Keepers of the Flock

Meet four rare herding breeds that prove their mettle in the meadow.

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About 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, when man turned from wandering and hunting to farming crops and domesticating livestock, his faithful dog once again became his partner. The dog’s prey drive, which made it a successful hunter, was channeled in a less aggressive direction. Instead of pursuing and killing, the dog learned to dominate livestock. That talent made it possible for one shepherd and one or more dogs to control a herd of animals.

Each breed’s region of origin, the particular jobs expected of the dog, the area’s predators, and the livestock the dog herded affected the breed’s appearance and its style of working. For instance, the Border Collie takes a low-to-the-ground stalking posture and stares sheep into submission. Other breeds employ a loose-eyed look and upright presence, and physically bump or block the sheep with their bodies. Any Briard owner will attest to how often they have been propelled forward by a nudge of that strong skull.

Working styles
Headers, dogs that work from the front of the flock, frequently move to the front of the flock to turn or stop their charges.

Dogs that work from the rear are known as “heelers.” They move cattle by nipping at the cows’ weight-bearing hind legs, just above the hooves. Heelers are short in stature, so the kick that generally follows the dog’s nip goes over their heads. Versatile dogs like the Australian Kelpie use both heading and heeling methods, running over the backs of the sheep to move from the front of the herd to the back and vice versa.

Some herding dogs, such as the Australian Cattle Dog, don’t make a sound when working; others mouth off. The Pumi and the Bearded Collie bark loudly when working, causing the sheep to muster (gather together), making them easier to move. The noise also helps the shepherd locate the dog when herding in mountainous areas, where the dog might be out of sight.

The term “drover” is applied to dogs that move livestock long distances to market, down country lanes, and through villages and towns, such as the Old English Sheepdog. It was the drover’s job to keep the livestock moving during the day, sometimes channeling them to single- or double-file lines in narrow streets or roads, and watching over them when they bedded down for the night.

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