German Shepherd Dogs - Tending to their flock

German Shepherd Dog Working Sheep APBC

Practically every guide you’ll pick up about the German Shepherd Dog brushes over the fact that it is a shepherding breed and suggests that the ‘instinct’ to work a 12 hour day with a 1000 sheep is somehow consigned to history. WRONG. The GSD is a sheep tending dog. The ‘instincts’ to work with sheep are alive and well and being put into practice every day in many parts of the world. 

‘Tending’ is a traditional style of caring for sheep; dogs that perform this work have a very detailed and unique collection of behaviours. If you didn’t realise this before you acquired a GSD you might have a bit of a surprise when your pet starts performing these behavioural repertoires.
There are no similarities between sheep tending and sheep mustering (as performed by Border Collies). A few of the special features of tending are that; the dogs actively avoid making eye contact with the sheep, have a unique manoeuvre for pushing errant sheep back into the flock, are drawn to distinctive boundary marks on the ground (which they intuitively patrol, effectively making the dogs  ‘living fences’ keeping the sheep behind the line) and they take responsibility, alone, for the ‘heavy’ side of the flock which requires doggy personalities to be independent, reactive, energetic and intelligent.
It is perfectly possible to engage pet GSDs in safe, appropriate activities that, in the absence of sheep, give them an outlet for their sheep tending behaviours. This helps keep them comfortable and calm. Tracking, searching, particular elements of obedience and highly controlled chase games all appear in GSD sheep work, so all of these are helpful. Don’t forget you’re getting an active sheep dog ‘designed’ to react to multiple and rapidly changing stimuli as presented by several hundred sheep, so a complex menu of interesting activities is needed. Oh and physical activities to replicate a day in the field!
Some of the very special GSD quirks, which come from their sheep tending origins, can get these fabulous dogs into trouble if not properly understood and channelled into healthy activities.
Pat Tagg

Provisional Member, APBC

Pat has a Masters degree in companion animal behaviour counselling and 33 years experience with GSDs and farm livestock.