Herding dogs conduct livestock from one place to another by causing fear-flocking and flight behavior. They are known in the trade as "chase and bite" dogs. The various breeds have been selected for specific behavior patterns directed toward specific livestock. They are generally divided into herders, heelers and catch dogs depending on their tendency to circle livestock and bring them toward the handler, drive livestock away from the handler in a trailing pattern or actually stop the livestock by bringing them to the ground.
There are also breed differences in how far away from the handler they will work. Australian shepherd dogs in New Zealand huntaways work with their heads up and vocalize while they chase sheep. Border collies and kelpies are silent and use a circling out-run followed by a herd-down eye, stalk and chase. Blue heelers bite at the hocks of cattle, a behavior that is generally not acceptable for dogs that herd the more vulnerable sheep. In the American southwest, catch dogs are popular for wild range cattle. Catahoula leopard dogs are used in packs forcing range cows into tight herds that are then driven by ranchers on horses, while the dogs prevent individuals from leaving the herd.1
Because the eye, stalk, and out-run behavior patterns seem to be strictly heritable, once the proper quality and frequency are established for a particular task, then the breed cannot be improved by crossing with other breeds, as can be done in guarding and sled dogs. Conversations between owners tend to be entirely about behavior and breeding and scarcely ever what the dogs looks like. Because their job requires precise movement, herding dogs tend to be of a more uniform conformation than livestock guarding dogs, but not as uniform as race and sled dogs.1
Herding breeds are often divided into three very general types: gathering dogs, tending dogs, and driving dogs.
Dogs like the Border Collie, which were originally bred to work in wide spaces, are considered gathering dogs. Such dogs were bred to gather semiwild sheep off large, open pastures. While the Border Collie is the preeminent gathering breed, there are also some excellent gathering breeds in Australia and the United States: Collies, Border Collies, Kelpies, Australian Shepherds and Bearded Collies.
These breeds were developed in Europe to help in the grazing of sheep in areas around crops. Dogs of this type customarily took their sheep out to graze each day and then patrolled along the grazing area to keep the sheep restricted to the unfenced space that they were supposed to graze. Tending breeds include Belgian Malinois, Belgian Sheepdogs, Belgian Tervurens, Bouvier des Flandres, Briards, German Shepherds, Beaceron, Pyrenean Shepherds and Pulis.
These breeds were originally developed to help drovers move sheep to market along open lanes or for use in stockyards. The New Zealand Huntaway is a driving breed that is used today to drive very large flocks of sheep by barking and moving back and forth behind the sheep. Other common breeds of this type are Rottweilers, Welsh Corgis, Old English Sheepdogs and Australian Cattle Dogs (blue heelers).4
A sheepdog trial is a competitive dog sport in which herding dog breeds move sheep around in a field, fences, gates or enclosures as directed by their handlers. Such events are a prticularly associated with hill farming areas, where sheep range wildly on largely unfenced land. These trials are popular in the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.2
Competitive herding events are offered by the American Kennel Club (AKC), The Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), the American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA), and others. These competitions are usually held in arenas, although some take place in open fields.
Many breeds can compete in these trials. These including the AKC entire Herding Group as well as some other breeds that have been approved for herding over the years, such as Samoyeds and Rottweilers.3 Soft-coated Wheaten terriers and Giant schnauzers are a few of the more recent additions.