Herding Concepts

There are Many Different Breeds Which Herd




Many Breeds Herd

Each developed for a special purpose

Like recipes for soup there are as many as there are chefs who created them and the ingredients dependent upon local options, climate, availability and demand.

Just as there are many different herding breeds who were developed and utilized in various parts around the world as livestock guardian dogs, boundary style dogs, ranch and cattle hands, far casting hill dogs, yard dogs used for close work and handling, and mountain breeds who were tough, gritty and hardy, all of them, developed for a range of uses.

Today most people’s perceptions of herding dogs are based on what they see on television or at fairs and demonstrations limited to the stunning outruns and great distances of the Border Collie field trials.  It is hard to find a general member of the public who hasn’t seen this display on television or up close, the grace and elegance of the working field trial border collie.

Few people on the other hand have had the privilege of witnessing the usefulness of the ranch dogs on a working operation to serve many different purposes.  It isn’t uncommon to find working ranches in North America, Australia and some in New Zealand which use a far and wide casting breed to bring in hundreds, maybe thousands of sheep or cattle, from a vast territory.  Yet another dog to take over the pen work and sorting at the yard or ranch facility itself.  Others whose job is to manage only the lead animal in a flock of a thousand or more while others keep the push at the rear of the herd.  And perhaps even another type or breed, or even mixed breed of dog to assist in the seasonal transhumance, driving cattle or sheep into the mountains for summer grazing and back down in the Fall.

 A Little History

In the early history in the UK as in most other parts of the world, individual smaller farmers and a few sheep of their own and would frequently yard up in community pastures or hilltops. They would be individual smaller flocks whose owners pastured them in the care of a shepherd whose job it was to watch over them, keep them healthy and well and make sure they stayed where they were supposed to.  

Over time larger and larger flocks owned and managed by individual families and or corporate sheep farm management began to rise in numbers while smaller flocks owned by local farmers declined. The hills provided the need for dogs whose abilities to cast far and wide were desired, and the handling of sheep for close work and or distance work was often shared among dogs with slightly different traits.  

In the vast expanse of the Americas and in Australia in particular, as well as parts of New Zealand, huge flocks of sheep were the norm. Often thousands of head over thousands of acres/hectares of land.  In the mountains of the western regions of the United states for example, sheep numbers were at their peak during the World wars utilizing the valuable wool for producing army uniforms.  “In 1942, 56 million sheep grazed the open ranges of the great American West…” ( The Total Australian Shepherd by Carol Ann Hartnagle and Ernest Hartnagle.)  The abundance of sheep in Australia led to their export to the America’s and with them, their shepherds and often the dogs the shepherds used to manage the livestock. Or so the story goes.

What was vastly different however was the larger flocks and increasing size of cattle ranches so many of the imported breeds such as Border Collies and English Shepherds etc…from the UK were useful in some aspects of livestock management. But selection and cross breeding which was inevitable for those needing tougher closer working dogs with grit and power, presence in the handling pens and chutes come vaccination, worming and branding time.  

 Furthermore, what was also different was predators in the Americas such as wolves and coyotes and in Australia there were Dingo.  Range sheep were a different kind of animal which survived by having strong defenses against predators and didn’t always flee, but rather fought with anything resembling a canine.  Therefore, there was value in a dog whose grit and power could withstand the challenge working aggressive sheep and or cattle and hogs. It was about then the Australian Shepherd became a popular choice among American ranchers. 

See Jeanne Joy Hartnagle Taylor’s Blog for links to a wide variety of article and documentation of other herding breeds and uses around the world.Open Range Sheep Ranching

In Australia it was common practice to cross breed dogs such as Border Collies to pit bulls and   to heeling breeds to keep the push required to move difficult stock through pens and handling chutes. (see Training and Working Dogs  by Scott Lithgow).  The evolution of the Australian Kelpie and The Australian Cattle dog were not accidental.  They required heading dogs with strong eye that maintained their amazing control of speed and directions at the lead of a flocks of hundreds of sheep or more, but once again pushier dogs in the rear keeping the herd moving and all dogs with a strong flock sense to keep the stock together as a group. 

Back to today.  Most people’s perceptions of herding dogs always leads us to the graceful and premiere sheep dog the Border Collie and most however see only the trialing version who works wider than necessary and often – buy their own admission, many trialers will tell you, are not useful farm dogs abut dogs bred and selected for their immense finesse in working three sheep in a trial.  Many of these dogs have been selected for such a flight zone sensitivity their usefulness for close work has diminished.  Thus, has been born almost two breeds, the field trial version and the useful farm version.  Likely a show dog version as well since most breeds experience this divide once the purpose of the dog is lost or neglected when consideration for breeding arises.

Working Herding dogs have dwindled some and been replaced by quad-runners and three wheelers, much like horses have been replaced.  However, there are still many working ranches still use both or at least have realized how useful just one dog can be in covering a large acreage without having to even saddle the horse. 

On Working and Training with Eye Dogs VS Loose Eyed dogs……

A great work ethic and a desire to please combined with natural ability and good flock sense (keeping stock grouped) are critical whatever the breed.  Yet over the centuries, the purpose for each breed was defined by where they were developed (terrain and landscape, type of livestock they were working), and the tasks that were expected of them.

As mentioned, a lot of what we call “Loose Eyed” “upright” or Close Working” breeds were developed for a special purpose.  It leads many to think they don’t feel the “Flight Zone”; the invisible bubble around the livestock.  The fact is that many of these breeds were selected for their ability to work up close and in tight spaces.  They can appear to not “feel” the flight zone, when in fact they feel it just fine but were selected for their willingness to come “into it”.  Thus the term close working.

It’s not always breed specific but variations in working style within many breeds.  Typically “eye” dogs are Border Collies, Australian Kelpies and some Aussies.  Although “eye’ can appear in other breeds and in varying degrees.

Dogs with some “eye” can affect livestock from further away but also may be reluctant to get into tight spaces due to their sensitivity to this “flight Zone” and how sensitive they are to pressure.

“Eye” and sensitivity to pressure is something that can be selected for in breeding.  It is also something you can help develop via certain training methods.  Pressure and how to respond to pressure from you and from the livestock and from gates, pens, fences, is something you can also help develop away from stock.

 It is generally true that stronger eyed dogs are also less willing to move into tighter spaces like take pens and chutes.  While upright dogs often take less training to work in smaller spaces. They naturally release pressure from the stock while the strong “eye” can get dogs into trouble with less intimidated livestock such as Bulls or Beef cattle cows and calves, ornery Rams or other stock not accustomed to “eye”. 

 Although “eye can be helpful and appealing it must come with the power to “back it up”. In many cases where the Border Collie was selected for its ability to handle sheep, it was replaced or cross bred to produce dogs with more power, and occasionally less finesse.  But they got the job done. 

The trial arena has also dumbed down the skills of all breeds in an effort to provide a good performance while accommodating the public’s sensitivity to animal rights.  Being a sport that involves using one animal to move another using instinct can be a magical thing to watch.  On the other hand, it also can appear to some to be “un peaceful” let’s say.

But that’s trialing.  In the real ranching/farming world where people move livestock from farm to table and have the need to use great working dogs to do so, there is often a need for a grittier kind of sidekick and this was the case for the development of many of these other upright breeds. See All About Aussies Blog compiled by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle Taylor.Open Range Sheep Ranching

The visible difference can be obvious even to the beginner or novice when you watch the great distance that an “eye” breed such as a Border Collie, or a Kelpie or some Aussies which can demonstrate some eye. They come in close enough to the sheep where they can affect movement, then adjust their speed and approach to read and rate the stock accordingly.  

While observations of loose eyed or “upright” working breeds generally get much closer to the stock affecting movement. Where this difference becomes most obvious is between watching the 3 sheep Border Collie trials and the genuine real ranch work performed by dogs on several hundred or even thousands head of stock.  The other contrast can be seen in work conducted in a very wide open space vs work conducted in small pens, alley ways and chutes where close handling is required.

Moving stock from a great distance does require “eye” and a certain amount of presence. There is no breed like the Border Collie to demonstrate the grace and ease with which a talented dog can move sheep. There are also many individuals within other breeds which share this talent and with the right training approach are remarkable to watch.

 This eye stalk behaviour has been described in detail over the years and a certain amount of eye is desirable while too much eye can be a great distraction for a working dog and cause them to frequently shut down the movement of livestock and stop and down at inconvenient opportunities. 

Looser eyed dogs, or more upright dogs were selected for a different task.  They were excellent in pens and close working situations and developed fearless ability to get between the fence and the stock.

Working with Breed Specific Trainers

Jackie Goulder, a very successful Border Collie trainer and competitor who has represented the England team for the international sheepdog competitions wrote… “The management of sheep in Europe is totally different to that of the UK.” After watching other breeds work sheep she described as more “…humanized than ours”… In her book “There is another way…! Other breeds can herd”, she writes about the usefulness and purpose of some of these breeds.

She is, however, not typical of Border Collie trainers whose use for close working dogs is unappreciated. Many “eye” breed trainers do not understand the purpose or usefulness of using an upright breed. Although it is becoming more popular for people to seek the “professional” advice of these trainers, because many have excellent skills to pass along.  However, it has been challenging for many people to find trainers to work with loose eyed dog as they don’t often respond to the same kind of training as well as the Border Collie or the Kelpie and some stronger eyed aussies or mixes. 

The other more important issue is that working with some of the trainers which are not familiar with upright, loose eyed, or “close” working dogs, is that the unexperienced “trainer” will impose improper trainer methods on the dogs.  Forcing dogs to work at too far a distance off of stock, can lead to dogs feeling so “Off Contact” that they “quit” working or feel frustrated in losing their job.  Some of these “trainers” will assess the dog as no good or weak.  Worse yet, many techniques which don’t “release” pressure from the dog, in an effort to keep pressure off the stock, can lead a dog to become frustrated and bite more.  

Using harsh methods to force the dog OUT and AWAY from stock is popular particularly when animal rights for sheep are at a premium while canine rights are diminished.  Both livestock AND dogs should never be treated unfairly and particularly when dealing in the public eye, Trainers and their owners, should be aware that they must start these closer working dogs on appropriate stock and move forward from there.  With the correct approach you can get wonderful and similar results from your upright dog.

Keeping them on lines for extended periods of time, or using harsh methods to drive them wider, can appear kinder to sheep but leave a very nice talented close working dog feel punished or worse, lead to making them feel worthless and end up quitting the job entirely.

There is nothing sadder than watching a mechanical dog working stock but worse one who looks sad and overcontrolled and doesn’t get the opportunity to shine.  There are great trainers out there willing to help you.  Your job is also to understand your breed well.  If the name of the dog is “Blue Heeler” – you should understand it has been bred to nip or grip the sheep or cattle as part of its purpose (Heel= grip or bite the heel of livestock).  Not be shocked at the thought he might bite sheep!  

 Gripping, polling, or “heeling” stock is not only useful but important for a dog to be able to preserve his well-being, protect himself from challenging stock, and to protect his handler/shepherd from harm in certain situations.    Not all training of stock dogs should focus solely on trialing.  Real working dogs love their work. 

Seek positive trainers which have experience with upright dogs and who understand the purpose for their development in real life.  Not simply for trialing purposes.  Never underestimate the importance of working with appropriate livestock when starting a young dog.  Sheep will become accustomed to dogs working close, but a dog will never adapt to being handled unfairly.