My Dog Does This Thing…

As a dog training professional*, I get this type of question a lot: “Why does my herding dog do XYZ?” XYZ is some behavior, something the herding dog does somewhat consistently. Clients are typically motivated to ask such questions for one of two reasons.

  1. They are amused by their herding dog’s weirdness and are curious to know where this odd behavior comes from.
  2. They find the behavior annoying or obnoxious. It’s a problem behavior, and they want it to stop.

It’s interesting to note that two different clients can view the same behavior in very different light. For example, my border collie tries to herd (control the movement of) my cat. Maybe yours does too. So is this amusing? Or is this a problem behavior? And how would you decide?

Before we take a deep dive into that, let me be clear that I am not talking about behaviors that are rooted in fear, anxiety, pain, or the like. In those cases, the underlying issue is most certainly a problem in terms of your herding dog’s quality of life if not also for the resulting behaviors. Also, if a behavior can result in harm to your herding dog, another dog, another animal, you, or other people, then it is certainly a problem. Please seek the help of a behavior specialist (like me!) in such cases.

Why Are Some Behaviors Problematic?

What kinds of behaviors are labeled as problems by some people and not others? Oh, the list is quite long. Some things that my dogs do that others would outrage some people: digging holes in the yard, jumping on people to greet, barking when the doorbell rings, counter-surfing. Seriously outraged. I once posted a video of my dogs digging a hole in my yard. The caption I included with the video said something about providing an appropriate outlet for this very natural behavior. Of course, someone had to comment “NO DIGGING!” [Insert eye rolling here.]

How about behaviors that are more specific to herding dogs? Like trying to herd the cat? Or chasing cars, bikes, and skateboards? Or overreacting when a guest gets up to use the bathroom? You can probably think of a few more.

Let’s go back to why our dogs do the things they do. I’ve mentioned a dog’s L.E.G.S.** before:

  • Learning: a dog’s experience, education, training.
  • Environment: a dog’s external world.
  • Genetics: a dog’s DNA.
  • Self: a dog’s internal world (age, health, sex, individuality).

My herding dog’s DNA makes some behaviors much more likely. We bred them to help us organize and move livestock. We needed them to be hyper-aware of movement so they could detect sheep #327 trying to make a break for it. From the herding dog’s perspective, a guest getting up to use the bathroom is not all that different.

I’m going to argue that the dog’s behavior is not the real problem. The actual problem is the dog’s environment. More precisely, we’ve mismatched the dog’s genetics and environment. Our herding dogs were bred for a more rural environment full of sheep and cattle. For a lot of herding dogs, that’s not the environment they live in. For example, I live in a house with a tiny yard, and my numerous neighbors live very close. Within a block or two are an apartment complex, a couple of bus stops, and a bike path. That’s a lot of movement for a herding dog to control.

What To Do About “Problem” Behaviors

Now that we know that these “problem” behaviors are often caused by a dog’s genetics being at odds with the world they live in, are we just stuck with the problem? Do we have to move? Or re-home the dog?

Before we do anything so extreme, let’s consider our herding dog’s L.E.G.S. again. Our herding dog’s genetics and environment might be mismatched, but we can leverage their learning to offset some of that. Ask yourself: what do I want my dog to do instead? When a person on a bike rides by, what do you want your herding dog to do? Be specific. Instead of saying “not chase,” pick an action that you can train your dog: sit, lie down, look at you, walk away from the bike. And then train that behavior.

I also strongly encourage you to give your herding dog an appropriate outlet for those innate behaviors. Their DNA is still telling them to chase and control movement. What activities can your provide for your herding dog to satisfy those needs. A few activities to consider depending on where you live and your interests: herding lessons, disc dog (frisbee), and treibball.

The bottom line is that many so-called “problem” behaviors are natural herding dog behaviors applied to the wrong setting. The ideal solution will involve teaching your dog what you’d rather have them do in that situation and giving them an appropriate outlet for that natural behavior. If you’re not sure how to do that, contact me!

That’ll do for now!

* I’m trying this label on for size. Bear with me.

** Check out Kim Brophy’s book Meet Your Dog for more info on L.E.G.S.