It is not news to anyone that has had the opportunity to own or work with dogs in this group that they are some of the most intelligent dogs in various ranking surveys. Within the top 10 smartest dogs there are at least four different members of the herding group that routinely place and those include the Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Australian Cattle Dog and the German Shepherd Dog.
There are many other breeds listed in the herding dog group of the American Kennel Club. Not surprisingly there are regionally recognized herding breeds found throughout the world, especially in areas where sheep, goats and cattle have formed a foundation of agriculture. As a whole herding dogs are very healthy, hardy dogs that are both independent problem solvers as well as highly attuned dogs that are able to work with hand signals, whistles and just good old fashioned common sense. As part of their duties as herding dogs many also stood watch over herds as flock guardians, which is a trait and behavior they often transfer in modern times to their families.
The herding breeds tend to all have thick double coats and relatively water resistant outer coats. They are able to live outdoors in almost any climate, however they are very loving and affectionate dogs that thrive on human attention and interaction. Often these dogs bond very closely with their owners and some in this group are difficult to rehome once this bond has been formed. They are also typically very good with other companion dogs although they may be dog aggressive around strange or new canines. Routine socialization is important to prevent this behavior from becoming problematic.
The typical breeds that most people associate with the herding group include the Collies, both the smaller breeds and the larger. The mediums sized herding breeds include the Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog and the Corgis, as well as the Australian Cattle Dog and the Australian Shepherd. There are also some relatively uncommon breeds such as the Norwegian Buhund, Swedish Vallhund and the Canaan Dog that round out the medium sized representation in the group. Larger breeds include the Bearded Collie, Beauceron, Briard, the Belgian Sheepdog, Malinois and the Tervuren. Herding breeds from other European countries including the Polish Lowland, the Puli from Hungary and the smaller sized Pyrenean Shepherd from the Pyrenees area, home to several other herding and guardian types of dogs.
Generally all dogs in the herding group are going to be naturally curious, alert and very active. They do have a tendency to have dominant types of personalities and like to take charge of people, other pets and even other dogs as part of their natural behavior. Most people that lead active and outdoor lives will enjoy the company of these dogs as they are strong and versatile and always up for a walk, run or a hike. They tend to be very good with children, however they can be prone to being protective and dominant over kids. Many of the herding breeds will attempt to herd children, resulting in a bad habit of nipping at legs and feet. If not corrected this behavior can spill over in a habit of heeling everything, especially in breeds such as the Corgi and the Australian Cattle Dog.
Herding dogs are very energetic and, while they can adjust to apartment living, they are not generally recommended as small space dogs. They do best with a larger yard and lots of frequent walks and exercise times. These dogs need to have something to do to feel part of the family. They will quickly learn what makes you happy and provokes a positive response in their owners. Most are very quick to learn routines and cues from the environment. These dogs may seem to have an uncanny understanding of what people are about to do because they quickly associate patterns of behaviors with outcomes. For example, if you usually walk to the hallway to pick up your keys before taking the dog in the car, you may find the next time you get up and move towards the hall the dog will slide past you and sit at the door. This fast learning is both a positive and a negative as they will just as quickly pick up negative behaviors as well.
Some people find some of these breeds to be "sneaky". In reality it is the natural circling and crouching behavior that the dog's use to herd sheep and cattle that seems a bit dodgy to some humans. The quick flicking glances as the herding dog checks in with a human is also much different than the longer, intense glances that other breeds use to check in. Some herding breeds, particularly the Border Collie, is known for its ability to make prolonged eye contact with livestock to have the animal stop and freeze or change directions. This behavior is known as "the eye" or the Border Collie eye and is very much considered an important aspect of an effective and championship level herding dog.
The stare is often accompanied by what may be seen as stalking type behavior, head low and parallel to the ground, body crouched and ready to spring and intense concentration. Other herding breeds, particularly the heelers and sheepdogs also have this ability to communicate with their eyes when working directly with livestock or people. Other herding dogs are very calm and sedate, almost gentle and calming in their interactions with livestock. Good examples of these types of dogs are the Puli, the German Shepherd Dog, the Scotch Collie and the Bearded Collie. They are also excellent family dogs and tend to have unlimited patience with children. The Puli is unique with the ringlets of hair that develop as the dog ages, requiring little in the way of upkeep other than dividing the cords, the proper term for the ringlets, on a regular basis.
For those owners interested in owning a very smart, very active and very attuned dog a herding breed may be just the group to start looking in. Often these dogs are challenging to train because they are so smart and learn so quickly they can easily be bored with the same old routines. These dogs are exceptionally gifted at obedience and of course herding type trials, although to become a championship competitive herding dog takes years of practice and working with a trainer that has experience with herding breeds.