All About Herding Dogs

Tips and advice on how to choose the perfect herding dogs for your farm, family and livestock out of the long list of herding breeds that exist within American agriculture.

Border Collie herding sheep

A Border Collie herds a small flock of sheep in a pasture.

Photo By iStockphoto/hayhillphoto

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Following the Roman invasion of Celtic Britain in 55 B.C., the Romans introduced livestock-tending dogs to the British Isles. In subsequent years, Celtic clans bred their own varieties of these dogs, later known as breeds such as Highland and Scotch Collies and Welsh Sheepdogs.

As time progressed, these breeds morphed into many of the modern sheepdogs known today, including the Border Collie and Collie — breeds popularized by movies such as Babe and Lassie. Herding dogs have played a prominent role in American agriculture since at least Colonial times; the Marquis de Lafayette sent Thomas Jefferson two Briards — a French sheepdog breed — to assist with his flocks at Monticello. Decades later, herding dogs provided an invaluable resource aiding pioneers in moving livestock westward, sometimes during 2,000-mile journeys.

Today, herding dogs assist farmers and ranchers in performing a diverse array of tasks. Many of the more than four dozen breeds in existence have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to work a specific type of livestock in a certain way. For example, the Australian Cattle Dog was bred to drive cattle over long distances, and the German Shepherd was bred to act as a fence, keeping sheep away from valuable crops and in appropriate grazing areas.

Herding dogs assist human handlers in moving many types of livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, ducks, geese and chickens, as well as performing tasks such as shedding, or separating out animals from the rest of the herd or flock; keeping livestock away from the human handler while he or she is placing feed in a trough; and moving livestock from one pen or pasture to another at the handler’s request.

While some farmers are concerned a herding dog may worry stock, a well-trained herding dog will not cause additional stress for livestock and is an extension of the human handler. The trained herding dog responds to a series of verbal commands issued by the human handler, or, in some cases, understands a job more generally, as is the case of ‘boundary’ herding dogs, responsible for keeping livestock within a certain grazing area.

Regardless of your needs, you may discover that a herding dog might just be right for you.

Getting started

Before you get a herding dog, there are several important things to consider.

As working dogs, herding dogs have been bred for generations to move livestock for hours each day. Due to the complexity of herding, and the diverse skill set it requires, herding dogs possess exceptional intelligence. However, the pairing of high energy and high intelligence means herding dogs are not content to laze about the house or farm. In fact, an unemployed herding dog can become destructive, chasing livestock or engaging in unwanted behavior. Also, because herding dogs have been bred for centuries to work alongside man, some form close relationships with their owners and thrive living in the family home when they are not working. It’s important that you do not confuse herding dogs with livestock guardian dogs — they are not the same thing. The instinct to move livestock is altogether different from the instinct to guard it. Owners who believe their herding dog will move livestock by day and guard by night will be disappointed. If you desire a dog to guard your stock, there are several excellent breeds bred for this purpose, including the Great Pyrenees.

If you desire a herding dog, educate yourself on the breeds available and ensure a dog will fit the needs of both your farm and your lifestyle. It is helpful if the breed you select is one bred for the type of livestock you own. This is not to say that a different breed will not herd your livestock. However, cattle particularly require a dog with the bravado to nip a nose or heal, and a softer, gentler breed may be reluctant or unwilling.

Consider the type of assistance you desire. If you do not need daily herding help, a high-energy breed such as a Border Collie may not be suited to you. However, herding dogs can thrive on almost any type of activity with their owners, and if you desire a dog that can herd and that will also go on long hikes, run, or train in obedience or agility, certainly a high-energy dog is worthy of consideration.

Also be sure to consider your family’s needs. Certain breeds are better with children than others, and your herding dog will be both a working companion and a cherished pet. If you do not desire to train or raise your own puppy, it is possible to acquire a young adult trained elsewhere, although you will still need to learn how to handle the dog on livestock.

Once you have decided on a particular breed, visit a herding competition, known as a herding trial. Watch dogs of the breed you are interested in and ask owners where they acquired their dog. Nearly every breed has a national parent club (for example, the American Shetland Sheepdog Association), you can often find a herding liaison who can direct you to a breeder. Unfortunately, many herding breeds have increasingly lost the instinct to herd due to nonselective breeding or, in many instances, a greater focus on the aesthetic versus the working ability of the dog. Because of this, not all breeders will produce dogs with herding instinct.

Preston Kissman, chairman of the Stockdog Committee for the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), recommends finding a breeder who has successfully placed dogs in herding homes.

“When finding a prospective herding puppy, ensure the breeder can provide proof that the parents have been screened for genetic conditions such as hip dysplasia. Look for a puppy with outstanding structure, temperament, and a desire to work with you,” Kissman says.

If the breeder does not participate in herding, she should at minimum be enthusiastic in supporting your desire to find a dog that can. It may be helpful to speak with owners of other puppies they have bred who are now herding.

Herding Dogs: Training and competition

Most dogs are not ready to begin herding until they are between 6 and 12 months old. Before this, it is important to socialize your dog with different people, animals and environments, and to teach your dog to respond to basic commands such as sit, stay, down and come.

The type of stock you use for training is an important consideration. It is dangerous to use stock that is not “dog broke,” or stock that is unaccustomed to being herded by a dog. If a young dog is challenged by livestock, it may become injured or fearful. This does not mean you need additional livestock; it does mean that it’s a good idea to take lessons with your dog, working with an experienced trainer, especially for folks who are new to herding. While attending a herding event, speak with competitors about who they take lessons from. Even if you do not desire to compete, working with a trainer will ensure your dog has a better introduction to herding and that you learn to handle your dog appropriately. It is particularly important to work with a trainer or mentor in the beginning; though rare, some dogs are aggressive with livestock and should not be used in herding.

If you wish to acquire stock to work your dog at home, herding trainers can typically assist you in locating “dog-broke” stock. As your dog gains experience and confidence, he can begin working the other animals you own.

Judi Bingham has been involved in herding since 1977 and is an American Kennel Club (AKC) and American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA) judge. She offers lessons and introductory herding seminars at her property, Hado-Bar Farm, in Ohio.

“We begin by allowing the dog, on-lead, to sniff a sheep restrained by an assistant in a safe arena. We then let the dog loose with several dog-broke sheep in the arena and do not tell him what to do; rather, we are facilitating his instinct and allowing him to understand his role,” Bingham says.

Following this work, a 40-foot round pen is used to teach the dog to ‘come-bye’ (go clockwise around the stock) and ‘away to me’ (go counter-clockwise around the stock).

“Once the dog is performing well in the round pen, we begin teaching them an outrun, sending our dog to collect the stock and bring them to the handler,” says Susan Rhoades, an AKC and AHBA judge who teaches herding lessons at Keepstone Farm in Virginia. “We also teach the dogs to separate out animals by calling the dog through a herd or flock and continuing to pare down the grouping until the dog has isolated the animal we need.”

Many owners are interested in herding strictly for farm assistance, but many find that showing off their skills in competition adds excitement. Several organizations, including the AKC, AHBA and ASCA, offer competitions for all herding breeds — and even some herding mixes — and offer in-depth information on getting started in competitions on their websites. Most herding competitions consist of a set course, in which the dog must move livestock and perform certain tasks successfully. By training several times a week in 15-minute sessions, most dogs can attain basic proficiency to assist around the farm or begin competing in about seven to eight months. Regardless of your aspirations, in your herding partner you will find a friend for life. Carol Delsman, executive field representative of the AKC Herding Program, summarizes this well by saying, “The most important aspect of a successful herding partnership is establishing an outstanding relationship grounded in mutual trust and affection.”

See you in the pasture!

Kathryn Schneider is a freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience training and competing with her dogs in a variety of disciplines. She can be reached at iceagility@gmail.com.