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Is It Play or Hunting Practice?

When we use the term play to describe the herding behaviour of collies it prevents us from acknowledging what is happening.

Herding is a modified form of the canine predatory sequence.

The predatory motor action pattern in wolves looks something like this:


The pattern only stops after the kill OR when the dog makes the decision that the hunt will be unsuccessful. We only have the opportunity to intervene after multiple lessons of 'that'll do', means 'herding is finished'.

Herding uses the eye, stalk, chase part of this pattern to control the movement of stock. Herding is work, it is tiring and demanding on the dog, and although we believe the dog is intrinsically rewarded from herding, we have no evidence it gives the same benefits as play.

Whilst watching dogs herding livestock, we cannot see any outwards expression of pleasure, their tails do not wag, they do not pant or bounce around. The mouth is usually closed, shoulders lower than the rear end, the focus intense with a low or slightly tucked under tail. This is predatory body language, and unlikely to be the emotional state that is safe for the day care, being alone with small children, or playing in the park.

Border Collie image

Herding is stimulated by the behaviour of sheep. Whilst the sheep graze the dog will potter about, appearing to ignore the sheep until they are startled and move quickly. This fast movement will trigger the collie to spring into action. This active response is not play; it is modified hunting.

Without the presence of real sheep, the pet collie will respond to similar movements in other dogs, children, vehicles, joggers, cyclists, birds, water etc. Once the collie is herding, they are in a predatory state, and although their genes inhibit killing, the experience of being hunted can be very distressing, even painful if nipping and biting is involved.

Herding opportunities need to be carefully monitored and balanced with periods of rest. Often the day care space, dog filled park, fast road or busy family home fails to provide this mix of activity and rest, resulting in a frantic, overly aroused collie that seems to be constantly on the go.

Over aroused collies will bite, bark, whine, spin, pant excessively and find it hard to settle.

Farm work is seasonal, many of the border collies living in our homes were bred to experience long periods of rest interspersed with short bursts of work. Replicating this pattern for your pet dog collie will help your collie learn how to calm and settle themselves.

Can we get better at manage herding behaviour?

When we use the term play to describe the herding behaviour of collies it prevents us from acknowledging what is happening.

Failing to understand what is motivating the behaviour results in the wrong protocols being applied. A Border Collie that is chasing traffic does not need desensitising, the dog is not afraid of the cars, the fast movement is triggering a herding response. The on-lead Border Collie that is barking and lunging at other dogs is not lacking in socialisation rather they do not understand that these are the ‘wrong sheep’*

Well-meaning games that go against the natural instincts of a collie, such as retrieve, ball chase or tug, can add to their frustration, whilst risking a future of joint pain.

To give the dogs a safe herding outlet whilst building their confidence and our relationship, we teach a series of games, including Sheepball. People report that following short sessions of these games their collies are more relaxed, sleep better, and pull less on a lead. From my own experience with Penn, I have noticed a sharp reduction in biting, combined with a faster recall.

Lessons for these games are available online and in person, please contact me for more information.

*A term used by Kay Laurence. For more on this and understanding collies I recommend Learning About Border Collies as a starting point.

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