Herding dogs, a group of breeds distinguished by the American Kennel Club in 1983, are some of the most admired breeds throughout the world. They have a wide range of appearances. This goes from the stout Corgis to the curliest Spanish Water Dogs. They can take the role of a sporty companion or astute protector. Is this the breed that’s best for you?
What are some key herding dog traits? Herding dogs are known for their high energy, loyalty, strong prey drive, and alertness.
Nowadays, herding dogs aren’t restricted to working on the ranch. They have many jobs ranging from search and rescue to sports like dock-diving. This group of breeds is one that requires a dedicated, active owner, as these dogs need plenty of mental stimulation, exercise, and ongoing training. We’ll cover why this is so in this article.
Herding Dog Breeds
Herding dogs are some of the most loveable dogs around.
Today, many herding dogs are companion pets or assigned other jobs such as service or therapy work. Despite this, they still retain the core genetically-influenced behavioral characteristics that place them in the AKC (American Kennel Club) recognized category: the “Herding Group.”
The Herding Group was recognized as a part of the Working Dog Group until 1983. As their name suggests, this group of dogs were bred to “gather, herd and protect livestock.” Many herding dog owners opt to raise them along with the livestock they are meant to protect. This means the dog lives, sleeps, and eats with the herd of sheep, cattle, etc.
Often, these dogs never step foot inside the house. So they do not develop a connection to their owners and they do not experience separation anxiety when left outside. In addition, nothing distracts them from doing their assigned job with the livestock.
Some of the breeds that make up the Herding Group are:
- Australian Cattle Dog (also known as the “Blue Heeler” or “Red Heeler”)
- Australian Shepherd
- Bearded Collie
- Belgian Malinois
- Border Collie
- Bouvier des Flandres
- Belgian Tervuren
- Canaan Dog
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- German Shepherd Dog
- Icelandic Sheepdog
- Miniature American Shepherd
- Norwegian Buhund
- Old English Sheepdog
- Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Belgian Sheepdog
- Shetland Sheepdog (Sheltie).
There are 41 breeds in the Herding Group in total. To see the full list, visit the American Kennel Club website.
Here’s a video that showcases the top 10 herding dogs.
Typical Herding Dog Traits
Does seeing this crazy mix-up of breeds make you wonder what on earth they have in common?
Some argue that breeds such as the Belgian Malinois and the German Shepherd Dog are no longer herding dogs. Why? This is because of their bite force that has been strengthened over recent generations of breeding. Some think they are too manic or a little too prey-driven to safely operate as a herding dog around livestock. (Take it from a person who owned German Shepherds, their herding instincts and capabilities are not lost!).
Apart from opinion, what officially makes a true herding dog? Here are some of the key traits you want to see in your pup.
Positive, Energetic Temperament
Herding dogs are made to work. This is why they were once a part of the Working Dog group.
Details of temperament will vary slightly according to breed, but overall, herding dogs are incredibly smart, happy, energetic, and athletic. These traits will be a distinct advantage in your training endeavors.
As the owner of two Shelties, I may be biased, but the intelligence of a herding dog breed is unrivaled. These dogs take to training incredibly fast with the proper techniques (and attitude and patience of their trainer!). A dog that is both intelligent and inherently happy is typically motivated in training by a desire to please their owner.
Given this need to please, you will not have to worry about stubbornness preventing training progress. Herding dogs are specifically bred to adapt to their owner’s needs.
Your chosen breed’s athleticism will influence the process of training, as well.
There are tradeoffs with this personality: the dog may become distracted while you are attempting to teach a new command. To combat this, many professional trainers will recommend exercise and/or socialization before a training session, so that your pup will be rid of their excess energy and be able to focus on learning (and treats!).
Strong Prey Drive
This is a cornerstone trait in herding dogs. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to do what makes them herders!
The prey drive is a deep-set, instinctual behavior that enhances your herding dog’s ability to hunt prey effectively. It is the evolutionary motivation that enables a carnivore to attain the food it needs to survive.
This doesn’t mean that your dog is going to hunt and eat your livestock. What the prey drive does for your herder is to strengthen the desire to pursue moving objects. Herding dog owners are encouraged to use their dog’s prey drive in training – more on this later.
The key to managing the prey drive in herding dogs is to curb the desire to capture the prey. How does this happen? Ensure your dog has no desire to follow through with an actual hunt and kill. Instead, let them express their bite in a way that effectively moves the animals (nipping at the heels and hocks of the livestock). If your herding dog is not on a farm or a ranch with livestock, nipping at your ankles or pant leg can be a challenging trait to handle. You can read what to do here.
Some believe breeds such as the Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd dog are no longer herding dogs because they don’t ‘nip’ and prefer to capture their prey. This is why these breeds are primarily used in protection work. Their bite force is a highly-valued trait in many breeding lines. Realistically, you can train a dog to control its own bite pressure. Not every German Shepherd will bite with the strength of a K-9 officer!)
Depending on what type of work you want your pup to do, it is imperative that your herding dog is what is known as a “velcro dog” or “shadow dog.” Your herding dog should never want to leave your side for any extended period.
Now, you might wonder: how does loyalty work with those who leave their dogs outside? It depends on what type of work you aim for them to fulfill.
Herding breeds such as Australian Shepherd or Pembroke Welsh Corgi have an easier time being by your side because their small-to-moderate size and relatively manageable coats mean they are more likely to be welcome inside the home.
On the other hand, the larger breed German Shepherd, or Beauceron, would work as both livestock guardians and herders. With these breeds, the term “velcro dog” would differ contextually. What I mean is the dog wouldn’t necessarily be by your side at all times, but when you are present, you can trust them to work a group of livestock outside of your immediate visibility because they want to obey your commands and do the job at hand.
Herding dogs need to be highly alert. Although this trait is beneficial, it can present a few tradeoffs.
To do his/her job effectively, your dog needs to be highly alert at all times to notice any animal veering from the herd.
Their vigilance is also a significant component of what drives their loyalty out in the field. In essence, they are attentive to your location so as not to lose you or lose any opportunity to work (or be rewarded, of course).
The tradeoff here is that this herding dog trait can make your dog pretty anxious.
Is your pup getting enough stimulation?
Are they challenged enough in their training or daily duties?
If the answers to these questions are both “no”, your herding dog will likely develop behavioral issues. These can include chewing on your belongings, displaying aggressive behaviors, separation anxiety, and more. This is all due to anxiety from excessive, unspent energy.
How to Train Your Herding Dog
Herding dogs have strong personalities.
They need to be consistently occupied to remain happy and healthy. What is the best way to do this and ensure their cooperation in any responsibilities you give them? Provide training early on and for a large amount of their puppyhood.
In the next video, Saro the dog trainer says that herding dog owners should focus on training and managing their dog’s mental stimulation in their dogs’ first 2 years.
After the first 2 years, Saro says it’s safe to introduce balls and toys as entertainment. Why? You will temper the herding dog trait of obsessing over toys, which some dog owners find very challenging to manage.
Begin With Basic Obedience
To create a solid foundation on which to train your dog for many years to come, you will need to start with the basics:
- Leave It.
You will inevitably have to incorporate these commands into future training, so starting at a young age is essential.
It is best to start your pup with these commands as young as 10 weeks old. Yes, that early! Training at such a young age ensures that you won’t have to backtrack and undo any less-than-desirable learned behaviors.
We recommend that training sessions remain relatively short. That way your pup doesn’t become overwhelmed or frustrated.
You don’t want your herding dog getting bored and distracted, and ultimately not retaining any new information. Keep training sessions fun and exciting, and no longer than 15 minutes at a time.
Specialized training and sports
Here is where you decide what type of herding dog you want yours to be.
Herding dogs for herding
If you own livestock and want your dog to protect the herd or both, then you will want to focus on building your dog’s confidence. This is key. While your dog is working moving animals up to more than 15x their weight (and that’s being modest), they are unlikely to be right beside you.
In the video below, check out how far away the herding dogs are from their human owner herd a large population of sheep into another paddock. Those dogs herding the sheep are 100% confident they can do the job and please their owner.
Your dog needs to be self-assured to work effectively and safely by themselves.
How can you foster this self-confidence? Here are some ways.
Keep in mind that any field you train your dog in or livestock you practice with is suitable to your dog’s size, age, breed.
Do not overwhelm your dog. This will create an environment in which they are unable to work and hurts their potential for future training and responsibilities.
Herding dogs as pets
If you are adopting or purchasing a herding breed for purposes other than herding, there are still plenty of options for you, too!
Remember that your dog needs exercise and mental stimulation like they need air.
Getting your herding dog involved in a dog sport represents both exercise and mental stimulation. Three of the most popular sports herding dogs excel in are dock-diving, agility, and protection. Some other suggestions are frisbee, treibball and flyball.
These are all high-energy, fast-paced activities and are sure to keep you and your dog bonded and free of anxiety-driven bad behaviors.
Problems With Herding People
Another reason why it’s essential to instill fundamental commands in your dog’s “vocabulary” at a young age is that herding dogs without jobs are prone to trying “herd” children or adults.
This herding behavior may seem cute at a young age. Yes, I loved taking photos of my German Shepherd when she was only 8 weeks old, pulling at my pant leg! But as your dog grows, it may just lose its charm.
Maybe your dog won’t nip at you or your children. Let’s say they pull on your clothing. Or, they repeatedly poke you with their nose, chase you or running babies in your home. There are loads more variations on nipping and herding behavior. You need to stop this behavior before it gets to the point of frustrated aggression.
Here are a few tips to stop herding behaviors in your dog.
1. Be Cool
Remain calm and collected when your dog is pushing and poking you. This prevents any unintentional reinforcement in the form of laughter or attention rewarded to the dog.
2. Leash Training
Consistent leash training.
You do not want to have your dog off-leash anywhere before you are confident that the herding behavior is under control.
If you let your dog roam and play off-leash too early, they could bolt after a squirrel or a duck. Then you have to chase your pup down. The message this sends to your dog is, “What a great game this is!” and you will reinforce the wrong behavior.
3. Ongoing Obedience Training
Continue obedience training throughout their youthful years – up to 2 years old. This cannot be stressed enough.
A dog whose basic commands are not reinforced over time will not necessarily forget them, but won’t care enough to obey them. Remind your dog that it’s good and exciting to listen to you with rewards and cuddles!
4. Toys and Games
Provide toys and games to allow your dog to express their herding behavior in a controlled environment.
Something you are going to have to accept is that you are never going to get your dog to stop herding. This is what they’ve been bred for over thousands of years. Be realistic – you’re not going to take it out of ’em in one lifetime.
When deciding whether you’re ready to take on a herding dog or not, consider your living situation.
For such a high-energy group of pups, these dogs will do best in homes with fenced yards.
This is not essential for all of the breeds. Some breeds are much smaller than others, and can be perfectly fine in an apartment with regular walks or other exercises.
Do Herding Dogs Bark A Lot?
This, of course, is something that will significantly affect your decision to adopt a herding dog based on where you live (house vs. apartment).
It is expected that many herding dogs will bark when excited – namely, when chasing something – but not around the clock like a Husky.
Let’s say you live in an apartment. You bring home a smaller breed like a mini American Shepherd or Shetland sheepdog. Moving playtime to outside may help with keeping the noise level down.
Some breeds especially prone to barking include
- Cardigan Welsh and Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Bearded Collie
- Shetland Sheepdog.
Apartment-Friendly Herding Breeds
If you desperately want a herding dog in your life but don’t have a backyard or a large plot of land, don’t worry – there is still hope. Here are a few apartment-friendly herding breeds based on size and energy-level:
- Bearded Collie
- Canaan Dog
- Finnish Lapphund
- Shetland Sheepdog.
These breeds are categorized as small-to-medium sized and an energy level of “Regular Exercise” (not super energetic but also not very calm).
Family-Friendly Herding Dogs
It’s important to know that any dog can be “family-friendly” as long as it’s trained appropriately and consistently. Regarding herding dogs specifically, you may be inclined to choose a breed that is a little less nippy than others.
AKC recommends the following dogs for you:
- Bearded Collie
- Bergamasco Sheepdog
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Icelandic Sheepdog
This is not a definitive or exhaustive list. It’s just a guide to assist your decision-making process in choosing a new furry addition to your family.
When taking in a herding dog, any breed you choose is going to be high-energy and require a lot of attention and training from you to ensure a happy life for both you and your fur-baby.
Although herding dogs do require a lot of time and dedication, be reminded that their ultimate desire is to please you!
Showing them consistent affection with games, sports, rewards (food, scratches, etc.), and quality time will ensure a strong, long-lasting bond for you and your pup.