females and four and five years in males, which may grow as tall as 29″ at the shoulder.
Tibetan Mastiffs were bred as livestock guardian dogs and guardians of the home. They are naturally territorial and protective. Because guardian dogs have to be able to make decisions without a human to whom to turn for guidance, they often decide to make decisions their person may not wish them to make. The breed is strong-willed. Tibetan Mastiff pups benefit from early and extensive socialization with other people and animals, doing best with an experienced owner.
The German Pinscher is one of Germany’s oldest breeds and the progenitor of several other German breeds, such as the Miniature Pinscher and the Doberman Pinscher. Prior to the early 1900s, both wire-haired and smooth-haired Pinschers were considered the same breed but with different coat types. The types were renamed as different breeds, and the wire-haired became the Schnauzer.
Although Pinschers were used for vermin control like British terriers, they aren’t closely related. The Pinscher has herding and guardian breeds in his heritage. While the early Pinscher standard allowed more colors, the American Kennel Club only allows red, fawn, blue and tan, and black and tan. The GP is an energetic, intelligent, and loyal companion who excels at activities like agility and endurance but is also a good companion and watchdog for the family home.
As long as 5000 years ago, carvings of dogs resembling the Great Dane were gracing the walls of Egyptian tombs. Archaeological evidence suggests dogs of a type similar to the Dane were used for hunting and fighting bears and bulls. The next version of the Dane in Europe in the 1800s hunted boar. This Dane was structurally different than the modern Great Dane. The modern Great Dane’s temperament and body make him an elegant and loyal estate guardian.
Great Danes are predisposed to several health conditions, some of which are fatal. The number one killer of Great Danes is bloating or gastric torsion. In deep-chested breeds, the stomach may distend and then rotate, cutting off blood supply and digestion. This condition can kill a dog within hours and must be considered a veterinary emergency.
The Book of Job, which is set in the region now known as Turkey, the home of the Anatolians, refers to dogs acting as guardians of flocks. Despite this long history, the breed was largely unknown in the United States until the Endangered Species Act of the 1970s. Agricultural researchers discovered that the presence of such dogs generally kept predators away. In this way, the Anatolians protected not only their flock, but also the endangered species that would have been attacking the sheep or goats.
Flocks of sheep and goats are naturally vulnerable to predators, and shepherds can’t watch the flock every minute of the day. The Great Pyrenees was developed by the Basque people in the Pyrenees mountains of Europe to protect their flocks from wolves and bears. Although Pyrs are highly protective, they are also naturally gentle with young stock as well as young children.
Pyrenees have an instinct to guard livestock, which gives them an independent nature and a tendency to wander. They can also be good farm dogs or companions on large estates. Although they have thick fur year round, don’t be tempted to clip him in the summer. His coat actually protects him from extremes of weather in both cold and hot weather.
The Komondor has one of the most distinctive coats in dogdom. He is muscular and strong, and his thick corded coat protects him not just from the cold weather of Hungary, his country of origin, but also against predators. Male Komondors are at least 27 1/2″ at the shoulder but are nimble for their size. Komondors thrive on responsibility and need a job to be happy. He can be happy guarding your livestock or even your children, but without a job, he may become bored and develop bad habits.
With early socialization, Komondors can be accepting of guests in the home. They bark to deter predators like most livestock guardian breeds. When deciding whether or not to bring a Komondor into your family, keep in mind that the fluffy puppy will grow into a very large dog with a large voice. The distinctive corded coat also requires care to stay clean and healthy. The coat benefits from a fan to keep it dry, and although it is almost impossible to keep a working Komondor immaculate, the coat itself sheds little.
The origins of the Kuvasz date at least as far back as the late ninth century, when the Magyars began to establish Hungary. They brought the Kuvasz with them as they conquered the Carpathian Basin. By the middle of the 1400s, Kuvaszok were used for protection and for hunting game by the nobility, including King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, who established his own breeding program and always had a brace of Kuvaszok with him for personal protection.
After World War II, a factory owner who wanted to guard his property with the Kuvasz found fewer than thirty individuals remaining. Thankfully, the breed was saved from the brink of extinction by the efforts of these dedicated breeders. The Kuvasz has a temperament similar to most livestock guardian breeds but is more reserved than the Pyr, another white-haired livestock guardian breed (LGD) breed. The Kuvasz has a medium-length double coat and loses most of his long coat during the summer heat.
Rescue And Water Dogs
Although the Newfoundland is a giant breed, he is a gentle giant indeed. His devotion to his children characterizes his personality. A multipurpose dog at home in land and water, Newfoundlands require surprisingly little exercise for their size. Comfortable as indoor dogs, they also appreciate time outside.
Newfies are better suited to cold weather than hot, and they love swimming. The breed is famous for being water rescue dogs, but they’ll even pull a cart. These stately dogs are high maintenance due to their size and grooming needs, but not for their temperament. Their calm, quiet personalities make them excellent indoor dogs for a home with enough space.
Portuguese Water Dog
The Portuguese Water Dog has a unique history considering his current popularity as a low-shedding family pet. The breed has existed for several hundred years and was bred to swim in the water and “herd” fish into nets for the fishermen. The PWD might be asked to carry messages from boats to shore and retrieve gear that had fallen overboard back to the ship, as other retrievers might bring in a bird.
While not bred initially as a typical retriever, the Portuguese Water Dog’s swimming ability and his retrieving instinct suggest that, with training, he could serve as a gun dog. If you need a non-shedding family companion that can swim with the family all day, the PWD might fit the bill.
Saint Bernards were search-and-rescue dogs for a monastery in an alpine pass at 8,000 feet elevation. Beginning in the 1700s, monks began using Saint Bernards to locate lost travelers in this treacherous pass, also known as the White Death, that remained snowed in for much of the year. These dogs must go out in avalanche conditions and seek out troubled travelers, so they have to be able to work alone and be stubborn enough to persevere in dismal conditions.
Behavior that may not be an issue with a small dog is unacceptable when upwards of a hundred and fifty pounds behind it. Training a Saint starts in early puppyhood. Praise and reprimand must come immediately upon the behavior in question so your Saint Bernard understands what you expect of him. Much of training a Saint Bernard is consistently reinforcing acceptable behaviors early, so they’re a given when he’s full size.
Sled And Pack Dogs
Despite his wolf-like looks, the Alaskan Malamute has a friendly disposition. The Mahlemut Tribe in northwestern Alaska created this ancient breed from domesticated wolf dogs about 4,000 years ago. They needed a breed who could carry or pull sleds full of heavy goods across large expanses of ice. The Malamute resembles the smaller Husky but with additional size for pulling strength.
The Mahlemut used Malamutes to hunt seals and help protect them from predators like the Polar bear. Almost all Malamutes can be traced back to one of three bloodlines: Kotzbue, M’Loot, and Hinman. Malamutes need a firm yet gentle hand in training because they are naturally energetic and need a “leader.” If allowed to believe he’s the Alpha, the Malamute’s strong personality can lead to an unhappy family dynamic.
The Chinook is also a sled dog but is far rarer than the rest. Created in New Hampshire as their answer to the Siberian Husky, the Chinook is a top-notch sled dog, able to pull heavy loads at great speed and over great distances. Their drive makes them a good fit for the active family who loves hiking and running.
Adaptable and calmer than most other sled dogs, Chinooks are gentle giants. A relatively new breed in the dog world, Chinooks came from a cross between a Mastiff-type dog and a Husky. The originator of the breed named it for one of the lead dogs on his sled team, whose name was Native American for “warm wind.” Created only at the end of the 19th century, by 1965, they were one of the rarest breeds in the world. Chinooks still exist, but finding an available pup will be a challenge. Waiting lists may be as long as two years.
With his Siberian roots, the Samoyed handles frigid temperatures better than most other dogs. People living in these harsh elements used Samoyeds to pull sleds across the snow. They are strong enough to pull one and a half times their weight. Samoyeds need lots of exercise, and their independent nature requires a firm hand.
The Samoyed’s heavy coat is designed to shield him from temperatures as low as sixty below zero in snow and ice. His smile, a function of the upturned corners of his mouth, limits drooling. Drooling in subzero temperatures would lead to icicles forming on his face. His smile prevents this from happening. His thick white double coat is relatively high maintenance. To keep it from matting, use a pin brush daily and work gently from his skin to the ends.
People generally think of the Siberian Husky when dog sledding is mentioned. Huskies are slightly smaller and more compact than Alaskan Malamutes but are just as quick and nimble across the frozen tundra. Topping out under sixty pounds, the Husky is stronger than he looks. The Chukchi people created his ancestors in northeastern Asia when changing climate conditions forced them to become semi-nomadic.
The most famous Siberian Husky helped save many lives on the serum run of 1925. In order to get the life-saving serum to diphtheria patients in Nome, Alaska, legendary musher Leonard Seppala drove his team, led by a Siberian Husky named Balto, over 658 miles in five days. Great family companions, Huskies have an extreme prey drive and may not be suitable for homes with other small furries.
Although we often think of our pups as family and the old adage suggests something about being our best friend, dogs have meant so much more to humans down through history. One of the earliest forms of agriculture involved herding sheep and goats. Without canine cooperation, shepherds would have been unable to keep their flocks safe from predators.
As civilization evolved and specialized, working dogs became more and more instrumental to daily life. Without the ancestors of the breeds in the Working Group, people would have been unable to trek across expanses of snow and ice with speed and safety. Homes and properties would have gone unguarded, and there would have been no companion to aid with the hunt or help mariners at sea.
The beauty of the working dog is not only what he has contributed to commerce, agriculture, transportation, and safety but that he makes every contribution with the wag of his tail. For the price of companionship, working breeds have made people’s lives easier and richer for their places in them.