If there is one thing that Australian Shepherd owners will warn about, it is the breed’s innate desire to herd everything and everyone. While this works great if your dog has a flock they are intended to herd, it is not such a great thing when your friends and family become that herd.
In order to stop Australian Shepherds from herding, you should find out what triggers the behavior. From here you can utilize basic obedience training to intercept the herding instinct in a controlled environment.
While it certainly takes effort, working to stop your Australian Shepherd from herding improves the quality of life for you both. It can even be life-saving in the event that your Aussie’s herding behavior manifests in chasing cars. Read on to learn why Australian Shepherds herd, how you can stop the behavior, and how you can actually work with it.
Why Do Australian Shepherds Like to Herd?
To understand an Aussie’s instinct to herd, we have to look at their wolf ancestry. When humans began to domesticate wolves they focused on breeding behaviors that were desirable to accomplish the tasks they had, mostly regarding moving herds.
Wolves instinctively knew how to search for prey, stalk it, chase it down, and secure it, all traits that became essential for moving livestock as humans settled down. Undesirable traits, like killing the animal, were bred out.
Herding dogs are the result of thousands of years of selective breeding that ensured the following instincts remained:
- Manipulating large groups of animals
- Securing strays
After thousands of years of breeding, it would take a lot for those instincts to disappear. Even if you never intend to use your Australian Shepherd for herding, the instincts are still there, and they are not going anywhere.
How Can I Stop My Aussie from Herding?
Herding itself is not a problem. There is nothing wrong with your dog wanting to exercise its brain in the way it is designed.
The issue with herding is when it is uncontrollable. Without having the proper training or an appropriate outlet, herding can lead to problems in your household, including:
- Herding children
- Chasing vehicles
- Chasing other animals
Frequent uncontrolled herding behavior can decrease the quality of life for you, your household, or your pet and it can lead to unintended injury or worse.
Luckily, there are a number of ways to prevent and attend to your Australian Shepherd’s herding instincts. In order to be able to stop your Australian shepherd from herding, there are a few things you should do.
Figure Out Triggers
While the herding instinct is not something you can turn on and off, there are a few things that seem to activate it. In order to be able to modify your Australian Shepherd’s behavior, you will need to figure out what causes or encourages them to act that way.
While your Australian Shepherd is not trying to hunt and kill anything, it would make sense that this instinct is impacted largely in part by the motion of their prey. You will see that your dog’s herding behavior kicks in when there is movement involved, especially if the movement is quick. Their brain tells them that they need to pursue that.
Another major trigger is sound. Dogs are triggered by sound in general. How many times have you made the mistake of squeaking a toy in the pet store, only to gather the attention of every canine in there?
Things like squeals and screams can alert your Aussie to potential danger or harm. Their instincts will tell them to pursue the noise and secure the loose animal. In your case, the animal might be a small child.
Finding out the triggers will make it so much easier to train your dog to work through their instincts, as well as preparing you for when their herding instincts might surface.
Look for the Signs
Beyond what triggers your Aussie’s herding behavior, dogs speak loudly through their body language. You just need to be able to recognize when they are speaking and what they are saying.
Herding dogs are not simply walking in circles around their stock; they are using different techniques to secure them. This is why dogs like Border Collies are known for the ability to move sheep simply by staring.
This also gives you more warning for when your Australian Shepherd might act on their instincts. They will usually focus on a subject. You see this when your Aussie appears to only be watching one person or animal with little regard to anything else. They will likely be facing their subject with eyes and ears forward.
Your Australian Shepherd will also prepare their body for the likely event that they need to move. This has a few different looks:
- The most relaxed is laying down with their chest and head raised. Their legs may or may not be underneath them.
- The next is standing, but not necessarily gearing up to move. Their entire body is alert and focused.
- The third is crouched. This can be crouched to crawl or crouched to explode, but in general, a crouch is only slightly before the explosion of a full-blown herding session.
While these signs do not necessarily mean that your Australian Shepherd is about to herd, they can be indicators of the behavior, and it is essential to recognize them to be able to properly stop your Australian Shepherd from herding.
It is essential to ensure that your dog has some basic obedience training that you can work off of. This goes beyond teaching them to sit or stay, but each of these is essential that even dogs without herding issues should know.
Training your Australian Shepherd to put eyes on you can be key in preventing or interrupting herding behavior.
Sit is one of the easiest things to teach your dog. Combined with “watch me,” having your dog sit can give their entire body something to do instead of engaging in the herding behavior.
Being able to transition from “sit” to “down” is having the ability to deepen your control on the behavior. Having your Aussie move into a down gets them one step further away from chasing after something, and it is my preferred position to issue a “stay” command.
Your “stay” command should be able to tell your dog to not move from the position you put them in until they are released, regardless of whether you are moving away from that position or not.
When you instruct your Aussie to “leave it,” they should be able to take their attention away from a specific object or situation. This ability to disengage is key to interrupting their instinct to herd, and it goes beyond “watch me” by giving them room to direct their attention elsewhere.
“Leave it” is better used once the dog has already begun to engage in the subject, while “watch me” is a great interrupter in those precursory stages.
Your dog should be trained to respond to a recall phrase or sound, regardless of what currently has their attention. You will constantly hear people say that you need to have a good recall before you let them loose in public, but it is generally a good idea to work on recall even if your dog will never be let loose in public.
By using an obscure phrase or sound you let your dog know that this means business. It should be something that you would not say in any other setting, and your Australian Shepherd should know that they need to stop whatever they are doing and get to your side immediately.
Controlled Environment Training
While you can certainly teach your Australian Shepherd more commands than those mentioned, they are what will be utilized in the controlled environment sessions you are going to create.
To do this, start off in a fenced-in area with your dog on a long leash (preferably 20 to 30 feet) with a lot of slack. You can play or lounge with your dog, but your presence is also necessary for this to work.
Have someone else engage in one of the actions that trigger your Australian Shepherd. Because they are basically throwing themselves out there for a dog to chase after them, this is best done by another adult or older child. Smaller children may love to help, but they can easily be injured.
From here you can respond in a few ways:
- The first is to immediately catch your dog’s attention and put them into a stay. This makes your Aussie choose between you and the distraction, and they should choose you every time.
- The second is to wait for those indicating behaviors to arise so you can interrupt their drive to herd.
- Ideally, you should respond before they actually engage in the herding behavior, but if they manage to move closer to your volunteer you can bring them back with their recall.
- If your Australian shepherd does not respond to you, simply use the leash to gently redirect their attention back to you and bring them back to your side.
It is important to intervene before they are lost to their instincts, otherwise, the behavior will be more rewarding to them than being obedient to you. Make sure if they do choose you that you are responding with warmth, possibly even treats or toys.
Ideally, you should be able to put your Australian Shepherd into a stay without needing to worry about them breaking it to chase after or herd something. When your Aussie has accomplished this, you can move on to working in a larger, uncontrolled area.
It is important to work in baby steps. You should not go from your backyard to the dog park or even a busy area. Modifying behavior is like slowly stretching a rubber band; if you go too far too fast you can cause any progress to snap, and you will be stuck starting over.
How to Stop an Aussie from Nipping
Another nasty, undesirable behavior that comes along with your Australian Shepherd’s herding instinct is nipping.
Nipping derives from a dog’s herding instinct. It connects to the wolf’s instinct to grab onto their prey, but herding dogs do not use it to kill anything. Instead, this grabbing instinct turned into nipping to give dogs a more effective tool when herding.
While nipping is more prevalent in dogs like the Australian Cattle Dogs, which is detailed in Do Cattle Dogs Have Strong Prey Drive, the instinct will arise the more excited a herding dog gets. They are not trying to hurt you, but they do want to ensure they are doing everything they can to do the job they are trained to do.
Nipping it in the Bud
Because puppies are more prone to biting and nipping anyway, it is a great idea to ensure that they know teeth are not toys from a young age.
Puppies already have a built-in instinct to stop what they are doing when they hear a high-pitched noise like a yelp or an “Ow!”. This makes them so much easier to train than older dogs, but you must make sure you are consistently interrupting the behavior.
You should also give them appropriate outlets for chewing to show your young Australian Shepherd that it is fine to sink your teeth into something – as long as it is not a human.
List of Ways to Satisfy an Aussie’s Herding Instinct
In a perfect world, you could ask your dogs to ignore their instinct to fit our desires, but this is not a perfect world. Simply training your Australian Shepherd to stop herding is only half the battle. You must also offer them an outlet for the instincts that are just as much a part of them as their fluffy coat or affectionate nature.
The best way to do this is to make sure you are exercising both their minds and their bodies. Your Aussie will be especially grateful if you introduce games or exercises that replicate a herding situation, and these will offer another opportunity to train for appropriate behavior.
Herding breeds are known for their intelligence. If their brain is not thinking up ways to solve the situations you put them in, they will use their power for evil, inevitably finding ways to open doors and basically bypass anything you implement for their safety or your comfort.
Check out these ways to properly stimulate your Australian Shepherd’s mind.
The easiest way to work with a keen-minded dog is to use puzzle toys.
These come in two types:
- Toys that reward with treats
- Toys that reward with other toys
You can use a puzzle feeder to feed your dog every day. Some require your dog to manipulate the toy to reveal the hidden food, while others simply function by being knocked around on the floor.
Alternatively, puzzle toys like this reward your dog by giving them the opportunity to dissect the toy, revealing even more toys inside. You can replicate this by hiding your dog’s torn-up toys in each other. Just make sure you are removing any stuffing or loose threads from the torn-up toys.
Sign Language Training
This exercise does double duty, and it may help the pair of you later on.
Every breed of dog has a known set of health problems they are prone to, and herding breeds are no exception. Deafness seems to settle with them specifically, and it happens even more often to dogs that carry merle genetics.
This can happen either spontaneously at birth or later on in their life. Either way, utilizing sign language or hand signals in your training can both exercise their mind and accommodate the tragedy of going without a key sense.
Some tricks, like “sit,” are easy enough to translate into a hand signal. Others, like, “down,” will require your dog to know how to complete the task first. Deaf Dogs Rock has some great resources on working on sign language with your dog.
Fetch by Name
Fetch is great, but teaching your dog to recognize the names of different items is better.
To do this, simply get your Aussie’s attention, hold up an object, and speak its name to them. Place the object several feet away from them and give them the command to fetch (grab, retrieve) the item.
You can add items on as they seem to recognize different objects. Who knows? Maybe your Australian will be the next Chaser and learn to recognize more than a thousand items by name.
This works great in conjunction with the previous trick, and teaching your Australian Shepherd to clean up their toys is akin to teaching children to pick up their room.
Teach your dog to bring you the items, whether that be by teaching them to fetch by name or simply to pick up all their toys.
Once you have reinforced the idea of your Aussie bringing toys to you, you can add a toy box or basket into the equation. Put the receptacle between you and the dog and get them to bring the toy to you. When they are over the box give them the command to drop the toy, and praise them when it lands inside.
Eventually, they will get the idea that you really want them to put the toys inside the box, and you can start shifting the command to “clean up.”
This is a great outlet for their instinct to gather.
Mental stimulation is great, but all work and no play make Jack a dull dog.
Australian Shepherds have bodies that are designed to get around, both quickly and for a long time. Giving them ample opportunity to exercise those bodies, whether it be through long walks or elaborate games, is essential to diminishing their desire to herd.
Australian Shepherds require at least 30-60 minutes of activity a day to satisfy their physical needs. The easiest way to do this is to take them on a walk (bonus points if you make this a “scent walk” that also stimulates their mind).
Beyond that, ensuring that they have ample opportunity for play can also cut down on bad behavior. Some basic game that you can play with your Australian Shepherd include:
- Tug ‘o war
- Chasing bubbles
- Water play
When your Aussie gets plenty of appropriate and positive physical stimulation, they can become worn out and less inclined to give in to their herding instincts.
Treibball is a herding dog’s dream sport. It is set up similar to a soccer game, and it is often referred to as soccer for dogs.
In a professional setting, Treibbal is played with eight balls and a time clock that keep track of 15-minute sessions. Up to eight dogs can play, simultaneously working to herd giant fitness balls into goals before time runs out.
You do not have to transform your dog into a professional Treibball star to benefit from this idea. It can be as simple as setting up in your backyard with a soccer ball and a pair of safety cones to indicate the goal
This works because while your dog is using their body to drive the ball they are also using its herding instincts to gather and maneuver. If you need to make it more difficult you can add more balls or obstacles.
Agility is another activity that works both the mind and body.
These extensive courses force your Australian Shepherd to respond to different obstacles in a timely manner. You can purchase a basic dog agility course to set up in your backyard, giving your dog exposure to things like tunnels, hurdles, and weave poles.
If it is something you would like to pursue you can also look for professional agility training and competitions in your area.
Hide and Seek
This basic game does double duty in training your dog to stay and come, and you do not even have to have those basic skills mastered before you play it.
Either have a friend hold your dog or put them in a stay while you go hide somewhere. Once you have found your hiding spot you can give the command to release your Aussie.
You can encourage them as they search the house or location for you, and make sure you always reward them when they succeed.
As they master the art of seeking you can amp up the difficulty by finding better hiding spots. You can also hide toys or other items and give them the command to seek these items out.
How to Stop Nipping
Dealing with nipping behavior may still prove challenging as time progresses. Your puppy might relapse into it when their herding instincts begin to really lock at around six to 12 months old.
You can still work to settle their nipping behaviors if you get an Australian Shepherd who is not a puppy. Use a set of steps similar to what you would use to stop their herding behavior. Make sure your dog has their basic obedience training and take the time to determine their triggers and their tells. Once you have all these preemptive measures done you can move forward into creating a controlled situation to put them in.
While you should still focus on interrupting the behavior before it occurs, there is also a set of steps to follow once your Aussie begins to nip:
- Stop whatever is being done to feed into the instinct to nip, whether it is walking, running, or playing. As long as you or your volunteer are moving, you are playing your dogs’ game.
- Make sure you do not engage with your Aussie at this point. You can issue a firm command like, “No” or “Stop”, but it is not necessary. If you choose to do this, make sure you only issue the command once.
- Otherwise, do not even look at your dog until they stop their nipping.
- The moment they pull their attention from that instinct to nip, reward them with their reward of choice.
Australian Shepherds are extremely driven by rewards and attention, so their motivation may be as simple as excitedly praising them.
When Training Is Not Working
Training your Australian Shepherd on your own may not get you anywhere for a number of reasons, and if you are putting time and effort in without any results you should move forward and consult a professional trainer.
Do your research and make sure the trainer you contact knows what they are talking about. There are no specific qualifications or certifications for someone to claim to be a dog trainer, but they should be able to tell you what experience they have and what methods they utilize.
Avoid trainers that rely on fear-based methods. While this can be harmful to any dog, these methods can be especially devastating to Australian Shepherds because of how heavily they lean on their relationship with the people in their lives.
Your trainer should also have specific experience working with herding breeds. It takes a specific set of skills to combat thousands of years of selective breeding, so hiring a professional who is trained to do just that can save you time, money, and frustration.
In order to combat your Aussie’s herding instinct, you should first determine what triggers it. Once you determine what flips that switch you can manufacture a training situation to specifically deal with your Aussie’s herding issues. While it certainly takes effort, you will both be happier when you are able to stop your Australian Shepherd from herding.