Herding dogs were bred with the intention of controlling the movement of other animals. They have skills like no other when it comes to controlling flocks of sheep or herds of cattle. But when your herding dog’s instincts kick in and the species being herded becomes your children, guests, or other household pets, you may start to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. Let’s explore how to stop a herding dog from nipping – and nip this thing in the bud!
Understanding the Nature of a Herding Dog
It’s important to understand why your non-working, family pet has the desire to herd in the first place. When you think about it, it is truly fascinating that a dog could possess such a strong will to herd, or even care about such things at all. But, these dogs were carefully bred to do just that. As a working breed, it was necessary that they possess all the proper characteristics for herding including the ability to work independently without constant direction, while also bonding well with their human owner to form a partnership necessary for getting the job done. They also needed to excel as an athletic dog, have a good nose, a keen eye, and a gently temperament so as not to hurt the livestock.
Today, though many herding dogs live in households as companion pets, their instincts to herd can remain quite strong. So, while you may wish your dog would stop rounding up your guests, children, or pets, when you take a look at their breeding history, it’s plain to see where it stems from.
How Does a Herding Dog Herd? / Herding People and Pets
Herding breeds that are used as working dogs round up their livestock by running circles around them, keeping great eye contact, nipping and snapping at the heels, and barking to steer them in the right direction.
Depending on the specific breed of herding dog, and if the dog has not been trained for herding, some may not possess the drive to herd as intensely as others. But, when you find you’re having an issue with your dog herding at inappropriate times, that doesn’t mean you can’t curb it.
Keep in mind, if you notice your herding dog doing any of these things to people or pets, it is not because they are untrainable, mean, or wild, in fact to the contrary, most herding dogs are incredibly smart, easily trained and love their people.
Herding Dogs – A Sometimes Misunderstood Breed
My first experience with a herding breed was a Border Collie, a decade ago, when a friend who lived alone decided to get a dog for companionship. Upon my first meeting with Easy (as the dog was named), I was greeted with what appeared to be a jumping kangaroo. Easy was about as sweet as a dog could be, but was confined to the indoors most of the time as my friend, who I was about to find out knew nothing about dogs, was quite busy and had no clue that she had just chosen one of the highest energy breeds on the planet.
Easy would often use tactics to herd us right where she wanted us, and she was as smart as a whip. Easy, as it turns out, eventually escaped from the confines of her home one day, ran out in traffic, and was instantly killed. It pains me to this day that proper care was not taken to understand the needs of this wonderful, and smart little dog.
The point of this story is that many times herding breeds are misunderstood, and not given the opportunity to show their full potential. They are sometimes dismissed as being hyper and nothing but trouble, but the truth of the matter is they just need exercise, mental stimulation, and an outlet for what they were bred to do. If a herding dog is not provided an outlet to satisfy his instinctual herding, and high energy nature, many times problem behavior can develop.
Think of yourself for a moment. When you have a strong desire to do something, and someone is holding you back, what happens? Most likely you become restless, even agitated, and your energy may present itself as something less than desirable to be around. Dogs are no different, they get restless too.
You can’t just stop your dog’s herding instincts without supplying an outlet in which to satisfy that need. But, one thing at a time…so first we’ll begin with how to stop your dog from herding when it is inappropriate.
5 Steps to Stopping Your Dog From Inappropriate Herding
- Until your dog learns not to herd in inappropriate situations, don’t encourage the behavior by placing your dog in the very situation that draws out the herding instinct (unless you are actively working with your dog).
- If it is a person that is being herded by your dog, that person should not react to the dog by yelling and running away as this will only encourage the dog to partake in this very fun event.
- Work on your dog’s attention skills. This ultimately means your dog will be responsive to you, regardless of what may appear to be more exciting. An attentive dog will understand that he needs to look at you, listen to what you say, and follow your direction in a timely manner – YOU become his main focus. You can’t teach a dog anything if he will not look at you!
- Get your dog started by dropping a treat on the floor and letting him eat it. He will probably look up at you because he wants more (if he doesn’t right away, that’s fine, just wait until he does). When he does, praise him and drop another treat. Continue doing this each time he looks at you.
- Gradually increase the required amount of time your dog must look at you before he will be rewarded with a treat. Be sure to only reward when he is calm, and looking at you (not at the treat). You will want to move the treat away from your face to ensure your dog learns that it is YOU that he needs to focus on, not the treat. You can also add a command, such as your dog’s name and “look”, so that your dog understands that this command means to look at you.
- Work on this for a few minutes daily (not longer than 3-4 minutes or your dog will get bored and lose interest). You will eventually want to expose your dog to situations where there are distractions. For example, you can let you dog see you toss an object far away, and then use the command of your dog’s name and “look”. Praise and treat your dog when he looks at you. You may need to start this activity out using a leash.
- ALWAYS praise your dog when he naturally looks at you (without any type of command) as this shows he is mastering his attentiveness skill!
- Teach your dog self-control. This means practicing patience, working on impulse control, and staying focused instead of frenzied, or hyper. Herding dogs love to chase things that move, so a great example of a self-control game would be throwing a ball or Frisbee, but prior to throwing it have your dog be calm, and then wait for a cue from you before being allowed to chase it. You will need a leash in the beginning to ensure your dog doesn’t run off before allowed.
- Work on recall. This means teaching your dog the “come!” command. This will ensure that in the event your dog inappropriately herds, you can use the “come!” command to call your dog off. As luck would have it, herding breeds tend to want to stay close by their humans so teaching recall can oftentimes be a breeze. Every dog is different though, and there are exceptions, so be patient if your dog isn’t a natural at this. Also, recall can be a lot tougher where distractions exist (e.g. moving objects/people).
- Ideally you want to use “come!” as your command, and you want it to be interchangeable with words like “wonderful!” and “fun!” In other words, you want your dog to associate the command with “good” things. If you are currently, or have in the past, used the “come!” command where it was related to anything negative, then you will need to use a different command.
- Place your dog on a leash and start walking with him by your side. now start to run, and say, “come!” But don’t yell or sound harsh, you must sound cheerful so that you don’t taint the word and have your dog relate it to any negativity what-so-ever. Stop running and immediately give your dog his favorite treat. Or, you can use a favorite toy, and stop to play for a moment. The idea is to associate the word “come!” with wonderful things.
- Practice the above step for a few days, and then change things up by letting your dog be several feet away from you (but still on a leash) and say, “come!”, and run away. Your dog should run after you whereby you can then stop and drop a few of your dog’s very favorite treats on the ground. While your dog is eating the treats walk to the end of the leash, and repeat the process. You are associating, “come!” with a wonderful, fun time! Remember, you can also use a favorite toy as the reward, but it’s best to use whatever your dog loves most of all. This should be practiced daily for a few weeks.
- When your dog masters the above step, start using the, “come!” command off-leash. This can be done indoors or outdoors, but don’t set your dog up for failure by calling him when you think he may not listen (when there are too many distractions). If he doesn’t listen once, he’s bound to learn that he only needs to listen when he feels like it. Remember to still run, to make it fun, and reward with only the best of treats. If he doesn’t come to you when called, get his attention by calling his name and using the, “look” command. Once you have his attention, you can proceed with the “come!” command.
- Ideally, you want to work up to off-leash recalls at longer distances, provided you have a safe place where your dog can be off-leash. Also, when your dog gets really good at the, “come!” command you should add the, “sit!” command once he reaches you. This will ensure that he doesn’t grab his treat and run. You want him to come, look at you attentively, and do a well-mannered sit. Avoid any rough collar-grabbing when your dog reaches you as this will certainly put you back to square one. While you are still practicing, you will want to do a mix of sometimes gently grabbing your dog’s collar, and sometimes not, since attaching a leash to your dog’s collar may at times be the point of calling him. But, always keep it cheerful, and when in the practicing phase NEVER stop rewarding your dog for a job well done.
If you work with your dog consistently, always being sure to praise and reward, then eventually the behaviors you teach will become a strong default behavior in all situations. That being said, when your dog is herding inappropriately, you will be able to call your dog away, and he will listen because he will possess the skills of being attentive to you, showing self-control, and coming when called.
You may be saying to yourself that the above steps are difficult, and will take a long time to achieve, and you’re probably looking for quick results. But, work on these skills every day, being patient and persistent, and I guarantee you’ll be able to better direct your dog in stopping the inappropriate herding.
Remember, being consistent in training is where most people fail. Don’t let all your hard work fall by the wayside! Once you have these basic skills down things will be so much easier!
Dog trainers offer classes in these areas that can kick start your training should you find you need some help getting started.
Top 3 Activities to Fulfill your Herding Dog’s Instincts:
I already mentioned that herding dogs need an outlet that caters to what they do naturally (herd), and to work off their high energy. The below activities are sports in which herding dogs excel, and in some form closely resemble herding itself.
- Treibball (also known as push ball, or drive ball) – This game originated in Europe and is played with large inflatable exercise or yoga balls. The object of the game is for your dog to gather and move the “flock” of balls into a large soccer-like net. This is similar to herding livestock, where you and your dog form a partnership and you take an active part in instructing your dog. Look for Treibball in your area. If you can’t find anywhere that offers it, I would suggest watching a how-to video, so you can teach your dog to play on your own. Even if you were to use less than the required amount of balls, or didn’t have the awesomeness of a large net, you could improvise with just one or two balls and an area in which your dog would be expected to push the ball/s.
- Agility Training – Herding dogs are naturals when it comes to agility courses. You may be able to find a center in, or near, the town you live that offers dog agility, which means agility equipment would be readily available. If you prefer doing agility at home, you can either purchase agility equipment, or create your own agility course using things you have around the house. Your dog won’t need anything fancy he will have fun either way! Some of the most common agility activities include jumping over hurdles (use a broomstick, or hula-hoop), weave poles (use cones, or tall laundry baskets set up in a row), and tunnels (use a child’s play tunnel, or two chairs facing each other with a blanket tossed over the seats to climb under), you get the idea, anything you think up will do.
- Flying disc/Frisbee – If your dog gets good at this, some cities offer organized “disc dog” competitions. A disc that is made specifically for dogs is best as they are flexible and can stand up to sharp teeth. Start out throwing the disc low and at your dog’s level. You can gradually start to throw the disc higher, and further, as your dog improves. It will take practice for your dog to become good at this sport. Three rules: 1) Don’t allow your dog to jump on you in a frenzy while waiting for you to throw the disc; make sure he shows self-control by waiting patiently. 2) Praise your dog when he runs to chase the disc. 3) Make sure you teach your dog to return the disc to you; don’t let him run off with it. Upon return of the disc offer praise, and treats if you feel it’s necessary in order for him to learn that returning it is “good”.
Remember, although the above activities are great for herding breeds, really any kind of exercise, or mental stimulation is good for your dog. Some great ways to exercise high energy breeds are long walks/runs, letting your dog run off-leash (if possible, and safe), bike riding, and swimming. If you find that walking your dog doesn’t seem to ward off all that high energy, and you’re not a runner, many dog walking companies now offer running with your dog, not just walking. Additional ideas can be found in my article, Why Is My Dog So Hyper?.
For a little extra mental stimulation, when you go somewhere, consider taking your dog along with you. My former mixed breed herding dog absolutely loved car rides, and it was such a joy to see her excited doggie “dance” when I would ask her to come along…her favorite place was to the pet store (of course), and the dog park.
Which Breeds are Considered Herding Breeds?
The list of herding breeds as classified by the American Kennel Club are as follows:
- Australian Cattle Dog
- Australian Shepherd
- Bearded Collie
- Belgian Malinois
- Belgian Sheepdog
- Belgian Tervuren
- Berger Picard
- Border Collie
- Bouvier Des Flandres
- Canaan Dog
- Cardigan Welsh Corgi
- Entlebucher Mountain Dog
- Finnish Lapphund
- German Shepherd Dog
- Icelandic Sheepdog
- Miniature American Shepherd
- Norwegian Buhund
- Old English Sheepdog
- Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Polish Lowland Sheepdog
- Pyrenean Shepherd
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Spanish Water Dog
- Swedish Vallhund