It’s a scene that movies have branded on your mind (cue the harmonica) for generations: The mounted cowhands crack their whips, the lowing cows kick up dust as the trusted herding dogs nip at their heels in the sunset. Long an essential part of cattle drives and farm work, today herding dogs are more likely to be found as family pets, dashing around backyards and dog parks.
Part of Cowboy History
When America was mostly a wide-open range, herders of cattle and sheep seeking work migrated from countries such as Scotland, France, Spain and Australia, bringing their trusted dogs with them. These high-energy dogs usually had a knack for driving livestock over long distances, through all kinds of weather and terrain. Often doing the work of several cowhands, herding dogs could round up lost animals, keep predators (and cattle rustlers) at bay and confidently show animals many times their size who was boss.
A Class of Their Own
Today, the breeds traditionally used to drive animals are classified in the American Kennel Club’s Herding Group. As expected, the group includes breeds such as Australian cattle dogs, Belgian sheepdogs, border collies, collies and Shetland sheepdogs. Perhaps more surprising is the inclusion of breeds like Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh corgis.
In general, these breeds tend to have a natural “urge to herd” and may even gently round up children scattered in your back yard. Dogs in the herding group typically respond well to training. Since they usually require regular exercise, enrolling them in canine sports such as fly ball, agility and even herding trials is a good way to help them work off extra energy.
Working Dogs Today
Herding dogs are still used on ranches, farms and the occasional dude ranch, where they may herd, gather, sort, fetch and hold livestock. Although some dogs may exhibit these skills by instinct, most need to be trained to work with the handler and put those behaviors to proper use.
Successful herding dogs also need to learn to approach livestock with confidence so cattle won’t challenge them. And while the dog must be in control of the livestock, the dog, in turn, must be in the control of the cowhand.
Even when a herding dog’s only job is to be the family pet, herding trials can help them develop and maintain the skills for which their ancestors were originally bred. Depending on the breed, training usually starts at 10 to 12 months of age or when the dog is physically mature and knows basic obedience commands. During a competition, dogs may herd anything from cattle and sheep to goats, geese and ducks.
Rounding up the Fun
While they’re often no longer “put to work,” these dogs can be fun and loyal companions for children. As long as they get the exercise they need, they’re perfect family pets.
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