Herding Dog vs. Working Dog: Which is Right for Me?

When contemplating a herding dog vs. working dog, there are quite a few things to consider. Both herding breeds and working breeds thrive in specific environments. The breeds in both groups are very active. They require a purpose as well as physical and mental stimulation.

Herding dog vs. working dog? The similarities are that both types of dog breeds are loyal and intelligent. The main differences are the herding instinct and size.

Both herding and working dogs are great choices. We will look at the specific characteristics of each group. This will prepare you to decide if a working or herding breed will suit your family and lifestyle.

Why You Should Trust Me

I have two Shelties, Shellie and Bernie, herders extraordinaire!

I often write blogs about dogs, most of the research that I do is for our own personal use. So much so that veterinarians have suggested (more than once) that I should limit my time on the internet! Apparently, I can get carried away when it comes to concerns about my dogs’ health and happiness. I’m a little obsessed.

My dogs bring us so much joy.

I want everyone to have that experience and think that it is possible if you find the right breed.

Herding Dog vs. Working Dog – Introduction

Undeniably, every breed has unique qualities that make them excellent companions.

All herding dogs and working dogs are smart, fast learners, and rank highly for loyalty.

Neither dog breeds will fair well in closed quarters, or with limited exercise.

If your family is active, you’ll provide space to run, and offer regular mental stimulation. If so, you might consider a breed from either of these two energetic groups.

The main differences between the two groups are the size and the herding instinct. Most herding dogs have a strong drive to move and corral other living things. This habit is often not always welcome. Small children and other animals can look unfavorably on a Sheltie’s ankle nipping, for example.

Pros and Cons of Herding Dogs

Personally, I don’t think there are any cons to herding dogs. Have I fallen over on my way to the kitchen when a puppy attached itself to my slipper? Sure!

Do my husband and I regularly have to yell to be heard over two dogs barking at the wind? Sometimes.

Has a stranger in the post office line politely pointed out that I had a ball of fur hanging off of my shoulder? Yes.

OK, maybe there are a few cons to be considered.

Medium sizeHerding
Pros and Cons of Herding Dogs

*Not all herding dogs shed a lot. Some low-shedding herding breeds capture their undercoat in their outer coat, which needs more brushing. Bergamasco, Pumi, Spanish Water Dog are three good choices of herding dogs for those that want to avoid shedding and lots of grooming.

Pros and Cons of Working Dog Breeds

Coat optionsImposing
Temperament varietyStrong
Pros and Cons of Working Dogs

Unlike the herding dog breeds, working dogs come in a wider variety of sizes, temperaments, and coat options.

Most of these breeds make for excellent family companion dogs. Many, because of their size and strength, are not recommended for first-time dog owners.

Herding Dog vs. Working Dog: The Main Differences

Herding dogs were a part of the American Kennel Club group of working dogs until 1983. Indeed, both groups, having been bred for work, have many similarities. However, the differences are quite significant.

Work Differences

Dogs in the herding group bred for pastoral activity, have some peculiar tendencies.

The herding instinct can be quite strong. The drive to herd, in the absence of livestock, can often look aggressive or intimidating. At home, herding dogs can absolutely herd their owners and small children.

As a responsible owner of a herding breed, it’s important to recognize and anticipate these behaviors and work on focus training to curb this.

What are those instinctual herding behaviors?


It is entirely reasonable for a pup on a ranch or a farm to nip at the heels of cattle or livestock.

However, in a public space, or your neighborhood, it is not acceptable for your pup to nip at the heels of small children.

Of all herding dogs’ potential quirky habits, this one is the least acceptable. It can be the most frightening for people who do not understand the breeds.

We’ve written a comprehensive article on how to curb this nipping behavior in a herding dog.


Often, a dog’s natural drive to force the crowd to conform is nothing short of annoying.

My Shelties often attempt to redirect my path when walking through the house. Our younger dog (Bernie) has much stronger herding instincts, and will nip, and nudge.

When outside, our older Sheltie (Shellie) will stand still and stare you down until we move to a position behind her.

Herding dog breeds
My Shelties, Bernie (L) and Shellie (R)


Fully aware of herding, without any reference for what should and shouldn’t be herded, if it moves, why not? Unfortunately without direction, the instinct to herd will kick in at the slightest movement. Bicycles, cars, leaves, squirrels can quickly grab the attention of a herder and spark a chase. For obvious reasons, this can be very dangerous.

Excessive barking, chewing, destruction (and mayhem)

The intense desire to perform the job is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, dogs are trainable and will take on any role that you provide. On the other hand, without mental and physical stimulation, they’ll make barking and chewing the job.

While all dogs in the herding group exhibit behaviors specific to duties involving livestock, the working group breeds were bred for a range of activities and responsibilities. Working dogs understand they have a specific purpose whether bred to be sled dogs, guard dogs, or any number of other companion positions.

With such a diverse group of dogs, 50 breeds belong to the working group. Narrowing down particular habits and behaviors is more complicated.

Experts agree that working dogs, because of size, strength and instincts, are not always appropriate for inexperienced or first-time owners.

What are some inherent challenges with working group breeds?

  • Highly protective, early socialization is critical
    • Akita
    • Boerboel
    • Boxer
    • Bullmastiff
    • Cane Corso
    • Doberman Pinscher
    • Leonberger
  • Pack orientated, needs alpha human
    • Alaskan Malamut
    • Anatolian Shepherd Dog
    • Dogue de Bordeaux
    • Samoyed
  • Naturally aloof with strangers
    • Bernese Mountain Dog
    • Black Russian Terrier
  • Respond poorly to harsh or repetitive training methods
    • Kuvasz
    • Standard Schnauzer
    • Tibetan Mastiff
    • Newfoundland
  • Overly exuberant and demanding of human attention
    • Portuguese Water Dog
    • Chinook
  • Natural runners in need of securely fenced area
    • Siberian Husky

It is generally accepted that dogs from the working group are not ideal for first-time owners. Out of all the working dogs, a Bernese Mountain Dog is most likely to be recommended as a first working dog or for a family with small children.

Working dog breeds
Bernese Mountain Dog

Differences in intellect

You can Google “smartest dog breeds,” and you will get pages of results.
The topic has been covered several times, and the top ten lists usually look something like this:

1. Border Collie
2. Poodle
3. German Shepherd
4. Golden Retriever
5. Doberman Pinscher
6. Shetland Sheepdog
7. Labrador Retriever
8. Papillon
9. Rottweiler
10. Australian Cattle Dog

As a Sheltie mom, I am okay with this as I also know that judging the breed based solely on intelligence is a mistake.

All three of our Shelties have been extraordinarily smart and quickly learned commands. The first two, both sables, both female, were intelligent with a strong desire to please us. The third, bi-black, male, is maybe our “smartest” Sheltie. However, he is only motivated by food. Training him is more often like a hostage negotiation! I am the hostage and treats the ransom!

A joint study with the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh measured navigation, speed, and dogs direction following. Using 68 border collies, all experienced farm dogs, “Even within one breed of dog… there is variability in test scores.

In 1994, Dr. Stanley Coren published a book, The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the Thoughts, Emotions, and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions. The research for this world-famous book came from a detailed survey completed by 200 judges from the dog obedience field. These research results are still the basis for most of the top dog intelligence lists almost 30 years later.

You would derive from the top ten list that herding dogs, holding five of the top ten spots, are more intelligent than working dogs. But, in a comparison of herding dog vs. working dog, there are other considerations to take into account. In his many works, Dr. Coren stressed that there are several intelligence measures for dogs.

  • Adaptive intelligence – problem-solving
  • Working intelligence – taking direction
  • Instinctive intelligence – strength of instinct
  • Spatial intelligence – location recall
  • Kinesthetic intelligence – coordination and agility
  • Interpersonal intelligence – communication skills
  • Intrapersonal intelligence – self-awareness.

What does this all mean concerning herding dog vs. working dog?

So, in the top ten intelligence list, we have five herding dogs and two working dogs. This is not an absolute fact that herding dogs are more intelligent than working dogs. All breeds have their strengths, and even within a breed, specific intelligence will vary.

My dogs, Shellie and Bernie, are a great example of this variance in intelligence. I would rate both dogs very highly for adaptive intelligence. They both easily work out the solutions to problems that they encounter. Our dogs always finds the easiest way through a difficult pass when we hike.

Types of herding dogs
Hiking and camping with Bernie and Shellie

However, my dogs are completely opposite when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

When Shellie needs something, be it food or a potty break, she is very deliberate in her communication. She will get your attention and draw you toward whatever it is that she needs.

Bernie, on the other hand, has one communication maneuver. If he needs something, no matter what it is, he will stand in front of you and high pitch bark. No direction, no hints. It is a guessing game much of the time. So does this make Shellie more intelligent? I don’t think so. It might mean they are both more intelligent than me and use different ways of approaching that fact.

So, where will working dogs rank highly in these intelligences? Obviously, in working and instinctive intelligences. Also, considering the size of some working breeds, kinesthetic and intrapersonal intelligence must exist. Take a look at some of these examples, the jobs they are bred for, and their average sizes.

BreedJobAvg. Height, Weight(M/F)
Alaskan MalamuteLong Haul Sledding25″ 85 lbs, 23″75 lbs
Great DaneWild game hunting31″ 160 lbs, 29″ 130 lbs
MastiffBig game hunting +30″, 195+ lbs, +28″, 145+lbs
NewfoundlandFishing boat/water rescues28″ 140 lbs, 26″ 110 lbs
St. BernardSnow/avalanche rescue30″ 160 lbs, 27″ 130 lbs

Differences in temperament

Herding dogs, as you might expect from their breeding, are very high energy.

As the mom of two Shelties, I know that I actually have four dogs, not two:

  • Tired Shellie
  • Not Tired Shellie
  • Tired Bernie
  • Not Tired, Bernie.

Tired Shellie and Tired Bernie are sweet, loving, gentle, and cuddly.

When Not Tired they are nudgy, whining, barking, chewing little monsters!

Low tolerance for inactivity and boredom are common characteristics of a herding dog.

Contrarily, working dogs run the gamut of temperaments. Saint Bernards, one of the most imposing-looking dogs, in general, are mild and docile. They need exercise to stay in shape, but a pleasant walk takes care of their needs. They aren’t known to act out due to boredom or inactivity.

On the other end of the spectrum, Siberian Huskies are born to run and run they must. So, like the herding breeds, Huskies without proper exercise and attention will be ornery, destructive, escape artists. When choosing any working group dog you must do breed-specific research regarding temperament .

Herding Dog vs. Working Dog: Which Suits Me?

So many factors determine which dogs will be right for you.
If considering a herding group dog, you must commit to physically and mentally stimulating activities every day. If you are up for that challenge, in return, you will get an endless supply of love and devotion.

Looking for a dog that is as loyal and easily trainable as a herding dog, yet more docile? You might consider one of the calmer working group dogs.

Consider the following questions before choosing a dog of any breed:

  • Am I home enough?
  • Do I need a yard or outdoor space close-by?
  • What is the right breed for the age of my children?
  • What breed will accept my other animals and vice-versa?
  • Am I willing to engage in the activity that a dog needs?
  • Am I willing to commit to grooming needs?
  • How often do I really want to vacuum? (Pro tip: Much less than you think)
  • What financial risk can I assume for veterinary care associated with a particular breed?

The AKC Dog Breed Selector tool will get you started on your search when debating a herding dog vs. working dog. Answer a few questions about your lifestyle. The selector will match you up with a variety of dogs likely to thrive in your environment.

More Helpful Information

Here are some additional resources you may find helpful in deciding on herding dog vs. working:

Author - Eileen

Eileen is dog mom to 2 Shetland Sheepdogs - Shellie and her pup Bernie. They enjoy a couple of walks each day plus 2-3 sessions with the frisbee or Chuck-it! She enjoys many road trips with her dogs. She has tent camped all over the U.S. The dogs love exploring new hiking trails. Regardless of the season, Eileen has plenty to share with you about outdoor dog life whether it's in the Rockies in winter, Massachusetts in the summer or Oregon and Minnesota in between. She loves to find new off-leash parks while traveling.

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