The three most common types of livestock that herding dogs work with in the United States are ducks, sheep, and cattle. Other animals that are regularly herded with dogs are chickens, geese, turkeys, and goats. Some talented dogs can herd all of these species. However, many others are a little more specialized, particularly in the early stages of training.
So what are the differences in working each type of stock? Let’s find out.
Common behaviors seen in chickens include:
- Fast movements.
- Looser flocking instinct.
Chickens are often far too excitable for training inexperienced dogs. Also, just seeing a dog (even a well-behaved one) seems to incite panic in many chickens. The stress of the whole affair could be rather detrimental to your working laying hens. Furthermore, the excitability of chickens may incite the predatory instinct of some dogs beyond control.
While no inexperienced herding dog should be allowed to work chickens, for a seasoned herder that knows how to control himself, chickens can be a rewarding challenge.
Common behaviors seen in ducks include:
- Slow pace.
- Cumbersome, jerky movements.
- Keeping in a tight flock.
- Ability to see almost 360 degrees around them.
- Inability to fly (except for some bantams and Flying Mallards).
- Tendency to follow fences rather than venture out into the open.
Because of their flocking instincts and their inability to hurt the dog, ducks can be acceptable animals to use to train some inexperienced herding dogs, particularly dogs with a softer style. Note, however, that timid dogs may be frightened by the jerky movements and flapping wings of ducks.
Dogs with an extra-high prey drive, however, may be overly incited by them, and a bite that would be merely irritating to cattle can be fatal to a duck. Aggressive herding dogs should never be started on ducks. Once the dog has mastered some self-control when working with other types of stock, he may be introduced to ducks to learn greater precision.
Because ducks move so slowly, any herding dog may develop the habit of working extremely close to the stock if trained primarily on ducks. For those without daily access to sheep, however, herding with ducks can be a viable supplement to weekly sheep-herding sessions. Because ducks like to stick close to fences, they are useful for teaching a dog how to move the stock away from the fence.
One thing to watch out for when working ducks is that they can get sore feet if herded over rough terrain. It is preferable to work them on a soft, grassy surface, but a foot conditioner can be applied to protect them from injury. Also, build ducks up to herding gradually over time, keeping your sessions to no longer than 10 minutes at a time at first.
Finally, go easy on female ducks. An internally broken egg can be fatal.
Common behaviors seen in geese include:
- Ability to fly.
- Keeping in a tight flock unless pressured.
- Tendency to separate under pressure, particularly when in small flocks.
- Tendency to string out or refuse to move when in large flocks.
- Potential to react aggressively if pressured.
- Ability to take advantage of an inattentive dog.
- Tendency to challenge a less secure dog.
Because of their flocking instincts and the fact that they don’t typically try to take refuge in corners, geese can be excellent animals to use to train started but less experienced herding dogs in many cases. However, they are also rather challenging to work, as they will take advantage of every mistake the dog makes. Geese are superb animals to use to teach dogs how to work stock at a distance and how to exercise self-control when setting the pace.
Be aware that geese can readily (and accurately) gauge the dog’s level of confidence. While they will typically respect an assertive dog, a more submissive dog may be presented with a noisy threat.
One thing to watch out for when working geese is that, like ducks, they can get sore feet if herded over rough terrain. It is preferable to work them on an even, grassy surface, but a foot conditioner can be applied to protect them from injury.
Also be particularly considerate of geese when working in hot weather. They can overheat quickly and will need plenty of cool water to drink.
Common behaviors seen in turkeys include:
- Poor flocking instinct in small groups
- Tendency to jump or fly when pressured.
Turkeys can be very challenging to herd. It’s a job best for a more experienced dog with a cool head.
Behaviors commonly seen in sheep include:
- Strong flocking instinct.
Because of their docility and flocking instinct, sheep are among the most popular animals to start herding prospects on. Many dogs remain sheep specialists throughout their herding careers.
One thing to watch out for is that a young, hard-hitting dog may be too much for sheep until he has been trained to control himself. Working sheep requires a great deal of finesse. Sheepdog breeds will take to this skill more readily than cattle dog breeds.
But it is only fair to note that not all sheep are equally docile. Rams can be just as challenging to work as cattle, and some ewes can be belligerent, as well. In general, however, sheep tend to be less aggressive toward dogs than cattle.
Behaviors commonly seen in goats include:
- Tendency to challenge the dog for dominance.
- Slow response to the dog.
- Little flocking instinct.
Working goats with a dog is often compared to working slow-moving sheep. However, goats tend to scatter easily, and many are willing to vie with the dog for dominance, making them a considerably greater challenge than sheep. For this reason, goats are not typically recommended for inexperienced dogs, particularly those that are softer or more timid.
Behaviors commonly seen in cattle include:
- Slower pace.
- Challenging the dog.
Compared to sheep, cattle are typically calmer. However, they are also more likely to engage in dominance struggles with the dog—hence the reason that cattle dogs are allowed to “grip” (apply a disciplinary bite to) their charges.
Cattle generally do not respond to “eye” as well as sheep do. A direct approach to herding cattle is required.
Training a softer dog on cattle is not advised, as cattle can be too aggressive for a more submissive dog to handle. Furthermore, cattle can seriously injure dogs in a showdown, making dogs leery of herding at best and killing them at worst. Dog breeds developed specifically for working cattle, however, will often have the innate dominance and tenacity to control a herd right from the beginning.