Working Like A Dog

Selecting the right dog for your needs means understanding breeds and behavior

Working Like A Dog

By Kenny Coogan

For hundreds of years, dogs have worked with humans in mutually beneficial relationships. Historically and presently, dogs help us hunt, protect our homes, kill vermin and help us care for farm animals. Some breeds help us by moving and controlling the animals we keep as stock and other dog breed types protect them.

“Up until the last 150 years or so, and with the exception of a few rather wealthy people, most of us could not afford to keep dogs purely as entertainment,” Ken McCort, owner and operator of Four Paws, a canine training center in Doylestown, Ohio, says. “These specialized jobs that dogs did for us were not necessarily based on our training of them, but rather followed specific behaviors or sequence of behaviors scientists call ‘motor patterns.’”

Through artificial breeding, we have selected many characteristics that are favorable to a homesteader. Certified behavior consultant and dog trainer Miranda K. Workman says that initially dogs were bred based on function. “You will have some breeds that have a predisposition or tendency to be better or more readily adapted for specific behaviors,” Workman says. That is why we have herding breeds, guarding breeds, terrier breeds—they were bred based on the function they performed. Workman, whose master’s degree is in anthrozoology, says that breeding for conformation (form) is a more recent development.

Herding breeds for example seem to enjoy to chase and bark at our livestock, while another group, heelers, will take the behavior a little further and actually nip at or bite the feet of the animals. “These motor patterns can be controlled and refined through training, but the sequences needed to be there genetically to start with as training alone would not create such a useful and reliable helper dog,” McCort adds.

While any dog can be trained to do a variety of things, the breed does play a part in the dog’s natural abilities. For example, a Border Collie will instinctively herd, while a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel will not. However, Workman says, “there is some behavioral plasticity within dogs that allows, for example, for ‘non-herding breed’ dogs to learn to herd.” She concludes that there needs to be more studies on how genetics and environment affect behavior.

According to the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Director and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Mary Burch, Ph.D., homesteaders value a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and many raise a variety of animals or heritage livestock. There can be training challenges with dogs and livestock, but systematic training will result in a peaceful coexistence for everyone, including the dog.


Dr. Burch says that two critical skills for dogs living with livestock include: 1) the reliable recall and 2) “leave it.” The recall behavior is another term for “coming when called” and this is a critical skill for dogs that live on the same property as livestock. If your dog runs free on your property, begin with the dog on a leash to teach the recall. Walk along with the dog on your left side. When the dog is not quite expecting it, quickly begin backing up, saying “Buddy, come!” When the dog comes to you, praise him and give him a treat.

Public Relations Manager of the American Kennel Club Jessica Rice D’Amato says for a well-socialized dog that has spent a lot of time with you, this training will proceed quickly. “Gradually lengthen the distance between you and the dog, and then start practicing by having the dog sit and calling him from progressively increased distances off-leash,” Dr. Burch explains.

The second behavior Dr. Burch believes is crucial for your dog to learn is the “leave it” cue. If your dog begins to worry or approach livestock when you don’t want them to, you may need to use this cue. With herding dogs, you would teach the dog to lay down or come to you when sheep or other animals the dog herds are involved. When the dog is approaching chickens or other animals that should be ignored, the “leave it” command is helpful.

Dr. Burch recommends first pairing the words “leave it” with looking at you. Take the dog for a walk and carry a treat. As you walk along, calmly say, “leave it,” and when the dog looks at you, give them a treat. Repeat this until the dog looks at you when you say “leave it.”

The next step will be when you are walking at a distance by some livestock. Cue the dog to “leave it,” rewarding them as they ignore the animals. Practice this by gradually getting closer to the livestock. If your dog lunges or there is any chance that it may hurt an animal, do all of your training until the dog is reliable on a leash or long line.

Livestock Protectors
Pets are not reliable livestock protectors, as good guard dogs should be around the livestock 24/7.


McCort says that successful herding dogs will need to know at least four behaviors. The first is an outrun. “That means the dog will run wide paths around the stock and take up a position behind them. The shape of an outrun is often genetic,” he says.

A second behavior the dog will need to know is how to “walk up,” which means to move toward the animals they are herding. “When the dog is close enough to get the stock’s attention, it is often cued to lay down—a behavior that stops them from charging in,” McCort adds.

The dog also needs to know how to move to the left (counter clockwise) and to the right (clockwise). These movements are often called “away to me” and “come by.” If the dog can do other behaviors at a distance, they can be more valuable as a working herding dog.

There are many ways to train behaviors for herding dogs, and McCort prefers and recommends methods that do not involve force or intimidation. “These behaviors are often cued by whistles rather than words and need to be reliable from quite a distance. If the genetic foundations are not there, then there is little chance the dog can be trained to reliably work stock,” he advises.

Herding Dog
Despite its natural instincts, there are specific tasks a herding dog will need to be trained to do.


“Protecting stock is a completely different use of dogs and required them to be socialized to the animals they are to guard,” McCort has observed. Often these dogs are raised with the stock in the barn. Many true livestock guarding dogs are not household pets and do not live in the home with the people who own the ranch. “Several reliable experts I know that are involved in livestock guarding dogs have told me that keeping these working dogs as ‘pets’ can and often does eliminate them from being truly reliable flock guardians,” McCort cautions.

If the guard dogs are to protect stock from predators and thieves, they will need to be with the livestock 24/7. To be truly effective, they would need to allow the rancher/farmer to approach, but often no one else is permitted. “Because they will aggressively go after any intruder, these dogs often are only used with stock animals that are on hundreds of acres and/or that are completely surrounded by a secure fence,” McCort says. Reaching into the fenced area will often get intruders bitten.

Although there are many breeds that have natural guardian tendencies and make wonderful family pets, caregivers should decide which trait to nurture.

“They either are a Livestock Guardian Dog or they are a pet,” McCort says. “True working LGDs are extremely valuable to the owner but are not considered a family pet.”

He says that most farmers and ranchers with limited acreage can’t safely keep LGDs. On the contrary he adds, “there are several people I know that keep sheep that use herding dogs to move them.”

Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, is a pet and garden columnist and has authored an ecological themed children’s book titled “A Tenrec Named Trey (And other odd lettered animals that like to play).” He is an animal training and behavior consultant and earned a B.S. in animal behavior. Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more.

Recommended Reading

Recommended Reading:

• Working Like a Dog: The Story of Working Dogs through History by Gena K. Gorrell

• Carting with Your Dog – Positive Draft Training for Fun and Competition by Laura Waldbaum

• Sheepdog Training and Trials: A Complete Guide for Border Collie Handlers and Enthusiasts by Nij Vyas

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