Herding dogs are known for their keen intellect, quick footwork, and yes, occasionally an eager bark. Whether you sought out a purebred herding breed, or have a shelter mutt you suspect may be part shepherd or collie, one thing’s for sure: herding dogs keep you on your toes. They’re also a joy to watch in action—just check out this young sheepdog in his natural habitat!
These training tips that will help make your life together more pleasant. Read on to learn all about herding dogs and how to train them.
What are the herding breeds?
Before we get to the specific skills of herding dogs, let’s talk about their traits as a group. These are the most common herding breeds in America:
- Australian shepherd, cattle dog, and heeler,
- Border collie
- Shetland sheep dog (or sheltie)
These breed have varying appearances and personalities, but they also have a lot in common. Physically, herding breeds tend to have athletic builds and hardy coats for working outdoors in all sorts of weather. Personality-wise, every dog is unique, but herding breeds tend to be super-smart and devoted to their people.
So you think you have a herding dog…
Do you have a rescue mutt you suspect may be part herding dog? Look for these additional common traits of herding breeds:
- Active and alert (at times even anxious)
- Athletic and hardy
- High energy
- Loyal and work well with humans (the term “velcro dogs” was invented for herding breeds!)
Of course, the biggest indication of herding breed heritage is an inclination to herd! If your pup is intelligent, active, and prone to rounding up other creatures (including the cat and/or kids), you just might have a herding dog.
Start with the basics
All dogs benefit from training, and herding breeds are no different. Basic obedience training gives dogs a mental workout, and builds a foundation to which you can add more complex stuff later. And believe me, with a herding breed, you’re gonna want to add more complex stuff!
Taking a basic obedience class with your dog is a great way to master the basics and work on socialization at the same time. Whether you take a class or train at home, these are the most important basic skills to train:
- Leave it
For more on the most important dog obedience skills, click here. And remember the basics of basic training: be patient, be positive, mind your body language, work in bursts (10-15 minute training sessions at a time), and add variety to help your dog respond reliably in any situation.
Exercise is key (physical and mental)
Herding breeds are great fun, but wow, are they busy. Their brains and athleticism mean they need a mix of mental and physical exercise to keep them happy. Otherwise, herding dogs can get bored, and boredom may lead to bad habits like digging, barking, and chewing.
Mental stimulation especially important for these smarties. For a brain workout beyond basic training, move on to advanced obedience classes or scent training. Long, exploratory walks offer mental exercise when the weather’s nice. On rainy days, try puzzle toys or a round of hide-and-seek.
When it comes to physical activity, even if your dog never sees a real-live sheep or cow, they can exercise their herding instincts with hikes, runs, and rousing games of fetch. A good work-out will leave your herding dog calm and quiet at the end of the day.
Herding dogs’ brains and athleticism mean they need a mix of mental and physical exercise to keep them happy.
Check out dog sports
Some herding dogs are content with long walks, jaunts in the yard, and training sessions, but others need even more activity. Thankfully, these athletic dogs excel in sports! Here are some dogs sports to try with your herding breed:
- Dock-diving: Dogs leap from a dock into a regulation pool to see how high or far they can go. If your herding dog likes water, start with this Ultimate Air Dogs guide to gradually teach your dog to swim and retrieve toys in the water. From there, we recommend a class or professional training session to teach you and your dog the rules of the sport.
- Agility: Dogs run obstacle courses made up of jumps, tunnels, weave poles, and more. Herding breeds are the stars of the agility world, with border collies, Shetland sheep dogs, and Australian shepherds topping the best-of list.
- Herding: Yup, you can train your herding breed to do her ancestral job. Herding training teaches a dog to use its instincts to control livestock. Check out this guide to training your dog to herd backyard chickens, or visit a facility like Ewe-topia for professional training.
Whatever sport you try, we recommend working with a professional trainer or group class. You’ll see better results, and your dog will get plenty of stimulation and socialization.
Socialize, socialize, socialize
Herding dogs have a ton of energy, but sometimes they get a little too excited. They’re also very sensitive to sound and movement, and can be reactive without proper training. Socialization training is key to helping your herding dog use her powers for good.
Socialization isn’t only about getting along with other dogs. With time and training, your herding dog should be able to:
- Walk calmly on leash
- Be comfortable in a variety of environments
- Greet humans politely
Basic obedience classes are a great way to start socialization because they involve other dogs, humans, and concentration in an unusual environment. For more tips on how to socialize your dog, click here.
Like all dogs, herding breeds benefit from patience, training, and lots of love. They’ll repay you with a lifetime of fun and affection. One thing is for certain: life with a herding dog is never boring!