Herding dogs were bred with specific characteristics in mind. They all have the inborn ability to keep herd animals together and direct them in a certain direction or to the desired destination. This herding ability requires an intelligent dog who can quickly learn commands and lives to please and obey its owner.
Herding dogs are excellent family pets. Their herding instinct is so ingrained that a herding dog sometimes tries to keep children or other pets in a small group. Herding dogs are intelligent and can be trained to herd animals as diverse as ducks, sheep, goats, and cattle.
The herding dog’s distinctive behavior is similar to that of the predatory wolf. The herding dog goes into a kind of hunting routine with the animals. It is herding. It circles the group, identifies and retrieves stragglers, nips at their heels, and “stares them down.” Wolves approach the hunt in about the same way, except they try to single out and attack the stragglers.
All of these herding dog breeds also make excellent family pets. They are intelligent, affectionate dogs that may have a stubborn side. They are easy to train and will become much loved members of their families.
Training Herding Dogs
Training herding dogs requires special training skills. While the dogs’ instincts are there, trainers must discipline their dogs to become good herders. They usually begin with basic commands: sit, stay, heel, etc. But the herding dog trainer needs to make sure these commands are always obeyed, not simply an option.
When the dog is trained enough to obey basic commands without hesitation, the dog is introduced to the herd. At first, the trainer uses a leash and a whistle to show the dog where the trainer wants it. The trainer stays with the dog to show it the proper way to move the herd in the desired direction.
After a time, the trainer will remove the leash but stays with the dog as it moves the herd. Then the trainer works toward giving commands from a distance and standing by while the herding dog performs its duties.
Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Chile, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, have annual sheepdog trials. The first such trials were in New Zealand in 1867.
The Most Popular Herding Dog Breeds
The AKC lists over 30 dog breeds in its herding group. The (2019) 10 most popular dog breeds in the AKC herding group listed in order are:
The job the German Shepherd was bred for was to herd sheep. That is why they have “shepherd” in their name. Because they are such intelligent and versatile dogs, they also excel in guard duty, search and rescue missions, and police and military operations. It is easy to forget that herding was their first occupation.
The German Shepherd is a medium to a large size dog weighing between 50 to 90 pounds. They have a lifespan of 7 to 10 years.
The German Shepherd was bred for its intelligence and is easily trained. It is a very popular dog breed and consistently ranks in the top 3 most popular breed along with the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever.
This popular family pet is currently listed as the 2nd most popular dog breed in the United States. They also star in movies. “Rin Tin Tin” was a German Shepherd whose movie roles helped make this dog breed so popular.
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Pembroke Welsh Corgis are the favorite dog breed of Queen Elizabeth of England. She has had a Corgi in her life for almost 90 years. Corgis are very affectionate dogs and tend to follow their favorite person from room to room.
It is one of the smallest herding dogs, only about a foot tall. They are intelligent dogs and easy to train. They may look like they are slow runners but can reach speeds up to 25 miles per hour. They love to chase anything that moves and may nip at your heels if you run from them.
The Pembroke is a small, long dog standing only about 12 inches tall. It weighs around 30 pounds and has a lifespan of 12 to 13 years.
Historically, some Pembroke’s were born with no tails or very short tail. Otherwise, the tail was docked (cut off) when the puppy was a few days old. Docking dog tail is now illegal in many countries, and more Corgis with long tails are now acceptable in dog show competition.
The Corgi is a popular dog breed in the US and is making a comeback in the UK after being on the Kennel Club’s “Vulnerable Native Breeds” list for a few years.
You would think that if a dog is named the Australian Shepherd that it comes from Australia. However, the breed was developed in California from dogs that probably came from Europe. Some of the Aussy’s ancestor may have reached California with Basques immigrated from Australia and brought dogs. No one knows for sure.
Aussies became favorites of Californa ranchers due to their intelligence, easy to train, and herding abilities. They still find work herding and also as rodeo performers.
The Australian Shepherd is a medium-size dog in the 50-pound range. They are about 22 inches tall and have a lifespan of 12 to 15 years.
A unique feature of the Australian Shepherd is the variation in their eye color. They frequently have eyes of different colors, and sometimes one eye can be heterochromatin, which is a big word meaning bi-colored. A merle (dog coat) Australian Shepherd with two different color eyes and one that is bi-colored in a very distinctive looking dog.
The Shetland Sheepdog, or “Sheltie,” is small herding dogs that hail from Scotland and the Shetland Islands. They also raise small livestock in the Shetland Islands, such as the Shetland pony, the Shetland cattle, and the Shetland sheep. Small animals eat less.
Shelties are loyal little dogs who usually stick so close to their owners that they also have the nickname “shadow.” They are still used for herding but are more often a farm dog or family pet.
The Sheltie is small, about 15 inches tall, and weighs around 20 pounds. They are usually healthy and with a lifespan of 12 to 14 years.
Shelties are very smart and agile. They tend to dominate their size group in dog competitions such as agility, flyball, tracking, and herding contests.
Miniature American Shepherd
The Miniature American Shepherd is a relatively new breed. Its history began in the 1960s in California. Australian Shepherds were bred with smaller dogs to produce what was originally called Miniature Australian Shepherds. The AKC recognized it as the American Miniature Shepherd in 2015.
Considering the short time the breed has been around, it has become popular and ranks 34 in the most popular breeds’ AKC list. Its small size and resemblance to the Australian Shepherd probably have contributed to its fairly rapid rise in popularity.
With Miniature as part of its name, you would expect it to be a small dog. And, of course, it is. It is about 15 inches tall and weighs around 30 pounds. It has a life expectancy of 12 to 13 years.
Border Collies are the smartest dog breed in the world. It should be no surprise that they were also herding dogs.
Border Collies are active dogs that need plenty of workouts and mental stimulation. They will settle down for some petting time when the work is done. Owners of Border Collies need to be active and alert to keep up with this dog.
They are a medium-size dog weighing between 30 to 50 pounds. Their lifespan is 12 to 15 years.
This breed is a frequent winner of dog sports competition in herding and agility. They have dominated sheepdog trials in England for over a hundred years. However, in Australia, they were once bested by a pig named “Babe.”
Thanks to the novel “Lassie Come Home” by Eric Knight, and Albert Payson Terhune’s stories about his dog Lad, the Collie (especially the “rough-coated Collie) is one of the most recognized dog breeds in the world. Several movies and a long-running television series (from 1954 to 1973) are based on Lassie.
The rough (long hair) and smooth (short hair) collies are variations of the same breed in the United States and Canada. In the United Kingdom and Australia, they are considered different dog breeds.
The Collie descended breeding sheepdogs from Scotland and Wales. It is a large-size dog weighing up to 75 pounds and has 12 to 14 years. Both Collie variations are great with children and make excellent family pets.
The 1943 movie, “Lassie Come Home,” featured a young 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her second film appearance. It was the first of several movies that made the Collie such a famous and well-known dog breed. Elizabeth also starred in a 1946 Lassie movie, “Courage of Lassie.”
The Belgian Malinois, like the German Shepherd, is a herding dog that is more know as a guard, police, or military dog than as a herding dog. They originated in farms around the city of Malines in Belgium and were bred to be farm working dogs.
They are somewhat similar in looks to the German Shepherd, but the Malinois are smaller and have a different shaped head. They are extremely loyal dogs, and if well-trained, are friendly, active, and very protective of their family and territory. In 2014, two Belgian Malinois stopped a man who scaled the fence surrounding the White House.
Malinois dogs are amazing athletes, and their jumping ability has to be seen to be believed. They excel in the dog sport of dock jumping. You will need a very high fence in your backyard if you own a Belgian Malinois. While the Malinois is an excellent jumper, the current record holder for dock jumping is a Whippet named Sounders.
Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian Cattle Dog was bred in Australia to herd cattle for long distances over rough terrain. They commonly have the nickname “Red Heeler” or “Blue Heeler,” depending on their coats’ color.
This dog breed is an affectionate and loyal family pet but is likely to be wary of strangers. They are very intelligent and need a lot of mental and physical exercise. They make excellent jogging companions.
The Australian Cattle dog has its own claim to fame as a movie dog and starred in Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior.
Cardigan Welsh Corgi
The Cardigan Welsh Corgi is very similar to the Pembroke, and the casual observer will probably not distinguish between the breeds. That’s understandable since the two breeds were considered the same in the United Kingdom up to the 1930s and were interbred.
The Cardigan Corgi has a tail, while Pembroke Corgi generally does not. The Pembroke is either born without a tail, or it is cropped when it is a puppy. The Cardigan is the older of the two breeds.
They were bred to herd cattle, and their short height was developed on purpose so they could avoid being kicked by cows.
Herding Dogs Compared
|Breed||Height (inches)||Weight (Pounds)||Life Expectancy (Years)||Popularity (AKC)||Origin|
|Pembroke Welsh Corgi||10-12||24-31||12-13||13||Wales|
|Australian Shepherd||18-23||40-65||12-15||17||United States|
|Miniature American Shepherd||13-18||20-40||12-13||34||United States|
|Border Collie||18-22||30-55||12-15||35||United Kingdom|
|Australian Cattle Dog||17-20||35-50||12-16||55||Australian|
|Cardigan Welsh Corgi||10.5-12.5||25-38||12-15||68||Wales|