Caring for herding dogs

Herding dogs are full of energy and love to be out and about, no matter what the weather. They enjoy being trained by you and playing fun games – but how can you make sure this special breed is happy and fulfilled?
Black and white Border Collie sitting with tongue out
Black and white Border Collie sitting with tongue out
Black and white Border Collie sitting with tongue out

Examples of some herding dog breeds in this group include:

  • Border Collies
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgis
  • Bearded Collies
  • Belgian Shepherd Dogs
  • German Shepherd Dogs (see also Guarding Dogs)

Your dog is a Herding Dog if they:

Are very energetic, love long walks, eagerly watch and chase anything that moves, and enjoy retrieving balls and other thrown toys. Herding Dogs are very attentive to you and your signals, and they generally like to keep you in their line of sight. Your Herding Dog will thrive on the fun of reward-based training and can learn many new responses and tricks quickly and easily, which is also a great bonding experience for you both.

Herding dog exercise

If your dog is one of these breeds, they will love exploring the great outdoors – and they certainly have the stamina for it! Originally bred for long working hours in all weathers out in the fields, mountains and hillsides, herding breeds are not put off by wet or cold weather. They’ll love to be walked by you in all seasons, so if you’re up for the challenge, your Livestock Herding Dog will be a wonderful outdoor companion.

Although they love the physical exertion of long walks, mental exercise is equally important for herding dog breeds. Walking the same route day after day might be a bit boring for your intelligent dog, but the concentration and focus required for half an hour of learning new things in new environments, as well as learning how to perform tricks, will leave them happy and fulfilled. Variety is very important to herding dog breeds, so be ready to explore many different environments on your walks – how about beaches, woodland, open fields, hills, or riversides for a change?

As your dog has a natural talent for chasing and herding, a reliable recall is also essential to keep them safely by your side. It will certainly come in handy if you encounter livestock or they start excitedly chasing wildlife when out on walks

Black and white dog running through grass

Independent play

Herding dog breeds are bright and can learn to work independently of their owner, but they usually prefer to keep you - their ‘shepherd’ - in sight. For example, if you are working in the garden and are not able to throw balls for your canine friend to fetch, they will often be happy to play independently and move the ball around for themselves. If left alone with nothing to amuse them, they will often devise their own activities – be it herding the family cat, chasing their own tail or barking to call you back to play with them!

Be aware that once they know what to do to get your attention, their behaviour will be repeated and can become problematic – so stay firm, no matter how adorable their ‘puppy dog’ eyes are!

Playing with your herding dog

Black and white Border Collie catching pink frisbee

Your herding dog breed loves to work and play with their human family. They are quite time-intensive dogs, needing a good deal of stimulation each day to compensate for not working full-time with cattle or sheep. As they were originally working dog breeds, they naturally want to keep busy!

On slower, off-lead walks your dog will often circle the family, naturally herding everyone to ensure there are no-one is left behind. They love playing ‘hide and seek’ with you; if one of your group hides, your herder will quickly notice their absence, and will run off to find them. Children often love this game, and many herding breeds don’t need to be taught how to play, as searching and herding comes so naturally to them.

Your dog will probably also take naturally to a good game of ‘fetch’; some Border Collies especially will bring you a tennis ball or a frisbee to throw endlessly! Don’t expect your dog to stop playing when they are tired: their enthusiasm means they will just keep on until you stop, so be careful not to go beyond your dog’s limits. Excessive jumping to catch frisbees can cause joint problems, and injuries can occur if they land awkwardly or stop suddenly, so be aware of your dog’s age, fitness and capabilities. Although it seems like a natural thing to do, don’t throw sticks for your dog, as they can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening injuries.

In general, herding dogs are fairly clever dogs, and they are quick to learn with reward-based training – handy for you, and fun for your dog, too! Train them at any opportunity throughout the day, as ‘little-and-often’ sessions will keep their brains ticking over far more effectively than longer, less frequent sessions. However, try not to over-stimulate them with endless new experiences – they need time to relax just like anyone, and if they can switch off sometimes, they’ll have more fun and perform better later.

Emotional bonding

Dogs of this type sometimes bond strongly with one person, but they can enjoy the company of all members of their human family. It is a good idea to ensure that all family members play with your dog and everyone feeds them, but especially trains and exercises them, so that they don’t become reliant on one person. Livestock Herding dogs can also form great bonds with other dogs in the home and, given enough early socialisation and training, with cats as well! (If your pet is a German Shepherd, you might want to read about Guarding Dogs too – the German Shepherd temperament [Link to ‘Guarding Dogs’ article] gives them a lot on common with these breeds.)

Your clever Livestock Herding Dog is well-attuned to your moods, and tends to respond well when you’re calm and signal your intentions clearly. For example, if there is a loud, unexpected noise, your dog will probably look to you and assess your reaction. If you are calm, they will be reassured that there is nothing amiss; but if you look anxious, or make a fuss of them in an attempt to comfort them, your dog is more likely to become anxious in future.

Making your dog part of your everyday life is important – they will love pottering around the house and garden with you, ‘helping’ where they can. Give your helper little jobs, such as putting their toys in a box at the end of a play session, or fetching named items (slippers, their grooming brush, their lead, the post) as your dog is highly trainable and very willing to work for you. Being well-socialised and well-trained, your herding dog will also be a pleasure to take out on visits to dog-friendly cafés, gardens, pubs and to see friends. People are sure to love your dog’s friendly and energetic demeanour, and lots of attention will be forthcoming!

At the end of a busy day, your herding dog will like nothing better than to lie at your feet or beside you on the sofa, snoozing and enjoying the occasional stroke. Physical contact is important to this type of dog, so they may put their head on your feet or lap, or simply lean against you if you stand still. Return the compliment by grooming your dog regularly. Not only will daily grooming ensure that any debris picked up from forays into the countryside is removed, and any skin and coat health issues detected early, it will also be a relaxing bonding experience for you both.


Black, white and tan longhaired dog running

It is important that your loving dog is taught self-reliance from an early age so they don’t become over-dependent on your constant physical presence, as this can lead to separation-related problems. Get your pet used to short periods of being on their own from as early an age as possible, separating yourself from them in another room from time to time, even when you are in the house. Provide a comfortable den-like indoor kennel (sometimes called a crate) or a cosy dog bed in a quiet room where your canine friend can snooze or chew a safe favourite toy on their own. Exercise them before you need to leave them alone in the house, so they are toileted and ready to relax. To keep your pet occupied, why not hide a treat-filled chew-toy for them to find and then work on to keep them busy?

Some herding dog breeds - particularly the Collie breeds, with their loving Collie temperament – can be persistent in their attempts to solicit attention. Training periods of ‘non-contact’ can teach your dog that no attention will be given when a certain visual marker is provided, such as a scarf hanging over a doorknob or a particular ornament sitting on a table. This really helps with managing the bond you enjoy with your dog, as they won’t expect attention and then be frustrated when you cannot give it to them. This way, your dog won’t become a nuisance and will get just as much attention as you want to give them; they just won’t be dependent on it for their happiness.

Your dog will have strong natural guarding instincts, especially types of Shepherd dogs such as German and Belgian Shepherd Dogs, and will often patrol their boundaries in the garden and will be alert to any noise, indoors and outdoors. Thorough socialisation with people when young is important, as well as throughout their life so that your dog happily accepts visitors.

Teaching your canine friend to ‘shush’ on request after a knock at the door will stop them barking excessively at every noise. Herding dogs may become possessive over toys, food, beds and other resources (including you) if they feel threatened, which is another reason why early socialisation is a good idea. Training your dog to ‘give’ their toys - or indeed any object on request - is quite easy if you can offer an even better item, such as a treat, in return! See our page on Guarding Dogs for more information.

Herding dog nutrition

Most types of herding dog aren’t as preoccupied with dog as other types of dog, but food rewards, particularly high-value treats (such as tasty rewards that are given rarely), usually work well when teaching new training exercises.

If your herder isn’t especially food-motivated, try simple verbal praise to reinforce their behaviour. Alternatively, some Herders will work very hard to learn new tricks in return for a game with their favourite tug toy or ball. Experiment and see what works best for your dog, and try to use a variety of different rewards to hold their interest up and make it enjoyable for your both.

If your dog has dry food, about a quarter of their daily allowance can be used as training rewards if they are food-motivated – there’s nothing like a tasty treat to get their interest up! Another quarter can be offered in safe treat-dispensing toys for your dog to play with throughout the day, both indoors and out. A further quarter can be scattered around the garden for your dog to seek out on dry days, making a fun game to keep them occupied.

Feeding your dog this way makes them work for their food, which is satisfying for them, and occupies them for longer. The remaining amount of their daily allowance should be fed in two meals every day (morning and evening) so they will always see you as a ‘parental’ food provider. Ask all family members to take on this role in turn, so they can all benefit from the resulting strengthened bond with your dog.

If your dog eats wet food, use other more convenient treats as rewards in training, but be careful to include them when calculating your dog’s daily food requirements. Your dog is happiest on at least two meals per day, but only one of these needs to be a large ‘main’ meal. Half of their allowance can be split into smaller portions, reserved for more ‘active’ feeding that requires them to seek their food out – much more fun!

Your dog will be opening to training to bring you their bowl at these feeding times (unless it is ceramic and therefore too heavy). You can even go a step further with many herding dogs and train them to put washed bowls away in the cupboard afterwards!

As long as you are following feeding guidelines (see your dog food packaging to find out more) and monitoring your dog’s weight, don’t worry if it looks like there isn’t much left for mealtime. Provided they have had their daily allocation and you are feeding your dog a complete diet, they will have all the right nutrients to keep them strong.

Just follow these tips to keep your unique Livestock Herder dog happy and fulfilled, and they won’t be the only one to benefit – you and your whole family will have a faithful, energetic companion for a long time to come!

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If you’d like more information on Livestocker Herders, or have any other queries, contact our PETCARE EXPERT TEAM