Herding Dogs: Hard-working, Intelligent Canines

One of the most popular shows on television these days is Kevin Costner’s modern-day cowboy saga, Yellowstone. I watched the first three seasons and will probably watch season four when it comes out from behind its “paywall”. But not everyone is a fan. My wife, for example, watched about twenty-minutes of the first episode before she gave up on it with the declaration, “There is not one character on this show that I admire.” She was right, of course. But I’ll probably keep watching anyway—even though it is not a program that would garner much approval from my Sunday school class.

Another criticism I’ve heard about the show is that there are no dogs on the Yellowstone Ranch. How can you have a working cattle ranch with cowboys, chuckwagons, and livestock but no dogs—no dog to sit on the porch with patriarch John Dutton as he sips his whiskey in the evening, no dog in the horse barn or cattle paddock. In fact, the only dogs I recall seeing were used by cattle rustlers who were stealing some cattle from the Yellowstone Ranch. The scene only lasted a few minutes, but it made an impression on me because the modern-day rustlers used herding dogs to move the cattle quickly and efficiently into a trailer.

As a zookeeper, early in my career, I often had to herd livestock into pens, crates, and trailers. It is not easy when they don’t want to go. That is why I have such admiration for the almost supernatural ability of herding dogs.

My only experience with a herding dog was with Bexley, our seventy-pound mutt that had herding instincts. When we picked her up from the animal shelter nearly twenty years ago she was a tiny, black ball of fur. Her lineage was unknown, but the shelter had listed her as a “terrier mix”. I don’t know what kind of terrier they thought she was, but she grew into a black and white version of Old English Sheepdog—a breed that was developed to help drive cattle and sheep to market. Maybe that’s why, as she grew older, Bexley had a tendency to bump the backs of our legs and nip at our heels as we moved about the house and yard.

Herding dogs were carved out of the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Working Group in 1983. They were breeds that share the instinctive ability to control the movement of other animals. Herding dogs, which include shepherds, collies, and cattle dogs, were developed to gather, herd and protect livestock.

One of the most popular breeds of herding dog is the border collie, a beautiful, medium sized, black and white dog that was originally developed on the border of Scotland and England—hence the name. Dog experts widely agree that border collies are intelligent workaholics. They are capable of learning a remarkable number of words and commands, and they are happiest when they are put to work every day. When seen working at shows and herding trials, most people are astonished by their ability to herd sheep into a small pen, guided only by hand signals and whistles from their owners. Border collies are known for staring intensely at members of the flock to intimidate them—a tactic known as using “the eye”.

Another sheep herding dog is the Australian shepherd, or Aussie, a medium-sized worker that also has a keen, penetrating gaze. According to the United States Australian Shepherd Association, there are many theories as to the origin of the Australian shepherd but, despite its name, the breed as we know it today was developed in the United States. The Australian shepherd was given its name because of their association with the Basque sheepherders who came to the United States from Australia in the 1800’s. The Aussie rose rapidly in popularity with the boom of western riding after World War II, becoming known to the general public through appearances in rodeos, horse shows, movies, and television. Their inherent versatility and trainability made them useful on farms and ranches where American stockmen continued the development of the breed, maintaining their keen intelligence, strong herding instinct and eye-catching appearance.

Another popular herding dog is the Australian Cattle Dog (ACD). Also called blue heeler or Queensland heeler. This dog actually contains the bloodlines of a variety of other breeds including collies, kelpies, dalmatians, and even Australia’s famous wild dog, the Dingo. The result is a strong compact, symmetrically built working dog that conveys great agility, strength, and endurance. As the name implies, the dog’s prime function, and one for which it has no peer, is the control and movement of cattle. The breed is said to be “wary of strangers” which, according to one blogger, means that the odds are your heeler has already met everyone it wants to know. After that they may chase off strangers—even ones that are your new friends.

The use of dogs for herding even extends to the high-Arctic. I recently watched a program about reindeer on the PBS show Europe’s New Wild. Modern reindeer herders use technology such as GPS systems and snow machines but they also, it appears, use a dog called the Lapponian herder—a breed that was developed in Finland specifically to herd reindeer.

According to the AKC, the herding instinct in these breeds is so strong that they have been known to gently herd their owners, especially the children of the family. They are alert, courageous, and trustworthy with an implicit devotion to duty. But to be sane, they need to run for hours and use their considerable intelligence to outwit troublesome sheep, not sit inside a house all day while their owner is at work. In her 2002 book The Other End of the Leash, dog behavior expert Patricia McConnell bemoans the public’s interest in having working and herding dogs as pets. Border collies, for example, may be an ideal size and have beautiful coloring, but McConnell suggests that they are “as ill-suited to most households as mountain goats”. Experts recommend that herding dog owners participate with their dog in some sort of work, sport, or regular exercise to keep them mentally and physically fit.

Although our dog Bexley somehow had these herding instincts hard-wired into her makeup, she had little else in common with these pure-bred herding dogs. Bexley died a few years ago, but I don’t recall her being a particularly agile or versatile workaholic. If she had a penetrating gaze, it was well hidden by the mop of black fur that covered her eyes between haircuts. And she definitely missed out on the intelligence genes. In fact, the folks who ran the kennel where we regularly boarded her dubbed Bexley a “clown in a dog suit”. As lovable as she was, Bexley wasn’t going to outsmart anybody—even a herd of sheep.

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