Herding breeds are known for their intelligence, agility, and strong work ethic. They were originally bred to control livestock, making them excellent working dogs.
As anyone who owns a dog that falls into this category knows, having these dogs as a family pet can come with unique challenges. But once you know how to work with them, working with a herding breed can be a really rewarding experience.
We’ve outlined some common “problems” in herding dogs and provide tips on how to address them.
Types of Herding Dogs
There are many different breeds of herding dog, but did you know what Herding dogs were all bred to do different things?
Having more specific knowledge about what job your dog was originally bred for can give you an edge when you’re trying to figure out how to train the dog and what their motivations are.
Gathering or Fetching Dogs (Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog): Gathering dogs meet the sheep at the front and stare them down or use their bodies to turn the sheep and bring them to the handler.
Driving Dogs (Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Shepherd, Corgi, Sheltie): Driving dogs get behind a flock of sheep and push them forward. These dogs are sometimes referred to as ‘heelers.’ Barking and nipping is integral to their work because they get up close and bark at livestock, occasionally biting ankles.
Tending Dogs (German Shepherd, Belgian Malinois, Belgian Tervuren): Tending dogs act as a living fence to keep large flocks of sheep together while grazing. Tending dogs move the flocks, but typically at a slower pace than driving and fetching dogs.
Common Behavior Problems In Herding Breeds
Every dog is different, so not every herding breed dog will demonstrate the same behaviors! But here are some of the most commonly reported “problem” behaviors within herding breed dogs:
Controlling the interactions of other people (or dogs or other animals)
Attention seeking: barking, whining, pawing at you, squeaking toys loudly when you’re on a phone call, etc.
Chasing animals, people, or cars
Freezing and staring at people, animals, objects
Fixation: The need to constantly be vigilant, alert and fixating on things in the environment
Nipping: For instance, trying to corral people (like children!) by nipping at heels or pant legs
Neophobia: Fear of new things and experiences
What Causes Problem Behaviors?
Unmet needs: Generally speaking this will be exercise, enrichment, and communication (between you and your dog)
An incompatible environment: Maybe you live in a busy apartment building or neighborhood with a lot going on
Lack of adequate socialization
Lack of broad behavioral repertoire (eg lack of skills, cues, or helpful behaviors)
Being able to identify behaviors as specific to the breed can help immensely, as well as familiarizing yourself with behavioral triggers like movement.
You can also identify allowable behaviors (like chasing the vacuum or squirrels if it doesn't bother you and it’s safe), and inappropriate behaviors (anything likely to cause harm like chasing cars).
Practices that go a long way in preventing herding behaviors include:
Exercise: Find a happy medium, your dog doesn’t need to be an athlete. You can also use long lines, and safe opportunities to be off-leash.
Enrichment: Your dog will likely need more than the average dog, and more outlets to practice breed typical behaviors.
Nutrition: Rule out eye issues, allergies, or anything that might be causing a physical ailment. You should also provide a diet that nourishes your dog
Communication: Take steps to improve your communication and connection with your dog. Make sure they have a healthy environment that they feel safe and comfortable in.
Mindful socialization: Know what behaviors are typical for them and when they’re practiced. When puppies are really mouthy or barking a good rule of thumb is they typically need a nap.
Age/skill appropriate activities: If you have a puppy you dont want to do anything that is going to push their body or mental capacity at the age they’re at.
Life skills before flashy skills: Before they earn tricks they should know how to access reinforcement, how to be comfortable with things in their environment, anything they encounter on a daily basis
First you should consider:
What’s the function of the problem behavior? For instance, many herding breeds will nip at heels to control movement.
What are the consequences of the behavior? Is it reinforced? For instance, the more and more a behavior is repeated the more it is satisfying to the dog.
Is the behavior harmful? Is it harmful to your dog, to people or other animals, or society? We don’t want to constantly be in a dialogue with your dog where you’re trying to extinguish herding behaviors. It can be productive to think about whether a behavior is causing harm and if it’s just annoying maybe you can live with it.
Can the function of this behavior be met elsewhere? Maybe you can buy a herding ball if your dog is herding children, for example. Maybe there is a way to meet this need somewhere else in the dog’s life.
Can we provide alternative forms of reinforcement? Herding breed behaviors can be very reinforcing to perform. Maybe there are different activities you can provide for your dog that are reinforcing like an agility class.
What is the least intrusive way to create behavior change? We can’t expect to extinguish these behaviors entirely, so it’s important to think about appropriate outlets.
From there, you’ll want to focus on desensitization and differential reinforcement. For instance, for many herding breeds you’ll want to desensitize to motion (bikers, kids running in the yard, cars, etc.). This is more than we can cover in one blog but you’ll want to begin desensitization from a distance and move progressively closer.
Differential reinforcement involves focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want. When you try to stop a certain behavior, it usually doesn’t work and it reinforces the “bad” behavior. Differential reinforcement shows the dog what’s right rather than focuses on what’s wrong.
For more help with training, get in touch!