Over the course of a year, I work a lot of dogs and speak dozens of people who are considering buying a dog. Some have never owned a working dog, others have owned many. Often, we discuss the going rate for puppies, started dogs and trained dogs. They all want to know which they should purchase. There are advantages and disadvantages to each and each person must decide which is the best route for them. In this article, I will try to spell out some of the variables to consider. Keep in mind that my price estimates are likely on the conservative side and are for farm or ranch quality dogs. Trial quality dogs will be more expensive in most cases.
Option 1: Buy and Raise a Puppy and Send It For Training
This seems to be the obvious route for folks who are looking to get a sheepdog for the least amount of money economically....or is it? A well-bred Border Collie puppy in the United States will usually fall in the price range of $500 to $1,000 at 8 weeks of age. There are few creatures more cute or playful than a Border Collie puppy. Costs to raise the puppy are negligible. We will assume feed costs of $0.50 per day and an annual veterinary cost of $75 for our calculations. Being able to spend a lot of time with your puppy as it matures is a clear advantage of this option. Once the pup matures, often around it's first birthday, it is ready to be sent for training. Length of time in training will vary depending on the dog, the trainer and the level of training that you desire. If you have interest in seeing a typical progression in my training program, I recently posted some video with explanation of a dog over 6 months of training. If we assume that you want a dog to gather off of large fields and drive sheep in any direction away from the handler, four to six months in training would be a reasonable expectation. For our calculations, we will assume five months. Training costs range from $400-600+ per month. For the purpose of our calculations, lets assume $500 per month. The only other factor we need to consider is that not every puppy, even from well-bred working parents, will make a usable farm dog. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I send home a lot of dogs, that in my opinion, will never be trainable to an acceptable level. My guess is that around 50 percent of puppies will be trainable to a useful level. Obviously, this is higher in some cases than others and you can increase your odds by buying pups of of proven working dogs, but fact is that we see a lot of dogs that are simply not suitable for training for a variety of reasons, mostly between their ears.
Puppy Purchase: $500-$1,000
Feed for 1 year @ ~ $0.50 per day: $175
Veterinary care for 1 year: $75
6 months of training @ $500: $3,000
Total: $3,750-$4,250 if every puppy matures into a trainable adult, which we know is not the case.
Option 2: Buy A Started Dog
The term "Started" can mean many different things. To some, it means the dog that is keen to work livestock and perhaps has a "lie down" command. To others it means they can send the dog on large gathers, but the dog doesn't yet drive. It is imperative that you determine the level of training and the potential for further training before you determine the value of the dog. Started dogs may range in price from $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the seller's definition of "started". Likely, the dog will need more training before it will be fully useful, and this must be factored into the total final cost. This will be variable, but a huge advantage here is that you can see the dog at maturity and assess if it is a good fit for your situation. It it good around children, does it kill chickens, does it chase horses, all of these are things that are unknown with a puppy. It will take some time for you and the dog to bond and become a team, a disadvantage that you will not have if you go with option 1. Started dogs would typically between 1 and 2 years of age.
Started Dog Purchase: $2,000-$3,000
Additional training: 3 months at $500: $1,500
Option 3: Buy a Fully Trained Dog
The third option is the most obvious. You will find variation in what a "fully trained" dog can do, but likely less variation than in "started" dogs. You can assume this dog will be around two years of age or older. This dog should generally be able to gather sheep off of a large field with little help, drive sheep in any direction, know directional commands by voice and whistle and have a "look back" command to go back and gather any sheep it might have missed on it's original gather. One major issue with buying a trained dog is simply finding them. Few folks are selling them, especially if they have a personal need for them on their own operation. Nonetheless, they are out there and can be located. I help a good number of folks locate dogs each year. As of the date of writing this, (January of 2017), fully trained farm/ranch quality sheep dogs are commonly selling in the $4,000-$6,000 range.
I hope this has been useful to help put the costs of a sheepdog in perspective. The one thing for sure is that no matter which route you choose, once you have a good dog, you will quickly appreciate how many steps they save you and you will question how you ever made it without him.