top of page
  • Seven

Unlocking the Secrets of Herding Dog Training: Tips and Techniques


a herding dog herding a yellow herding ball while other watching

Herding dogs represent a diverse group of breeds, each with distinct characteristics and traits, yet all share a common instinct to control the movement of other animals. Notable for their intelligence and responsiveness, these breeds include the Border Collie, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs, German Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois, among others. Each of these herding breeds has been meticulously developed over the centuries to work in varying environments, from the rough terrain of the Scottish Highlands to the vast expanses of the Australian Outback.

The unique abilities of herding breeds go beyond their working roles. These breeds are immensely popular in their capacity as companion animals as well. Their intelligence and trainability, coupled with their desire to work with their human counterparts, make them ideal for a variety of roles in today's modern world. From serving as guide dogs for the visually impaired to excelling in obedience and agility competitions, herding dogs demonstrate their adaptability time and again.

Proper training is of paramount importance for herding breeds. Given their innate herding

an Australian shepherd tongue out chasing after a blue herding ball in a forrest

instincts, these dogs may exhibit behaviors such as chasing, nipping, or circling, which, while useful in a farm setting, can be problematic in a domestic environment. Training helps to channel these instincts in a more suitable manner and promotes good canine citizenship. Moreover, their highly intelligent nature and eagerness to work make them particularly well-suited to learning new tasks and commands, which can be mentally stimulating for the dog and help strengthen the bond between handler and canine.

In addition to curbing potentially troublesome behaviors, training for herding dogs can also serve a variety of functional purposes. For example, it can prepare the dog for obedience or agility competitions, or for work as a service animal. Training can also help to ensure the dog's safety by teaching essential commands such as 'come', 'sit', 'stay', and 'leave it'. These breeds are known for their desire to please their handlers and thrive when given a job to do. Consequently, proper training can ensure that these energetic and intelligent dogs are both happy and well-behaved.

Understanding Herding Behavior

A Belgian Shepherd holding a blue herding ball in front of his kenel

Herding dogs are characterized by their strong instinctive traits, which have been honed and perfected over centuries of selective breeding. These traits include a natural instinct to control and direct the movements of other animals like chickens, sheeps etc. This instinct, often referred to as 'eye', can be observed when a herding dog crouches low and fixes a steady, intent gaze on the flock it is herding. It also manifests in the dog's predilection to circle around its charges, keeping them grouped together. This instinctive behavior is so ingrained in these breeds that it often surfaces even in the absence of sheep, with dogs trying to 'herd' their human family members or other pets.

Another remarkable instinctive trait in many herding breeds have is their tireless work ethic. These dogs are bred to work long hours on vast farmlands, and as such, are known for their exceptional stamina and perseverance. Herding breeds, like border collies, have motion sensitivity and are always ready to react quickly to the movements of the flock. This high energy level and eagerness to work can be channeled into various activities such as sports, search and rescue missions, or serving as service dogs. Understanding these instinctive traits is crucial for anyone considering a herding dog as a pet or working partner, as it allows them to provide an environment where these dogs can thrive.

The instinctive traits of many herding dogs significantly shape their behavior, both

A Golden Retriver tongue out holding a red herding ball in grassland

on the field and at home. Their 'eye' or the instinct to control makes them highly perceptive and responsive. They tend to be attentive to their surroundings and often respond to even the subtlest changes. This sensitivity, while an asset in the field, can sometimes cause them to react to household stimuli such as sudden movements or noises. Consequently, herding dogs may need additional guidance to understand which situations require their response and which ones don't.

The herding behavior to circle and gather can also impact their interactions with people and other pets. Most herding dogs have a natural tendency to keep their family members 'together'. This could mean rounding up children during play or trying to keep other pets in a confined area. While this can seem endearing, it's essential to manage this behavior appropriately to ensure the dog's actions are safe and comfortable for everyone involved.

Lastly, their exceptional stamina and work ethic, which result in high energy levels, require an outlet for their physical and mental exertion. If not given adequate exercise or mental stimulation, herding breeds can turn destructive or develop behavioral issues out of frustration. Regular physical activity like walks or games, coupled with mental challenges like training routines or puzzle toys, can help satiate their active nature, making them happy, healthy, and well-behaved pets or working dogs.

Basic Training Herding dogs Techniques

a Australian Shepherd sitting next to red herding ball on grassland

Training herding dogs effectively requires a blend of patience, consistency and an understanding of their instinctual behaviors. Before any dog start herding, some basic and herding commands need to be taught. Here are the most common ones:

Positive reinforcement training

Positive reinforcement training is based on the principle of rewarding desired behavior to increase its likelihood in the future. The 'reward' can be anything that motivates or brings enjoyment to the dog, such as treats, praise, toys, or a game of fetch. Timing is crucial - the reward should be given immediately after the desired action is performed, helping the dog associate the behavior with the positive outcome.

Implementing positive reinforcement training requires patience and consistency from the trainer. It is important to clearly identify and communicate the desired behavior and consistently reward it when exhibited. Ignoring or failing to reward the desired behavior may confuse the dog, while inadvertently rewarding undesired behavior could reinforce it instead. Remember, the goal is to help the dog understand that good things happen when they behave in a certain way, fostering a positive behavior pattern over time.

In the early stages of training, it is vital to provide appropriate outlets for the dog's behavior. For example, if a herding dog exhibits herding behavior, providing opportunities for them to engage in appropriate herding activities can help channel their energy and instincts in a positive direction.

Command training

Basic command training is a fundamental aspect of training many dogs, including any

a french bulldog holding a red herding ball on grasses

young dog or puppy learning to herd sheep. This method involves teaching dogs to respond to specific verbal or non-verbal cues. Essential basic commands like "sit", "stay", "come", "heel", and "down" promote safer and more controlled interactions in various situations, including at home, in public places, or while herding. Remember to stay calm when you train your dog, or pup.

For herding dogs, specific commands unique to herding tasks can be taught. These may include cues for driving farm animals forward, gathering them together, or moving them in a specific direction. Consistency and clarity are key to successful command training. Use the same words or gestures for each command, and reward correct execution immediately. This helps dogs associate commands with the intended actions and positive outcomes while staying calm.

Leash training

Leash training is an integral component when preparing a dog to herd. It's essential for establishing control and ensuring safety when you and your pup walk

a Belgian shepherd holding a blue herding ball in front of the kenel

or during herding sessions. Practice it by introducing the leash and collar in a calm environment so that the dog can get used to their presence. Then, put the leash on the dog and let it move around freely under your supervision. The goal of this step is to help the dog understand that the leash is not something to fear or resist.

Once the dog is comfortable with the leash, begin guided walks in a quiet, familiar area. Keep the leash slack and steer the dog by changing your own direction rather than pulling on the leash. If the dog pulls ahead, pause and call the dog back to you, rewarding it when it returns. This teaches the dog to pay attention to your movement and direction. Over time, the dog should learn to maintain a consistent position relative to you, whether that's by your side or following closely behind. Remember, patience and consistency are crucial during leash training – it's a gradual process that builds over time.

Advanced Herding Techniques

Training herding dog for more advanced duties might be a challenging task that requires

a french bulldog standing still behind a red herding ball on grasses

a lot of patience and dedication for many owners. Your Border collie can understand in a session or two to obey sit, and move commands, but teach for more complex tax you might need professional help, if you have a dog to herd. For this, the help of a professional trainer would be very helpful to train a herding dog for herding lessons.

To prepare for advanced practice herding commands, your dog need to have mastered basic commands first and displays a strong bond with the owner or professional trainer. This will help establish trust and make it easier for the dog to understand and respond to the commands. Once you have a solid foundation, you can start introducing advanced commands and techniques.

One of the most challenging tasks for herding dogs is driving, where they are responsible for moving farm animals in a specific direction or into a confined space such as a pen. To train your dog for this task, you will need to use obstacles such as gates, fences, or barrels to simulate real-life scenarios. Start with simple exercises and gradually increase the difficulty level as your dog improves.

a herding dog tongue out standing next to blue herding ball on grasses

Another important aspect of advanced herding is shedding, where the dog separates a specific group of stock from the larger herd. This requires excellent communication between the dog and its handler, as well as precise control over the dog's movements. You can start training for shedding by using small groups of flock and gradually increasing the number as your dog becomes more confident and skilled.

It is also essential to note that each herding breed has its own unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to advanced herding techniques. For example, border collies excel in driving tasks due to their high energy levels and agility, while Australian shepherds are known for their exceptional shedding abilities. Understanding your dog's strengths and weaknesses will help you tailor your training approach to maximize its potential.

In addition, understanding your dog's spatial sensitivity is vital if you want them to excel in the art of herding. Spatial sensitivity means how much space your dog needs to work efficiently, and this varies from breed to breed. For example, border collies have a high spatial sensitivity and require more space to move around and control the livestock effectively. On the other hand, Australian cattle dogs have a low spatial sensitivity and can work closely with farm animal without getting overwhelmed.

Noise sensivitiy is another crucial aspect to consider when training for advanced herding. Some breeds, like border collies and Australian shepherds, have a high noise sensitivity and can easily get distracted by loud noises or sudden movements. It is essential to desensitize your dog to these stimuli during training, as they will encounter similar distractions in real-life herding situations.

Directional Command Training

Directional command training is an essential technique in forming a successful partnership between the herder and the dog. It helps in creating a language of communication that both the human and the dog understand, which is vitally important in dynamic and potentially risky herding environments. These commands vary from

a herding dog standing next to navy herding ball on a backyard

simple tasks such as "sit" or "stay" to more complex ones like "left" or "right" direction. In order to train a herding dog with directional commands, the trainer uses clear, consistent verbal and hand signals. For instance, pointing to the right while saying "right" will teach the dog to move in that direction. This training is often reinforced with positive rewards, like treats or praise, when the dog correctly executes a command. Over time, these commands become intuitive to the dog, enabling them to maneuver the herd efficiently and effectively while responding to the herder's instructions promptly.

Distance Command Training

Distance command training is a crucial aspect of herding dog education. This method focuses on teaching the dog to regulate its distance from the flock, which is vital in preventing the scattering of animals and maintaining orderly movement. The commands used in this training, such as "come-bye" or "away," provide instructions for the dog to move closer to or farther from the herd. Training typically involves the use of a long leash and strategic placement of rewards, like treats, at varying distances. Additionally, whistle signals can be incorporated to enhance communication between the herder and the dog. As the dog becomes proficient in following the commands and whistle signals, it becomes capable of effectively managing herds across open pastures and through tight gateways, ensuring smooth and safe transitions. This reinforces the partnership between the herder and the dog, creating a more efficient and controlled herding process.

Training for different types of livestock

Different types of livestock necessitate distinct herding techniques, which in turn require specific training for herding dogs. For instance, when herding sheep, dogs must work from the periphery and employ tactics like 'eye' (staring at the animals to guide them),

a French bulldog holding a red herding ball on grasses

'power' (controlling and directing the stock ), and 'balance' (keeping the livestock together). On the other hand, cattle are more independent and can be aggressive, demanding a dog displays more assertiveness. Training for cattle often involves teaching the dog to nip at their heels, guiding them in the desired direction. Poultry, being delicate creatures, require the dog to exercise exceptional control and gentleness. These nuanced training methods enable herding dogs to effectively manage different types of livestock, ensuring successful herding regardless of the animals involved, while also considering motion sensitivity and herding tendencies.

Common Challenges and Solutions

One common challenge faced when training herding breeds is dealing with stubbornness or over-excitement. Overly eager dogs may become too aggressive with the herd, causing unnecessary stress to the animals, while stubborn dogs may resist following commands, hampering the herding process. To manage these tendencies, it is

a golden retriever tongue out holding a red herding ball next to a wall in backyard

crucial to implement consistent, positive reinforcement training from a young age. Encourage the correct behaviors with rewards such as treats, praise, or play, and discourage inappropriate behaviors without resorting to negative punishment. Instead, employ the strategy of removing rewards or privileges when the dog demonstrates stubbornness or over-excitement. Incorporating regular mental and physical exercise into the dog's routine can also help manage these behavioral issues, as it allows the dog to expend energy and reduces the likelihood of over-excitement. It's essential to remain patient and persistent, as training these instincts can take time.

Overcoming fear of livestock in herding dogs is another challenge, especially for beginner dogs that may feel intimidated by the size or noises of the animals. To help alleviate their fear, gradual exposure and positive association is key. Start by allowing the dog to observe the livestock from a distance, ensuring there is a safe barrier between them. Gradually decrease the distance over time as the dog's comfort level increases. Pair these interactions with positive reinforcements like treats and praise to create an association between the livestock and pleasant experiences. It's essential not to rush this process, allowing the dog to set the pace to avoid causing any additional fear or stress. Over time, the dog will learn that there's nothing to fear and will be able to carry out its herding duties confidently and effectively.

a border collie herding a red herding ball on grasses

Training in high-distraction environments is a crucial aspect of honing a herding dog's discipline and focus. Begin this exercise in a controlled environment, gradually introducing distractions like toys, people, or other animals. Use a long lead to maintain control while still allowing the dog some freedom. Consistently redirect the dog's attention back to you using cues and commands. When the dog successfully ignores the distractions and responds to your commands, reward them with treats, praise, or play. This process of gradual exposure, coupled with positive reinforcement, helps the dog associate obedience amidst distractions with positive outcomes. Remember, patience is key in these training sessions. Each dog learns at their own pace, and it's essential to progress at a rate that maintains the dog's comfort and confidence.

Tools and Resources for Training

A variety of tools can contribute to effective herding dog training. Herding balls are excellent for teaching control and direction. Long lines provide the trainer with control during off-leash training while allowing the dog some freedom. Training whistles are ideal for fieldwork, allowing commands to be communicated over vast distances. Clickers are a valuable tool for marking desirable behavior during training, and treat pouches are handy for carrying rewards on the go. Lastly, collapsible water bowls are essential to keep your dog hydrated during rigorous training sessions. It's important to remember that each dog is unique, and what works for one may not work for another, so you might need to test different tools to see which one suits your furry friend best.

a border collie herding a navy herding ball on grasses

Further Learning Resources

To supplement hands-on training, various books and online resources offer comprehensive insight into the art of training herding dogs. Notable books include "Stockdog Savvy" by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor, and "Lessons from a Stockdog" by Bruce Fogt. These offer practical tips backed by expert knowledge and experience. For online resources, websites such as The National Sheepdog Society (NSDS) and The American Herding Breed Association provide a wealth of information on the subject. Additionally, online forums like the Herding Dog Training Facebook Group offers a platform for peer learning and sharing experiences. Remember that reading and research can bolster your understanding, but nothing replaces the value of practical experience and patience in the training process.

409 views0 comments


bottom of page