How to Train a Herding Dog: Common Problems and Techniques

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Herding dogs are known for being smart. Border Collies, Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, and related breeds are consistently ranked among “most intelligent dog” lists! Those natural smarts don’t always make herding dogs simple to train, though — in fact, many owners say their companions are too smart for their own good.

Here’s the lowdown of what you need to know to train your herding breed, whether you just brought home a new puppy or are working with an adult dog. Let’s dive in!

Common problem behaviors and training struggles with herding dogs

Herding dogs are known for many wonderful traits, like freely offering engagement with their handlers and embracing problem-solving activities. They also have some common struggles, though.

While every dog is an individual, here’s a look at the most typical problem behaviors for owners of herding breeds.

Herding breeds can be hyper alert or fixated on the environment

Herding dogs were bred to be watchful of their surroundings

For generations and generations, humans have selectively bred herding dogs to have a keen sense of observation. Nothing gets by an animal developed to pay attention to subtle movements! This trait is an incredible asset for working dogs who need to move cattle, sheep, or other kinds of livestock alongside their shepherds or ranch owners — but it can have its drawbacks in many modern-day pet environments.

Some herding dogs become obsessed with movement, even resorting to chasing things like shadows or small light reflections around the house. It’s imperative that you mix up your herding breed’s daily activities so they never get too much stimulation from fixating on motion. Incorporate mental exercise and enrichment like puzzle feeding toys and obedience training. Help your dog feel calm and be able to settle without constantly scanning the environment.

Avoid these things with your herding dog:

  • Playing with laser pointers. This can tap into your herding breed’s innate motion sensitivity and increase your dog’s chances of developing mental or behavioral health problems like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), neurotic behavior, or a general inability to disengage from the surrounding environment.
  • Exclusively playing fast-paced chasing games like fetch for your dog's daily physical exercise. There’s nothing wrong with throwing a ball or frisbee — it’s a classic dog ownership activity for a reason! Just make sure it isn’t all you do with your herding breed. Mixing in other calmer activities (or practicing impulse control during the game by having your dog hold a down stay or perform another cue before being released to chase) will satisfy your pup’s natural instincts without creating an unhealthy obsession.

Herding breeds can be sensitive to noise, especially in modern settings

Think about the original lifestyle of a working herding dog. Most of them lived on huge stretches of land, fields, or farms — while their days were busy and full of activity, the surrounding environment was pretty quiet. That’s a big change compared to today’s modern world full of sirens, music, car horns, strange dogs barking, and more. Whether you live in a crowded city or suburban neighborhood, chances are it's still a stimulating environment for your herding dog.

Herding breeds are prone to noise sensitivity just like they’re predisposed to pay attention to subtle movements. It’s common for these dogs to be nervous around traffic or even “everyday” sounds like the footsteps of your neighbor across the hall. What’s more? Many herding breeds were developed to also be protective of their property — this means they’re extra likely to be sensitive to sounds that might predict a stranger entering their territory.

If this is your dog, don’t fret. It’s normal! By pairing scary sounds with delicious treats or favorite toys (a process called counterconditioning) you can help your herding dog feel better about the world around them. You’ll also see success from practicing a calm mindset and making sure you yourself stay calm around startling noises. Remember that your dog pays a lot of attention to the way you react in a given situation!

Many herding dogs are prone to reactivity, especially to strangers and fast-moving animals or objects

One of the most common behavioral problems in herding breeds is reactivity. This is for a few reasons:

  • As mentioned above, herding dogs were developed to pay close attention to motion. They have a hard time just ignoring the environment. Subtle changes (like someone approaching, even from a far distance) will catch their attention. Fast- or irregularly-moving objects can light up their herding instincts, sending them into a state of frustration if they aren’t able to act on their impulses to control the things around them.
  • We also touched on the fact that herding dogs can be naturally protective. This involves an element of “stranger danger” — many herding breeds are a bit wary of new people, to the point that it’s included as a trait in their breed standards. Without proper socialization, it’s easy for Cattle Dogs, Border Collies, and more to develop full-blown fear reactivity to people they don’t know.
  • Speaking of socialization, many ancient herding dogs simply never encountered people or animals who weren’t in their family. It’s more natural for some dogs (like Labrador Retrievers) to be interested in socializing with strangers in practice than it is for others.

Herding breeds can nip guests, children, or other animals

A common way herding dogs control the movement of the livestock they’re working? By nipping at their vulnerable heels. (This is why Australian Cattle Dogs are called “heelers” after all!)

Many people who adopt a herding breed are surprised when their dog starts going after the ankles or shins of themselves, their guests, children, or other animals in the home. This can be startling — no one wants to think about their dog biting someone! — but is incredibly natural behavior. It also ties into the reactivity we mentioned above. Some herding dogs are reactive to fast-moving objects purely out of herding drive, even if they aren’t fearful.

Most herding dog nipping can be controlled by providing appropriate outlets for your dog to satisfy their natural desires and carefully managing difficult situations. It’s generally recommended that no dog be left alone around young children — this is especially important for breeds that have a predisposition to mouthy behavior or herding kids.

Herding dogs can be sensitive about their personal space

Herding breeds aren’t just aware of motion in the world around them — they’re also keenly sensitive about their own body movements and personal space. Many Border Collies in particular hesitate to get too close to anything around them, be it a stationary object like a piece of furniture, a person, or another animal. You can think of it a little like your herding dog feeling a bit claustrophobic.

Common ways spatial sensitivity plays out in pet herding dogs:

  • Hesitation to have their collars or harnesses grabbed (this can make attaching a leash especially tricky)
  • Shying away when someone reaches in to pet them, especially near their face
  • Not wanting to perform obedience cues that involve being incredibly close to their handler, like formal “front” recalls or weaving between legs

Many herding dogs are easily able to overcome, or at least lessen, their spatial sensitivity through patience and positive associations. Don’t allow your dog to be grabbed by anyone if they aren’t showing interest. Avoid backing them into a corner or asking them to navigate a tight furniture arrangement. Provide plenty of praise and rewards (like tasty treats or favorite toys) for working in close proximity to you, your family, strangers, and inanimate objects.

Many herding breeds are picky about their food

It’s normal for herding dogs to be picky eaters. When the world around them is so stimulating — so much to watch! so much to smell! — food can be the last thing on their minds. Some breeds and individual dogs are more excited about treats than others.

If your herding dog isn’t particularly food motivated, you can try a few different things:

  • Always start training new behaviors in familiar, low distraction environments. If your dog refuses food, this could be a sign they’re feeling too overstimulated.
  • Avoid offering your dog consistently higher and higher value treats if they turn down your first offerings. It’s definitely a good idea to pay attention to what they do and don’t like — but too many repetitions of them refusing one reward only for you to produce something “better” can actually reinforce their pickiness. You don’t want your dog always holding out in hopes that you’ll offer them something they prefer even more.
  • You might consider training with toys instead of food if your dog loves to play. Bonus that you don’t have to worry about balancing calories or limiting physical activity on a full stomach to prevent problems like bloat!
A group of dogs, some of them herding breeds or herding breed mixes, eagerly sit in front of their traner who holds a clicker, leash, treats, and other dog training supplies in his vest

How to understand, fulfill, and train your herding dog

Understand what your herding dog was bred for

In the above section, we saw many common problem behaviors in herding breeds — and you might have noticed that almost all of them are rooted in natural herding instincts and tendencies that come from generations and generations of selective breeding.

What does that mean for training your herding dog? First and foremost, you have to accept who your pup is! It’s unfair to ask your herding breed to ever completely suppress their instinctive behaviors and drives. You might have different challenges with your Border Collie or Corgi or Shepherd than your neighbor has with their own breed — and that’s okay. When you understand where your dog’s behavior is coming from, it’s easier to practice empathy and bring more patience to your training sessions.

Give your herding dog opportunities to act on their instincts

Once you understand your herding dog’s instincts, you can give them appropriate opportunities to satisfy their natural desires! This is important for several reasons:

  • When your dog is able to act on their herding tendencies in safe situations, they’ll feel less frustrated and pent-up in moments where it isn’t appropriate and you ask for impulse control instead.
  • Doing inherently fun activities together, like play that fulfills elements of herding, will build your bond as a team.
  • A fulfilled dog will be calmer, more focused, and easier to live with.

Private Sniffspots are perfect to let your dog safely stretch their legs

Sniffspots are a great option for allowing your dog to run, chase, and explore without worrying about encountering surprises like other people, animals, or off-leash dogs. This can be especially beneficial for herding breeds prone to reactivity!

Do I have to let my herding breed actually herd other animals?

Part of fulfilling your dog’s herding instincts might be actually enrolling them in a herding class or private lessons with sheep, goats, or other livestock — but it’s not a necessity to be a good herding breed owner. You can also provide a range of substitute activities like playing with a herding ball or encouraging your dog to stalk toys before pouncing on them. (Take a look at some of our favorite toys for herding breeds in this article.)

How to get started if you’re interested in herding

If you do decide you want to dabble in real herding, here are a few things to do:

  • Build a foundation of basic cues. Herding dogs need to be adept at general impulse control and common cues like sit, down, and stay. Bonus if your pup can perform these behaviors at a distance and hold them around distractions! You might even consider entering an obedience trial to test their skills.
  • Get your dog exposed to livestock, preferably under the guidance of a professional trainer. Whenever we’re working our own pets around other animals, it’s important to be respectful and keep safety top of mind. Getting in touch with an experienced herding instructor space is a great way to start. They’ll be able to test your dog’s instincts without stress! This ensures a positive experience for all animals involved.
  • Learn about herding lingo. Spend some time reading up — or better yet, directly talking to folks in the community — about common herding jargon. Learning the meaning of terms like “come bye” (go clockwise around the stock) versus “away” (counter clockwise) and more will help you understand what’s going on when you watch dogs work and train your own pup more effectively.
  • Practice and hone your skills over time. No one turns into a herding pro overnight. That’s okay! Spend time practicing — eventually you and your dog will both build valuable skills you can use in herding competitions or just for fun in casual training sessions.

You can learn more about herding with your dog in our complete guide here!

Be patient and thoughtful in your herding dog training

Remember that your herding dog’s struggles are normal. These are delightful, engaging, fun breeds to own — and they’re also challenging! Show both yourself and your dog grace when things don’t go as well as you hoped.

Don’t hesitate to work with a professional trainer

If you feel like you’re “in over your head” when it comes to your dog’s herding instincts, consider connecting with a certified force free trainer. They’ll be able to use their own firsthand experience and extensive education to help you understand your dog, identify your biggest goals, and ultimately create a personalized training plan.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Marnie Montgomery
PMCT4, CPDT-KA
Tellington TTouch® Practitioner
Fear-Free Certified Professional