A Beginners Guide to Herding Dogs (including ES)
By Liz Palika, CDT, CABC
(Portions of this article have been previously published elsewhere)
If you’re Facebook friends with me (Liz Palika – and if you’re not feel free) you know my first English Shepherd, Bones, is two and a half years old. His photos have graced my Facebook page since I brought him home. When we showed up at the English Shepherd gathering in Morgan Hills, people recognized him but not me. However, just because he’s my first English Shepherd doesn’t mean I’m unfamiliar with the breed.
I first talked to Mary Peaslee twelve to thirteen years ago in anticipation of a puppy from a litter from her now older bitch, Raven. However, an Australian Shepherd breeder I knew well offered me an Aussie puppy I couldn’t turn down. Two more Aussies came into my family and two older ones passed on before I was finally in a position to talk to Mary again.
In those in between years, I got to know several other English Shepherds quite well. Because of my enthusiasm for the breed and the anticipation for one day adding one to my family, people I know well got English Shepherds and I saw what I liked (and didn’t like) from other breeders’ dogs. I watched those dogs grow up, learn obedience, work stock, play games, and live life.
Bones has been a joy. He was an easy puppy and even though adolescence was a bit of a challenge (which I expect from an intelligent puppy), as he’s grown out of adolescence I’m thrilled with the adult dog he’s becoming.
Herding Dogs in General
Although dogs of various breeds have shared my home, I’ve lived with herding dogs all of my adult life. I know how herding dogs think and why they do what they do; I understand them and enjoy them. I don’t mind that they’re bossy – perhaps because I am, too – and once communication is established I find them to be extremely co-operative. I also enjoy having three shadows. As I’m writing this Bashir is to the left of my desk, Sisko is behind my chair, and Bones is to my right. So many traits common to herding dogs in general and Aussies and English Shepherds in particular are comfortable to me and at the same time so entertaining that I can’t imagine having any other type of dog.
Frequently, however, I talk to new herding dog owners in my dog training classes who don’t understand why their dog is doing what he’s doing. Often they want to change one or more of their dog’s natural behaviors and this never has a good outcome. If you wish, natural behaviors can be channeled into more constructive activities or managed through training but trying to change who the dog is will only cause frustration for both the dog and the owner. When new herding dog owners understand what these behaviors are, however, and that their dog is not being ‘bad’ then many of the previously annoying habits become acceptable.
Bred to Think
In general, most herding dogs were designed to work closely with their owners. The majority of ES owners love this about their dogs; our dogs try so hard to figure out what we want. This is a huge part of why they excel in so many performance sports. English Shepherds weren’t bred to play flyball or run agility; however, they were designed to cooperate with us and for the most part they do.
Although originally bred to be farm dogs, English Shepherds will accept many different creatures as their own. Those creatures could be livestock, other pets, or the kids in the family. Many parents complain their herding dog continues to circle the children until they’re in a bunch in the middle of the back yard. The kids might not like this but to a herding dog that is a natural behavior.
To do their ancestral jobs, herding dogs also need the ability to think and act independently. A dog who thinks on his own will sometimes decide to ignore a command even though many owners don’t understand this and get angry. Just think, the trainers of dogs for the blind have to teach their canine students to ignore a spoken command when following that command would put the dog and owner in danger. But numerous English Shepherd owners who have livestock have shared stories of the dog who stood between the owner and an angry bull, cow, ram, or other animal – to protect the owner – even when the owner has called the dog. It takes a special kind of dog to recognize danger and ignore commands in order to take independent action.
There are many herding behaviors that show up during day to day activities. Many owners may not even recognize them as herding behaviors. Some of these behaviors are welcomed by most owners while other behaviors need to be lessened or managed when the dog lives other than on a farm.
- Barking: Many herding breeds tend to bark when herding. This isn’t usually a preferred behavior but it happens often. Unfortunately, the barking can also occur in other parts of the dog’s life, too, and can be a problem when the dog is excited, happy, or bored. A protective dog will also bark. Training can help manage barking.
- Biting: Stockdogs often have to use the power of their jaws to manage tough stock. How much force is used depends on the stock involved, the situation the dog and stock are in, and the individual dog. Biting becomes a problem when a herding dog decides to use a bite to control people. Training and good management can help keep the dog (and other people) safe.
- Chasing: Many herding dogs will chase anything that moves and that could include other animals, runners, kids on skateboards or bikes, or cars. Movement tends to be the trigger. This can be dangerous because many dogs will become so stimulated that should they catch the person on the skateboard or bike, they may bite. The dangers of chasing cars is obvious. Training and prevention can help keep the dog and other people safe.
- Circling: When you walk somewhere and your ES is off leash, does he run circles around you? Some dogs do it more than others while some just do it when they’re trying to get their owner to go to a particular place. This can be annoying but usually isn’t a problem.
- Poking: Has your ES come up behind you and poked you with his nose in the back of your thigh? That’s called poking or punching. It’s a behavior your dog uses to control a situation or to make an animal move. When your dog does it to you, he’s probably excited and/or trying to steer you. Is it time for a walk? Or time for dinner? It’s a tough behavior to stop completely but with training and clear communication you can put limits on the poking.
- Protectiveness: Herding dogs, including English Shepherds, are watchful and protective. That’s been a part of their job for as long as the breed – and its ancestors – have existed. Good socialization during puppyhood and continued exposure to the world during adulthood will temper the protectiveness.
- Shadow: Friends of mine who also own herding dogs joke that once you get a herding dog, you’ll never – ever! – be alone again. Herding dogs shadow their people and will follow you from room to room, and from inside to outside and back again. Get used to it.
- Walks Behind: A friend of mine wanted to compete in obedience with her English Shepherd and was frustrated because her English Shepherd didn’t want to work in the traditional (and in competition, mandatory) heel position by her side. Instead, her dog wanted to walk just slightly behind her. When I explained where a herding dog worked, then she better understood what her dog was doing. Her dog did learn to heel where she wanted him to heel, but as soon as they walked out of the competition ring, he dropped back to the position he preferred and she understood.
Most herding dog behaviors can be easily managed when they are understood. Just keep in mind that because a herding dog doesn’t have a flock of sheep doesn’t mean he’s no longer a herding dog; he’s just missing his sheep.
Living with Herding Dogs
Living with a herding dog (or two or three) doesn’t have to be difficult. Granted my exposure to living with an English Shepherd so far has just been with Bones, however, he and I share our home with two working lines (versus show lines) Aussies and I have found the three dogs to be more alike than different. I feel that a huge part of successfully living with these dogs is based on an understanding of who the dogs are, what they were bred to do, and what they need.
Exercise is always important, of course. Herding dogs are athletic, agile dogs bred to work hard. If the dog doesn’t get enough exercise he’s going to be more apt to get into trouble. A walk is rarely enough exercise for a young healthy English Shepherd; he’s going to need a good run, a game of fetch, a training session on the agility course, or ideally, all three.
Mental exercise is also important. Training games, trick training, a game of hide and seek, or time playing some of the food dispensing puzzles are all good ways to challenge your dog’s brain.
Herding dogs also do better when they have a job. I don’t live on a farm and don’t have access to livestock but I can still provide my dogs with jobs. Bashir brings in my newspaper every morning. I do tend to read most of the news on my computer but I don’t cancel the paper because he loves that job. Sisko picks up damp towels off the bathroom floor and puts them in the hamper. Yes, it would be easier if I put the towels directly into the hamper myself but he loves his job. Both dogs can pick up their toys and put them in the basket. Both dogs also do obedience training, trick training and are certified therapy dogs. A job helps the dog feel needed and worthwhile and it challenges his brain. Bones’ job right now is learning obedience, agility, trick training, and more. In addition, he keeps track of the kittens I’m fostering when I let them out to run around the house. Kittens don’t herd worth a darn but he lets me know where they are. Perhaps his most important job right now, and one he loves, is therapy dog work with children. He’s patient, calm, forgiving and acts so much older than his two years. I’m so impressed with his skills.
Training is also important. Not only does training teach your dog important rules, such as not stealing food off the counter and sitting at open doorways so he doesn’t dash out, but training also builds a wonderful relationship between the two of you.
You also need to know your dog well enough to know when to protect him from himself. Bashir, for example, is a playground supervisor. He doesn’t like it when other dogs play too rough. If there is too much leaping or growling or flashing of teeth, he wants to break it up. So I will never take Bashir to a dog park or dog beach. It wouldn’t be fair to him because although he has good intentions, he could start a dog fight.
If your dog likes to chase runners or kids on bikes, then your dog needs to be on leash. If your dog likes to herd children, then when your kids’ friends come over to play, put your dog in another room. Know your dog, protect him, and manage him so that he can remain safe.
English Shepherds are herding dogs first and foremost and those instincts will always be there. Granted they are stronger in some dogs more than other but they are present in all English Shepherds to some degree. These dogs need both physical and mental challenges to keep both the body and the mind exercised. They also need obedience training so that the dog understands there are rules he needs to follow, so that he understands his owner can guide his behavior, and so that he and his owner work together as a team.