How Sheep and Cattle Dogs Work

Australian Cattle DogAustralian Cattle Dog

The primary purpose of working dogs is to assist in the management of other domestic species like sheep or cattle, usually kept in herds. The name of a breed in this group does not necessarily reflect its function. Historically a person who looked after a herd was called a 'Shepherd'. But a 'Shepherd Dog' does not necessarily mean a dog belonging to a shepherd. Nor does it mean a 'sheepdog' or 'cattle dog' works sheep or cattle exclusively. It could work on both of these or in combination with any other domesticated animals for example goats, llama or reindeer.

Australian Kelpie (Yard Dog)Australian Kelpie (Yard Dog)

The working breeds in this group may assist by

  1. Living among domesticated animals, instinctively guarding them from predators (Livestock Guardian dogs)
  2. Herding them from distances to a predictable place. This includes working at the front of the flock, leading them in the required direction (Herding dogs) or working behind the flock causing them to move forward
  3. Driving them from one yard to another within a confined area (Yard dogs).

Alternatively, individual working dogs may perform any combination of the above 3 functions.

The Working Group in this section is confined to the Australian classification (ANKC) which is called the 'Pastoral Group' in some other countries.

Herding Dogs

Australian Cattle Dog HerdingAustralian Cattle Dog Herding

As explained in the history of the Early Herding Dogs, the dog's natural prey instinct of chasing has been modified to herd domesticated farm animals under the direction of a person who is called the Shepherd. According to the ancient Roman scholar Varro (116BC) when using dogs to take flocks of sheep to market, which could take several days, it is important to feed the dogs so they do not forage for food along the way or worse, feed on one of the flock. But once the flock has been delivered safely to market, to get the dog to follow the shepherd home, he should throw the dogs cooked frogs![1] This demonstrates the strong the bond that had formed between the dog and its flock!

Australian Cattle Dog HeelingAustralian Cattle Dog Heeling

Herding dogs work from outside and in front of or behind the flock, circling the livestock, causing them to form a bunch in order to protect themselves. These dogs often display the 'eye'. It is important the dogs do not divide the flock, except under direction or within the yards.

Sometimes the dogs need to nip at the heel of an animal to cause it to move. This is called 'Heeling' as pictured on the left and the dogs which do this are called 'Heelers'. But the dog must be clever enough, or have the instinct to protect themselves from a kick. So usually when the dog nips the heel of the weight bearing limb as pictured, he drops flat immediately afterwards, so the consequent kick from the cow whistles harmlessly over him.

Livestock Guardian Dogs

Maremma with GoatsMaremma with Goats

As explained in Livestock Guardian Dogs History, these dogs live within the flock and blend permanently with them, bonding with the animals as their social companions. These dogs are usually much larger than predators, their sheer size making it easy to bluff and/or displace predators. The three breeds we shall consider in this group are all basically white with the differences in terrain and climate fixing their type so giving rise to these different breeds.

These dogs instinctively learn to protect the flock from anything they see as a threat, independently of any commands from a Shepherd. This can make them frustratingly difficult to train. Historically, Livestock Guardian Dogs were often the sole protectors of the flock which makes them fearless and free thinking if provoked. However, they are usually calm, placid and instinctively trustworthy with sheep or any other species in their charge.

Please follow these links to the 6 other Livestock Guardian breeds which are recognised in the Utility Group in Australia.

These are:

References and Further Reading

[1] Edward C Ash 'Dogs: Their History and Development' Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927 Section V Dalmatians, Great Danes and Sheepdogs' Chapter II Sheepdogs Page 262