Watching herding dogs at work is mesmerizing. Those of you who have forayed into the world of livestock now have the perfect opportunity to try it yourselves!
But are herding dogs right for you? Be sure to weigh the pros and cons before you decide. It takes a considerable commitment.
- A helping hand. If you work alone, a herding dog may be just the helper you need to move animals from place to place. Even if you do have a human partner to help, the dog can still move into position faster than you can, saving you a great deal of time.
- Useful energy outlet. Herding breeds tend to have a lot of energy. If you already have a herding dog as a companion, you might find that he appreciates the stimulation of working animals, while you benefit from his assistance.
- Relationship-building. Good herding requires mutual respect and understanding between dog and owner. Therefore, if you put in the time and effort to make a successful herding team, you will likely reap the benefits in all areas of your relationship with your dog.
- Instinct and intelligence. A herding dog’s keen senses and sharp mind can help you out with situations that would be difficult to remedy on your own. For instance, working dogs have been known to keep livestock from mobbing during feeding time, to locate missing animals, and to protect their owners from aggressive cattle, among other feats.
- Safety. A cooperative, mannerly herding dog can make working close to livestock safer for the human. A herding dog’s instincts will permit him to read animals faster and more accurately than most people can.
- Expense. If you purchase a trained dog, or even a puppy from working bloodlines, expect to pay a high price.
- Life with herding dogs. Even when not working stock, you still have to live with your herding dog. Herding dogs are smart and easily bored, so be prepared to address problems such as chewing, car-chasing, and nipping at heels. (A dog with a job will be much less prone to these issues.)
- Increased livestock stress. A good stockdog works quietly with just enough force to get the job done. An inexperienced dog may stress livestock with unnecessary noise and movement, increasing the risk of sickness and weight loss. In particular, if you are considering using a dog to herd chickens, note that chickens are easily distressed by the presence of dogs and may stop laying.
- Risk of injury to dog. More aggressive animals have the potential to injure your herding dog. Rams, bucks, and bulls can be problematic, as can cows with calves. Also, if you keep a livestock guard dog, he might decide that your herding dog is acting like a predator, with disastrous results.
- Learning curve. Particularly on the human end of the equation. The dog already knows how to herd. You’ll be the one doing most of the learning, and a big part of this is staying out of the way. Undue interference on the part of the human can lead to any number of bad habits in a young herding dog and may frustrate a more experienced dog.
- Time commitment. A herding dog takes time to train. He may not be ready for real work until he is at least a year old, and even then he may not be reliable until he has had some practice.
So is working livestock with a dog right for you? If you have a flock or herd that you have to manage on a regular basis (particularly a large one), adding a canine partner may be a big help.
On the other hand, you must be prepared for the commitment that training a herding dog will require. You will have to learn to guide and correct as necessary, but without micromanaging your dog. You must build a bond of mutual respect that keeps you in position as pack leader and still gives your dog full play for his remarkable instinct.
But if herding dogs are truly right for you, you will find this project very rewarding.