Herding Dog Training: Unlocking Your Dog’s Potential
Herding dog training is exciting, not daunting. Let me tell you a story; recently I loaded 3 kids and 3 dogs into the family truck and headed 8 hours towards home. My youngest fur baby, a Dutch Shepherd, then 8 months old – still just a puppy – I watched her as she jumped from the back seat to the front seat, her eyes both wide-open and dilated. She began to intensely stare at the cars approaching and with passion, she turned around and ogled them as they disappeared in the distance.
I have been a professional dog trainer for almost 20 years, and I knew what was going on in her doggy brain. She was impulsively needing to herd them, and it was too much for her. Her herding instincts were becoming overstimulated by watching the cars pass. And for a great video series that shows you how to deal with impulsive behavior click here.
Living with a sheep herding dog can be a bit of a challenge. I first noticed the malfunctioning herding instinct on Thanksgiving Day as I watched the Eukanuba Dog Show on TV and she began to pace and do what looked like a rain dance in my living room.
At first, although admittedly I know better, I thought it was a bit funny. However, as time progressed, she grew more and more out of control, and humor dissipated as I envisioned the TV crashing down on her head as she leaped toward it.
That is why I like them; they are a challenge for my finely-honed doggy skills.
That said, I think one of the things that sets me apart as a trainer is that I understand the way they think and process information.
For my little girl, accurately named “Fury”, there she was in the privacy of her own home when it was invaded by other dogs.
Not only did they come into her home, but they consistently ignored her pleadings to play.
Playfulness then turned toward anger, a complete lack of understanding and total frustration.
It is not like I had never watched pet related television programs until Thanksgiving, but at 7 months my pup is starting toward more adult type behavior that will undoubtedly increase for several months until she is about a year and a half to two years old.
Understanding is the first matter of business. Why is she all of a sudden displaying naughty behavior?
-- The first reason, as we discussed previously, is her age. She is inching toward sexual maturity and with that comes behavior changes. Even dogs that are spayed and neutered still go through these changes, although often to a lesser degree.
-- Second, and possibly the most important factor, is that I was not meeting her exercise and mental needs. I had spent the day before Thanksgiving and that morning preparing the upcoming feast. If she had been tired or if her needs had been met, the odds of her noticing the television and caring about what was going on would have been significantly less!
-- Third, SHE IS A SHEEP HERDING DOG!! And as such, she has instincts that have been developed and bred to be enhanced for my pleasure over hundreds of years. As the owner of a herding dog I need to familiarize myself with the traits of the category of dog, and her breed individually.
Herding Dogs are known for their intensity and ability, if not NEED, to work all day
The herding behavior of many dog species is modified from the predatory instinct, to hunt and prey on other animals. Through selective breeding, man has been able to inhibit the dogs’ desire to kill while maintaining and controlling the ability to chase and herd.
Herding dogs are also known for their abilities to guard to keep their flocks safe; therefore, their vision and hearing is exemplary, and they are often very vocal.
Due to the beauty, intelligence, and size of herding dogs, they are often chosen for family pets.
However, they need to be active physically and challenged mentally in order to be successful pets.
Instincts don’t simply go away, and if their needs aren’t met, then they can show up in inappropriate places.
Herding dogs may often nip at their people’s (especially children) heels in an effort to “herd” them.
They may vocalize at any visual change in their environment (someone left the toilet seat up instead of its usual down position) or any sounds that they are unfamiliar with.
Sometimes this over stimulation of instinctual behaviors, if not dealt with, can get completely out of control and is increasingly difficult to deal with and repair.
Teaching Your Dog to Herd
One of the most common and most enjoyable modes of exercise for herding dogs is in their name – herding! By teaching them herding properly, they can learn when to nip and when not to nip, how to control their herding impulses, and get the necessary physical exercise that they need to be a healthy, happy dog.
Are you thinking of adding a new pup to your small hobby farm and want him to learn how to herd?
Or perhaps this is the first time that you have a large herd on your farm and you could use a little extra help?
No matter what the reason, teaching your dog to herd can be a great way to give yourself a little extra time, save you from running around the fields after a rogue critter, or to simply stay out of the rain while your dog brings in the herd.
Some of these are among many very good reasons to train your dog to herd.
Of course, those reasons aren’t the only valid ones.
For example, herding has become a national and international competitive sport. Not only that, but herding can be just as much fun for you as it is for your dog.
While some breeds - such as the Malinois or pretty much any dog with sheep in the name, to name a few - are more naturally inclined to herd, you can train most breeds to do so. It may take a little longer but is well worth the effort.
The act of herding is when a well-trained dog can be commanded by using either hand or whistle signals to move a herd or flock of animals from one place to another on your farm or in competition.
No matter whether it is a group of animals, or even people, your dog is quite capable of being trained to herd them around.
Bear in mind, that this is a difficult series of commands for your pup to master and that some dogs are better suited to this than others.
Your dog will need to have mastered basic commands before he is ready to move on to complex training such as this.
You should also be aware that there is a significant risk of injury in this activity. As a result, your dog needs to be a young adult.
In other words, puppies aren’t really suited to this activity. Also, be sure to have your vet give your pup a complete exam to make sure he is healthy enough for this activity.
Before training your dog to herd, it is essential that he or she must first readily respond to the most basic commands, including 'come', 'sit', 'stay', and 'lie down'.
You will also need to teach him the basic herding commands including 'come bye', which means turn the herd to the right and 'away', which means he should turn the herd to the left.
The other command he needs to learn is 'walk up' which indicates he should be behind the herd driving the herd towards you. You are also going to need access to a herd or flock you can practice with, plenty of time, and patience.
There are 3 main methods of teaching your dog to herd. They are training your dog in a smaller herd before working your way up, training your dog with a whistle, or training your dog with a long leash.
Method Number 1: Easing Your Dog into Herding
Here is a step-by-step guide to training your dog with small herds.
- The last thing you want is for your herding dog to be scared of your herd, so start out small. Consider using chickens and a small training pen.
- In a small training pen, place a few of your calmest chickens in the center and bring your pup in on a leash. Have him sit at one edge of the pen.
- Give your pup plenty of time to get used to the chickens and once he settles down, give him a treat.
- With him still on his leash, walk your dog towards the birds, giving him the 'walk-up' command and stop when you are two feet away. If he stops and doesn't fuss, give him a treat.
- Walk around the flock in circles using the commands 'away' and "'come bye' to get him used to associating them with directions going around the birds. Each time he gets it right, be sure to give him a treat.
- Once he is calm and behaves around the birds, you can take him off the leash. Continue using your commands to have your dog move the flock in the training pen. Keep repeating this training until your dog masters it.
- Now you can move the training outside to work with a bigger flock and bigger animals. Be patient and work with your pup. In time, he will become an excellent herding dog and keep your herds under control for you.
Method Number 2: Training with a Whistle
- Using a loud whistle, introduce your pup to the sound and treat him when he stops being startled by the sound. The traditional whistle commands are two short blasts for the 'away' command, one short-one long for 'come bye', and a short high/low pair of blasts for 'to me'.
- Now take these whistle commands and introduce them to your pup as part of several training sessions. Match the command to the whistle and work with your dog until he has mastered them.
- Start working with these commands with small flock or herd to help reduce any excessive distraction.
- Since you are essentially introducing a new type of behavior to your dog, you need to start this process with your dog back on his leash to protect the flock or herd. Once he has shown you that he can follow commands on the leash, it's time to move on to the next level.
- Unhook your pup from the leash and keep him close for the first few trials. Have him work with a small flock or herd at first and work his way up to working your entire herd over time. Remember, this is going to take a little time, but be patient and your pup will master the skill.
Method Number 3: Training Your Dog with a Long Leash
Below, you’ll find a step-by-step guide in teaching your dog to herd using a long leash.
- Attach your dog to a long-leash (one that is 20 to 30 feet long) and walk him up towards a small herd of animals or flock of birds while giving him the 'walk-up' command.
- Give your pup plenty of time to get used to being around the herd and reward him with a treat when he calms down.
- Take him for a walk around the herd on a shorter leash. He should walk around them instinctively without trying to bother them. If he does, give him a treat.
- Continue using your 'away' and 'come bye' commands as you reverse directions while he is on the leash. Once he has mastered behaving like this on the leash, it's time to let him try his skills.
- Continue repeating the above until he has mastered the commands and then let the leash pay out as you back off 20 feet or so. Constantly practice the commands with him until you are fully satisfied that he can do as instructed. Continue working until you are all the way at the end of the leash. Once he can herd the animals on the leash, you can take him off the leash and keep practicing.
Training a young herding dog can be an exciting and nerve-racking experience.
It’s hard to believe that such a clumsy, comical little pup will ever become a useful partner in your livestock operation.
But when you see that young dog transform into an intense, quivering bundle of concentration as it turns on to stock for the first time, I guarantee your heart will leap.
There is absolutely nothing like the strength of a herding dog’s natural instinct to work.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking when your pup doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. If you don’t start its training right, that dog could become a liability.
Keeping a Watchful Eye
It is essential during training that you keep your puppy away from dangerous or counterproductive situations.
Avoid any contact between your young dog and livestock unless it’s under your supervision.
It’s fine to get a pup used to being around your animals while you’re doing chores, as long as you can keep it safe and out of trouble.
You don’t want to set your dog up for failure during training.
It’s too easy for the dog to escape and get at the stock if you’re not attentive, and the result could be a disaster. Either the dog will get hurt and become fearful, or it will think it’s OK to harass or injure your stock.
Dog Training Age
It is very important to the health of your pup that you only begin training only when it’s mature enough to withstand the physical and cognitive rigors of training—usually 10 to 12 months old, though it depends on the individual dog.
If you’re having problems early on, don’t get mad at the dog.
You may need to wait a few weeks until it’s more mature.
Signaling Your Dog
Have a solid recall on your dog. If you can’t call it off when it’s chasing your sheep through a fence toward the highway or hanging by its teeth from a calf’s ear, then you’re in trouble.
A young dog is so excited when it first starts working stock that it may not listen, but a stern command that it’s been well-trained to obey will eventually get through to its crazed brain.
Some people also train their dog to lie down on command (essential to stopping or calming the dog and livestock) before training begins, but asking it to lie down on the kitchen floor versus out in the pen with sheep racing by yields wildly different results.
When Training Begins…
When you are introducing your young dog to the farm, use calm livestock that are used to being worked by dogs. Four to 10 yearlings that are already “dog broke” are a good choice, because an older ewe or cow might challenge a young dog and make it fearful.
Remember not to expect much from your dog in the beginning. Don’t say anything; don’t correct it. Use a calm, encouraging voice.
Make it fun!
You want to keep those early lessons stress-free and reinforce the pup’s desire to work.
Every dog matures and handles pressure at a different rate, so wait a few weeks to resume lessons if it shows fear or a lack of interest, is easily distracted, or chases the stock indiscriminately. (Note: If the young dog is eating sheep poop or taking a bathroom break, it probably means it’s nervous.)
A dog that is ready for training should have enough instinct to circle the stock and respond to your body language.
If you step in front of the dog as it circles clockwise, it should change direction and circle in the opposite direction.
Using the dog’s natural instinct to circle and react to the movement of both you and the stock is what all the early lessons are based on.
It should be fun but productive.
Dogs have a great way of signaling whether they’re serious or not—if their tails are up, they’re playing. If their tails are down, they’re thinking. Once you see that tail go down, you’ll know the pup recognizes that it has a purpose for interacting with your livestock.
The pressures of training quickly exhaust a young dog. End your session if the dog shows signs of stress, fatigue or inattention. That’s when it misbehaves and learns bad habits. Short, sweet lessons are the best for the dog’s early training. Above all, be patient. Work on a single skill at a time, and have it solid before progressing to the next. If the dog isn’t progressing the way you’d like, it’s usually the fault of the trainer—not the dog!
Advanced Dog Training
It takes time and commitment to train a good stock dog. If you plan to train the dog yourself, be aware that it’s easy to make major mistakes with a young dog. It could turn the dog off of herding forever. Do your research and educate yourself. If you are new to working with young dogs, get help from a respected trainer. You want to do the best for your dog. The joy of working in partnership with a good working dogs and the invaluable assistance they will give you in managing livestock is well worth it.
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 breeds 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.
Do you have a rescue mutt you suspect may be part herding dog? Look for these additional common traits of herding breeds:
Herding dogs are known for being active and alert (at times even anxious), agile, athletic and hardy, high energy, intelligent, protective, and they are loyal and work well with humans.
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.
Herding dogs’ brains and athleticism mean they need a mix of mental and physical exercise to keep them happy. One word of advice for caring for your herding dogs it to check out some types of 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: As previously stated in this article, you can train your herding breed to do her ancestral job. Herding training teaches a dog to use its instincts to control livestock.
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!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.