The German Shepherd dog breed has a long-standing reputation as an intelligent, versatile working dog. With their athleticism, trainability, and natural herding instincts, it’s no surprise that many German Shepherds excel at the task of herding livestock like sheep and cattle.
However, there is some controversy around whether aspects of how German Shepherds herd makes them less suitable than border collies or other breeds.
Let’s take a look at the origins of German Shepherd herding, how their style differs from other herding dogs, and the debate around their appropriateness for farm work.
Here’s a quick answer: German Shepherds have strong instincts and abilities for herding, but their traditional gripping and biting of sheep is controversial. With proper breeding and extensive training to prevent harm, they can be excellent at controlling sheep flocks, especially on open grazing lands. However, other breeds like Border Collies are often preferred for bite-free herding styles.
A Brief History of German Shepherd Herding
The origins of the German Shepherd dog can be traced back to 1899 in Germany when Captain Max von Stephanitz began breeding dogs with the goal of creating the ideal herding dog. His early breeding program focused on honing traits like intelligence, loyalty, athleticism, and a natural instinct for herding in sheep.
The result was the foundation of the German Shepherd breed we know today. From the beginning, von Stephanitz bred and trained German Shepherds to help shepherds in Germany manage large flocks of hundreds or even thousands of sheep, often in open fields rather than fenced pastures. Their role differed from collies and other types that gathered stray sheep – German Shepherds were expected to act as living fences, keeping sheep within set boundaries using their presence and authority.
How German Shepherds Herd
There are some key differences between how German Shepherds herd compared to border collies and other common herding breeds:
- No gathering or collecting sheep into a flock – German Shepherds do not gather scattered sheep back into a cohesive flock. Their role is keeping a flock together rather than collecting strays.
- No cutting sheep out of a flock – Similarly, German Shepherds are not used to cut specific sheep out from the herd to move them elsewhere. Their task is controlling herd movement and borders.
- Acting as a living fence – Without fences, German Shepherds must use their presence and authority to prevent sheep from wandering out of designated areas. They patrol boundaries and return straying sheep.
- Gripping and biting – One of the most controversial aspects of German Shepherd herding is their use of gripping and biting to control sheep. This involves gently biting errant sheep on their wool and legs to get them to comply. Proper training ensures sheep are unharmed.
- Voice commands and body language – While biting is part of their toolkit, German Shepherds also use voiced commands and body posturing to influence sheep behavior. Their commanding presence can intimidate sheep into obeying.
Why Do German Shepherds Grip and Bite Sheep?
For many, the practice of gripping and biting during herding work is concerning. Why would this ever be considered an appropriate way to handle livestock?
There are a few reasons why this technique emerged with German Shepherd herding:
- Lack of fences – With no physical barriers like fences, a more forceful approach was required to keep sheep from simply wandering away from the herd. Gripping allowed for control and enforcement of boundaries.
- Large flocks – Herds of hundreds or thousands of sheep are very difficult for one or two dogs to control. Gripping and biting enabled stronger control over large groups.
- Stubborn sheep – Hungry, tired, or bored sheep are especially prone to disobeying commands and testing boundaries. Strategic gripping reinforces the dog’s authority.
- Preventing crop damage – Wandering sheep could easily damage valuable crops and gardens, something shepherds wanted to avoid. Gripping was one tool for preventing this.
- Maintaining the bond – Between proper training and the thick wool coats of sheep, gripping rarely caused injury. But it did reinforce the livestock-guardian bond between dog and sheep.
Oversight and Standards for Biting in Herding
It’s understandable that spectators seeing a German Shepherd nip at sheep may be alarmed. However, in context, this technique has specific oversight and standards:
- Pups are carefully introduced to gripping using thickly padded sleeves and suits to avoid any harm.
- Dogs are trained to apply only very light pressure with gripping and to immediately release on command.
- Biting hard enough to break skin or draw blood results in immediate correction by trainers.
- Dogs that repeatedly grip inappropriately are disqualified from herding work.
- Handlers must demonstrate competence in managing gripping behaviour before earning herding titles.
- Only mature sheep with thick wool coats are suitable for herding involving gripping. Lambs and sheep with little wool are not appropriate.
When done according to these standards under the guidance of experienced trainers, gripping results in no short or long term harm to the sheep. It simply communicates boundaries clearly.
Ongoing Controversy Around Biting in Herding
Despite oversight and training standards, biting remains a controversial aspect of German Shepherd herding. Some of the debate stems from:
- Perception – To an outsider, biting may look aggressive and concerning even if the sheep is unharmed.
- Differing styles – In the US and UK, bite-free styles like that of border collies are more common and expected by the public.
- Showmanship – At herding competitions, biting is sometimes accentuated as a flashy showcase of German Shepherd skills. This can fuel discomfort with the practice.
- Purists – Some organizations oppose biting on principle and feel herding should never involve harm. They favor other breeds and training styles instead.
- Injuries – While rare, injuries to sheep due to poorly-executed biting do still occur. These instances garner negative attention.
- Different livestock needs – Goats and cattle require different handling compared to wooly sheep. Biting is not appropriate for herding these animals.
There are valid perspectives on both sides of this issue within the herding community that seem unlikely to be fully resolved anytime soon. Enthusiasts can have nuanced debates on the appropriateness of biting in various contexts.
Are German Shepherds the Right Breed for You?
If you’re considering a German Shepherd to help herd livestock on your farm, be sure to think carefully about whether their style of working fits your specific needs and preferences on biting. Here are a few key considerations:
Better for large open grazing – German Shepherds excel when livestock have free range over large open pastures and hillsides. Fenced-in areas or smaller properties are better suited to breeds like border collies.
Only appropriate for sheep – The thick wool coats and sturdy builds of mature sheep allow them to be gripped and bitten without harm. Goats, cattle, horses and other livestock should never be subject to biting.
Requires extensive oversight – Due to the biting component, training and supervising a German Shepherd herding dog requires experience and nuanced judgment. This is not a skill easily self-taught.
Ideal for reinforcement not correction – German Shepherds are better at gently reinforcing boundaries for compliant sheep rather than forcefully correcting disobedient livestock. Other breeds are better for the latter.
Bonding takes time – Developing the mutual trust and intuitive communication between a German Shepherd and their sheep flock takes significant time, effort and maturity. This is not a quick shortcut for herding help.
If these factors seem like a good match for your purposes, a well-bred, thoughtfully trained German Shepherd can be an amazing herding dog. However, be realistic about their limitations and your own experience. Seek qualified mentors and trainers to guide you, and never tolerate abuse of livestock. Used judiciously and with care, gripping can be a useful tool in a German Shepherd’s comprehensive herding skillset.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are German Shepherds good for herding cattle and goats?
No, German Shepherds should only be used for herding sheep. Cattle and goats do not have thick wool coats so gripping and biting risks harming them. Different herding breeds like Australian cattle dogs are better suited for these livestock.
How old should a German Shepherd be before starting herding training?
Start socializing puppies to sheep at 4-6 months old. But formal gripping and herding commands should wait until at least 18-24 months when the dog is physically and mentally mature enough for this complex task.
Are male or female German Shepherds better at herding?
Either gender can become skilled herding dogs. Females tend to be slightly smaller and quicker, while males are larger and stronger. But with proper training, the differences are minimal. Pick the puppy with the best focus and instincts.
How often do German Shepherds seriously injure sheep while herding?
Very rarely, assuming they have been properly bred, socialized, and trained. Experienced handlers watch closely and intervene at the first sign of inappropriate biting to prevent escalation. Most sheep experience no injury at all from controlled gripping.
Should biting/gripping be completely banned in herding?
Some organizations argue biting should be disallowed categorically. However, controlled gripping has a place for efficiently managing large flocks in open grazing. Blanket bans could diminish the heritage of some breeds. Context and compromise matter in evaluating herding styles.
Are “tending style” and “HGH style” different names for German Shepherd herding?
Yes, “tending style” and “HGH style” herding refer to the traditional German Shepherd approach focused on sheep boundaries vs gathering. HGH comes from a German herding organization highlighting this method.
To summarize, German Shepherds offer great strengths like intelligence, athleticism and strong herding instincts. However, their traditional reliance on gripping and biting to control sheep remains controversial. With proper oversight and training, harm to livestock can be avoided, allowing German Shepherds to showcase their versatility.
But it’s understandable that many handlers prefer alternative breeds or training styles that avoid biting altogether. There are reasonable perspectives on both sides of this debate that warrant thoughtful discussion and an open mind. Any herding work should prioritize animal welfare first.