Top Herding Dogs Unleashed: Finding Your Perfect Farmhand

June 28, 2023

portrait of two herding dogs in a field

Herding dogs have been treasured companions to farmers, ranchers and households for thousands of years. They play a critical role in managing livestock, and beyond their practical contributions, they often become loyal, beloved members of the family. With so many breeds, you might wonder – what is the best herding dog?

Every dog breed has its unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. What makes a herding dog “the best” can depend on the specific needs of the livestock, the environment they will be working in, and even the preferences and lifestyle of the dog’s human companions. Here’s a breakdown of key traits of herding dogs, popular herding breeds, and nutrition tips.

Key Traits of Herding Dogs

Herding dogs are, first and foremost, working dogs. Bred for the specific tasks of controlling and directing livestock, these breeds share several common traits that make them suited to their roles.


Herding dogs are some of the smartest canine breeds. They possess a keen understanding of their surroundings and can follow complex commands. This intellectual ability makes them easier to train and more adept at problem-solving, whether that’s navigating difficult terrain or dealing with a stubborn member of the herd.


Herding dogs are often some of the most biddable, or easily taught, animals. Often described as intelligence, herding dogs are often overly willing to please their handler or owner.  This willingness to please causes them to listen intently and have a care for “doing it right” which is extremely important for a herding dog who is observing commands from hundreds of yards away.  They are definitely not amongst the most stubborn breeds, although different herding breeds may have different tendencies in all these categories.

Energy and Stamina

Herding requires constant movement, often over long distances and for extended periods. Herding breeds are typically high-energy, or high drive, dogs with excellent stamina, able to run and work for hours without tiring. Their endurance is part of what makes them such efficient workers.


Herding dogs need to be quick and nimble, able to change direction at a moment’s notice. This agility allows them to dart around livestock, guiding them in the desired direction or intervening if an animal strays from the group.  Cattle can weigh over 1,000-2,000 lbs and their kicks pack a punch, so most importantly, herding dog quickness helps them prevent injury and avoid being kicked or hurt by the animals they are moving.


Most herding dogs have a strong instinct to herd, often exhibited from puppyhood. This instinct can manifest as rounding up other animals or even children. It’s an innate drive that, when honed through training, makes these dogs natural herders.


These dogs are highly attuned to their handler’s instructions, making quick decisions based on whistle tones, voice commands, or hand signals. This responsiveness is vital in the field, as it allows the handler to control the dog’s movements and, by extension, the direction of the flock or herd.


Herding dogs often need to adapt to a variety of situations, whether that’s different types of livestock, varying terrains, or unpredictable weather. This versatility is another hallmark of the herding breeds.

While these traits are common among herding breeds, each breed, and indeed, each dog, is unique. Some might be more instinctive herders, while others might excel in stamina or agility. Research the specific traits of each herding breed when selecting a dog to ensure the best fit for your needs.

Herding Dog Breeds

Each breed has unique characteristics, origins, and tendencies for herding specific types of livestock. Herding dog breeds range from the keenly focused Border Collie to the resilient Australian Cattle Dog, highlighting the incredible diversity found within the herding group.

Border Collie

  • General traits and description: Known for their intelligence and agility, Border Collies are often considered the quintessential herding dogs and are also popular in dog sports. They’re hardworking, trainable, and possess a keen instinct for herding.  They typically have the most “eye,” referring to their hypnotic stare used to control livestock with just a look that telegraphs their intentions.
  • Sub breed: A McNab is a variant of the Border Collie, typically known for its versatility and robustness in varied climates and terrains.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Border Collies excel at herding both, but are often particularly associated with sheep herding due to their origins in Scotland and England moving sheep across the hills.
  • Origin of the breed: Border Collies originated on the border of Scotland and England, bred for their intelligence and herding prowess.

Australian Shepherd

aussie on bale of hay

  • General traits and description: Despite the name, Australian Shepherds were developed in the United States. They are intelligent, trainable, and versatile dogs known for their happy demeanor and ability to have a distinctive merle coat.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Australian Shepherds can herd sheep or cattle effectively. They’re known for their adaptability and are frequently used in a variety of farm tasks.
  • Origin of the breed: Developed in the Western United States in the 19th and early 20th century, the breed’s name is likely derived from its association with Basque shepherds who emigrated from Europe to Australia and then to the US.

Australian Cattle Dog/Heeler

close up of australian cattle dog outside

  • General traits and description: These dogs are sturdy, compact, and known for their intelligence and agility. Often stubborn and independent, they are nevertheless loyal and protective.
  • Sub breed: The Texas Heeler is a cross between the Australian Cattle Dog and the Australian Shepherd, known for its alertness, agility, and natural guarding and herding instincts.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: As their name suggests, Australian Cattle Dogs are particularly adept at herding cattle, using their ‘heeling’ technique to nip at the animals’ heels and guide them.
  • Origin of the breed: Developed in Australia for driving cattle over long distances across rough terrain.


working kelpies surrounding cattle

  • General traits and description: Kelpies are highly energetic and intelligent dogs known for their athleticism and tireless nature. They are quick learners and thrive when given tasks and challenges.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Kelpies are highly versatile and can herd both sheep and cattle effectively. Their adaptability makes them suitable for different terrains and livestock types.
  • Origin of the breed: Originally bred in Australia in the late 19th century, Kelpies were designed to handle the harsh Australian climates and landscapes.

Rough Collie

portrait of a rough collie on a farm

  • General traits and description: Made famous by the TV show “Lassie,” Rough Collies are intelligent, loyal, and easily trainable dogs known for their beautiful long coats and elegant looks.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Traditionally, Rough Collies are more commonly associated with sheep herding, due to their patience and gentle handling.
  • Origin of the breed: The breed was developed in Scotland and Northern England, primarily for herding sheep.


action shot of corgi herding a sheep

  • General traits and description: Corgis are small but incredibly agile and alert dogs. While they’re often seen as family pets today, they are intelligent, hard-working dogs with a strong herding instinct.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Corgis were originally bred for herding cattle, and they’re well-suited to the task. Their small size allows them to avoid kicks while nipping at the heels of larger animals.
  • Origin of the breed: There are a couple of types of Corgis, the Cardigan Welsh Corgi and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi, both of which originated in Wales, UK.


catahoula mid run on farm

  • General traits and description: Catahoulas are known for their striking appearance, intelligence, and versatility. They are well-muscled and powerful dogs, able to take on a variety of tasks.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Catahoulas are more commonly used for herding cattle and pigs due to their robust nature and assertiveness, but they can adapt to herding sheep as well.
  • Origin of the breed: Catahoula Leopard Dogs were originally bred by Native Americans in Louisiana in the United States, hence they are often referred to as Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dogs.

German Shepherd

german shepherd guarding a lamb in the snow

  • General traits and description: Known for their intelligence, strength, and versatility, German Shepherds are one of the most popular dog breeds worldwide. They are hardworking, trainable, and protective, with a strong herding instinct.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Traditionally bred for herding sheep, German Shepherds are adaptable and can also work with cattle. They are often used in various working roles, from search and rescue to police and military service.
  • Origin of the breed: German Shepherds were developed in late 19th century Germany, originally for protecting flocks from predators and herding sheep.

Belgian Malinois

profile of a belgian malinois on farmland

  • General traits and description: Belgian Malinois are known for their intelligence, trainability, and high energy levels. They are versatile working dogs used in many roles, including herding, police work, and search and rescue.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Belgian Malinois were originally bred for herding sheep, but their adaptability allows them to work effectively with cattle as well.
  • Origin of the breed: Belgian Malinois was developed in Belgium in the late 19th century. They are one of the four breeds of Belgian sheepdogs.

Old English Sheepdog

portrait of old english sheepdog on grass

  • General traits and description: Old English Sheepdogs are large, athletic dogs known for their shaggy coats. They are intelligent, adaptable, and generally good-natured, making them both effective herding dogs and beloved pets.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Old English Sheepdogs were initially bred for herding both sheep and cattle.
  • Origin of the breed: Old English Sheepdogs were developed in England in the early 19th century. Despite their ‘sheepdog’ name, they were often used to drive sheep and cattle to market.

Shetland Sheepdog

working sheltie inside a paddock with sheep

  • General traits and description: Often referred to as “Shelties”, these small, energetic dogs closely resemble their larger cousin, the Rough Collie. They are known for their intelligence, agility, and hardworking nature.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: Shelties were originally bred for herding sheep, and their smaller size tends to make them more suitable for herding smaller livestock.
  • Origin of the breed: The breed was developed on the Shetland Islands of Scotland, designed to withstand the harsh climate while managing herds.

Bearded Collie

two bearded collies running in grassy field in front of forested hills

  • General traits and description: Bearded Collies, known for their long, shaggy coats and ever-wagging tails, are high-energy, intelligent, and hardy dogs.
  • Suitability for sheep or cattle: They were originally bred for herding sheep, but their adaptability allows them to be great cattle herding dogs.
  • Origin of the breed: This ancient breed is among the oldest of Britain’s native breeds, bred for its ability to navigate the rough terrain and climate of Scotland while herding livestock.

Dietary Requirements of Herding Dogs

german shepherd lying down in front of purple bowl full of food licking snout waiting for command

The rigorous physical activity that comes with herding livestock means these dogs have unique nutritional requirements. A diet that supports their high-energy needs is crucial to keeping them healthy and productive.

Herding dogs often require a higher protein diet than other dog breeds. Protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass and supporting high activity levels. Look for high-quality dog food that lists a source of animal protein, like chicken, beef, or fish, as the first ingredient.

However, it’s not just about protein. These dogs also need a balanced intake of fats and carbohydrates for energy, fiber for digestive health, and a range of vitamins and minerals for overall health.


Fats are a concentrated source of energy for dogs. They help in absorbing vitamins, and also play a role in cell function and maintaining healthy skin and coat. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in ingredients like fish oil and flaxseed, also support brain health, which is essential for these intelligent breeds.


While dogs don’t necessarily need carbohydrates in their diet, they can provide a good source of quick energy. Complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, or barley, are preferred as they provide sustained energy and help with digestion.


Fiber supports a healthy digestive system, helping to manage weight and maintain steady blood sugar levels. Good sources of fiber in dog food include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals support a variety of bodily functions, from bone health to immune function. They are usually provided through a mix of meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and added supplements in commercial dog foods.

Hydration is also vital for these active dogs. Always ensure they have access to clean, fresh water, especially while they are working.

The exact amount of food a herding dog will need depends on their size, age, and activity level. An active, working Border Collie will need more food (and more calories) than a Corgi who spends most of the day indoors. Always adjust feeding amounts based on your dog’s individual needs.

Remember that not all dog foods are created equal. When choosing a food for your herding dog, opt for high-quality brands that use wholesome, natural ingredients, and avoid those that rely heavily on fillers and artificial additives.

As always, if you have any concerns about your dog’s nutrition, consult with a veterinarian. They can provide personalized advice based on your dog’s breed, age, weight, and overall health status.

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The Best Fit for Your Herding Needs

two cowboys on horseback together with herding dogs herd livestock on a ranch

Herding dogs are a remarkable group of breeds whose intelligence, energy, agility, and instincts make them invaluable for managing livestock. The best herding dog will depend on your specific needs, whether it’s the versatile Border Collie, the robust Australian Cattle Dog, or the gentle Rough Collie. Remember to consider the climate and terrain, as well as the type of livestock you have, when choosing the right breed.