Herding dogs

Herding dogs made livestock farming, wool industry possible


Like a tiger stalking its prey, the Border Collie moved slowly, ever so slowly, behind the sheep, pressuring them to move towards the gate. A shrill whistle split the air; the dog dropped into the grass, barely visible but still focused on his charges. The sheep milled about as if uncertain; another whistle and the dog moved up, each footfall a study in slow motion. The sheep moved forward again, this time reaching the gate and passing through; the farmer swung the gate closed and whistled the dog to his side.

There is little that is more thrilling than watching the special partnership between a man and a dog in the field. Making the most of interspecies communication, these teams epitomize a working relationship that has fostered livestock farming for hundreds of years. Without herding dogs, there would have been no British or Australian wool industry and farmers throughout the Old World would have been hard put to get sheep and cattle to pasture and market.

Livestock farming is a hard life today, but not so hard as it was a century and more ago when dog breeds developed to help husband the herds and flocks that sustained families and began an agricultural revolution by bringing meat, milk, cheese, leather, and wool to market. Herding breeds were born in the countries now known as England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Australia, and Israel. The US is home to two herding breeds, and the native people in Siberia and the western Arctic contributed two reindeer herders.

As with hunting dogs, herding and driving dogs developed in each region had their own sets of skills. Some were specialists at gathering sheep in rolling terrain. Some drove livestock to market down country lanes and through village streets. Two drove and herded reindeer. Some worked cattle, some kept to sheep, and some did both. And a few breeds developed to guard as well as drive and herd.

These brief looks at the herding breeds barely skim the surface of these remarkable dogs, but they provide a starting point for those who like to know more. Most of these breeds retain their herding instincts and may nip at the heels of children or herd other pets in the family. When considering the purchase of a herding breed, make sure to ask the breeder about screening for hip dysplasia and eye diseases to lessen chances of buying a puppy with joint or vision problems.

This list is far from complete. It includes only the better-known herding dogs, in part because of a dearth of information about many breeds and in part because it would take a book to sketch them all.

Australian Cattle Dog

This hardy, pint-sized herding dog was instrumental in building the cattle industry in its native country. Reaching 18-20 inches in height, this muscular breed weighs less than 50 pounds, yet is capable of working equally tough range cattle many times his size. Independent, alert, and courageous, he is well-suited for rough Australian terrain and climate.

The Australian Cattle Dog developed from smooth-coated blue merle Collies crossed with Dingos and from subsequent crosses of the pups with Dalmatians and Black and Tan Kelpies, a native herding dog used on sheep. Collies and Kelpies gave herding ability, Dingos gave toughness and silent working technique, and Dalmatians gave loyalty and guarding ability. The red or blue speckled coat came from crossing the Collie’s blue merle with the Dalmatian’s black or liver spots.

Also known as the Queensland Heeler, the Australian Cattle Dog is an active family pet who needs exercise, attention, and a job. He needs an experienced owner and prefers a family with older children. Deafness can be a problem.

Australian Kelpie

Another specialist from down under, the Kelpie challenges the Border Collie for top Type A canine personality. Show a Kelpie a sheep and he’s rarin’ to go; if there’s no livestock, he’ll herd anything that moves – including children and pets.

The Kelpie uses “eye” to control sheep and nips more difficult-to-handle cattle. He works thousands of sheep at a time, often running over their backs of tight-knit flocks to get to the other side. Although he may range over thousands of acres to collect the sheep, he excels in close work in the paddocks, helping to move the sheep through series of gates with a minimum of fuss.

The Kelpie is 17-23 inches tall with a muscular body, upright ears, and a long tail. His short, double coat is black, blue, or red, perhaps with tan markings, or solid tan. Developed from Scottish dogs brought to Australia and named after Kelpie – Scottish for “sprite” – the first of these dogs to enter Australia, the Kelpie is hardy, happy, and playful. Given sufficient exercise and play that is mentally-stimulating, the Kelpie can adjust to life as a pet.

Australian Shepherd

This breed actually developed in the US but got its name from the Basque shepherds who came to this country from Australia. However, the breed’s ancestors likely came from the Basque region of Spain and Portugal, the original home of the sheepherders.

The breed was developed by ranchers as a herding dog and horseman’s companion and filled both jobs admirably. His herding style is similar to the Border Collie but he is not as intense. The Aussie is hard-working, versatile, intelligent, adaptable dog still used to herd livestock in the western US and compete in herding trials.

Although active by nature, he adjusts well to family life if given sufficient exercise and attention. Medium-sized, the Aussie ranges from 20-23 inches tall (bitches are a bit smaller) and weighs 45-65 pounds. He has a medium-length coat in blue merle, red, red merle, or black, often with tan markings or white markings. His tail is bobbed.

The Aussie is good with kids and takes well to obedience training, but may have an independent streak. Deafness can be a problem in merles.

Bearded Collie

A native of Scotland, the Beardie is both a herder of sheep and a drover of cattle and sheep. His harsh overcoat and soft, furry undercoat suit him to work in the rainy, cold climate of his homeland, and his independence and skill made him an invaluable worker, especially when driving recalcitrant cattle.

Beardies are relative latecomers to the US, where he is prized mostly as a show dog and pet. The first US litter of this old British breed was born in 1967.

The Beardie is a light-hearted, gentle, active breed reaching 22 inches at the shoulder and weighing 45-55 pounds. He is well-suited for families with children as long as he gets appropriate exercise and considerate training. He may try to herd people by nipping at their heels. His coat is naturally parted down the back and hangs down his sides. He must be brushed regularly to prevent matting. Pups are born black, blue, brown, or fawn with or without white markings. The coat color can lighten as the dogs mature.

Belgian shepherd dogs

There are four dogs from Belgium in the herding group: the Lakenois, the Malinois, the Turveren, and the Groenendael. The breeds have common ancestry and differ mainly in coat type and color. Developed by breeders in and around the city of Malines, the short-coated Malinois was most popular of the four, but each of the breeds impressed observers with their versatility as shepherds, watchdogs, police dogs, and war dogs.

In the US, the Malinois has won praise for his search and rescue work and his abilities as a police dog. The Tervuren and Groenendael (aka Belgian Sheepdog) are also known in the US for their working abilities, but the Lakenois is hardly known in this country.

The Belgian dogs are 24-26 inches tall and weigh 60-75 pounds. Bitches are a bit smaller than dogs. They are intelligent, serious dogs, better suited to experienced owners and families with older children. They can be aggressive to other dogs and to small animals.

The Malinois has a short coat in a range of rich brown hues with black-tipped hairs, and his face and ears are black. The Groenendael is long-coated and black; the Tervuren is long-coated and fawn to mahogany with black tipped hairs and black face and ears. The Lakenois is rough-coated and lighter colored (from fawn or sable to gray) sometimes with a bit of white on the chest or toes and always with black-tipped hairs. All four are double-coated.

[More on Belgian sheep-herding dogs]

Border Collie

The Border Collie is a specialist. He herds sheep in his own particular way, using his hypnotic eye and carefully controlled prey drive to pressure the sheep into moving.

Developed in the border country between England and Scotland, this dog has a fierce following among those who appreciate his dedication, talent, and athletic ability. These qualities have made the Border Collie a sought-after obedience and agility dog and his legendary intelligence has fooled many families into thinking he’d make an obedient pet. However, unless one is prepared to give this dog the body and mind exercise he needs, the Border Collie should be at the bottom of the list as a family companion.

The Border Collie is 19-22 inches tall and weighs 30-50 pounds. He is generally black and white but red, blue, chocolate are also acceptable with or without white or tan markings. He is double-coated for weather resistance; the outer coat can be short or long.

[More on border collies]

Bouvier des Flandres

The Bouvier is another all-round agricultural dog, for he can herd, guard, and drive cattle, pull a milk cart to market, and protect his family. There are only guesses as to the origin of the breed; he likely developed from the large, rough-coated bobtailed farm dogs of the Belgian and Dutch lowlands and became the “Cattle dog of Flandres” around the turn of the 20th Century.

Courageous, steady, responsible, and fun-loving, the Bouvier is a large dog (up to 27.5 inches tall and 65-100 pounds) with a streak of independence. Although he is good with children and responsive to gentle obedience training, his somewhat dominant personality needs a firm hand.

The Bouvier has a double coat that shrugs off the harshest weather. The outer coat is rough and forms a beard and mustache on his face. The undercoat is soft. Preferred colors range from fawn to black and include salt-and-pepper, gray, and brindle.


A very old French herding breed, the Briard is both shepherd and guardian. An enthusiastic and versatile worker, the Briard is also an expert tracker and hunter and served the military as a sentry and messenger. Bright, steady, and independent, he needs a firm hand as he can be dominant to people and aggressive to other animals if given the chance. He needs a fair amount of exercise, early socialization, and consistent obedience training.

The Briard is black, gray, or tawny, is 23-27 inches tall, and weighs up to 100 pounds. His outer coat is at least six inches long, lightly wavy, and coarse to the touch. The undercoat is short and tight. The hair on the head parts naturally in the center; the ears are covered with long hair that gives them a distinctive look.

[More on Briards]

Canaan Dog

A newcomer to AKC, the Canaan Dog is still feral in its native Israel. An ancient breed, he herded and guarded the flocks of the Israelites, a job he still holds today among the Bedouin and Druze tribes in the Near East.

At first glance, the Canaan Dog does not appear to be purebred, for his curled tail, muscular body, pointed muzzle, and upright ears could belong to mixes of many types. However, the breed is gaining recognition as people learn of its intelligence, trainable character, and hardy constitution.

The Canaan Dog is medium-sized (19-24 inches tall, 35-55 pounds), good with children, and multi-talented. His outer coat is short and harsh; undercoat is soft and very short. He can be predominantly white with black, sandy, red, or liver patches or solid color with or without white trim.

Along with his skills as a herding dog, the Canaan Dog is a trustworthy watchdog, military sentry, land mine locator, and messenger and does well in obedience and agility competitions.

[More on Canaan dogs]


Born and bred in Scotland, the Collie comes in two coat types – the lush long coat of Lassie, known as the rough coat, and a smooth-coated version in the same colors.

The Collie can gather sheep and bring them to the shepherd and drive the sheep ahead of the shepherd to the barn or market. Tender as a rule but tough when necessary, they are calm with lambs but may body-check rams and cattle to keep them under control. Many Collies are noisy workers.

The Collie is 22-26 inches at the shoulder and weighs 50-75 pounds. Bitches are smaller than dogs. The breed is good with children, easy-going, moderately easy to train, sensitive, and dignified. Some Collies are high-strung and must be accustomed to strangers at an early age.

The luxurious long coat of the Rough Collie can be tri-color (black with white and tan markings), sable, blue merle, or mostly white with color patches. The white ruff and white markings on chest, legs, feet, and tip of tail are distinctive. The Smooth Collie has the same colors and patterns in a short, dense coat; both types have an abundant undercoat.

[More on Collies]

German Shepherd Dog.

Easily the most recognizable and versatile breed in the world, the GSD retains strong herding instincts even while he serves man as companion, military and police officer, search and rescue teammate, contraband detective, arson expert, guide dog, assistance dog, therapy dog, family and business guardian, and obedience, schutzhund, tracking, or agility competition dog. About the only thing the GSD doesn’t do is hunt game and pull carts or sleds.

The GSD is 22-26 inches tall and weighs 65-100 pounds. He can be black, black and red, black and tan, sable, or white. The German Shepherd Dog Club of America and the AKC do not accept white dogs, but the United Kennel Club has recently recognized them as White Shepherds, a distinct breed.

The GSD is aloof with strangers and affectionate with and protective of his family and property. Unfortunately, his versatility, intelligence, and beauty have led to overbreeding; there are many GSDs that do not have the steady temperament or good health necessary in a family pet or a working dog, so families looking for this wonderful breed must be very careful.

[More on German Shepherd dogs]

Kerry Blue Terrier

A rather strange addition to the herding dogs is this terrier from Ireland, an all-around working dog that hunts small game and birds, herds sheep and cattle, retrieves shot game, and guards farm and home according to his master’s needs.

Kerry size has a narrow range. Ideal is 18.5 inches for a dog, a bit less for a bitch with a little leeway in either direction. Weight should be 33-40 pounds. The coat is soft, dense, and wavy. Puppies are born black; the coat changes to steel blue or silvery gray at about 18 months.

The Kerry has terrier temperament. He is independent, scrappy, protective of home and family, energetic, and inquisitive. He needs a firm hand, constant and consistent training and socialization, and is not well-suited to timid owners or small children.

[More on Kerry Blue Terriers]

Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog

The second of two herding breeds developed in the US, this breed is the state dog of Louisiana. Better known as a boar-hunting dog and guardian, the Leopard Dog is also expert at herding wild and Brahmin cattle. The breed developed when livestock were turned loose to fend for themselves, then were rounded up for market or branding. The Catahoula dog found the stock and brought it back to the cowboys, not by pressuring the animals from behind, but by antagonizing the animals to chase them – right into the hands of their masters. The method is a far cry from the studied control of the Border Collie, but it works.

Tough, agile, fearless, and intelligent, the Catahoula Leopard Dog is 20-26 inches tall and 50-95 pounds, with females at the lower end and males at the upper. The breed developed from dogs abandoned by Spanish explorers crossed with Indian dogs living with the local tribes. The Cat is a dedicated guard dog and hunting companion and can be a faithful family pet if socialization and training begin with young puppies and continue throughout the dog’s life.

Old English Sheepdog

The OES or Bobtail is a drover’s dog traced back about 150 years in western England. The breed was used to drive cattle and sheep to city markets. Speculation places the Bearded Collie in its ancestry, but as with many breeds, early records were either lost or nonexistent.

The OES is 21-25 inches tall and weight 60-90 pounds. He has a shaggy double coat, long on top and thick underneath and need frequent brushing to prevent mats and tangles. Coat color ranges from gray, blue, and grizzle to blue merle, usually with white markings.

Although he is good with children, good-natured, and sociable, the OES has a stubborn streak that can make him difficult for novice owners. He needs firm handling and gentle training; jerking and hitting can make him nasty.

Polish Owczarek Nizinny Sheepdog

While rare, the Polish Sheepdog is winning friends and influencing people in the US for his confident and sensible manner. His shaggy appearance is deceiving, though, for under this huggable exterior lies the soul of an independent, dominant canine with a tendency to scrap with other dogs. Early socialization and training are a must.

Descended from the Puli and other middle European herding breeds, the PONS has been an active partner to Polish shepherds for several hundred years. He is 16-20 inches tall, weighs 30-50 pounds, and is well-muscled and surprisingly strong for his size. He can be any color or pattern; his coat should be brushed every other day to prevent tangles and mats.


Like the Australian Kelpie, the Hungarian Puli jumps on the backs of sheep, but he rides the animal to turn the flock in the right direction instead of using the woolly backs as stepping stone to the other side of the flock.

The Puli is small as sheepdogs go. Standing no more than 18 inches at the shoulder and weighing about 30 pounds, this hardy dog is highly intelligent, assertive, and inquisitive. He is also bouncy, a characteristic that gets him on furniture and counters as well as the backs of sheep. As a pet he needs firm and fair obedience training – jerking or hitting may make him bite – and plenty of exercise for his body and mind.

Possibly developed from the Tibetan Terrier, a breed it resembles in outline, the Puli has a distinctive coat to go along with his unusual working style. Usually dull black or rusty black, the coat falls into natural cords created by blending of the wiry outer coat and woolly undercoat. Gray and white coats are also acceptable but are rare.


Another breed that is seldom considered a herder, the Samoyed was an all-around worker for the Samoyed people in eastern Siberia. A member of the spitz family of breeds, the Sammy did everything for his people from warming beds on bitter cold Arctic nights to herding the reindeer that provided milk, meat, and skins to the tribe.

The Sammy is 21-23.5 inches tall and weighs 55-70 pounds. Females are smaller. His outer coat is long and weather resistant; his undercoat is soft and insulating from harsh Arctic winds. Usually white, the Sammy can also be cream or biscuit or white with biscuit markings.

Gentle, playful, intelligent, and somewhat stubborn, the Sammy is a good family companion for those with time to teach obedience and brush hair. His long coat needs brushing at least twice a week and should have daily care when shedding.

[More on Sammies]

Shetland Sheepdog

The rugged, inhospitable Shetland Islands were home to hardy people, sheep, and the Shetland Sheepdog, a cousin to – not a miniature version of – the rough and smooth Collies of today.

In keeping with his small island home and the small sheep he worked, the Sheltie ranges from 13-16 inches tall and weighs 14-18 pounds. However, there are some larger Shelties available as pets although they are barred from the conformation show ring.

Shelties are bright, sensitive, graceful, and lively. Rarely seen among flocks of sheep these days, he is a regular competitor in obedience and agility, loves to do tricks, and makes a fine family companion. He’s eager to please but will balk at harsh training methods.

The Sheltie comes in typical Collie colors: sable, tri-color, and blue merle. His outer coat is long and luxurious, his undercoat dense. Frequent brushing is necessary to prevent mats and tangles.

[More on Shelties]

Cardigan Welsh Corgi

The older of the two corgi breeds, the Cardigan Welsh Corgi is the one with the tail. A member of the same family that produced the Dachshund, the Cardi came to Britain with the Celts from Central Europe more than 3000 years ago. An all-around farm dog, the Cardi had an invaluable skill: he could drive off the neighbor’s cattle from the home dooryard as well as send his owner’s cattle to graze on the common lands owned by the king. The little dog nipped at the heels of the cows, then dropped to the ground to avoid the kick that followed. In this way, he nettled the cows to the grazing lands.

The Cardigan is 10.5-12.5 inches tall and weighs 25-35 pounds. His double coat is weather-resistant and can be brindle, black, black with tan markings, blue merle, sable, or red. He is easy-going, spirited, and dependable but can be a barker.

Pembroke Welsh Corgi

Although he resembles his Cardigan countryman, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is descended from the spitz family of dogs, not the Dachshund. He’s an ancient breed as well, dating back to the 12th Century, probably arriving in Wales with Flemish weavers enticed by King Henry I. Like the Cardi, the Pembroke chased cattle out of the dooryard and into the common grazing lands. While it is certain that the two corgis were once crossbred, they have been kept pure for many generations.

The Pembroke is 10-12 inches tall, 25-30 pounds, and tailless. He has a double coat in red, sable, fawn, or black and tan.

The perky, companionable Pembroke has found a home with the British Royal Family and is a favorite pet in the US. He is a bright, steady dog and enjoys games and family activities and is an easy traveling companion.

{More on Corgies]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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