Herding and the German Shepherd Dog

Once other animals such as cattle, sheep and goats became domesticated, man became aware of the dogs herding ability. Tactics used by hunting wolves, witnessed by humans, such as driving and separating one animal from the flock, were further exploited and bred into these dogs. As in other dogs, the animals possessing the best inherent herding abilities were further developed to assist human shepherds in their daily duties.

As you know, German Shepherds fall into the Herding Category of dog breeds- the breed was derived in the late 1800’s from several different types of herding stock. As the breed gained popularity, it also gained new “jobs” and duties as varied as can be possibly imagined- from work in the wars, search-and-rescue, tracking, police work, protection, to guide dog, companion dog and more. Still, some animals(GSD’s) are used today actively as herding dogs.

Exactly what is involved in the process of herding? First, a willingness to work and to cooperate with others. In the wild wolves or wild dogs work as a unit when hunting prey and each animal may have a particular “job” to fulfill in order to bring down the intended victim. Some may be following the prey while others attempt to head it off. Still, another may be the pack leader who in essence coordinates the events of the hunt. Herding dogs now work essentially with a human as pack leader in attempting to control herds of livestock.

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Herding dogs may have natural abilities and fall in one of two basic categories- either that of gatherer or driver. Drivers generally move the stock away from the handler while still grouped, while gatherers tend to head off stock, keep them grouped and move them toward the handler.

Generally speaking, gatherers are more versatile than drivers and it is much easier to cross train a gatherer to drive than it is to cross train a driver to gather.

Overall, principles of herding are based on the dogs natural instincts though other training methods abound. First dogs must obey the handler and follow commands. This, along with mutual trust and respect, are the most important aspects of the working relationship between the dog(s) and the handler.

After being introduced to stock, the animals are taught to position themselves in relation to the handler and stock based on their ”job” and the direction in which the herd is to be moved. It is the handlers job to give the dog guidance in working the stock.

Later in training directional commands are learned by the animal in training. Most commands are in the form of verbal cues or whistles although visual commands may sometimes be involved as well. Possible commands may include “easy” or ”steady” (move slowly), “stop”, “down”, or flanking commands such as move counterclockwise or clockwise around the herd. Once the dog masters the basic gathering commands it is taught to drive the herd and as it learns each lesson, it is taught other more difficult commands.

Qualities a good herding dog must possess are obedience, trainability, adaptiveness, good health, responsiveness and, most importantly, being able to use its own judgment.

“Standing up” to uncooperative stock or being gentle with cooperative stock are other qualities of utmost importance in an actual working herding dog.

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