herding in collies

The Herding Instinct – how do you manage this?

Dog Doc Question 22: How do I manage my dog’s herding behaviour?

Border Collies are bred for herding.  They are part of the Pastoral group of breeds, which means that their natural predatory behaviour has been modified (slightly) to make them suitable for herding livestock.  Wikipedia’s Herding Dog page says:

“The Border Collie gets in front of the animals and uses what is called strong eye to stare down the animals;[3] they are known as headers. The headers or fetching dogs keep livestock in a group. They consistently go to the front or head of the animals to turn or stop the animal’s movement.”

Herding instincts and trainability can be measured when introducing a dog to livestock at a young age.  I was reminded of this when sharing a video to the Facebook page of some puppies with sheep. It fascinates me how confident they are with the sheep and one pup in particular is really keen to engage with the sheep.  Typically, farm bred collies will be put with livestock from a young age and their level of engagement will be assessed.

Herding in pet collies

When we take on a Border Collie as a pet, we don’t want that herding instinct to be too strong.  As Wikipedia says:

“They retain their herding instincts and may sometimes nip at people’s heels or bump them in an effort to ‘herd’ their family, and may need to be trained not to do so.[1]

The herding instinct can be hard to live with.  We had a farm collie when I was a teenager and she would always nip your heels as you were going out.  She was also far more neurotic than our next collie, who was from pedigree lines. I have talked about the nature of Border Collies on the Border Collie Breed information page.

That’s the challenge; have all the intelligence and trainability of the Border Collie, without the nippy, neurotic, herding drive.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I don’t currently ‘check’ for herding instinct like the farmer in the video – I don’t expect my pups to have it, or for it to be a problem in the homes my puppies go to.  But some puppies clearly do have more of a drive for this than others. Robbie, Ounce’s brother, has been described as having a strong herding drive.

How to manage herding behaviour

In order to manage this behaviour, we first have to realise that it is happening.  I met someone at the weekend who told me his collie was very jealous whenever he made a fuss of his other dogs – this is part of the same pattern of behaviours.  The dog is focusing on you and what you are doing and is very aware of other animals.  He wants to take control, to be in charge and drive away the other dogs.

Other examples of herding include the way a young collie engages with other dogs out on a walk. They might look as though they are taking part in a ‘chase’ game and running around after another dog.  But this will very quickly become a case of the collie trying to drive the other dog and snapping or barking at it if it doesn’t go the right way!  Ounce does this and I think this is what her brother does too.

Once you have spotted it, you can take charge of it and distract your dog away.  As with any training of your dog, you need to be:

  • patient
  • persistent
  • positive

Pay attention to what they are doing and positively call them away.  Engage with them in a different activity and reward them when they focus on you and not the ‘prey’ that they want to herd.

Manage the environment

I think ‘training away’ is the right thing to do when out walking and with Border Collies, this is relatively straightforward to do.  In the home environment, there may be times when it is easier to remove the temptation, rather than have to ‘train away’ all day long.  So if you have other animals, such as chickens, or rabbits, you may find your collie becoming obsessed with watching them all day long, waiting for a chance to herd them.  This might be OK, if you don’t mind them being obsessive and you think the animals are safe.  Or you might need to keep them physically apart.

Cats are another animal that a herding dog likes to go for.  You will need to pay attention to your dog if they think they can herd the cat, and again, distract and reward for non-chasing.  It takes time, but it is perfectly possible for a cat to live happily with dogs.

Ask for help?

You are very welcome to contact me to ask for my advice.  I can help you with a variety of issues and problems around getting a dog and suggestions for tackling training issues.  Go to the What Dog? page for more information on my new service.

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