Picture a typical family home in Britain where a dog is lying peacefully by the fire, perhaps with one eye half open; it snores and descends gently into sleep. I know of one Maremma ( Italian Herding & Guard Dog) that blends into the cream coloured shag pile carpet as it would into a herd of sheep. But working Maremmas are not woken by the approach of a Hoover. No –
Sheepdogs a variety
Sheepdogs. What does this conjure up in your mind’s eye? Is it a black and white flash of energy as one man and his dog glide across your TV screen, or is it perhaps Arab goat herders driving their flocks through arid landscapes with their often scraggy dogs adrift? All these dogs are necessary, in fact, essential to the farmers in question. Four legs can do so much more than two and they have the added endurance and stamina with which man cannot compete nor needs to when he has handsomely adapted and trained the Wolf Family canine familiars Lupus to be his work dog or sheep wolf.
Working herding and guard dogs are rapidly declining in numbers as pastoral life changes. For some time these beautiful animals have been drifting from the traditional working life to the more sedate life of the pet dog. Nowadays, their acute eyesight is more focused on the hand reaching for the lead, or tin of Pedigree Chum, than the shadow of a passing wolf or feral dog. The future of these dogs is now firmly based in the home as a pet than the escarpments of sheep or cattle country.
Pasture to TV
For most people the most recognisable shepherding breed is probably the Old English sheep dog, better known for ICI commercials on TV than actually herding sheep. I have not seen this breed working as a sheepdog and cannot imagine it doing so. Its physiology has changed at the same speed as its decline as a useful working tool for the farmers. Its popularity, I believe, is more to do with its beauty and mass television exposure than any other factor. It is truly now a retired fireside pet. The Scottish Rough and Smooth Collies were made equally as famous in the 50’s through Lassie films and Hollywood’s interpretation of dogs with human abilities. Of course, these are now two sheepdogs in name only, retaining little herding instinct, which have adjusted to home comforts and often make good pets, striking in appearance and generally peaceful by nature.
If I took you to Africa and said that I wanted you to catch some puppies from the African Hunting Dog and selectively breed and train them to herd domestic animals, you would be at the starting point on the long road to manipulating wild dogs to assist man. This would be a tall order and you may begin to accomplish it in a few hundred years and after a few thousand head of stock had been swallowed during the development process. However that is what man has been doing and is still practising with dogs today as he continues to manipulate dogs for his working needs by unnatural selection.
Historically, breeders, who were normal working people, have selectively bred from wolf mutations and many types of domestic dogs to produce a dog that will work for them, an example being the Anatolian Sheepdog from Turkey. This is an enormous indomitable animal that shows immense courage in guarding the shepherd’s flocks of sheep and goats against wolves and also, these days, from fellow man who may steal the stock.
The larger and impressive looking herd and guard dogs like the Pyrenean Mountain Dogs, Burmese Mountain Dogs and the peculiar looking Komador from Hungary which has dreadlock appearance and weighs in at up to 135 lbs are all primary guard dogs for herds of domestic stock; dogs which have been selectively bred over the centuries to protect herds, property and camps. These dogs have little herding instinct as that is not their purpose but their size is a good indicator to any would be trespasser of the two or four footed kind that they are a mean fighting machine that should not be challenged.
Unfortunately the Wolf’s halcyon days are over. Historically this beautiful canid has come into contact with man and his stock ever since man moved into more unspoilt landscapes previously occupied only by wild life. However, the large powerful breeds of domestic dogs will take on the Wolf pack. They instinctively guard their sheep flock (pack) with which they have been habituated from an early age. As puppies most of these dogs would have been born and habituated to the sheep they were bred to protect and herd. Man has manipulated their natural Wolf behaviour to protect the pack from enemies whoever they are. To the Wolves and Guard dogs there is no confusion. On this stage, in their natural world, they are all the same species competing for the same food resources.
Behaviour & Confusion
Of course, much of this guarding behaviour is still evident in the sheepdog breeds we now keep as pets. This would account for many of the problematic behaviours I deal with at my clinics, like Leonburgers and Anatolian sheep dogs, which are keen to keep all visitors at bay from their homes and gardens. When the owners become aware of these behaviours they often see the dogs reactions as bad behaviour or aggressive behaviour and then shout or hit the dog in an attempt to solve the problem. If they knew what their breed was originally used for it would help them solve their dogs behavioural problems in early training before the innate behaviour became apparent. With many guard breeds they could put in that extra effort at the puppy stage to socialise their dog with all visitors. Alternatively, if some of the breeds were found to be unsuitable for this life style then a more “laid back” breed might be chosen, thereby avoiding the conflicts in the first place. Of course, the power is always in the hands of the owner and the puppy has no say in who buys it and where it will end up, but be sure if things go wrong it will get the blame. Unfortunately that is a natural human behaviour.
New Jobs for the dogs
The modern age has produced new problems for man to solve and he has quickly taken his trusty dogs and begun a new process of further adapting them for new work which he alone cannot do. The Groenendael, Tervuren and Briard are more examples of shepherd dogs which have been adapted for mans new needs in crime busting. An example is the ubiquitous Police Dog which is normally a German Shepherd Dog but in spite of its name this breed has little useful herding instinct left in it. I have seen a few alleged herders but they appeared to be chasing the sheep rather than herding them. However, they make up for that be being even better at chasing criminals. The Wolf would be proud of their prey catching behaviour. Although it is often denied, breeders have long stopped selecting the best herding traits and replaced selection based on boldness and aggression with trainability and trustability with humans which seems to be characteristic of all shepherd breeds.
The Australian Cattle dog and Bouvier De Flanders.
The Border Collie
The Border Collie mentioned earlier is without doubt one of the most flexible and trainable breeds in the world but their herding instinct is being diluted by being pedigreed and accepted by the Kennel Club. This dog when bred by hill farmers retains the eye, stamina and swiftness to climb thousands of feet up and along mountains and bring back the flock of sheep. I suppose in time show breeders will mellow this breed and they may become less energised but better suited as pets than many are at present.
Dog Versus Wolf
The irony of the Mountain sheep and Guard dogs is that man has been able to use the wolf genes to breed new wolves called sheep dogs, which in turn keep their close cousins at bay. In the Carpathian mountains the Grey wolf looks out across snow covered mountain slopes for his next meal. It –
Of course our ability to develop the domestic dog into a selection of working types is as complicated as the genes themselves. Man does not always get it right, apart from when he breeds for a hunting, guarding or shepherding dog. For example, about 80% of Maremmas make decent guard dogs but the remainder seem to be more Wolf than Maremma; the other 20% also kill the sheep so the selective breeding is an ongoing programme of hit and miss for the farmers. The Border Collie is also no innocent and farmers rightly complain about domestic dogs attacking their sheep though few mention the fact that their own collies occasionally do damage to the sheep as well. Of course, if the farmer finds out, that dog’s life will be taken.
X Breeds and Mongrels as Herding Dogs
For those of you that have cross breeds and mongrels, their herding instincts are as common as the dogs already mentioned. Yes I have seen mongrels herding sheep and quite well although more often than not they are sheepdog crosses. The Australian Sheep/Cattle dogs, like the Kelpie, originated from a mish mash of sheepdogs and mongrels of one type or another. Any intelligent farmer would breed from any dog or bitch that produced good tough herding dogs. As for beauty, that was probably never considered so the end breed Pedigree Standard is more or less what that lineage has developed into to date with prick ears, short compact body, loads of stamina and the ability to deal with heat and of course, the herding of sheep and cattle.
It is not a mystery why so many of the shepherding breeds are some of the most popular pet dogs today. Sheepdogs have excellent eyesight; they are attentive, listen and concentrate on the handler and are more attached to human than say hound breeds. Their shepherding qualities are accompanied by the most important ingredient for man –
Sheepdogs as Pets
Do sheepdogs make good pets? This can be answered in many ways depending who you are asking and why. The pet range which have lost their original manic herding drive are probably the best to choose from which includes the Malamoir, Groendal and Shetland Sheep Dog.
The Border Collie, though best known, is least suited to an indoor housebound life because its energy levels often lead it into trouble and many are euthanased each year purely for acting as a sheepdog should. Some experienced pet owners do manage, either through agility or obedience competitions, to keep this intelligent animal stimulated sufficiently to become a good pet; but these are exceptions. Twenty miles a day would not go amiss in the life of a border collie.
Because the sheepdog breeds were developed for certain herding qualities they also show traits like very strong bonding, intelligence, stamina and most of all, they are easy to train. When owners put in the time and patience, this makes for a much more controllable pet. The rewards are high and people build powerful pack bonds and develop a closer relationship than one can experience with some other independent breeds like the Spitz group.
Sheepdogs are very playful, keen to take part in games and generally are always ready for the off whatever the weather. Middle aged sheepdogs seem to acquire more knowledge about their owner’s behaviour than the reverse which is why so many owners state that their dog is psychic and always one step ahead. What they are experiencing is these breeds using their highly developed observational skills to survive in their new brick and plastic world. Who is the shepherd now, I wonder?
By Colin Tennant
Principal of the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training