What is Herding

Herding is the controlled movement of livestock.

Below is a reprint of Joe’s May 2005 column for Front & Finish Dog Training Magazine. (and it is just as true today)


  • Builds confidence
  • Puts control on your dog despite distractions
  • Makes you and your dog a team
  • Prepares your dog to work in variable situations
  • Conditions your dog to accept people and other dogs
  • Can help work through behavioral problems
  • Great exercise

Joe working a Samoyed (aka Sammy) for its first time on sheep.

Builds confidence

 The first time I put a dog or puppy on stock I can tell if that dog is leery of life in general. There have been some dogs whom I’ve had to literally pull through the arena gate so they could work stock. After I prove to the dog the stock are more afraid of them than they are of the stock, the dog’s entire attitude changes before my eyes. After herding, the dog pulls out on the end of the leash and walks with a confident step. The dog welcomes new people, dogs, and situations as a new adventure instead of being apprehensive of life the way they had been. The next time the dog goes through the arena gate he’s pulling me to get in as quickly as possible.

Many breeders bring their pups out to me a few times even when they have no plans to herd in the future. They see major results. The outcome of building confidence is reason enough to try herding and it’s a great way to socialize your dog if done properly.

Control despite distractions

As you progress in herding you need to be able to call your dog off the stock and also to stop your dog around the stock. If sheep can run past your dog and your dog keeps its stay, then that’s good control of your dog. Your dog should behave better at home and everywhere else because you can call him off stock. Many students have told me their dog is more reliably in control in everyday life now because of herding.

Some newcomers to herding say, “Oh, but aren’t the dogs only working naturally?” Yes, but the dog won’t be controlled if not taught commands. You’d be very limited as to what you could do and herding would be rough if the dog only worked naturally. You need commands and training on the dog to complete the natural herding instincts within him.

Makes you & your dog a team

 I’ve quit being surprised by the fact that many owners don’t really like their dogs at times. For some, it’s a strange love/hate relationship. They love their dogs but feel hurt, frustrated and disappointed to the point that they dislike their dog. It’s all about control. They want the dog to behave a certain way and the owners go about it in a way that the dog does not understand. The result is that the dog does not perform the expected behavior and the owners feel out of control. Because of this, they dislike the dog. It comes across to me as they talk about the dog. But then in the next breath, they will say something positive about the dog. They don’t want me to think their dog is all bad.

In herding, there has to be a breakthrough in the owner’s attitude toward the dog in order for the dog to make any progress. When the owner reaches the point where there hasn’t been much progress, he is usually ready to follow my instructions. Up until then the owner is usually inconsistent or isn’t believable to the dog. Three things can happen:  the owner finally becomes angry enough to follow my instructions, he will quit herding altogether or he will remain the same and will make little ( if any) progress.

The possibility of the owner and dog becoming a team is exciting. But the owner’s attitude has to change. The attitude that a dog will not like its owner if he is corrected is ridiculous. The dog has to be corrected in herding training or the handler will never have control of the stock. It’s the dog who will have the control. Becoming a team is the ultimate feeling. It’s dog and man together taking on a problem and getting a job done. Becoming a team with your dog is knowing when to praise and help your dog and when to correct. Not giving enough praise can be as detrimental as not correcting properly. Each dog is different and handling the dog with the right tone of voice and with the proper body language is a learned art. But for the handler who keeps working, there is a big reward for his patience and perseverance. Some people and dogs pick it up quickly and others may take years but the end reward is well worth the time and energy.

Trace the Shetland Sheepdog and his owner Clare doing herding demo

Prepares your dog to work under many conditions

Herding in the real world usually takes place outside in all kinds of weather. City dogs that have never gone through puddles usually learn to do so or they become fair-weather herders. I find if the owner doesn’t mind puddles, the dog won’t either. Owners transmit their attitudes to their dogs.

 Many stock trailers echo and bang noisily. Dogs putting stock in and out of trailers need to overcome their concerns about such noises. Farm machinery, such as tractors, can be in use at some herding establishments. Where there is stock, there is work. Work usually doesn’t stop for lessons. “Let’s make it quiet now for the herding lessons. Please cease all farm noise.” That is absurd.

Accustoms dogs to people & other dogs

Our herding lessons include interaction with other dogs and people. We trade dogs and go for walks to get the dogs away from their owners. These dogs learn to be at ease with most everyone and are therefore not unnecessarily dependent upon their owners for their well-being. Dogs need to learn to accept people and other dogs who approach them. Dogs need to have good manners while living in modern society. With the “throw away-hurry up-quick fix” mentality we now possess, dogs will not be tolerated long if they don’t get along with family, friends and other dogs. I get too many calls from people looking for homes for their dogs because of behavioral problems. THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HERDING. PEOPLE NEED TO MAKE THEIR DOGS BEHAVE IN THE SOCIETY IN WHICH WE NOW LIVE.

Pippa the Belgian Terv herding sheep

Can help work through behavioral problems

I can’t tell you how many dogs come to me first for this problem rather than for herding lessons. Many students have become regulars only after they have come to me for help with their dog. The behavioral problems run the gamut:  snapping at the owner, at kids or strangers, not tolerating being brushed, won’t get in the car, etc. etc. etc. Most of these problems begin with the owners not having taken charge of the dog from the very beginning. Again we go back to the love/hate relationship. The owner cannot be afraid of the dog even a little or the dog will sense it.

In herding, the handlers decide where they want to take the stock and command the dog accordingly. If the handler needs to force the dog to take a command, but won’t, the dog has won the battle. The owner is then not completely in charge of the dog. If there are situations where the owner is afraid of the dog, it will be obvious in their herding training.

I don’t just teach herding. I have to teach people to understand dogs. People tend to humanize dogs and to make excuses for them instead of conquering their fear of their own dog. It can be that the dog snaps at the owner during nail clipping or brushing or when the dog is corrected for barking. Whatever the problem, if the owner doesn’t control the dog in other areas of their life together, then the dog will not be under control while herding.

When people progress in herding, it’s because the owner and the dog each know their place and are happier for it.

Great exercise

Herding requires stamina. Dogs become mentally drained because they are concentrating so completely on the task at hand. Dogs can be in great shape after only one week of herding when they are kept on a proper diet in order to maintain appropriate fitness and weight. Heavy dogs will tire quickly so people should keep their dogs trim. A little fat over the rib cage is fine. I don’t like a dog that’s too skinny. I think some people go to the extreme with this. A dog needs a little fat in case it becomes ill. I live by that philosophy. Following this premise…I myself can be sick a long, long ti

In Summary

Herding, when done correctly, and working a dog at its own pace is overall a good thing for him at any age. “When is a good age to begin herding?” I’m constantly asked this question. I’ve had eight-week-old pups to thirteen-year-old dogs come out to herd. As long as they’re healthy, herding can be a good thing for them.

Now that I have explained all the positive reasons why herding is good for your dog, I will tell you the most crucial element for successful training – the herding instructor. Warning:  Herding can be detrimental to your dog if you place him in the wrong hands.

Thought Of The Month:  When life gets you down, take your dog for a walk.

Well, until next month, HAPPY HERDING, for it’s time for me to go “AWAY” and say “GO-BYE.”