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Border collie watching sheep in a field

The essentials

  • There are dozens of herding dog breeds — Dogs that fit into the herding group range from the popular border collie to the majestic Old English sheepdog.
  • Herding behaviors aren’t signs of misbehavior — Nipping, circling, intense staring, and barking are ways herding dogs control livestock. But don’t mistake these as signs of bad behavior. They just mean your dog needs an outlet for their instincts.
  • Intelligence and eagerness to please are common traits — The traits that make herding breeds good on a ranch also help them excel at obedience training, learning agility, or working as service animals.

Ever feel like your dog is trying to herd your family like cattle? If you share your home with a border collie or Australian shepherd, that’s exactly what’s happening. They’re following their natural instincts.

These herding behaviors are great on a farm or ranch. But they can be problematic in a household. By understanding your dog’s natural tendencies and providing positive outlets for their behaviors, you’ll help them become well-adjusted, happy members of your family.

What are herding dogs?

For centuries, herding dogs have been more than just pets. They’ve been invaluable partners to ranchers and farmers worldwide. Herding dogs were purpose-bred to manage livestock by moving them safely from pasture to pasture in search of food. As farming and ranching techniques changed over time, unique breeds popped up to suit the needs of different regions and cultures.

Today, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes several dozen types of herding dogs. They include those in the list below. (For more details about a particular breed, check out betterpet’s online resources.)

Common herding dog behaviors

Herding dogs have a built-in drive to control movement, herd animals together, and keep them contained. The most common behaviors they use to manage sheep, goats, ducks, and cattle include:

  • Nipping or biting. Dogs will target the feet or ankles of other animals or people to nudge them in a specific direction.
  • Circling or gathering. Herding dogs circle people or animals, attempting to gather everyone into a group. In a home, they may even focus this behavior on toys.
  • Intense staring or fierce eye contact. This is a technique used to intimidate a herd into movement.
  • Barking, whining, or growling. Not all herding dogs vocalize while working, though some may use sound to keep their flock in line.

Most people don’t appreciate these behaviors, but it’s wrong to see them as evidence of a “bad dog.” They’re signs that your smart, active dog needs your help to find an appropriate outlet for their natural habits.

General training tips

Training your dog to express their deep instincts through other activities takes patience, persistence, and positive reinforcement.

  • Set boundaries. Use rewards to teach your dog how to interact with others. This includes no herding in certain areas and playtime limits.
  • Be aware and redirect. Watch your dog’s body language. Calmly redirect them with a toy or training session if they start herding.
  • Promote positive interactions. Encourage bonding with other pets through group activities like obedience classes or playdates (with supervision).

Activities for herding dogs

Herding dogs love having a job and a challenge. Use the following to positively direct their drive:

  • Interactive toys and puzzle games. Dogs love a mental challenge. Making dogs work for treats using food puzzles like this one keeps their minds sharp.
  • Agility courses and obedience classes. These are like doggy boot camps. They use the dogs’ energy and focus in a positive way while the dogs learn new tricks.
  • Fetch and other retrieving games. Fetch and frisbee are perfect for herding dogs. They get to chase and bring things back like they would with livestock.
  • Treibball. This fun sport lets them herd big exercise balls instead of animals. If you want to try it out with your pup, you can find the herding balls online.

Going beyond the backyard

For some dogs, herding trials and competitions are the ultimate outlet. They let the dogs work with animals safely and in a controlled setting. See if any herding breed clubs in your area offer chances for your dog to learn the ins and outs of being a professional herder.

Managing a herding breed’s impulses takes time, effort, patience, and consistency. If you become frustrated, consult an experienced positive reinforcement trainer for help. Sure, refocusing your dog’s herding habits on other tasks is a commitment; the reward is a well-adjusted pet who can add a new dimension of fun and companionship to your life.

Frequently asked questions

What motivates herding dogs?

Bred to herd livestock, their instincts motivate them to control movement in their environment. That extends to human family members, other pets, or even toys.

What’s the best way to keep a herding dog busy?

Provide activities that challenge their bodies and minds. These include walks, runs, hikes, obedience training, flyball, and agility courses.

Do dogs show affection by nipping?

No, not in adult dogs. It’s not necessarily a sign of aggression, either. Nipping in herding dogs is a way to control movement.

Why would a dog nip at someone?

Puppies might nip during play, but adults may nip out of fear, anxiety, or as a herding behavior.

What are common herding dog behaviors?

Nipping at heels, circling/gathering, staring, and barking to control movement are common behaviors in herding dogs.