Working/Herding Stockdogs

Cattle Dog CH. Blueberry Roan Hancock (Freddy) working sheep.


Photo by Liz Younger

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Breeds of Working/Herding Stockdogs

by Esther Ekman

Although there are many breeds of stockdogs, the Border Collie, Australian Kelpie, Australian Shepherd and Australian Cattle Dog are the best known in the USA.

Border Collie

Recognized the world over as the most stylish of stockdog breeds, it is best known as a sheep dog, which is the job it was bred for originally. Many breeders in the USA have bred a cattle working line also. Most sheepmen don't want a dog that grips, but cattlemen need that trait when needed. There are lines that will either/or, but most will not do both

. A wide outrun is the breed signature and is what makes the breed so stylish in the sheep trials. The breed is very stock intensive and if not used as a stockdog, will usually try herding everything else in its environment..

Most of the breed can be trained by a pro and will then be able to transfer authority from the pro to the owner. A lot of Border Collies will work for anyone who can give them the same commands, verbal, signed or whistled, they have learned in their basic training. They can also work with another dog, usually without argument.

The Border Collie usually isn't the "jack of all trades" and most are not a "sit at your feet" type of animal that you may want for a companion/pet. As with any dog, I'm sure they appreciate a pat and a hardy "well done" but their enjoyment, reward and passion is working stock. In addition, they are one of the most affectionate and devoted breeds around and want to be with their human and part of the family at all times.

As with all the herding breeds, they are intelligent and need a focus in life. Dogs you see in the obedience and agility rings, or competition Frisbee dogs, or acting dogs in the movies all have a focus that takes the place of stock work. Even if you like their looks but are not into devoting time to a dog sport or stock working, this is NOT the breed for you and there is a likelihood of the dog being put into a rescue system within a year! Without a focus they can be hyper, destructive and a nuisance. This applies to those dogs who have a temperament typical for the breed. Once in a while in any breed there are those individuals that are the exceptions.

The breed has two basic colors: black & white and red & white. Within those coat colors there can be speckled patterns and spotted patterns. The type of coat most commonly seen is moderately long, with some undercoat, but there are smooth coated dogs, too.

Most Border Collies are trained to be instantaneously responsive to the handler's orders and could be considered "the reined stock horse." They are fetching dogs, but when trained will move the stock in any direction from the handler on command.

Australian Kelpie

The Kelpie is similar to the Border Collie in working style and stock intensity, but was developed in Australia because the European breeds were not quite hardy enough to handle the terrain, the vast amount of miles on the stations and the rougher stock not used to human contact. The breed is a bit tougher in temperament too. They can be harder to train because they are more independent thinking and not as "push button," but they can be as effectual and stylish.

Their natural instinct is to work the stock at a faster pace and tend to be more direct in contact with the stock. They also have "eye" and "bark" lines with the addition of "yard" dogs, which are the tougher cattle movers that will grip.

In Australia a unique feature of the Kelpie is that they will "back" sheep in stock pens and loading chutes. "Backing" is where the dog will run over the backs of tightly packed sheep to the front animals and push them up the chute or to the gate. Very rarely is a Kelpie a timid worker.

They don't naturally have quite as wide of an outrun as the Border Collie but can be trained to do so. The "eye" dogs can be as subtle, moving that one paw or slight lean that turns a fractious ewe, but as a whole, Kelpies can control rougher stock than some breeds. They seem to have a lot of innate power.

Kelpies can be trained professionally, but they do seem to have more of a sense of personal loyalty to their owner and may have some transfer problems. They will work with all other dogs, but a few can be same sex dog aggressive.

Most of the comments made about Border Collies apply to the Kelpie. Their breed is not your happy family pet but a dog that is stock intensive and a nuisance if not focused on some activity.

Australian Shepherd

This breed was developed in the USA based on several farm sheep shepherd breeds. They are "loose eyed" and "upright" workers, moving stock with "bark." The cattle lines will grip. They are more of a "jack of all trades" type dog, being the type kept to handle a wider range of stock on farms and small ranches. They are used on larger places usually to move stock from seasonal ranges.

ASCA has run a trial program for many years with open trials country-wide. They are also eligible for AKC herding trials.

The breed can be a good all around family dog being less stock intensive than the Border Collie and Kelpie. Australian Shepherds are also more of a watch dog because they are more loyal to their owners and more territorial of their land.

Just because the breed isn't so stock intensive as to be all consuming does not mean it is a cream puff and able to fit into any family situation. They are a herding breed and still need some focus, discipline and training. They can be dog aggressive but usually can work with other dogs, although some can't handle strange dogs coming to work on their place and stock at roundup time.

They come in several colors: blue merle, red merle, black & white, red & white, and tri-color (black, tan and white). The tails are naturally bob tailed or docked. The eyes can be brown or blue or one of each. The coat is medium long with undercoat.

Australian Shepherds can be professionally trained and trialed by a pro and still have a home relationship with their owners, but if the dog is going to be used on your place, it is best you have a hand in their training.

Australian Cattle Dog
(aka Queensland Heeler, Red or Blue Heeler, Dingo Dog)

Like the Kelpie, the ACD was developed in Australia because European breeds weren't tough enough in the outback stations. Unlike the Kelpie, though, the breed was developed as a cattle drover's dog. Not meant to be as stock intensive as the Kelpie, they were bred to be a stock handler, watch dog and companion to drovers who sometimes didn't see anyone for months at a time.

Their signature style when working is heeling the cattle to move the herd. A "low biter" will nip at the heel of the leg that is on the ground, then be able to flatten out to the ground to avoid the kick. As with the Australian Shepherd, this breed is considered a "loose eyed" and "upright" worker, although once in a while you will see a dog use eye and stalk on sheep that turn to face the dog.

A victim of their own natural instincts, the ACD has lived with a bad reputation in herding circles for years, being known only for the tough trauma jobs such as flushing semi-wild cattle out of the brush and gripping anything that moves. Because this is an innate quality in the breed most of the owners in the USA didn't bother to train them to herd stock and just pointed them in the direction they wanted. Some smarter owners, though, trained and used them almost like a cutting horse to sort cattle at gates.

Now that many owners are starting to train their dogs, it is found that though the breed as a whole can have a high rate of prey instinct, many lines are showing definite fetching talent with natural balance on sheep and all can be toned down to work other stock.

Having a mind set that seems to be the shortest distance between points A and B is a straight line, ACDs have some trouble learning to do a wide outrun but it can be done. As with any of the "upright" breeds they work the stock closer than the "eye" breeds. They are eligible for AKC herding trials.

This breed comes in two colors: blue with tan (usually black and white hairs mixed, no gray) or red (red and white hairs mixed). The white in the coat can be roaning (overall even mixed), speckled (small clumps of base color or white grouped together), or mottled (larger clumps of white spots). They can have solid markings on the head and base of the tail. Body markings are not desirable for show, but are common. The coat is short, straight overcoat with a thick undercoat. Although you see many dogs with docked tails, they were built by nature to have a tail and do use it as a rudder. Their eye color is dark brown.

Because of their original purpose, the ACD is usually dog aggressive, very territorial and mentally attached to its owner (also physically attached and jokingly called "Velcro dogs"). They are not good candidates for professional training except if being trialed by a pro. Even that can take much longer in some cases because the dogs have a tendency to bond to the owner and ignore most other people. If you intend to use this breed at your place, you should train the dog yourself.

The breed is much closer to a "wild dog" in temperament than any other. Therefore, it is not suitable as the "everybody's friend" type of family dog. They are "jack of all trades" workers and an in-the-house family dog, but the owner must always have the upper hand (i.e., being "top dog") and realize they are protective to a fault and will bite if challenged. ACDs are independent thinkers. If you want a non-questioning, instant response to orders at all times dog, this is not the breed for you.

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