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If you’re searching for an intelligent, energetic, and hard-working dog, look no further than a herding breed. But don’t be surprised if some other characteristics are part of the package, too. As the name suggests, herding breeds were developed to gather, herd, and protect livestock such as sheep or cattle.
That shared heritage means they all have the instinctive skill and drive to control the movement of other animals. To a herding dog, however, “other animals” means the humans in the house, too.
Tapping Into the Predatory Sequence
For thousands of years, people around the world have relied on dogs to move other animals from pasture to pasture or back to the barn. If you’ve ever seen dogs herding sheep or cattle, you know how impressive their abilities can be. Those abilities are not trained in the dog, but rather come instinctually.
A dog’s wolf ancestors were predators, and as such, they were hardwired with a set of behaviors essential to catching and killing prey. The full sequence of actions includes:
- Search (Eye, Orient)
Depending on a breed’s original purpose, some of that instinctive predatory sequence may remain. For example, terriers were developed to pursue animals like foxes and badgers that threatened livestock. These dogs can have quite strong predatory instincts all the way through the sequence.
On the other hand, toy dogs like the Japanese Chin were developed as human companions, so you can expect most to have weaker predatory instincts. But, as the dog toy industry has proven, almost every dog has some predator left inside, even if it only comes out when you throw a squeaky toy across the living room.
When it comes to herding breeds, dogs exhibit the early parts of the predatory sequence more strongly than the others — specifically, the search, stalk, and chase. Through years of breeding, the later parts of the sequence have been significantly subdued. However, even that varies within the herding group.
For example, the Border Collie is renowned for the ability to “give eye” or stare down sheep to control their movement. They might occasionally nip a stubborn sheep, but that’s not usually part of their repertoire. Their predatory sequence tends to stop at chase. On the other hand, the Australian Cattle Dog is also known as the Blue Heeler because these dogs nip the heels of cattle as part of their herding strategy. For Heelers, the predatory sequence stops at grab/bite.
Preventing Herding Behaviors From Becoming a Problem
Although herding has a very practical purpose for working dogs needing to move livestock, that same instinct can kick in inside the home. Dogs will express their herding drive with whatever is available, including other pets, kids, and even you. Since these hardwired instincts are triggered by movement, herding is usually not something your dog is doing just to get attention or to deliberately misbehave.
Dogs aren’t confused about whether or not kids are sheep. And it’s doubtful your pant legs look like cow hooves. Dogs are simply doing what comes naturally to them when movement catches their eye. Of course, you can’t solve the problem by never moving around your dog. But, stay aware of reactions to the problem. For example, if your kids run away from the dog when the dog nips their feet, that will only trigger the behavior to continue.
Prevent your dog from practicing unacceptable herding as much as possible while you teach basic obedience. Teaching training behaviors like “Watch Me” and “Leave It” will help you redirect your dog’s attention when moving objects are nearby.
It’s also helpful to teach your dog self-control. For example, fetch and tug-of-war are great games to play with your dog. But before you throw the ball or offer the tug toy, ask your dog to do a calm behavior like lying down or sitting. This not only reinforces good manners. It also teaches your dog to remain calm in the face of things that trigger that predatory instinct.
Giving your dog’s mind and body a proper workout is another essential. Herding breeds were developed to work hard all day long. They are incredibly smart and will find their own fun if you don’t give them something to do. Make sure you are providing enough physical exercise for your dog. Lastly, consider games that challenge your dog’s brain, like hide-and-seek or other puzzle-solving activities.
Redirecting Your Dogs’ Herding Instincts
It’s unrealistic to expect your dog to never express any herding instincts. Instead, consider finding an acceptable outlet for channeling those drives. The obvious outlet is the sport of Herding. If having your dog herd actual animals isn’t an option, you might want to consider Treibball (pronounced Tribe Ball). Treibball involves “herding” large fitness balls around a playing field or indoor arena. This may be an especially intriguing option for city dogs.
Other dog sports can also help meet your dog’s instinctive needs. Flyball is fantastic for dogs obsessed with chasing tennis balls. This relay race-style sport allows dogs to tap into their drives as they run over hurdles, use their paws to push on a spring-loaded pad to release a tennis ball, and catch that ball before running back to their handler. Disc dog is another great option for fetch-loving dogs that uses a flying disc for its games. Finally, AKC Agility is a wonderful way to engage your dog’s brain, provide physical exercise, and build teamwork as you direct your dog over an obstacle course of tunnels, jumps, and weave poles.