Why Does Your Herding Dog Do That? It Depends…

I get that question a lot. If you ask me that about a specific dog and a particular behavior, my answer, as a Family Dog Mediator, is that a dog is a product of its L.E.G.S.

  • L = Learning. This is the dog’s experience, training, and education.
  • E = Environment. This is the world around the dog.
  • G = Genetics. This is the dog’s DNA.
  • S = Self. This is the dog’s inner world (health, development, age, sex, individuality).

So, to tell you why your herding dog does that particular thing, I am going to need more information and context. While the question sounds simple, the answer can be much more complex.

We can make some generalizations though. Generations of artificial selection have created many breeds of dogs with specific traits or tendencies. We have intentionally bred dogs who possess traits that we like while preventing the reproduction of, or even culling, those with undesirable traits. But dogs are not robots. We cannot simply program them to perform certain behaviors without any variability. DNA doesn’t work that way. But by breeding dogs with certain characteristics or traits, we tip the odds in favor of producing offspring with similar characteristics.

A Brief History of Herding Dogs

In our quest for herding dogs, what characteristics were we selecting for? As livestock were being domesticated (as early as 55 B.C.), humans needed dogs to help protect and move large groups of animals. The first dogs used for herding were likely primitive breeds (medium-sized Asian and norther Spitz breeds) whose primary role was protecting and hunting but could also be used for “course herding.” By course herding, I mean chasing, barking at, moving, or preventing movement of herd animals without attacking them.

However, protecting animals and moving them are behaviors that are often at odds. So begins the process of creating specialists. Livestock guardian dogs were developed to protect livestock and NOT chase livestock. With migration and trade spreading across Eurasia, shepherds needed another specialist, herding dogs, to efficiently and effectively organize and move livestock. These herding dogs were selectively bred for

  • high awareness of environment and hypersensitivity to movement;
  • strong instinct to stalk and chase, while not harming, moving animals;
  • athleticism and ability to work long hours in sometimes inhospitable environments;
  • responsiveness to human instruction so animals could be moved where we needed them to go.

This selection occurred over many generations of dogs and involved a fair bit of trial-and-error.

The Consequences of Our Own Actions

As we went, we made these herding dogs even more specialized, depending on the livestock, climate, conditions, and circumstances. Did we need to move sheep or cattle? Did we need to gather the livestock or drive them? So many specialties, so many breeds. More recently, we’ve even created more specialized “human herders” for military and police work. In general though, these herders have some common traits:

  • responsiveness to handler;
  • tendency for intense barking;
  • acute awareness to changes in environment;
  • reactivity to movement;
  • high motivation to work.

All of that is awesome when our herding dogs have jobs that take advantage of those characteristics. If you put these same dogs in more urban environments without providing them an appropriate outlet for these innate behaviors, we have a fish out of water, so to speak. We label their behavior as problematic. But really we have a dog doing what we bred them for in an environment that is less than ideal. And that’s where I come in. My job is to help you bridge that gap.

That’ll do for now!