A Working Farm Dog, an article

By Peta Dowle, Breeder/Vet Nurse, NZ.


The Swedish Vallhund dog breed of today descends from a Swedish landrace.  A landrace breed is a local, geographically-limited population that is consistent enough to be called a breed but more variable in type than a standardised breed.  The word landrace is derived from the Germanic word landrasse meaning ‘country breed’ and Vallhund literally means ‘farm dog’.  The Swedish name for the breed, Västgötaspets, means ‘Spitz of the West Goths’.  Standardised dog breeds which have descended from landraces will generally continue to demonstrate a variation of type as a result of generational selective breeding for trait and functionality over aesthetics.  The variation of type in Swedish Vallhunds is widely considered to be a richness of the breed is a direct result of being bred fit for purpose.

Thus our little country farm-dog with an attractive range of type is a working dog with his origins as a landrace from Vastgoterland, Sweden.  The Swedish Vallhund must remain a natural dog unaltered and unencumbered by the changing whims of fashion.

In consideration of the attributes and hallmarks of the Swedish Vallhund he should first and foremost have good temperament. The prioritising of sound temperament must never be understated!  He should not be timid, fearful, snippy, aggressive, aloof, unsociable or prone to a nature of anxiety.  Breeders should avoid breeding on with any dog that carries such predispositions.  The correct attitude and character should be active, brave, watchful, intelligent, friendly and interested in his people - bordering on nosey.  Many a Swedish Vallhund owner will relate to a little dog that in one moment may be found snoozing under the kitchen table but will wake instantly and follow when their owner heads for the bathroom.  The dog may then sit patiently waiting beside the door until his person comes back out.  He is loyal, eager to please and never happier than when he is in the company of his human pack.  He should be confident, energetic, and intelligent. 

He is a brave and bold dog - Being a cow herder is the basis for the courage in the Swedish Vallhund.  Resilience, tenacity and bravery are needed to turn and drive a bolshie cow that has it in her mind to trample or charge head down at a little dog.  An average cow weighs in at over 500 kilograms, is fiercely protective of her calf and can be a dangerous beast if she becomes disgruntled.   A Swedish Vallhund has to possess the intellect to think on the move with cows, listen to commands from his master, and to not give up.  He has to know when to fall back and trot along behind settled cows (that do not need upsetting with udders full of milk) and yet be ready to lift his bark and demand the cows do as he directs if they are skittish or defiant. 

Without that fearless, intelligent, energetic and friendly temperament the Swedish Vallhund no matter how beautiful or structurally sound is a poor example of the breed not to be exalted.

This breed needs to maintain the herding instinct and trait, without which they would not be with us today. He should have sufficient breed trait as to be very trainable to herd stock, particularly cattle.   The Swedish Vallhund has an inherited and instinctual trait of herding by nipping at the hocks of the cows.    His speed and daring will see him dart and dash from behind, driving the cows forward.  He is agile, able to bound and weave keeping a sharp eye for flying hooves which he expertly avoids.  Being a short-legged breed he is easily able to flatten himself to the ground to avoid a kick and undeterred will spring back to his feet and task in an instance.   His enjoyment of this work is obvious. 

When not selected to work as a farm dog the Swedish Vallhund makes an cheerful and loyal pet dog,  a great watch dog alerting his family to the arrival of visitors and strangers.  Indeed the majority of Swedish Vallhunds today are predominantly owned and loved by families as companion dogs.  However breeders must work to keep herding traits regardless.  These instincts and virtues translate well to many dog sports.  Preserving his traits will help guard against the show-ring being the ‘only’ yard stick with which we measure excellence – and which has been the downfall and ruin of many breeds.

So with his variation of type, a bold and friendly temperament and with his original traits and purpose intact we come to his appearance and particularly his conformation; the skeletal and muscular structure of his anatomy.  Like all working dogs the Swedish Vallhund that has been built well, will move well.  Every aspect of the Swedish Vallhund conformation links directly to his original function of herding cows.

He should not look thin, frail or light of bone.  He is not a greyhound nor should he be sleek and streamlined.  The phrase “He is not a grey carrot!”  is a warning shared by many and wise to be heeded.  He is a dog of substance and muscle.  He has a ratio of 2:3 and should have good bone, appearing strong and sturdy.  The Swedish Vallhund is a short legged dog and at the top end of height is just 33 -34 cm at the withers.  A cow will kick out to the height of her hock and the Swedish Vallhund height correlates to his ability to come under this.   With his style of heeling if he was much taller on his leg he would be significantly more at risk of being caught by a cow kick.  Too short and he would lessen his power and compromise his speed.  A dog that is over 14 kg and is not overweight may be too tall or too heavy of bone. A bitch that is under 9 kg and is not underweight may be either too short or be too light of bone.

Correct anatomical structure will create less wear and strain for a working dog and allows him to move into old age with less aches and pains.    Good angulation, which are the angles formed at a joint by the meeting of bones, will create a smooth gait and full stride.  His gait is parallel and not single-tracking.  On the move a Swedish Vallhund is not pulling from the front but should drive powerfully from behind.  His forelegs will reach forward without excessive lift and he will not paddle or flick his feet.  He should have a confident and deliberate footfall, with balance and co-ordination which allows him to cover the most ground for the least effort.

When viewed from the front a Swedish Vallhund does not have perfectly straight legs.  His forelegs should possess a slight curve to accommodate his chest.  This curving is not excessive – he is not a bull dog!  And must still maintain close fitting elbows.

Where there is a correct lay of shoulder there is a vertical plumb line to be visualised  dropping from the base of the neck, running down though the shoulder blade and straight down the front leg.  The neck should be in front of this line, with all of the head including lower jaw completely above the top-line.   When you can imagine the line of the top-line extending past the shoulder blades running along though the jaw or head of the dog, he has a short neck created by incorrect angles of the shoulder and front assembly.

Where a Swedish Vallhund has steep angulation of the shoulder he has a corresponding constriction of movement and shorter stride as a consequence of these wide angles.  This dog is not able to drive and stretch out comfortably.    He uses more energy, effort and movement to cover the same ground as his well -built counterpart.  He should not toe-in or toe-out.  Both of which indicate ligament/muscle or structural issues and in the absence of historical injury is inherited.  The parent dog that has a gait which toes-in is likely to produce some pups that will also.

The chest cavity is surrounded by the rib cage made up thirteen pairs of rib bones.  These protect the heart, lungs and internal organs.   The Swedish Vallhund ribs viewed side on are elliptical in shape.  A narrow or shallow rib cage lacking depth and fullness does not serve a working dog well.  A capacious and well sprung rib cage with good depth and breadth allows for maximum lung expansion working in tandem with the heart to pump blood around an active working body.  It also protects internal organs which is imperative.  If we consider once again our little dog’s primary job in the field, a cow kick is a dangerous proposition for exposed organs.  Therefore the greater portion of the dog’s body from shoulder to pelvis is occupied with more rib than loin. 

The loin is found either side of vertebral column between the last ribs and hindquarters, when it is short it affords strength and stability for the pelvis. For all the above reasons a Swedish Vallhund must not be ‘Herring Gutted’.   This is where the ribs rise abruptly from the sternum and is created as a result of the sternum being short.   Then when the overall lengths of the individual ribs in the last pairings are also short, the dog is herring gutted and is seen as having a long and exaggerated tuck-up. 

A Swedish Vallhund should have low hocks, muscular thighs, and good bone with hock and stifle well angulated.  At standing and in assessment, when the hind end angulation is correct you should be able to visualise a plumb line at the rear which drops from the point of buttock and falls at the front of the toes as shown. Increasing numbers of show dogs are exhibited with an over angulation of the hind quarters.  Over angulated hind legs is caused by a lengthening of the leg bones, and often includes tall hocks.  This dog is weak in the drive, he lacks stability and gaits like a paddle steamer boat from the rear.  When we again recall the Swedish Vallhunds main function of herding the seriousness of this fault cannot be over stated.   A dog that is under angulated will have the imagined plumb line fall through the
toes.  The under angulated dog is steep and has a movement reminiscent of walking in high heels, and understandably this is not conduscent to herding in the fields.

It is vital that the feet of a working dog are hardy and robust to cope with the rigours of hard ground, thistle, stone and uneven surfaces navigated sometimes at speed interspersed with trotting and bounding.  The working dog relies on his paw pads and feet in the same way a runner or mountain climber relies on his footwear.  Short strong pasterns will aid forward pointing toes and allow for adaptive and controlled manoeuvrability.  His paws are oval shaped, tight and are well knuckled up for strength.  Underneath his paws are tough with thickened leather pads as this affords durable protection from sharp terrain and cold ground.  I have yet to see a farmer clipping the nails of his dogs. An active Swedish Vallhund exercising and working over hard ground will keep the nails short naturally.

A Swedish Vallhund with a handsome head and correct open expression is a joy to behold.  His character and personality are reflected in his dark-brown oval shaped eyes.  His mask is a desired attribute creating contrast against the lighter colouration around the eyes, the muzzle and under the throat.  He should have a well-defined stop and black nose leather.  The Swedish Vallhund head is clean cut and rather long viewed from above evenly tapering toward the nose.  Viewed from the side his skull is near flat with the slope of his head parallel to his muzzle which should be just shorter than the skull length.  An excessively short muzzle cannot as easily nip at hocks!  Short muzzles lend a ‘bear’ appearance to the head which is not correct.  Also not correct are ‘ski-slope’ heads lacking stop, and pale eyes which give a wolf like look.  Ears are pricked and forward placed, not too low on the head. They should not bounce and flop when the dog is running and should neither be too small nor cat like or excessively large.  Larger ears may lose their strength and rigidity, and too small may lose some of their mobility. 

The head should be clean and relatively long. Viewed from above it should be tapering evenly towards the nose. The muzzle should be almost as long as the skull and the bridge of nose and skull should be parallel. The head should be clean and relatively long. Viewed from above it should be tapering evenly towards the nose. The muzzle should be almost as long as the skull and the bridge of nose and skull should be parallel.

 The Swedish Vallhund has a double layered coat.  This comprises a soft, dense, woolly undercoat and harder longer guard hairs.  The undercoat he will shed in response to the change of season/climate, and in the case of bitches often after she has weaned pups.   The double layer coat has an insulating effect and will afford the dog protection from wet weather keeping them warm in the cold and cool in warmer temperatures.  Coping in all climates is an asset for a working dog.  The top coat should be hard not soft and not too long.  Dogs will occasionally appear with a long coat in the breed and this is a fault. A long soft coat does not provide good protection from rain and cold. 

The correct colours of a Swedish Vallhund are grey, grey-brown, grey-yellow, red-yellow and red-brown.   The breed carries the agouti gene and the dark banding of the hairs on the top coat will be seen the length of the back, the neck and around side of the body.  Disqualifying colours occasionally seen in the breed are blue, white, apricot, liver brown, and black. 

Also in regard to colour, white markings are permissible on the chest, also on the fore and hind legs, and as socks. Additionally white colouring that exceeds more than 30% overall is a fault.  Such dogs are referred to as being ‘over marked’ or ‘mismarked’.   White markings are acceptable and quite attractive as a ‘narrow blaze’, ‘neck spot’ or ‘slight necklace’.    Over marked Swedish Vallhunds and those with disqualifying coat colours are still Swedish Vallhunds in every other respect and are valued members of the Västgötaspets community.

The sum of this long-lived, brave and active dog, with his stout, strong body, weather-proof coat, short legs and tough feet, his big-dog bark, and agility on the move is pretty special.  All this is combined with plenty of brain and sass, natural instincts and a get up and go attitude makes the mighty little Västgötaspets fairly unbeatable in my book.  He is a super, purpose-built farm dog.  We can take him out of the field and into the show ring or to live a life in the lounge is it pleased by us.   And he is adaptable and happy to follow us - but we must not forget what he is and why he is - and we must never let him be changed!