Training Your Dog to Herd
I am not a professional dog trainer, but I have lived and worked on farms my entire life. Through the years, I have worked with many great dogs and have picked up a few skills in training dogs for life on a farm. When my dad’s dog had puppies, I was interested in getting one because both parents are great herding dogs. The father, Buck, is an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix and the mother, Mara, is an Australian Shepherd/German Shepherd mix. We brought home our puppy with her big bat ears and proceeded to work on the basics: potty training and not chewing on things.
After a while, we wanted to train her to herd the goats. It soon became obvious that training a dog to herd is not as easy as I thought. I talked to my vet and a dog trainer to see if they had any ideas. They both said the same thing: Find an experienced herding dog to train your puppy.
That didn’t work for me, so I proceeded to train her on my own, and I discovered a few strategies that seemed to work:
- Show Your Puppy What to Do
- Positive Reinforcement
1. Show Your Puppy What to Do
It may sound silly, but your puppy watches what you do and will copy you just like kids do. It may not be fun to run after goats so the puppy can see what you want her to do, but it works the best.
I was lucky when we were training our puppy because my son was four and loved to chase the goats in at night. Our puppy, Piper, learned from him. She would follow him as he chased the goats into and out of the barn. She also comes from herding dog breeds that instinctively herd. We worked with the instincts she already had and cemented them into a workable form.
2. Positive Reinforcement
Reward your puppy when it accomplishes a task, even if it is a small one. Either use treats or excessive praise so your puppy can see how excited you are. Praise shows your puppy that they did something right, and they will want to repeat it so they are praised again. Your puppy wants to make you happy.
Show your puppy what to do, praise for a job well done, show your puppy what to do, praise for a job well done, repeat, repeat, and repeat some more. This is an extremely important step, and consistency is a major key.
For example, when I wanted our puppy to stay in the back of the barn so she could help chase goats out, I taught her to sit and wait there. I did this by repeatedly making her sit where I wanted then patiently bringing her back when she moved. We repeated this process about three or four times before she understood what I wanted, and she waited there.
Learning something new can be hard, and puppies can get overexcited when you are working with animals. I quickly learned with our new puppy that raising my voice and getting upset does nothing but make her upset. She responded better to quietly repeating a skill over and over. If you are feeling upset, chances are your puppy is too, which means it is time to take a break and circle back to the skill you are working on later.
It is important to use commands consistently with each skillset. For example, I whistle when I want Piper to herd the goats into their pen, I make a sharp EHH noise when I want her to stop what she is doing, and I tell her, “Easy,” when she is getting too rough with the goats.
You can use whatever commands you want as long as you use them consistently. I recommend starting with mastering two commands first. A "go" command and a "stop" command. Others can be added as your puppy grows, but those are the best to start with while herding.
Traditional Herd Training
When I wanted to start training our puppy to herd the animals on our hobby farm, I wasn’t sure how to start, so I called around. The answer I received was the same: Find an experienced herding dog to train your puppy. It occurred to me that I could take my puppy back to my parent’s farm so she could learn from the dogs there, but I didn’t want her to pick up any bad habits from them either.
Traditionally, herd dogs learn from their parents or from an older, experienced herding dog. A farmer gets a new puppy when their other dog starts to get older, and the puppy learns from watching the other dog. I decided to take a non-traditional approach and teach her how to herd without the help of an experienced dog.
Dogs are one of the first animals ever domesticated, and over time, dog breeders have separated characteristics of certain dogs to form the breeds we are familiar with today. Not all of these characteristics were physical, some were instinctual characteristics.
Herding instinct is in certain breeds, just as tracking, protecting, and guarding are in others. I’m not saying you won’t find a Labrador Retriever who is a great herding dog; I’m saying you are more likely to find a great herding dog in a few certain breeds. Herding dogs are typically smart, easily trained, and instinctively want to control other animals.
I picked a few of the most common herding breeds but there are many more that could be on the list. Here is a short list of good herding dog breeds:
- Border Collie
- Australian Shepherd
- Australian Kelpie
- Australian Cattle Dog/Blue Heeler
- Old English Sheepdog
- German Shepherd
These dog breeds have been used as working herd dogs and have the natural instinct that will help make training them a little easier. A quick reminder that these breeds are working dogs that are smart, energetic, and durable. They love having a job to do and, if left to idleness, will get into trouble.
Our puppy is turning into a great herding dog. She keeps the goats in their proper pasture, tries to herd the cats into the barn, and keeps a close eye on my kids when they are playing outside. I am very impressed with how she is turning out, and I am glad for every minute I have put into training her because a well-trained farm dog is priceless.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Heidi Wahlstrom (author) from Spooner, Wisconsin on October 17, 2019:
Thank you. I find that dogs like to be useful and enjoy the work they are trained for.
Tori Leumas on October 15, 2019:
Great article. I love dogs and I love it when dogs are trained for useful things. (Work on a farm, service dogs, police dogs, etc.).