I’ve written extensively about our relationship with our working livestock guardian dogs and have written very little about life with our herding dogs. The difference between the two types of dogs is remarkable.
None of our guardian dogs over the age of about two months old has ever been willing to play with a store-bought toy. Sure, they will fling a dead prairie dog through the air repeatedly, but never an actual dog toy.
Our guardian dogs do not retrieve anything you throw for them in attempt to get them to play. Instead, they tend to look at you like you’re an idiot, and watch while you retrieve it yourself.
We had the exciting experience of teaching a few of our guardian dogs to do funny tricks. But they only did the tricks once (as if to prove it could be done), and reverted back to the typical “this-human-is-a-complete-idiot” look of contempt.
Unlike any herding dog I know, our guardian dogs are nearly incapable of catching treats that are tossed directly at them. It’s a rare event that one of our guardians will open its mouth to catch a piece of meat that is gently launched at them. The meat will hit the dog on the nose, or in the middle of the forehead, before bouncing off and landing on the ground from where it is retrieved and consumed.
With the exception of the “go to the sheep” command, our guardian dogs fail to take more than the most rudimentary instructions from us. Even if they are fully aware of what we want them to do, they will comply only if it was their idea in the first place.
Try pointing something out in the distance, and the guardian dog will look at your hand, unlike our herding dogs, which use both verbal requests and hand signals. I can point out a specific lamb to Hud the herding dog, and tell him to “Get that lamb.” Hud will them chase the lamb through the flock, knocking it down with his chest and holding it to the ground until I get there. (Hud's the dark dog in the photos, while the guardians are the all-white dogs.)
These behavioral differences are easily explained by the differences in the type of work the dogs specialize in. Guardian dogs are by their very nature independent decision-makers. They assess threats to their herds, and react accordingly. They do not wait for human guidance.
The only exception to this is exhibited by Rena, a guardian dog now suffering from arthritis as the result of a battle with wolves. There is a pesky coyote that she can’t catch, so when it comes around teasing her, Rena will bark and wait until Jim or I follow her out with a gun. All she wants is that coyote dead, so she’s willing to cooperate with us to make that happen.
In contrast, herding dogs are human companions, bred to be pliable in taking instruction, and seem to have a desire to please their humans. Guardian dogs generally don’t care about what humans think, but herding dogs do.
Our adult guardian dogs tend to weigh between 90 and 130 pounds, and our smallest adult herding dog was Abe, weighing in about 25 pounds when soaking wet. Yet honest old Abe was treated as top dog, with a pack of guardian dogs patiently waiting for him to walk away from the food bowl before the ravenous pack would move in.
Abe was a bearded collie/border collie cross, while Hud is a bearded collie/Aussie cross. Both dogs had the soft-mouth characteristic that we shepherds find so endearing. Both dogs prefer to simply poke the sheep with their noses rather than bite. Content just to be in the presence of their sheep, both dogs could be left alone with the sheep without feeling the need to “work” them.
All the dogs tend to be well aware of their surroundings, and often it’s a herding dog that detects the presence of a coyote. The herding dog will raise the alarm and start running in the direction of the problem, but will always glance behind to make sure the guardian dogs will arrive at the point of danger long before the herding dog. The herding dogs then happily return to their leisure while the big dogs do the work.
One of Hud’s jobs is to “guard” four goat guardian dogs every morning while they eat. Hud keeps the goats from getting to the dogs and competing with them for their food. Yesterday his job got a little more complicated when a baby goat decided she liked the looks of Hud and came to him. Hud adores baby animals and got excited by the tiny goat since this was only the second time he’d been able to thoroughly investigate a member of this species. Hud towered over the kid, running his nose over her back and putting his nose to her tail. The kid decided that was too close for comfort and raced for me to save her. I told Hud, “Easy, easy,” and tried to convince him to move her back to her herd. But every time she tried to go back to her bunch, Hud cut off her exit by licking her nose and turning her back to me. It was pretty funny, but I eventually told Hud to knock it off, so he let her go, following her back to her herd before returning to the work he was supposed to be doing. The guardian dogs didn’t even look up from their food.
Hud is a prime example of the concept that like their human companions, dogs are creatures of habit. Hud has a few store-bought toys to play with, but there is one special toy that is our bedtime entertainment. When I make the bed each morning, I place the decorative pillows on the bed and place his stuffed Lambchop toy on top. Every evening while Jim and I are on computers or watching television in the living room, Hud quietly goes back to our bedroom to retrieve Lambchop, and then slowly walks into the living room to present it to us, gently pushing it into a lap. The suggestion is clear: It’s bedtime. We usually agree, jumping up to shut off the lights, and following him down the hall to bed. Hud and Lambchop wait patiently in the middle of the bed while his humans brush their teeth and crawl under the covers.
But sometimes Hud tries to put us to bed far too early, and we have to convince him that no, going to bed at 5 p.m. is not a good idea.
This nighttime routine is such a staple of our lives that when I’m away from home, Hud sulks. He refuses to retrieve Lambchop to put Jim to bed, and usually sleeps outside on those nights. His sulking starts the minute he sees me get out my luggage. That’s why I usually try to pack my bag while its deep in the dark recess of my closet.
While Hud would prefer to spend nearly every minute in my presence, our guardian dogs aren’t nearly so devoted. The guardians act happy to see me every day, but usually grow bored with me within a few minutes, dismissing me and returning to their flock. Their devotion lies elsewhere.