"many breeds can herd"

Article by Tanya Wheeler, 2019


Addressing the usefulness of many herding breeds.


An Article by Tanya Wheeler



Like recipes for soup, there are as many as there are chefs who created them and the ingredients depend upon local options, climate, availability and demand. Similarly, 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 were 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 and are 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, either in person or on television, of 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 dog 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 may be used to take over the pen work and sorting at the yard or ranch facility itself. Others manage only the lead animal in a flock of a thousand or more while others keep the push at the rear of the herd. Perhaps even another type or breed, or even a mixed breed of dog is used 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 with a few sheep of their own 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 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 with abilities to cast far and wide, 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 in parts of New Zealand, huge flocks of sheep were the norm. Often there were 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. The valuable wool was used 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 Americas 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.  Many of the imported breeds such as Border Collies and English Shepherds from the UK were useful in some aspects of livestock management. Selection and cross breeding were 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.


What was also different were predators such as wolves and coyotes in the Americas, and Dingos in Australia. 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 of 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 articles and documentation of other herding breeds and uses around the world.   


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 herding dogs with strong eye that maintained their amazing control of speed and direction at the lead of a flock of hundreds sheep or more. Once again, pushier dogs in the rear kept the herd moving and all dogs with a strong flock sense kept the stock together as a group.


Back to today. Most people’s perceptions of herding dogs lead us to the graceful and premiere sheep dog, the Border Collie. Most, however, see only the trialing version who works wider than necessary and often many trialers will tell you, are not useful farm dogs but 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, that their usefulness for close work has diminished. Thus has been born almost two breeds: the field trial version and the useful farm version. There is 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 as horses have been replaced. However, 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, such as 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 can exist 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 and 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. 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.



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 who 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. 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 three sheep Border Collie trials and  genuine ranch work, performed by dogs on several hundred or even a thousand 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 “the eye” and a certain amount of presence. This eye stalk behaviour has been described in detail over the years and a certain amount of eye is desirable. Too much eye can be a great distraction for a working dog and cause them to frequently shut down the movement of livestock and to 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 it 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 of them have excellent skills to pass along.  However, it has been challenging for people to find trainers to work with loose eyed dogs 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 inexperienced trainer will impose improper training 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 to 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 in the public eye. Trainers and dog 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 feeling 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 yet is one who looks sad and over controlled 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) and 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 who 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 dogs will never adapt to being handled unfairly.


About the Author


Tanya has experience with many herding breeds and travels extensively delivering clinics in North America and Europe. As a herding teacher, her focus is on foundations and on developing the natural talent of a dog. She works with a range of experience in both dog and handler, helping you to develop effective communication skills with your herding partner.


She has developed a Herding Training Website utilizing video as a tool to interpret training approaches. Visit - The Talking Dog https://thetalkingdog.ca for information on herding concepts, dry land training and more.


Tanya Wheeler has been working with animals her whole life. She has a Master’s Degree in Biology: Wildlife Science and an undergraduate degree in Psychology: Animal Behaviour. She has studied the principles of behavioural psychology, understands positive reinforcement and uses it in her training methods.
She competes at some of the highest international levels of the stock dog/herding world and at the advanced/elite level in agility and obedience (CKC, ASCA and AHBA) with her Australian Shepherds. She has owned, trained, and/or bred the top herding dog in Canada (all breeds) for over 10 years.
Tanya acquired Tucker, her first Australian Shepherd, in 1993 and has been raising litters of Australian Shepherds under the kennel name Tucker Creek since 2000.