Taking your dog, herding dog or not, for a walk in the neighborhood is just what you do, right? Your dog needs exercise. Your dog needs to potty. Going for a walk makes sense. With the exception of buying a leash and a collar or harness, it’s free. Seems like a no-brainer. Well, not necessarily.

Reconsidering the Neighborhood Walk

Is it stressful to walk your herding dog in your suburban neighborhood? For you and your dog. Are you constantly watching for the sudden appearance of dogs or bikes or even other people? When it comes to surprises, some dogs bark first and ask questions later. That’s known as sudden environmental contrast. And we see it a lot in herding dogs. After all, we did selectively breed for this trait. We needed our herding dogs to by acutely aware of the slightest indication that sheep number 73 was about to make a break for it. This hypersensitivity to movement is a great asset for shepherds trying to move sheep from one pasture to another. However, it’s not needed in the suburbs.

In fact, this hypersensitivity to movement can be outright dangerous. Rounding up sheep is not without its risks, but chasing cars almost never ends well for the dog. “Problem behaviors” like chasing cars and bikes, barking at the sudden appearance of other dogs, and nipping at the feet of kids on the playground are all examples of misplaced herding behavior. The behavior itself is what we bred them to do. But then we took them out of the environment in which this behavior was useful and plunked them into one that was much less suitable.

What About Training?

You might be thinking that we could train our herding dogs to behave more appropriately for the environment. And you’re not wrong. Training is absolutely PART of the solution. Why only part? Because training takes time. Regardless of how you go about it, training a dog is not like installing new software. It’s more like writing the code for that software. Not only does it take time, but you’re probably going to need to do some debugging.

Another reason that training is only part of the solution to your herding dog’s issues with neighborhood walks is genetics. We bred these dogs to be hyperaware of changes in their surroundings, to control the movement of other beings, and to work long hours. Just because we pulled them out of the pastures and put them in the suburbs doesn’t change that. Breeding our herding dogs for these traits means that these behaviors are natural or instinctual. They NEED to do these things. Training our herding dogs to not do these things in a particular environment does not negate their need to do them at all.

Physical Activity and Mental Stimulation

Let’s be clear. By “working long hours,” I do not just mean lots of physical activity. The traditional work of herding dogs also requires problem-solving skills. Our herding dogs need physical activity and mental stimulation (in addition to rest… which is a whole other discussion). And we need to be honest: walks in the neighborhood just won’t cut it for many herding dogs.

So, in addition to all that pesky sudden movement that can set our herding dogs off in the suburbs (aka stress), neighborhood walks typically do not provide the appropriate quality of physical and mental stimulation. They NEED alternatives. Like what? It’s no accident that people chose border collies as agility partners. Agility requires the dog to concentrate and focus (on the obstacles and the handler) while moving fast.

Agility is not the only activity that will hit the mark. Herding dogs can and do compete in a wide range of dog sports: obedience, rally, nosework, dock diving, barn hunt, canicross, disc dog, and more. If you don’t have the time, money, or desire to do dog sports, look into activities like hiking and sheepballs.

The bottom line is you and your herding dog will be much better off if you replace those neighborhood walks with activities for which they are better suited in environments that are less overstimulating. So, go find those activities that you and your herding dog long and tell me how it goes.

And if you need help on the training side of things, find out how to work with me.