Sheepdogs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and even textures. The appearance of a sheepdog is influenced by the environment in which he was originally bred to work and the predators he was likely to encounter. Sheepdogs can perform a number of duties. Some breeds are capable of performing all required duties, while other breeds specialize in one or two.
This skill is at the core of what a sheepdog does. Without this skill, a dog is unable to herd or drove. Mustering involves forcing sheep or other livestock into a group. Once the animals are in a group, the dog is able to control the movement of the unit, rather than individuals. Good sheepdogs have “stock sense,” an innate understanding of how livestock behave. This sense enables them to judge when to leave a sheep behind for later collection and when to muster it. Sometimes, it is better for a wayward animal to be left behind to focus on the herd.
Herding is the duty most commonly associated with sheepdogs and other pastoral breeds. This duty requires one dog, sometimes two, to move a flock or herd of livestock from one part of a field to another. The most common example of this role is when a shepherd needs to take his animals from a grazing area and put them in a pen. Herding is one of the earliest skills that humans helped dogs to develop. Often, herding takes place inside a confined area, such as a field. As well as providing a practical benefit to the shepherd, herding is a sport and can be performed competitively at sheepdog trials.
Droving is similar to herding, but requires the dog to escort a flock or herd of livestock from one place to another, without the advantage of being inside a fence. This is done “on the hoof.” The key difference between droving and herding is the distance of travel required. A dog may drove his stock for miles, keeping them traveling in the same direction by flanking and following them. It is less incumbent on the droving dog to keep the herd tight and compact, his focus is more to ensure the sheep all travel in the same direction.
In some farming environments, livestock are exposed to threats from large predators. In cases where bears, wolves and boars are common threats, the sheepdog in charge needs to be as much a guardian as it does a herder or drover. Guardians tend to be larger, stronger and more capable of living among their flock, rather than living as a companion to the shepherd or farmer. Notable livestock breeds include the Maremma shepherd, Anatolian shepherd, komondor and Great Pyrenees. These dogs are all naturally protective, suspicious of strangers and capable of scaring off predators.
- American Kennel Club: AKC Breeds by Group - Herding Group
- Working Sheep Dogs: A Practical Guide to Breeding, Training and Handling
- National Geographic: Herding
- Maremma Sheepdog Club of Great Britain: The Maremma Sheepdog
- BBC Nature: Australia's Livestock Guardian Dogs at Work
- National Agricultural Library: Livestock Guardian Dogs; Protecting Sheep from Predators
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images