Herding is an ancient practice, going back to before the beginnings of true civilization; it consists in making sure individual animals form a group, stay in the group, and move as a group from one place to another. People originally performed this function, though they quickly learned to use the instinctive behavior of the dog (the wolf, in his hunting escapades, mimics herding); indeed, the dog soon became an essential aid to the shepherd for herding, protecting, and transporting flocks and herds.
There are a number of different herding dog breeds, some older than others; some dogs also act as livestock guardian dogs, protecting the herd from dangerous predators. Some dogs either herd or protect, but do not often do both. Some herding dogs were bred to work with specific animals, such as sheep or cattle, while others were bred to work with a variety of livestock.
The Old English Sheepdog was bred as a herding dog, though he was also called on to protect his charges from fierce animals such as wolves. He was mainly used to herd sheep, though he also worked well with cattle; the breed has also been put to use herding reindeer, thanks to his tolerance of cold weather. After a period of time, the Old English Sheepdog was also used to drive his master's sheep and cattle to market.
These dogs were bred to be large and agile, capable of taking on predators but also capable of being gentle and keeping the livestock calm. The breed originated in the western part of England, most likely in the Duchy of Cornwall and in the counties of Somerset and Devon. His origins are unclear but obviously he has a variety of European herding dogs in his ancestral lineage. Farmers needed a rugged and durable dog for the harsh terrain and living conditions of the countryside in southwestern England. The not-so-pleasant living conditions also called for a dog that could be able to make judgments, especially regarding the choice of pursuing a predator or staying to guard the flock.
The Old English Sheepdog is powerful and courageous enough to face and possibly kill a predator, but intelligent enough and with enough self control to not be fierce around the livestock. While other herding breeds nip at the heels of livestock or stare them down, the Old English Sheepdog is often found bumping or nudging sheep into place. If a sheep strays, he will first try to nudge the animal back into place; if this doesn't work, he will use his mouth, but because of his gentle nature will never use it with force.
Even though not many Old English Sheepdogs are used for herding nowadays, the breed can still enjoy the work it was developed for, which makes them extremely happy. Indeed, there are a number of kennel-sponsored events that involve herding trials; needless to say, Old English Sheepdogs are some of the stars of these contests! Participating in a herding trial with your Old English Sheepdog is a great way to give your dog some stimulating exercise and to strengthen the bond with your four-legged friend.