Many of today’s herding breeds, including the German Shepherd, Dutch Shepherd and Belgian Malinois, have only been established in the past couple centuries. However, the use of working dogs on farms and ranches has been in place for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that the first herding dogs were in use as far back as the neolithic age. Shepherds needed a more efficient way of transporting large herds. As sheep and goats were natural prey for wild dogs, humans were able to train them, and adapt their hunting instincts into herding behavior. Dogs were also trained to protect the livestock from other predators. While many herding dogs now perform both herding and guarding, they were originally seen as very distinct roles and different breeds were adapted to suit each one. Dogs were often bred in small communities, and as a result, breeds varied greatly between them, even within the same country. However, many of today’s most popular breeds owe their lineage to these working dogs such as the Border Collie, the Bouvier des Flandres, the Welsh Corgi, and the German Shepherd.
The act of herding can be performed in several ways. Traditionally, dogs were only trained to herd in one way, but herding dogs today are able to employ a variety of techniques. The act of nipping at the hooves of an animal is an effective way of driving the livestock and pushing it forward. Another technique is for the dog to run up ahead of the herd and stare it head-on. This technique, known as heading, causes the herd to stop or change direction. All of these techniques are an extension of the dog’s natural hunting behavior. Through careful breeding and training, the dogs are able to perform the tasks in response to a whistle or spoken word. Of course, the dogs are also trained not to injure the livestock in any way.
Many herding breeds today have found new roles as household pets, or new work as protection dogs and guard dogs. Australia is one of the few places in the world that still produces dogs intended for herding. Breeds such as the Australian Koolie and the Australian Kelpie are widely sought-after for their herding abilities.