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How To Train A Herding Dog

Training Philosophy

How To Train A Herding Dog

how to train a herding dog

As a herding dog owner myself, I know that training a herding dog comes with its own set of challenges and tricky aspects. While yes, herding dogs are very smart, this alone does not mean training them is easy-peasy.

They often show intense motion sensitivity, have low food drive, can be suspicious of strangers and noises and sketched out by tight spaces or people “intruding their bubble”.

In this article we will explore the most common challenges in training herding dogs, and how you can overcome them.

Picky Eaters

Many herding dogs are rather picky eaters. They just have too much to do to spend time indulging in food! Many owners of Border Collies, German Shepherds etc. will tell you that their dogs often refuse food rewards as soon as there are distractions around, or “better things to do” than to eat.

border collie with a red bandana
Not interested in food?

It is really important to not give up and think ‘Well, my dog just doesn’t want my treats”.

A common cycle of behavior of herding dogs is this:

You might be at a park wanting to train your dog and offering him a treat. He refuses to eat the treat, and say to yourself, ‘Ok, then not.’ You let your dog run and play with other dogs or find sticks or throw a ball … that is actually rewarding him for making the choice to refuse your food!

The next time you offer your dog a food reward, he has already learned that if he doesn’t take it, you will offer him a better reward. Over time you can actually train your dog to refuse your food by doing that!

If your herding dog does not want to take a treat you offer him in an exciting situation, you should instead of giving up and keeping him in the situation make the situation less exciting and try again with the food.

That means that if the park is too distracting for your dog to eat a treat, you can try from the parking lot, or inside your car. Aim for training scenarios in which your dog will always take the food rewards you offer, even if that means that you train in much easier and calmer situations at first.

Over time, accepting your treats and working together with you will become your dog’s habit.

One Big Exception

A notable exception of this rule of the are Australian Shepherds. Aussies are known for their love of food, and even among the most intense distractions they won’t refuse a treat! If you are the owner of an Aussie, you can ignore the above advice. Chances are your dog already is crazy about eating pretty much anything you offer him.

brown and white Australian Shepherd eating treat from owner's hand
An Aussie doesn’t say no to a treat!

Reactive Behavior

All herding breeds were originally created with the purpose of moving and managing livestock. It goes without saying that this is a rather solitary job – a dog moving a flock of sheep across a mountain side is unlikely to encounter many people on his way.

While developing herding breeds, it was in fact favorable to have dogs that were suspicious of strangers. That way they could function as a guard and alert dog, too.

german shepherd barking with mouth wide open
Shepherds can be notorious for showing reactivity.

In today’s society very few herding dogs actually are herding anything, and instead live a comfortable life as a family dog and companion. While training your herding dog however, this original suspicion needs to be considered. It can easily result in reactivity if no care is taken to provide the dog with positive exposure to different people, dogs, places and sounds.

Every dog should be appropriately socialized of course. Some dogs will make this process easier than others though – a Schnoodle or Bernedoodle will require less work than a nervy and aloof herding breed such as the Pyrenean Shepherd.

Read up on your specific herding dog’s temperament and make sure to plan adequate positive social experiences into your training plan.

Motion Sensitivity

This one is a given with any herding dog. After all, they were developed to do their job by – exactly – controlling the movement of livestock. No wonder that many herding dogs have intense motion sensitivity and can be obsessive in seeking out and following movement.

dog herding brown cows
After all, this is what they were bred to do.

It is important to not encourage your herding dog’s inbuilt motion sensitivity. Do not play with a laser pointer for hours, do not make playing ball the only form of exercise your herding dog gets. It is crucial that he can participate in calm activities such as food puzzle games and has mental stimulation.

While every herding dog will happily chase a frisbee all day long, we need to show them that there are other fun ways of engaging with us as well.

If you leave your herding dog alone during the day, make sure that he does not have unlimited opportunity to obsess about motion. Some dogs start to chase shadows, clouds or even dust particles. This is not a healthy behavior and will keep your dog in an eternal state of being “hyped up”.

black and brown Border Collie herding sheep
A Border Collie in his element

The motion sensitivity can also come into play when you want to train your herding dog around smaller animals. Many dogs are never able to be left unsupervised with smaller dogs or cats. Their instincts to control motion are strong – if you have any doubt about whether you can leave your herding dog alone with smaller animals, don’t do it!

Spacial Sensitivity

This is another quirky herding dog characteristic. They are often keenly aware of the space around them and do not want to get to close to anything – this could be other dogs, objects such as furniture or walls or people.

If you ever tried to reach for your dog’s collar and he backed off – that is spacial sensitivity. In some herding dogs it can be so pronounced that they try to keep a few feet distance from their owner, which of course makes getting a hold of them to e.g. attach a leash very tricky.

border collie getting petted
Your herding dog should be trained to accept you reaching for him and “getting into his bubble”.

It is absolutely crucial that you get your dog used to getting reached for, having his collar grabbed and accepting you in “his bubble”. The best way to do so is through many treats and repetitions.

Follow these steps:

  1. Sit or kneel on the ground in front of your dog. Dogs are much more likely to shy away if we are bending over them.
  2. Take treats in one hand. The other hand is going to be the one reaching for the collar. Hide both hands behind your back.
  3. Bring out your empty hand and gently extend it to your dog’s collar. Once you touch it, bring out the other hand with the treats and let your dog eat them while still touching the collar.

Over time, even a spacially very sensitive dog will associate you reaching for his collar with treats that are following and allow you “in his bubble”.

Noise Sensitivity

The last one in our list of sensitivities is noise sensitivity. This again can be traced back to the fact that herding dogs were not originally bred to be especially sound-proof – our herding dogs’ ancestors lived in very quiet, remote areas.

rough collie lying down

Many herding breeds show nervousness around sounds such as traffic or sirens and at times even everyday sounds such as footsteps, doors closing or knocking.

Like with the spacial sensitivity, the best and fastest way to target this is to pair the trigger in a low intensity with food. Sound CDs or simple YouTube videos played at a low volume are great for this. For a dog with high sound sensitivity, you can use a substantial amount of his daily food for this counterconditioning.

The more often you can successfully link the trigger to a delicious treat, the faster your dog will overcome his noise sensitivity.

Questions & Answers

Here are answers to the most common questions I get about herding breeds:

Are they super easy to train because they are so smart?

NO! There is not any dog breed that is “super easy” to train. While fewer repetitions are often needed with herders to teach a specific behavior, this does not mean that they don’t come with their own set of challenges and quirks.
Your Border Collie might understand how to sit and shake after just a session or two, but it might be a while before he can do these behaviors at a busy park that triggers his motion sensitivity.
“Smartness” in the sense of how quickly a dog catches on to a new behavior is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Which is the best herding breed to train for beginners?

If you are new to herding breeds, you might want to start with a showline dog. These do not have as intense of a work ethic and motion sensitivity, are less nervy and in general a bit “softer” in their behavior than working-bred dogs.
There are many great reputable breeders of different showline herding breeds, from Border Collies over Australian Shepherds to (if you want a little more challenge) Belgian Malinois.

The Bottom Line

If you are aware of the quirk and idiosyncrasies of herding breeds, training them will be a joy – they catch on quickly and love to work with their owners. Just make sure to watch out for breed-specific tendencies such as suspicion of strangers or low food drive, and pay extra attention in your training process.