Introduction to Herding Group Dogs
The pastoral role of herding group dogs
The majority of these breeds are now familiar to us in our homes. But they have also seeped into our consciousness as part of the landscape. The English Kennel Club’s corresponding category is more poetically known as the Pastoral Group. The Border Collie (link) is the classic example of a herding group dog. There are many 19th century paintings of these dogs on sheep-dotted hills expertly working the flocks.
In other groups we see a range of very impressive specialisms. But the Herding Group Dogs could be characterized as the master strategists of the canine world. A well-trained herding dog becomes an expert tactician. Such a dog can use an impressive range of methods to coordinate cattle and sheep alongside a shepherd or cattle drover. These include body posture, ‘the herding eye’ and warning barks to gentle nips.
The Company of Wolves (and Coyotes)
But Herding dogs must have brawn as well as brains. They must also protect and guard the herds. This has traditionally placed working herding dogs, the consummate examples of canis domesticus, at the fascinating frontier of the age-old conflict with their wild cousins canis lupus or the wild wolf and other predators.
A reenactment of this recently took place in Southern France. Although long-extinct in France, wolves had crossed over the borders from Italy. The French farmers suddenly found themselves beset by sheep worrying. Also attempts at shooting the wolves were proving ineffectual. The only working solution proved to be a pack of guard and herding dogs. This fascinating video demonstrates how cleverly and effectively these dogs were able to fend off the marauding wolves .
These dogs do not know it but they are just later members of a time-honored profession. Another dog, the Komondor (or Hungarian Sheepdog) is another example of very successful modern redeployment. This dog now patrols American farms protecting herds from their more distant cousins, the coyotes.
High IQ and Transferable Skills
The Herding Group include some incredibly capable and clever dogs. The Border Collie (link) is adjudged the cleverest breed according to Stanley Coren’s seminal research . The findings of this study was further endorsed by a dog called Chaser in 2011. This brainy Border Collie in an incredible feat of ‘dognition’ was able to match over a 1000 English words to the corresponding objects. These dogs generally prosper in agility and other obedience-based competitions.
There is, in practical terms, some blurring between the Herding Group and the Working Group as defined by the American Kennel Club. The Komondor mentioned above, although a practicing Herding animal, is technically in the Working Group (link). Perhaps even more surprising to the layman is that the German Shepherd remains in the Herding Group. For most this versatile breed is more commonly associated with the Police and Armed Forces. Cattle-driving dogs such as the Rottweiler are placed in the Working Group. But the Old English Sheepdog with exactly the same herding role as the Rottweiler remains in the Herding Group.
This crossover reflects the versatility, skill and reliability of many of these dogs. Herding breeds are receptive to such a range of commands and are adaptable to so many situations. Herding dogs not only need obedience but also initiative in guiding other animals.
These dogs have to be fleet on their feet but also quick thinkers. Also they must be physically durable and athletic. A working dog will put in many hours in a typical day and traverse many miles. Such an invaluable combination of transferable skills and a high obedience means many of these dogs have naturally diversified into a range of other areas of human work and activity.
Example breeds from the Herding Group Dogs
Background and History
Wherever sheep dot the verdant undulating fields, it is likely that the Border Collie is not far behind. This impressive breed is the quintessential Herding Dog.
It was a dog called Hemp who blazed the trail for the Border Collie in 1873 at the first sheepdog trials. This dog displayed such consummate skill in herding that he became a reference for methods and standards. The celebrated Hemp went on to sire many puppies. It is claimed that all pure bred Border Collies today can trace their ancestry back to this illustrious forebear.
Hemp offered an early example of the Border Collie’s ability to control sheep through posture alongside ‘herding eye’ or “strong eye”. This was a far more gentle and less unsettling approach for nervous herds and as a consequence it proved very effective.
The Border Collie showed itself to be incredibly attuned to the shepherd. These dogs are responsive to a range of whistled, gestured and vocal commands. But this high level of obedience is combined with independence and initiative. This means that a Border Collie is able to range ahead half a mile on its own. It can then problem solve autonomously in order to shepherd flocks and herds to the desired location.
Like the German Shepherd, the skills of the Border Collie are transferable. Border Collies have also been used as search and rescue dogs. Blitz, a Border Collie in England is just one example of this talent. He saved a woman who had been missing for two days  .
This dog quickly gained a triumphant reputation as a sheepdog in obedience trials. But since then its virtuoso brilliance has extended to other athletic achievements. This includes Jumpy, who might arguably be titled a champion ‘Boarding Collie’. Jumpy is a world record holder for canine skateboarding .
Generally categorized as sheepdogs, it was not until 1915 that we have our first record of dogs identified as Border Collies. Around this time this dog had made its way across the Atlantic to the States. The first part of the name more obviously refers to its prevalence on the farms and hills around the Borders of England and Scotland. The etymology of ‘Collie’ is a little more contested. Some speculate that it comes from the Scottish Gaelic word for ‘useful’. Others say that it refers to ‘collie’’ which means black or coal. Interestingly the German word ‘Kuli’ or worker may also have some correspondence or association. The Border Collie was officially recognized by the AKC in October 1995.
Character and Temperament
This breed is arguably the closest thing in the dog world to a workaholic. Although the Border Collie can both work and play hard. The busier you keep this , the happier your canine pal will be.
These dogs are goal-oriented so devising seeking and fetching games provides great stimulation. Treasure hunts or other problem-solving games in and outside of the house will keep a non-working Border entertained. As will throw and fetch games like frisbee and flyball. What about a skateboard? You might have the next Jumpy on your hands.
The Border Collie also thrives on plenty of exercise. Around 3 to 4 walks are ideal for this breed that can when working blithely run up and down hills for hours.
An under-exercised or under-stimulated Border Collie can exhibit destructive behaviors. These might include chewing in the house or digging in the backyard. Be aware also that these dogs are clever to the point where they can open doors and gates. Ensure all outdoor spaces are fully secured against a daring and ingenious escape. These dogs are not suited to apartment-living.
The Border Collie is a fantastic family dog and is tolerant of small children. If you want to tire out your children this dog will fully oblige. They will engage tirelessly in hours of supervised play.
This breed will get on with other dogs but is generally much more human-oriented. If a ball or stick is available to chase they are prone to be much more interested in this than cavorting around with their fellow canines.
Like most dogs they thrive on positive reinforcement and praise during training. The Border Collie is very eager to please. These dogs are also good with smaller pets. But if not socialized correctly they can sometimes attempt to herd smaller dogs and cats. Not even the brilliant Collie can herd disgruntled cats, so this will leave both parties feeling aggrieved.
These dogs have a very high level of discipline. This makes them absolutely excellent companions and watch-dogs. They will bark an alarm but only bark for a good reason. This dog will rarely yap unless they are under-stimulated or suffering from separation anxiety.
Their coats come in rough and smooth varieties. The rough coat is slightly longer and more wavy with some feathering under the belly, legs and chest. As the name implies it also has a coarser texture. Both coat types are relatively low-maintenance. They require only a weekly brushing but nails should be clipped every two months and pads checked for abrasions.
Like the Old English Sheepdog (link) heterochromia can occur in this breed. This is where a dog has differently colored eyes. It has no impact on the quality of their vision.
This healthy breed has a lifespan of around 11-15 years. Some health problems that occur in this dog include hip dysplasia and PRA (progressive retinal atrophy). Also occasionally epilepsy and seizures and hypothyroidism.
Links to other breeds: Australian Shepherd Dog. The very similar appearance can lead these breeds often being confused. But there is no clear, documented relationship although it is very likely they shared similar ancestry.
For more detailed information on the Border Collie and other breeds please visit our breed guide.
German Shepherd Dog (AKA Alsatian) (AKA ‘GSD’) (Historically: Alsatian Wolfdog)
Background and History
This breed came into being around the end of the nineteenth century in Germany. Rittmeister Von Stephanitz oversaw the inter-mingling of three different European shepherds’ dogs. It was an act of alchemical breeding brilliance. The result was a beautiful and perenially popular dog. The German Shepherd is highly intelligent and capable. This breed is unbeaten in response to training and adaptation.
Some proud owners have dubbed the German Shepherd as the king of all dog breeds. In keeping with this, Stephanitz’s founding dog for the breed had the princely name of Hector.
But naming has been an issue for this dog in the past. Following the second world war, this dog was temporarily named the Alsatian to avoid association with Germany. This name was based on the region of Alsace in North Eastern France. But, the German Shepherd was able to officially reclaim its original designation in 1977.
This brilliant dog quickly found its responsibilities diversified beyond the pastoral. Alongside the Doberman and the Rottweiler it was used for messaging and guarding during WW2. It also proved an adept medical dog during WW2. As a proven tracker it was able to identify and bear medical supplies to the injured on the battlefield. The armies found this dog focused and reliable as it was focused enough never distracted by other animal scents.
Since then this very capable dog has been snapped up by services such as the police and armed forces. The German Shepherd has also excelled at search-and-rescue, as a guide dog for the blind and in drug detection. For one example of their many heroics of this breed look no further than the actions of Finn, a British police dog. His bravery led to the passing of Finn’s Law in the UK. This put in place higher standards of protection for all service animals .
Characteristic and Temperament
The German Shepherd possesses an excellently balanced temperament. These dogs make wonderful pets and are brilliant around children. Some can have excitable temperaments but they are always gentle. German Shepherds are fun-loving members of the family and very playful in nature.
These dogs are natural guard dogs but their protectiveness can make them a little distrustful of strangers. However, in nearly all circumstances, their high level of trainability allows them to be very adaptable. A particular early focus should be on preventing separation anxiety. This is another breed that really can struggle when left alone [internal link]
These dogs are also famous for their powerful jaws. Hard-wearing toys and chews offer an ideal and therapeutic distraction for them.
This breed’s coat is easy to maintain although they benefit from a daily brush. If you have the long-haired version you may well have to brush a couple of times a day to prevent matting. They usually shed around twice a year. The coats are typically a delightful sable or sometimes a smart black-and-tan.
Show line vs Working Line German Shepherds
There has been some criticism of the ‘show-line’ version of German Shepherd. This is based around an arbitrary ‘ideal’ of a sloping back. This has led to significant health complications due to uneven weight distribution resulting in and increased predisposition towards hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia and some problems with digestion.
The ‘working line’ has straight backs and stronger hips. These are dogs bred as they were originally intended rather than for some ill-thought out aesthetic purpose. They are less prone to any of the aforementioned health complications.
For more detailed information on the German Shepherd and other breeds please visit our breed guide.
Old English Sheepdog (aka ‘Bobtail’) (aka ‘Dulux Dog’ )
Background and History
The Old English Sheepdog is another dog with striking looks. However, unlike the Rottweiler or Husky it has fallen out of favor in the last few years in its country of origin. In the UK the OES joins the Mastiff (link above) on the British Kennel Club’s endangered list . This might be due to its size and/or could also be a consequence of the grooming requirements. But its ranking remains healthy in the United States where it sturdily stands at 68th according to the AKC 2020 registration data .
The Old English was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885. Since then it has fared better in America remaining at relatively healthy position of 68th according to the 2020 registration data.
This dog was developed during the 1800s in England. It is thought to have been refined from some earlier European sheepdogs. It has been commented that for many dogs the name is on the tin. The Yorkshire Terrier is a terrier breed from Yorkshire. The German Shepherd clearly explains its origins and function. This is not true of the Old English Sheepdog. Firstly it was developed from European breeds. The breed is not that old. Lastly, it was actually a cattle or drover’s dog. Its only link being a woolly coat with a passing resemblance to that of a sheep.
Indeed cattle dogs like this breed and the Rottweiler (link) traditionally had their tails docked. This was actually to protect their tails from painful trampling. Hence this breed’s nickname of ‘The Bobtail’. Thankfully it is now considered cruel to dock their tails for aesthetic reasons. Anybody who owns an Old English will testify to how beautiful and large this tail is. It rises and arcs over their backs waving like a grey and white flag.
According to the AKC this comes into the Working Group of breeds. But the UK designated this breed as part of the Pastoral Group of Dogs. Indeed, it is possible to see how this dog would be completely at home on a farm. It is an active breed that enjoys space and prefers to lounge outside even in the coldest weather
This dog is instantly recognizable from its striking white and grey fur. This beautiful coat led to it being adopted by the paint company Dulux as a mascot. As a very proud and blessed owner of an Old English Sheepdog I am hoping that this will keep the breed in the public eye and contribute to an increase in its popularity back in its home country.
Characteristic and Temperament
The Old English Sheepdog is friendly, intelligent and loyal. They are good guard dogs and are often protective of home. The sonorous, deep bark and energetic response to visitors, however, belies a very gentle and kind nature.
These dogs tend to be more human-oriented. Once again this adds to their suffering due to separation anxiety. This can be so acute that it can even affect their eating patterns and lead to destructive behaviors. This may be another cause for their decline in popularity. Some of this breed sadly surrendered, and indeed my dog Benji was a rehome. Training to prevent separation anxiety is a priority with this breed. Be aware also that this breed of dog does not generally like confined spaces like crates.
Another hall-mark of the Old English Sheepdog is its ambling bear-like gait. They also have a very teddy-bear-like face. These dogs may not be built for speed, but they are very active. As former cattle dogs this breed requires a high level of exercise.
Old English Sheepdogs are excellent with children and offer a warm and fun-loving addition to any family. They can be independently-minded so consistent recall training is an absolute must.
The lovely double-coat does need grooming every day to avoid matting and tangling. If the hair is long this grooming could take up to 3 or 4 hours a week. Ensure this is done even more regularly during periods of hot weather along with other measures to keep your dog cool in the heat.
Owners of the breed often comment on their very ‘human-like’ expressions. They also seemed to have developed what can only be called a mischievous sense of humor. Benji has a place on an old sofa. If anyone else sits there he has been known to scratch on the door to request an exit. When the person goes to open the door, he quickly doubles back to reclaim the seat. He also is a master at hiding one shoe of every pair. So if you do decide on this breed be prepared for some canine pranks!
This sense of good-natured mischief might be the reason that this breed appears in so many humorous films and books. These include ‘Digby the largest Dog in the World’ . Also the classic ‘Please Don’t Eat the Daisies’ .
For more detailed information on the Old English Sheepdog and other breeds please visit our breed guide.
Links to other breeds
They are a founding breed along with the Poodle of the popular designer dog, the Sheepadoodle. This mixed breed combines all the size, fun and sense of humor of the Old English with the athleticism of the Poodle and is very popular in the United States and the United Kingdom.
They are thought to have common heritage with the smaller Bearded Collie. They certainly have more than a passing resemblance to this more diminutive working dog.
The Herding Group Dogs ‘Round Up’
If you want an intelligent dog and you are interested in training and developing further the ‘dognition’ of your pet, then a breed from this group will make an ideal companion. They will turn heads in the park with their impressive skills, and be a loving and protective member of the family at home.
But for this breed you must have the enthusiasm and time to train and entertain these dogs with physical and mental stimulation. You should also be able to provide outdoor space for exercise and play
But if you are still searching for the perfect pawsome pal then feel free to browse these introductions to all those other wonderful groups of breeds available : The Non Sporting Group, The Toy Group, The Hound Group, The Sporting Group, The Terrier Group and The Working Group.
List of all Herding Group Dogs:
Australian Cattle Dog
Bouvier des Flandres
Cardigan Welsh Corgi
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
Entlebucher Mountain Dog
German Shepherd Dog
Old English Sheepdog
Polish Lowland Sheepdog
Spanish Water Dog