Sporting Dog series Herding Dogs Alaska Dog Works

Sporting Dog Series: Herding Dogs

Sporting Dog series Herding Dogs Alaska Dog Works


All about the sport of herding

As we began our nomadic journeys across the world we brought dogs along with us on that journey. Albeit the dogs that traveled with us 20,000 years ago were nothing like our furry best buddies today, those dogs and those early relationships paved the way. We learned from dogs by watching them hunt and herd and we developed these skills by selecting the best and breeding the dogs into working companions we could trust to assist us during hunts, to herd our livestock and even guard our wares. Dogs have advanced us as a species and we have advanced them as a species. Our ever evolving loving companions, it’s no wonder we created Sports for them to train and compete at with as much delight as their owners, handlers, and trainers. On this episode of Dog Works Radio we will introduce you to the world of Herding Dogs. If you are all about herding dogs or know someone who is share this podcast, Dog Works Radio with them. Let’s get started.

 Do you own a herding breed?

Have you taken that dog out to herding trials?  Did you know a herding dog is also called a stock dog, shepherd dog or simply just working dog? This is a type of dog that has been trained or belongs to breeds that have been bred and developed for herding. All herding behavior is predatory behavior. By selective breeding, humans have been able to minimize the dog’s natural drive to treat cattle and sheep as prey while maintaining the dog’s hunting skills, thus creating an effective herding dog.

Dogs can herd all kinds of animals and work them in a variety of ways. Some breeds will nip at the heels, like heelers, while others will stay in front of the animal and use staring as a way to keep the livestock in a group, these are known as headers or fetching dogs, by doing this they get the animals to turn or stop. While heelers or driving dogs keep pushing the animals forward.

If you have a heeler like a border collie or possibly you have a header like an Australian Kelpie then you may recognize some of these behaviors being displayed at the dog park or with young children. Typically for a family companion these behaviors are unwanted. Do your research prior to getting a breed with characteristics that you’ll ultimately not want them using in your household or life as it can cause undo anxiety for you and the dog.

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Herding instincts and trainability can be measured when introducing a dog to livestock or at noncompetitive herding tests. Individuals exhibiting basic herding instincts can be trained to compete in herding trials.

Some interesting terminology:

In Australia, New Zealand and the United States herding dogs are known as working dogs irrespective of their breeding.  Some herding breeds work well with any kind of animals; others have been bred for generations to work with specific kinds of animals and have developed physical characteristics or styles of working that enhance their ability to handle these animals. Commonly mustered animals include cattle, sheep, goats and reindeer, although it is not unusual for poultry to be handled by dogs.

The term “herding dog” is sometimes erroneously used to describe livestock guardian dogs, whose primary function is to guard flocks and herds from predation and theft, and they lack the herding instinct. Although herding dogs may guard flocks their primary purpose is to move them; both herding dogs and livestock guardian dogs may be called “sheep dogs”.

In general terms when categorizing dog breeds, herding dogs are considered a subcategory of working dogs, but for conformation shows they usually form a separate group.

Australia has the world’s largest cattle stations and sheep stations and some of the best-known herding dogs, such as the Koolie, Kelpie, Red and Blue Heelers are bred and found there.

Herding instincts and trainability can be measured when introducing a dog to livestock or at noncompetitive herding tests. Click To Tweet

Herding dogs have their own commands:

  • Come-byeor just bye – go to the left of the stock, or clockwise around them.
  • Away to me, or justaway or ‘way – go to the right of the stock, or counterclockwise around them.
  • Stand– stop, although when said gently may also mean just to slow down.
  • Wait,(lie) down or sit or stay – stop, but remain with that contact on the stock…don’t take it off by leaving.
  • Steadyor take time – slow down.
  • Cast– gather the stock into a group. Good working dogs will cast over a large area. This is not a command but an attribute.
  • Find– search for stock. A good dog will hold the stock until the shepherd  Some will bark when the stock have been located.
  • Get outor back – move away from the stock. Used when the dog is working too close to the stock, potentially causing the stock stress. Occasionally used as a reprimand.
  • Keep Awayor Keep – Used by some handlers as a direction and a distance from the sheep.
  • Hold– keep stock where they are.
  • Barkor speak up – bark at stock. Useful when more force is needed, and usually not essential for working cattle and sheep.
  • Look back– return for a missed animal. Also used after a shed is completed and rejoined the flock or packet of sheep.
  • In hereor here – go through a gap in the flock. Used when separating stock.
  • Walk up,walk on or just walk – move in closer to the stock.
  • That’ll do– stop working and return to handler.

These commands may be indicated by a hand movement, whistle or voice. There are many other commands that are also used when working stock and in general use away from stock. Herding dog commands are generally taught using livestock as the modus operandi. Urban owners without access to livestock are able to teach basic commands through herding games.

These are not the only commands used: there are many variations. When whistles are used, each individual dog usually has a different set of commands to avoid confusion when several dogs are being worked at one time.

We have been discussing the dog sport herding. Now let’s get real and discuss the ins and outs of having a herding breed as a pet.

Herding dogs are often chosen as family pets. The collie breeds including the Bearded Collie and Border Collie are well known, as are the Australian Kelpie and Australian Working Kelpie, and Welsh Corgis. They make good family dogs and are at their best when they have a job to do. These dogs have been bred as working dogs and need to be physically and mentally active. It is my recommendation that these dogs be in homes with active lifestyles. They retain their herding instincts and as I mentioned earlier can become problematic in homes with other dogs and young children as their instinctual desire to herd moving things can take over. They are however highly trainable and enjoy learning tricks and love maintaining their training routines.

There are over 80 dogs that hold the breeding group description.

Here’s a few that we have trained here at Alaska Dog Works

Australian Shepherd



Bernese Mountain Dog

Bouvier des Flandres

Canaan Dog

Catahoula Leopard Dog



St. Bernard

Plus a host of others, but I bet some of those you didn’t know were considered herding breeds.


Michele Forto is the lead trainer of Alaska Dog Works and works with service dog clients from around the country.