Friday 12 August 2022

Herding behaviour in LGD


These guardian dogs are moving alongside the flock during a flock move. They are moving with the flock, this is not “herding “behaviour.

Herding behaviour in LGD

©Louise Liebenberg(2022)

In the last issue I discussed some behaviour that could be misconstrued or misread, where the owner thinks what the dog is doing looks okay, when in fact it could be concerning behaviour or trigger behaviour patterns that should not be encouraged. I have decided to continue with this and will discuss some more behaviours.

The concept of “herding” is a unique one and while herding breeds, herd (border collie, kelpie, Australian Shepherds), guardian dogs, guard the flock from predators. Two totally different jobs. People who have never worked with either group, may not really know the differences between each group. As both groups fall under the same general category of “sheepdogs”.  To add to the confusion, most of the original breed standards for livestock guardian dogs (LGD) were not written by shepherds or sheepdog specialists. Semantics matter, so describing a guardian dog as a herder of the flock is incorrect in terms of the function the dog has in relation to the sheep.

Herding can be described as the deliberate movement of the flock, either gathering up single animals to the group, actively moving the flock from one place to another, or simply keeping the animals bunched together. Herding can be a combination of these activities. Most herding by a sheepdog is under direct supervision of the shepherd who uses the dog to help him control the flock and bring it/hold it where the shepherd needs it.  Herding is an instinctual behaviour that is based on predatory sequences (search, stalk, rush/chase, grab/bite, kill, dissect, and eat). The shepherd breeds and selects for parts of this sequence that include, search, stalk, chase, and sometime bite, as this allows him to control the flock. With selective breeding that highlights the “useful” parts of the sequence and good training, the shepherd has a wonderful way to manage the sheep. Herding dogs have a high prey drive (they love to chase things, nip things) and are high energy as this is very demanding work. Herding dogs love to herd, it is the excitement of the search, stalk, chase that is highly rewarding and is the primary motivation for the dog.  Herding is a self rewarding behaviour and that is why some border collies can literally be worked to death, and some can be very obsessive in what they do, sometimes herding vehicles, balls, and other dogs. Most herding dogs are smaller in stature and very athletic in comparison to the guardian dog breeds.

This border collie is controlling the movement, speed, and direction of the sheep. The sheep are not moving voluntarily but are under the direction of the collie, who is being commanded by the shepherd. This is herding behaviour.

Guardian dogs have a completely different role, that is to protect the flock from predators. That is their only job, and it comes with some conditions; the LGD must not hurt, harm, or stress the livestock it lives with.  The ideal LGD will be bonded to the sheep and live permanently with them. They blend in amongst the flock and generally are on the lookout for predators.  LGD have been bred by shepherds to have a very low prey drive, which allows them not to be stimulated to chase and kill the sheep. Most LGD have a low energy level, so that it does not disrupt or excite the sheep when it moves about. Most LGD have perfected the art of mooching around the sheep, sleeping under a tree but always have one eye open for threats. The LGD’s energy should match that of the sheep.  LGD that have too much prey drive generally do not make good LGD as they tend to not be trustworthy around the sheep. Shepherds do not train LGD to obey commands like they do with herding dogs. Most LGD are “trained” with supervision and corrections for unwanted behaviour. Most LGD are large, they have the physical properties to live outside with the flock all year. The have been bred to be powerful, strong dogs to be able to be a formidable opponent to predators.
Interestingly to note, all wild canines have erect ears, most high drive dog breeds (such as herding dogs) have erect ears. Every single LGD has low hanging ears, it is thought that it appears less predatory and therefore more calming for the sheep. Just this simple observation illustrates the difference each category of sheepdog can have on the sheep.

These two types of sheepdogs have an entirely different set of instinctual traits and have been selected for very different jobs.  Understanding these differences and nuances, it is easy to see why “herding” behaviour is problematic in LGD. A LGD herding the sheep may indicate that he has too much prey drive to be suited for this job. Sometimes, I read that people are all excited that their LGD herded the sheep. This is a red flag behaviour, particularly if involves an immature dog. The dog has no business herding/chasing the sheep. This stresses the sheep and can lead to injured or even dead sheep.  Chasing/ nipping and playing with the sheep encourages predatory behaviour and that is the last thing we want to stimulate in our LGD.

Many people think that the LGD “herds” the sheep to safety when predators approach, but the reality is, that the sheep would probably run to their safe space, and a good LGD would go out and “meet the threat”. At least, that is what the brave ones do!


These two LGD are between the threat and the flock. The sheep have not been moved, but the dogs have positioned themselves between the sheep and the predator.

The LGD should position itself between the threat and the sheep, he is the first line of defence. In a flock that is very accustomed to LGDs, the sheep will follow the LGD, they will hangout close to the dog if they feel threatened and will gather behind the LGD. This is all sheep-initiated behaviour and movement. It is not that the dog is actively herding them together and chasing them in a specific direction. I have seen our flock of sheep refusing to go and graze in a certain wooded pasture, unless the LGD go into that area first. They will hang back and wait for the dogs to go up ahead. I have spoken with shepherds in Italy who say that their Maremma will enter a new grazing area and chase the predators away before the sheep go in.

This LGD is leading the way and the sheep are willingly following the LGD back to the night corral.

Some breed standards mention that historically, the breed is used both for herding and guarding, often they will add in a bunch of other job titles such as hunting, home guards and personal protection dogs in their descriptions. Sadly, this really does confuse people new to LGD, as this makes them think that the herding behaviour their dog is showing is normal. If the breed description includes herding, then this makes it seem like the behaviour is permissible. It really illustrates how little knowledge these writers have about working dogs. Semantics matter. Similarly, a coyote might be killed by a LGD while protecting its flock, but the LGD is not “hunting” like coonhound hunts. Just because the coyote was killed does not make the LGD a “hunting” dog.  A polish Tatra might protect its owner, but it is not a personal protection dog like a Doberman is.

Encouraging a herding type of behaviour in LGD is indirectly encouraging predatory behaviour. Some old dogs very familiar with routines might head to the barn at a certain time and it may move with the sheep, this should not be confused as herding. Active and directional movement or bunching of the flock is not what a LGD should be doing. He is allowed to lead the sheep in, walk among them but his job is guard them and not control their movements. Guarding dogs have to allow sheep to freely be able to move and graze, it is the dog’s job to move with the sheep and ensure they are safe wherever the sheep chose to graze.

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