Australian Shepherds, affectionately known as “Aussies,” are a highly intelligent and energetic breed, originally bred for herding livestock. As a responsible Aussie owner, understanding your dog’s herding instinct and learning to manage it effectively is crucial to ensure a happy, well-adjusted pet, and a harmonious household.

In this blog post, we’ll delve into the origins of the herding instinct, identify common herding behaviors, and explore ways to channel this instinct productively for the benefit of both you and your furry friend.

 

Understanding and Managing Your Australian Shepherd's Herding Instinct - Part 1

The Herding Instinct (A Natural Behavior)

The history of Australian Shepherds as herding dogs

Despite their name, Australian Shepherds actually originated in the United States. They were bred to herd livestock, particularly sheep, and were highly valued for their intelligence, stamina, and ability to work independently [1]. Today, many Australian Shepherds still work on farms and ranches, while others excel in various dog sports and activities that tap into their innate herding abilities.

How herding instincts are ingrained in their genetics

Years of selective breeding have ingrained herding instincts in the Australian Shepherd’s DNA. These instincts are what make Aussies such excellent working dogs, as they are naturally driven to gather, control, and protect livestock [2]. While many Aussie owners may not have sheep or cattle for their dogs to herd, understanding these natural instincts is essential to ensure a well-behaved pet.

Observable herding behaviors in Australian Shepherds

Australian Shepherds exhibit a variety of herding behaviors, which may be observed even in urban settings or multi-pet households. These behaviors can include nipping at the heels of family members, other pets, or even objects like bicycles and skateboards, as well as circling, barking, and staring intently at their “flock.”

 

Understanding and Managing Your Australian Shepherd's Herding Instinct - Part 2

Understanding the Herding Instinct in Aussies

How herding instincts manifest in different settings

In the absence of livestock, Australian Shepherds may display their herding instincts in various settings, such as at home, the dog park, or during playtime with other pets.

It’s essential to recognize these behaviors and intervene if necessary to prevent any unwanted incidents or injuries.

Identifying common herding behaviors in Australian Shepherds

  1. Nipping or biting at heels: Aussies may nip at the heels of people or other animals to direct their movement, just as they would with livestock.
  2. Circling or gathering: They may circle around people or animals, attempting to gather them together as if they were herding sheep.
  3. Staring or “eyeing”: Australian Shepherds use intense eye contact, known as “eyeing,” to control the movement of livestock. This behavior may also be directed at people, pets, or even inanimate objects.
  4. Barking to control movement: Aussies may bark to guide or control the movement of their “flock,” whether it’s people, animals, or objects.

The positive and negative aspects of herding instincts

While herding instincts are what make Australian Shepherds excellent working dogs, these behaviors can sometimes become problematic, especially in urban environments or multi-pet households. Properly managing these instincts is crucial to prevent any undesirable behaviors and maintain a peaceful living situation.

Understanding and Managing Your Australian Shepherd's Herding Instinct - Part 3

Properly Channeling Your Australian Shepherd’s Herding Instinct

The importance of early socialization and training

Begin socializing and training your Aussie from a young age to help them understand appropriate behaviors and boundaries, especially around other animals and people.

Consistent and positive reinforcement training will help your Australian Shepherd learn how to manage their herding instincts effectively.

How to redirect herding behaviors into appropriate outlets

When you notice your Aussie exhibiting herding behaviors, redirect their energy into appropriate outlets. For example, if your dog starts nipping at people’s heels, redirect them to a toy or initiate a game of fetch to refocus their energy.

Providing physical and mental stimulation to satisfy herding drives

  • Interactive toys and puzzle games: Keep your Aussie’s mind sharp with interactive toys and puzzles that challenge their problem-solving skills.
  • Agility and obedience training: Agility courses and obedience classes provide both physical and mental stimulation, allowing your Aussie to exercise their herding instincts in a controlled environment.
  • Herding trials and classes: If possible, enroll your dog in herding trials or classes to give them an opportunity to practice their natural herding skills in a safe and structured setting.
  • Fetch and other retrieving games: Engage your Aussie in games like fetch, which tap into their natural instincts to gather and control.

 

Understanding and Managing Your Australian Shepherd's Herding Instinct - Part 4

Managing Herding Instincts in Multi-Pet Households

Establishing boundaries and rules for interaction

Set clear boundaries and rules for your Australian Shepherd’s interactions with other pets to prevent any misunderstandings or conflicts. This may include designating specific areas of your home where herding behaviors are not allowed or setting limits on playtime.

Monitoring playtime and intervening when necessary

Keep a watchful eye on your Aussie during playtime with other pets, and intervene if their herding behaviors become too intense or problematic. This will help prevent any accidents or injuries and teach your dog appropriate play manners.

Encouraging positive interactions between your Australian Shepherd and other pets

Promote positive interactions between your Aussie and other pets by engaging them in joint activities that don’t involve herding, such as group obedience training or playdates with other well-behaved dogs.

 

Understanding and Managing Your Australian Shepherd's Herding Instinct - Part 5

The Benefits of Properly Managing Your Australian Shepherd’s Herding Instinct

A well-adjusted and happy dog

By effectively managing your Australian Shepherd’s herding instincts, you’ll help them become a well-adjusted and content pet, capable of adapting to various environments and situations.

Strengthening the bond between owner and dog

Understanding and managing your Aussie’s herding instincts will strengthen the bond between you and your dog, as you’ll be better equipped to meet their unique needs and provide appropriate outlets for their energy.

Preventing unwanted behaviors and promoting a harmonious household

Properly managing your Australian Shepherd’s herding instincts will prevent unwanted behaviors and contribute to a peaceful, harmonious household, where both you and your pet can thrive.

 

Conclusion

Understanding and managing your Australian Shepherd’s herding instincts is crucial to ensuring a happy, well-behaved pet and a harmonious living situation. By embracing your dog’s natural behaviors and channeling them productively, you’ll be able to enjoy a rewarding and fulfilling relationship with your extraordinary furry companion.

References

[1] The American Kennel Club, “Australian Shepherd Dog Breed Information.” https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/australian-shepherd/

[2] Hartnagle-Taylor, Jeanne Joy and Ty Taylor. “Stockdog Savvy.” Alpine Publications. 2010.