How do sheepdogs herd sheep?

Sheepdogs rely on their wolf pack inherited ‘instructions’ to herd sheep. Clearly it takes a lot of effort for a shepherd to train their dog to herd sheep and the quality of the dog is also an obvious factor in sheep herding skills. However, sheepdogs are using their innate, inherited wolfpack hunting skills to carry out this specialised task.

Sheepdog. Photo by Romana from Pexels

So why is a sheepdog so good at herding sheep? They are controlled by four ‘instructions’ which they have inherited from their ancient dog ancestor, the grey wolf. Wolves hunt in packs and in doing so they use this set of instructions. They are as follows:

  • Members of the pack approach to the same distance from the prey animal.
  • Members of the pack are equidistant between each other.
  • One wolf may separate from the encircling pack and hide from the prey animal, lying still on the ground while the rest of the group drives the prey towards this wolf.
  • The dominant member of the wolf pack initiates the moves of the members of the pack. In sheep herding the shepherd is the dominant member of the pack which normally consists of one man or woman and his dog. Sometimes there are two dogs.

Translating these inherited instructions into sheepdog movements you can see how they become excellent at herding sheep. The difference between a sheepdog working alone and a wolf pack is clearly apparent. They have to work incredibly hard to fill the gaps but the moves are those of a wolf pack encircling a prey animal. The training that the dog receives, refines these moves.

For completeness, the shepherd delivers 10 instructions to his dog:

  1. Stop
  2. Lie (adopt the ambush position and stay quiet while facing the herd of sheep and stare)
  3. Go left (move to the left of the flock of sheep and continue to circle around them while going left)
  4. Go right (as above)
  5. Come here (approach the shepherd)
  6. Come on (approach the flock)
  7. Go back (retreat from the flock)
  8. Steady (slow down)
  9. Speed up (do things more quickly)
  10. That will do (stop what you’re doing and return to the shepherd)

Shepherds often use a whistle to allow them to communicate over long distances. The various sounds of the whistle communicate the various commands listed above, which the dog is trained to understand.

My thanks to Dr Desmond Morris – Illustrated Dogwatching.

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