For an active family in search of a loyal companion, a herding breed might be the perfect match. Smart, energetic, loyal, and loving, herding dogs — from collies and cattle dogs to sheepdogs and shepherds — all possess an innate drive to gather and protect other animals, thanks to centuries of selective breeding. Yet sometimes those “other animals” include you. Even if your dog spends its life as a household pet, far from farms and pastures, that instinct to herd is hardwired and may present itself in the home, yard, and on walks. Have you ever noticed your pooch corralling your kids in the yard? Or relentlessly circling stragglers during a family walk? You may have a herder on your hands.
In general, the urge to herd is a benign trait that may never present a problem. However, as is often the case with canines, insufficient training or behavioral issues can create challenges. Learn how to identify herding breeds, herding behaviors, and how to manage the herding drive.
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The American Kennel Club lists 32 recognized herding breeds. These smart, industrious dogs share an innate ability to control the movement of other animals. However, since they were each bred over the course of hundreds of years to herd particular animals in particular environments, these tendencies can vary. If you have a mixed-breed or adopted dog that is extremely athletic, hard-working, focused, fast-learning, and loyal, the chances are it has some herder in its bloodline.
The herding ability taps into the instinctual prey drive that domestic dogs share with their wolf-like ancestors. According to the American Kennel Club, the predatory sequence follows a distinct pattern: Search, Stalk, Chase, Grab/Bite, Kill/Bite, Dissect, and Consume.
In herding breeds, the “Search,” “Stalk,” and “Chase” instincts are highly honed. Although individuals may vary, in general, the latter half of the predatory sequence is very subdued and the drive tends to stop at the “Chase” stage. In some herding breeds, the “Grab/Bite” function presents in the form of small nips given to motivate the movement of prey, as is the case with Australian Cattle Dogs, also known as Blue or Red Heelers for their trait of nipping the heels of cattle during corralling and cattle drives.
Your dog’s herding instinct and behavior is instinctually provoked by movement, not an attempt to demand attention or misbehave. The following traits are typical of herding breeds and are hardwired into your dog’s nature:
- Herding/Corralling — Your dog’s primary instinct to gather, move, and protect has been cultivated through thousands of years of breeding. Unless it is given a specific job, your dog may attempt to round up and move other animals, such as flocks of chickens or geese, other dogs at the dog park, and even family members
- Sighting — An expression of herding, you may notice your dog stalking and scoping out unsuspecting individuals
- Barking — Herding breeds can be very vocal, as barking is a tool for moving animals
- Nipping — Certain herding breeds use small nips to motivate movement in other animals. These small bites are not intended to injure — but can be unwelcome and distressing to strangers and small children
- Chase/Fetch — Since the majority of herding breeds are blessed with incredible focus and energy, they can become fixated on a game or task, such as fetch. Without a defined working role, these dogs need regular exercise and stimulation
Managing herding habits
All your herder’s good qualities — their focus, energy, loyalty, and work ethic — are traits that can cause behavioral challenges if not given an outlet. For this reason, herding dogs are best suited to active households with an established exercise routine. Since they are designed to work all day long, a sedentary lifestyle and lack of stimulation can lead to problematic behaviors.
Any successful and effective dog household begins with training. As a born worker, you’ll find your herder willing to engage. Basic obedience and effective voice commands will help to redirect your dog’s attention when a herding drive kicks in, which can be especially important in situations that involve young children. Establish a regular and consistent training practice as soon as possible to teach your dog self-control in the face of herding stimuli.
If the task of training your high-energy dog feels daunting, try signing up for in-person classes with a professional trainer. You may want to research group classes or individual sessions that cater specifically to active dog breeds.
There are no cheat days with herding dogs — daily exercise, and plenty of it, is essential for your pet’s happiness and health. If your dog is not given an outlet, they will find their own stimulation. You can try challenging your dog with games and dog puzzles that will occupy their focus during times of confinement.
Your herding dog was designed to work all day, and the end result is a fierce intelligence and work ethic. Why not channel these qualities into a rewarding purpose? Games and sports like flyball, treibball, and dog agility competitions are full of herding breeds, whose brains and speed make them excellent at fast-paced competitive sports. Research community classes in your area for more information. If your dog is obsessed with fetch, flyball will provide intense positive feedback for their natural instincts. For highly intelligent dogs, agility will keep them engaged and even bolster your bond as you learn to work as a team. And, of course, the natural choice is the sport of herding. The American Kennel Club offers 22,000 AKC herding events across the country, with local resources and groups widely available. Unless you’re in a big city, you can search for local herding classes and trials to get started and test your dog’s skills!
The bottom line
Herding breeds make some of the most loyal, attentive, and intelligent companions imaginable. If you’re prepared to manage their energy levels, you’ll have a rewarding partnership for life. Keep your dog happy and healthy with regular exercise, good nutrition, and even pet health supplements to support physical and cognitive health.