Once livestock was domesticated, humans required dogs to help them protect and move the large groups of animals so critical to their survival. Guardian dogs were among the first dogs in history to be employed for the task of defending, as early shepherds faced threats of animal (as well as human) predators in their pastures and trade routes. But the guardians, useful as they were, could fulfill only one of these two primary niches well. They were deliberately developed to not chase the animals they protected, and so were limited in their ability to help when it came to the job of moving them; they were not supposed to have the instincts to startle, stalk, or agitate the flocks and herds. As migration and trade expanded across Eurasia, shepherds increasingly needed to be able to efficiently motivate and organize their animals. They would need another kind of dog altogether to do that—a hunter of sorts—to give chase.
So it’s no surprise that some of the first dogs used for herding animals were those early natural dogs with intact predatory instincts to stalk, pursue, and corner prey. Many of the primitive medium-sized Asian and northern Spitz breeds of dogs are thought to have occasionally been used for “coarse herding” (chasing, barking at, moving, or holding herd animals without attacking them) in addition to their primary roles of protecting and hunting.
Like many of the more modern breeds, the fruits of our labor were largely the result of trial and error. It was no small task trying to create a dog that would have a high predatory instinct to stalk and rush after moving animals without actually hurting them (it would be pretty counterproductive to a shepherd to have his own dog kill his sheep). Not to mention that we needed a dog who was athletic and hardy enough to work ridiculously long hours in harsh terrain and be responsive enough to human directions to move the animals where we needed them to go (as opposed to running aimless circles around them).
People also modified herding dogs into sub-experts within this group, selecting them for the different kinds of animals we needed help moving and the circumstances in which we needed to move them. Some dogs were used to simply drive herds from one location to another, while others were used to more closely organize a flock. Slightly less assertive dogs were needed for working with sensitive sheep; more aggressive dogs were required for motivating more imposing cattle. Certain dogs were used for holding the animals back with a fixed stare at the right distance, and others were employed for chasing or retrieving animals with quick movements.
Not surprisingly, herding behaviors have also proved to be very useful in military and police capacities in more recent years. The dogs’ responsiveness to their handler, propensity for intense barking, acute perceptiveness to changes in their environment, reactivity to movement, and strong drive to work have made them proficient human herders. A number of breeds have been bred so specifically for these roles that they have even become genetically distinct from other herding breeds. From border patrol to crowd control, dogs such as the German and Belgian Shepherds have become world renowned for their astonishing aptitude at these modern specialties.
Herding dogs are undeniably one of the most dynamic groups of dogs, capable of working closely alongside their partner in a variety of highly demanding conditions. The challenge in living with one in the twenty-first century, should you find yourself in such a relationship, is not so much how to get her on board but rather how to get her to relax and take it easy in a pet lifestyle. She was designed to work an eighteen-hour day on the farm. It’s against her very nature to put her feet up and kick back.