Love Those Herders!
My passion for the herding breeds began when I was just a child. I grew up with German Shepherds and German Shepherd mixes. Yes, the German Shepherd Dog is actually a herding dog. For a list of the dogs in the herding group, you may visit AKC's website to find not only a list, but a short description of each. Over the course of my life, especially my adult life, I have had the privilege to share my home with many of these amazing breeds. I currently share my life with a Shetland Sheepdog and a Husky/Collie mix.
So, what is it that makes these dogs happy? Do they really have to work on a farm to be content? These are questions that I have been asked, so I decided to approach the subject. These dogs, just like the other breeds, were bred for a purpose. They were meant to work in different weather conditions alongside a shepherd controlling and directing livestock. This is why when you bring a herding breed home, you may see him chasing anything that moves, nipping at your heels, staring you down, etc. These characteristics are natural and they are going to vary depending on your breed choice. For instance, the Border Collie was bred to stare down his livestock in order to control them, but the Shetland Sheepdog was bred to bark and nip at their livestock. This is where you hear people talk about the Border Collie stare and how the Shetland Sheepdogs (known to their fans as Shelties) are extreme barkers. If you have one of these breeds, then I'm sure you can relate.
Many herding dogs end up in shelters every year simply for doing what is in their nature to do. Does this mean that the average family shouldn't own one of these dogs? No. An average family can live happily with these dogs, as long as the dog is given a job to do. If they are not given a job, then they will make one up and I can just about guarantee that their idea of a job is not going to be one that you will like. Have you heard the saying that a tired dog is a good dog? Well, that's our goal.
So, what can you do with your herding dog? The answer to that question really is a rephrased form of that question . . . what CAN'T you do with your herding dog? These dogs are some of the smartest, if not THE smartest, breeds out there. The list of activities are endless. You can take them walking, jogging, running, and rollerblading. You can do obedience, agility, herding, Schutzhund (mostly German Shepherds, but many other breeds do get involved), dock diving, freestyle, disc, etc., and these even have competition levels, if you so choose. I've done therapy visits with mine before, and that is a very rewarding activity. There are others for you to do with your dog, but these are just some to get you thinking.
Some people aren't interested in these things, but still want herding dogs. You can live in harmony, regardless, but any dog needs to learn basic manners, so I do highly recommend doing obedience, even if just for fun and the sake of your sanity. For those owners that aren't athletic or have medical issues prohibiting them from doing intense training, there are other things you can do to exercise your dog's mind. Many pet supply companies have come out with brain-teaser toys that will entertain your dog for hours. I have an Omega Paw Tricky Treat ball that my Husky/Collie mix absolutely loves. I actually put her food in it and she will roll that ball all over the place trying to get the food out of it. Some reviews of this particular ball has been poor, but I've had two of them for about 14 years and used them with many different breeds. Neither of them show any wear and are still in great condition. There are others on the market, though, if you are looking for something similar.
When working with herding dogs, I have always integrated training into every day life. I follow the NILIF method, which means that nothing in life is free. This will establish you as the pack leader, because you are in control of feeding, being let outside, going for walks, going for car rides, play time, etc. Any breed needs leadership and guidance, but the herding breeds aren't just energetic. They are, also, very intelligent. When you have an energetic dog that is extremely intelligent, you must be smarter than your dog. Find different things for him to do, even if it's something like learning to retrieve something for you, to help with laundry, to pick things up for you, or to put away his own toys.
Everything I have mentioned gives you some ideas on what to do with your herding dog, so that you have a harmonious and happy life together. Before any training program, be sure to speak with your vet, so that no harm will come to your dog. I hope these tips help you and, above all else, enjoy the companionship!