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 that belongs 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 yard within another 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). In some other countries this is called the 'Pastoral Group'.

Ancient 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.

Described in 116BC by the ancient Roman scholar Varro, taking dogs to market could take several days. If this is the case, it is important to feed the dogs en route. Then the dogs 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, the shepherd should throw the dogs treats like cooked frogs![1] 

Modern Herding

Australian Cattle Dog HeelingAustralian Cattle Dog Heeling

Today, herding dogs should work from outside the flock, often displaying the 'eye'. That could be in front of or behind the flock, circling the livestock, causing them to form a bunch. This makes it easier to protect the animals. It is important the dogs do not divide the flock, except under direction or within the yards.

As pictured, some dogs nip at the heel of an animal being herded to cause it to move. Dogs that do this are called sometimes called 'Heelers'. These dogs are sufficiently clever and agile to protect themselves from a kick. Consequently, when the dog nips the weight bearing limb heel of the animal being herded and then flat immediately afterwards, so the consequent kick from the animal whistles harmlessly over the dog.

Sheep Dog Trial History

By the late 1800s alongside the development of dog shows, many other dog activities began, including Sheep Dog Trials, the first record of which was on a private property in New Zealand in 1867. There it was reported:

" Each shepherd, with his dog, was required to drive three wild hill wethers turned out of a yard, about a quarter of a mile, put them in a yard of five hurdles, without a wing and return them to the starting place within 30 minutes, The shepherd doing his best and to the satisfaction of the judges, received a prize.." [2]

Australia has a long history of sheepdog trialling dating back to 1871. In 1873 there was a report of a Sheep Dog Trial in Wales (UK) and it grew as a competitive sport across the world. Sheep Dog Trials are a test of control of a sheepdog dog, especially at a distance. In the beginning there was lots of waving, shouting and barking. Today, under competition rules, this sport looks very different!

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] Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27BC) from his book "Rerum Rusticarum" (On Agriculture) translated by William Davis Hooper and Harrison Boyd Ash and published by William Heinemann, London and Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1934. Republished in 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

[2] Oamaru Times, New Zealand April 30 1867