Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
A Guide to Herding Behaviors in Dogs
Herding behaviors in dogs can be perceived as desirable by some dog owners, and very problematic by others. It’s all about knowing what to expect.
Herding dogs were selectively bred for carrying out specific tasks. Herding styles may vary based on what animals were herded, the environment, and the local needs of the country in which these dogs were bred.
While most herding dogs nowadays are mostly kept as companions, these dogs’ herding behaviors still persist and can turn problematic in certain cases.
Knowledge is power though, so if you are interested in opening your heart and home to a herding breed, it’s important that you learn as much as possible about what to expect.
The more you learn about how unique herding dogs are, and what they were bred to do, the better equipped you will be in catering to the needs of these dogs so to help them develop to their full potential!
What Dog Breeds Are Herding Dogs?
First, let’s get more acquainted with what dog breeds are categorized as herding dogs. The category of herding dogs in composed of breeds who were selectively bred to herd animals.
What exactly does it mean to herd? It means to control the movement of herd animals such as sheep, goats and cattle, who have an instinct to stick together for protection.
Herding dogs, on the other hand, have the instinct to gather, herd and protect herd animals. Put herd animals and herding dogs together and you have the perfect solution for producing milk, meat and clothing from such herd animals. Following are several of the most popular herding dog breeds.
- Australian Cattle Dog (Blue/Red Heeler)
- Australian Kelpie
- Australian Koolie
- Australian Shepherd
- Bearded Collie
- Belgian Malinois
- Belgian Tervuren
- Berger Picard
- Border Collie
- Cardigan and Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Finnish Lapphund
- German Shepherd
- Old English Sheepdog
- Pyrenean Sheepdog
- Shetland Sheepdog
101 Brief Guide to Herding
In order to fully understand herding behaviors in dogs, we need to take a step back into history.
In ancient times, in order to enjoy a meal, a dog’s ancient ancestors followed what’s known as the “predatory sequence.”
The predatory sequence encompasses a series of chained behaviors that take place in a sequence when hunting.
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It generally includes the following behaviors: searching, eyeing, stalking, chasing, pouncing, catching, grab-biting, kill-biting, dissecting and consuming.
Interestingly, through human-controlled selective breeding, certain traits of the predatory sequence have been amplified or reduced.
For example, the searching component of the predatory sequence has been amplified in scent hounds, such as bloodhounds and beagles, for the purpose of tracking animals.
In racing dogs, such as greyhounds and lurchers, the chasing trait was boosted.
The grab-bite and kill-bite trait was emphasized in many of the smaller terriers who were selectively bred to kill rodents.
These dogs are referred to as “finishers,” considering that they were selectively bred to finish the whole sequence.
In herding breeds, the eyeing, stalking and chasing behavior are traits that were amplified; however the kill-biting, dissecting and consuming was reduced considerably due to the costly drawbacks associated with losing livestock from dogs who should be meant to guide sheep and maintain the shepherd’s assets safe from harm.
So we can safely say that in herding dog breeds, the predatory sequence has been truncated or cut short.
Not all herding breeds herd equally, though. There are variations based on several factors—location, the animals herded, and the local needs.
A dog’s versatility therefore came in handy, giving life to a variety of different herding styles.
A Guide to Herding Styles
As mentioned, not all herding dog breeds herd equally. Sure, they all shared the trait of controlling the speed and direction of the flock and maneuvering them around, but different herding styles were needed based on individual factors, such as the type of animal herded, the type of environment and local needs.
Headers, such as the British border collies, were selectively bred to control herding animals from the sides and the front.
They use their distinctive “stare,” also known as “giving eye,” along with their crouching for the purpose of exerting “pressure” on the sheep and get them to move in desired directions.
Savvy herding dogs are aware of the sheep’s space bubble and their “balance point,” which is the distance they must be at to get them to move in the desired direction and pace without triggering their instinct to flee.
On top of guiding sheep in desired directions, headers also acted as “gatherers,” in which case they would gather any isolated sheep so they could be reintegrated back into the herd, successfully reuniting them.
Due to the fact that sheep have delicate skin, nipping at them is deeply frowned upon.
Headers were often used in Britain. British sheep traditionally lived outdoors in vast enclosed pastures and had few predators. Shepherds were often guiding them through the use of body gestures, whistles and verbal cues.
As the name implies, heelers worked at the back of herd, pushing the herd forward. Australian cattle dogs and corgis are dog breeds used as heelers.
Their job was moving herds of cattle from one location to another, independently without much assistance from the rancher.
Heelers worked mostly with cattle and therefore their tougher skin allowed some nipping without serious consequences. Some heelers would therefore use their nips and snaps directed towards the cattle’s heels to move the herd forward.
Important for these breeds was to be short enough so to avoid being potentially kicked by the cattle. Many heelers are employed in Australia.
Drovers were dogs who moved livestock over long distances. These tasks required certain characteristics such as being large, tireless, independent, and determined enough to move cattle to move in the right direction.
As heelers, nipping stubborn livestock was common. Droving breeds include the Rottweiler, Bouvier of Flanders, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, and the Old English Sheepdog.
Tending, also referred to as boundary work, is a herding method which involved keeping herd animals in a specific area. These dogs were basically carrying out the role of “live fences.”
Dog breeds involved in tending include the Berger Picard, German Shepherds, Bouviers, Briards and Beauceron.
Tending was often used in France, where sheep often grazed in open pastures bordering land planted with crops.
Sheep were kept in these open areas during the day, and were returned to a stable or enclosed pasture in the evening. There were more predators in France, so it was important to use dogs equipped with strong protective instincts.
Behavior Traits of Herding Dogs
Whatever herding style was employed, herding dogs retain strong instincts that make them particularly adept to controlling the movements of animals. Not all herding dogs will show all the distinctive behavior traits mentioned here, but following are several behavior traits of herding dogs.
Working Dogs at Heart
Herding dogs were selectively bred to work on farms and are still known today for their hard work and stamina.
Herders are resilient dogs purposely built for managing rough terrains, controlling stubborn herds of livestock for countless hours each day. Being on their feet all day and rapidly responding to circumstances that required their immediate attention took lots of energy!
Indeed, it can be said that herders are always ready for action and are reluctant to rest as long as there is something to do. These dogs do not want to miss out on anything. Unlike us humans, working is their passion, not their misery!
While this predisposition can be great for folks who own a farm or lead an active lifestyle with the opportunity to engage their dogs in a variety of activities, it can quickly turn into a nightmare for folks who lead a quiet life indoors.
However, these dogs also need to learn when to stop. Sure, it’s good that they get to engage in many activities and learn new tricks, but equally important is teaching them when to stop and learn how to chill.
Provide breaks in activities and the opportunity to get away from it all. You may need to literally praise them for relaxing, but using a calm tone or they’ll jump back into action.
Sensitive to Changes
Herding animals all day isn’t easy—it requires a specific type of personality. Some claim that herding dogs need a so-called “Type A” personality in order to excel.
Herding dogs are responsible for many things: they need to keep count of the herd, maintain order and ensure the safety of the flock at all times. These dogs are bred for paying attention to every tiny detail.
On top of watching livestock, they also had to watch for the most subtle nuances of voice, tone and bodily gestures of the herdsmen.
Herders may therefore need to respond to situations in lightning-fast ways, as in the case of a border collie who may need to make quick decisions and abruptly shift his herding style in moving the sheep.
The ideal herding dog is therefore expected to pay meticulous attention to their environments and their associated familiar patterns. They’ll actively spring into action if something appears amiss.
Once again, these dogs need your patient guidance and redirection to more appropriate responses, such as looking at you rather than barking, or attention heeling rather than lunging at cars.
Such hypersensitivity to infractions against a rule is valuable in a herding dog helping a shepherd move a flock to a nearby pasture. But in a canine companion, it can be maddening.
— Kim Brophy, “Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior”
Control Freak Personalities
The Type A personality description of these dogs refers to their need to take control. No worries; it’s not the type of control you are thinking about, such as “dominant dogs” trying to become alphas, as the outdated alpha dog myth has been debunked.
We are talking here about these dogs’ predisposition to wanting to bark, chase and possibly nip anything that moves so to control them in a certain direction or gather them in a group. This includes chasing cars, joggers, cats, dogs and children.
Children and dogs in particular may attract them when they start engaging in rowdy play. Herding dogs are notorious for assuming the “fun police” role, where they act as “moderators” just as they do with stubborn sheep. This is also one reason why herders like border collies may sometimes nip children.
With these dogs, it’s impossible to completely extinguish their desire to chase, but it is possible to be one step ahead of them, always ready to intervene and redirect them as needed.
Herding dogs aren’t born knowing the differences between cattle, children, and cars. They need to be taught to ignore their herding instincts and not try to control moving people or vehicles.”
— Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell, “Teach Your Herding Breed to Be a Great Companion Dog”
Prone to Frustration Barking
The desire to herd and control situations is so ingrained in these dogs that they can get very frustrated when they cannot “herd” and control movement as their instincts dictate.
As the frustration builds up like steam in a kettle, they become very prone to venting by barking. By the time they are feeling like this, they may no longer be able to attend to you.
Barking from frustration may also take place when their needs for exercise, training, play, socialization and mental stimulation are not met. These dogs live for working, and will rebel through barking (or by engaging in other destructive behaviors) when their needs are not met.
This is not their fault. Herders have been bred to be the workaholics of the dog world to perform well on farms with very demanding duties. We can’t blame them for struggling to adjust to our lives because of our lack of research and understanding of these dogs need.
Clingy Velcro Dogs
Herding dogs may also bark in protest when they are prevented from following their owners around. Yes, “Velcro dog” can be their second name, but so can “shadow.”
These Velcro dogs like to follow their owners around and are very attentive to the subtlest cues. You are about to get up from the chair? They’ll know the moment you place your hand on the armrest and will spring into action ready to follow you around.
This can get unnerving if you like to have privacy when you use the bathroom or take a shower. Closing the door may cause them to be upset because they failed to participate in a few minutes of your life.
As Velcro dogs, herding dogs will struggle being left alone for many hours a day. You’ll need to find a solution if you are away most of the day. This could mean dedicating time before and after work or hiring a dog walker or petsitter to swing by and cater to his needs.
Doggy day care can also be another solution, but in a workaholic dog, it can lead to perpetually aroused states that can create more problems.
Excessive Nipping Behaviors
Herding dogs can be a handful as puppies, nipping hands, ankle and legs with their needle sharp teeth. New puppy owners may feel overwhelmed at times by their high energy levels coupled with their “alligator mouths.”
If you own a German Shepherd here’s a guide on exercises to teach bite inhibition for German shepherd pups.
If you own an Australian Cattle dog, this is for you: how to curb nipping behaviors in heeler puppies.
Predisposed to Compulsive Behaviors
These dogs’ attention to detail coupled with their workaholic tendencies can sometimes turn into problematic compulsive behaviors.
Herders can become fixated at times by lights and shadows and they can also engage in tail chasing. Such behaviors can get out of hand and become compulsive.
Lack of exercise, mental stimulation and general lack of “work” can often be a predisposing factor that leads them to become neurotic and sometimes even aggressive.
Always Open to Adventures
If you lead an active lifestyle and you love to have a furry friend as a sidekick, a herding dog is for you. There is rarely an idle moment with these dogs. They’re always up to something and will be eager to follow you anywhere you go.
When living in Missouri, we were surrounded by many farms that raised cattle. Our neighbor had a large pasture and she owned a lovely blue heeler who would accompany her all the time on her golf cart.
This dog was literally her shadow and was eager to seize the day from dusk to dawn. I caught glimpses of her lying down as she milked the cows, herding the cows from a pasture to another and watching them carefully as they grazed. In the evening, she would eat and then fall asleep by a cracking fire.
Attentive to Their Surroundings
A herding dog’s attention to detail can be handy if we want them to alert us when something is amiss. This can make them good watchdogs, but they still need our guidance because they may take the role too seriously.
Let your herder know that you appreciate the alert, but his job stops there. One to three barks will do and you’ll take over from there. Let him know that you are in charge of who enters the home.
A herder’s attentiveness to their surroundings also expands to our own emotions and most subtle bodily cues. This means that even if we do not speak to them, they may figure things out on their own because they can sense so much.
You may find yourself in need to often talk to them, explaining to them what you expect from them and what is going to happen next. Again, these dogs are very in tune with routines and patterns,.
If you often use the same expressions and stay consistent, they may come to learn what to expect and behave accordingly.
“Mama is now going to take a shower, now you lie quietly here. Go to your mat! Here is your bully stick so that you can chill as I get this done.”
“It’s time to sleep now. Go to your crate! Good boy, here’s your cookie. I’ll shut off the light now and it’s night-night.”
Superb Intelligence and Eagerness to Learn
You may have noticed that some great dog trainers seem to often have a herding dog by their side. Why is that?
These dogs are always eager to learn tricks and the sky is the limit to teaching them new things. Their attentiveness to body cues makes them adept to learning to respond to the most subtle bodily cues, which allows clean fading of prompts.
They are very intelligent, but their intelligence can cause problems for novice dog owners. These dogs seem to be always a step ahead, trembling in anticipation, and if you aren’t quick enough to mark and reward, they’ll throw you a variety of behaviors in hopes of guessing what you’re looking for.
As seen, a herding dog is not for the faint of heart! These dogs are high-maintenance, but in exchange they have many appealing traits if you help them reach their full potential.
One main struggle is convincing these dogs that cars, cats and skateboards are not sheep. These dogs need serious guidance.
Keep their minds busy by giving them several tasks. You can train them to alert you when the cats are fighting or stealing food from over the counters. They take instructions very well, and are eager about your feedback.
Make it clear what’s OK and what is not, but be very, very consistent. Lack of guidance makes them feel very lost and anxious, and gives them the green light to make their own decisions, which are often not good.
When they make a mistake, there’s no need to be harsh—just let them know what we would like them to do instead and they’ll be eager to follow through next time as long as one remains consistent.
You can put their working instincts and attention to detail to work for you by teaching them to alert you when somebody is at the door or when they see the delivery guy leave a package. You can also train them to alert you when the coffee is ready or when a timer goes off.
Teach them brain games, how to solve elaborate food puzzles and go through all the tricks found in books. The sky is the limit with these guys!
The Importance of Researching Dog Breeds
Shelters are full of dogs, and to a great extent, this is due to poor, impulsive choices. Knowledge is power when it comes to picking the right dog for you.
If you are on the fence whether a herding breed is for you, or maybe you are thinking about another type of dog, you may find the book: Meet Your Dog, by Kim Brophy very helpful.
I recommend this book to anybody conducting research on different dog breeds and for getting some in-depth info on what to expect. It can ultimately help save lives and the heartbreaking decisions of surrendering dogs due to impulsive choices and poor matches.
If you are sure a herding dog is for you, then you may love the book by Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell “Teach Your Herding Breed to Be a Great Companion Dog from Obsessive to Outstanding.” This book goes into all the nitty-gritty details on what to expect when living with a herding dog. There is so much to know about these dogs, and all 200 pages are filled will solid advice.
- Our Debt to the Dog: How the Domestic Dog Helped Shape Human Societies. (2013). (n.p.): Carolina Academic Press.
- Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell: “Teach Your Herding Breed to Be a Great Companion Dog.”
- Kim Brophy, “Meet Your Dog, The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior.”
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli