I won’t come as a shock to you that I’ve met, and worked with, a lot of herding dogs. Before specializing in herding dogs, I worked with a wide variety of dog breeds. Hell, I live with two dogs who aren’t herding dogs. Let me be very clear: GENETICS absolutely matter! Not recognizing this might lead to you making some training mistakes.

Breed Matters

There is a segment of the population who would have you believe that it’s “all in how you raise/train them.” But no amount of training can undo genetics. We can use training to balance genetics to some degree, but no amount of training will give my spaniel mix the same desire to herd sheep. She’s pretty damn smart, and she’s incredibly food-driven, so I can teach her A LOT of things. However, she is just not hardwired with those traits and characteristics required for herding sheep.

On the flip side, my border collie is never going to be as independent as my other dogs. A highly-valued trait in border collies and other herding dogs is their desire to work cooperatively with humans. He is ready to go when I am. Even if I’m just getting a cup of tea. My other dogs aren’t moving until they know what’s in it for them.

Training Mistakes

Once we’ve established that all dogs are not the same, I’m going to argue that all dogs should not be trained in the same way. Hold on. Before you get mad at me, I don’t mean this in the way you might think.

Positive reinforcement does work with all dogs. Read that a few more times so I don’t have to retype it. I’ll wait.

That said, breed does matter in your training. Furthermore, individual personality matters. However, we can make some general statements about herding dogs and training. (I’ll fully admit that there are going to be exceptions so there’s no need to flood my inbox with this information.) In particular, let’s talk about some common techniques that often backfire with herding dogs.

  1. Incorrect choice of rewards. Using positive reinforcement to train a new behavior means rewarding the behavior that you like in the hopes that your dog will repeat the behavior. If you’ve ever taken a group class, the instructor has almost certainly talked about using high-value rewards to teach challenging behaviors like loose-leash walking. However, most herding dogs value one thing over almost any type of food: movement. Being able to keep moving is usually much more rewarding than using food to teach loose-leash walking. To be sure, both food and toys are valuable reinforcers in training some behaviors. Just remember that your herding dog also values movement.
  2. Trying to replace herding with sniffing or food. Canine enrichment is a bit topic these days. I think many people think of sniffy walks and food puzzles when they hear the term canine enrichment. But it’s better to think of enrichment as a way to meet your dog’s natural/instinctual needs. While sniffing and food puzzles can certainly provide some mental stimulation for herding dogs, it still misses the mark. Your herding dog needs more movement. They need a combination of physical activity and mental stimulation, sometimes high intensity. Some activities that are better replacements for herding include Sheepballs, agility, herding flatwork with a flirt pole, and off-leash hikes.
  3. Fetching balls. I saved the best for last. Playing fetch with a ball can create a wide range of problems. It’s rather repetitive and mindless so your herding dog is not getting that mental stimulation. Herding dogs can get obsessed with the ball to the point that they cannot focus on anything else. Since you are always sending your herding dog away from you to get the ball, you are teaching them that the fun is out there and not with you. This can absolutely destroy your herding dog’s recall. Instead play with a tug toy or flirt pole so that the action is with you: fun things happen with you so why would they want to run away.

If you have made any of these training mistakes with your herding dog, you’re certainly not alone. But I will challenge you to make some changes. And then report back to me with the results.

That’ll do for now.