Collies and Shelties are herding dogs. We know this by the documented historical records as well as by the fact that they are in the AKC Herding Group and the KC Pastoral Group. In recent years, we have even helped our breed clubs develop herding programs to foster an interest in herding with our dogs, and encouraging owners and breeders to test for herding instinct. To our delight and great satisfaction, we have managed to observe that the majority of Collies and Shelties today still very much retain their long bred in herding instincts.
But what about Guardian Flock instinct? What about protective instinct? Purists will tell you that the Guardian Flock dogs are thoroughly separate from herding dogs. They have no driving or gathering instinct, and have been selectively bred for generations to blend in with the flock, and protect it from preditors. These are separate occupations, and require different breeds for each respective job. Herding dogs gather and/or drive stock. That is their work.
A number of years ago, I was asked by the American Eskimo Dog Club of America to set up and chair their initial herding dog program. At the time, I presented that breed to both the AKC and the AHBA as the family farm dog it historically was. That little Spitz breed, which shares a lot of common ancestry with our Shelties and even some with our Collies, started out as a “Jack of all trades” dog. He did a little herding, a little guarding, a little hunting, a little watchdogging, and a little family companioning. Unfortunately, the AKC has no group for such a multi- tasking breed, and the Eskie ended up in something called the Non Sporting Group — sort of the leftover group for dogs who didn’t have a clear job or those who who’s initial work had been long done away with (such as the carriage horse work done by the early Dalmatians). Thus the AKC, having some trouble seeing beyond this “non sporting” distinction, had some difficulty accepting the breed as deserving of a place in herding tests and trials. The AHBA, however, more founded on the documented history of breeds having herding work in their background, was quick to add the AED as having a valid place in their programs.
Why is this important in discussing the distinction of Collies and Shelties as herding breeds? Because just like the AED, which comes from a diverse working background which included herding, these breeds were not exclusively used as gathering and driving dogs, either. Even more noteworthy is the fact that while the dogs we have today have well demonstrated their retaining of herding instinct, enough of them have additionally demonstrated guardian instinct to beg the question, “Are these dogs the ones who can handily do both tasks?” Unlike the working Border Collies and Australian Cattle Dogs, it would be difficult to find a Collie or Sheltie who is so enamored of herding that he devotedly lives for the work, and is hard pressed to think of anything else. On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon to find a Collie or Sheltie which, given the situation to find a helpless or threatened creature, fully rises to the occasion to both tend and defend it.
An example of this is a situation that occurred a number of years ago with my Smooth Collie, Japheth. He was outside with my other four dogs, and about seven rescue dogs I had here waiting to be rehomed. Hearing a ruckus outside, I went to look and found a circle of barking dogs intent on something in the center that I couldn’t even see without moving them out of the way. Taking each of the rescue dogs to the patio and closing the door, I was finally able to discern that the center of the circle was where my Japheth was crouched, elbows on the ground, and head tightly held over something he was determinedly protecting. Placing my hand on his noble head, I spoke softly to him, encouraging him that it was safe now to back away and release whatever it was. Slowly, he complied with my urging, and revealed one very frightened but totally unhurt Banty hen! The little hen had somehow escaped from the chicken yard, and suddenly found herself the focus of a bevy of unwanted attention from a group of rescue dogs surely intent on chicken dinner! Japheth’s instinct to protect was what kicked in, and his intelligence told him he wasn’t going to be able to do it by warding off one predator at a time. Thus he simply threw himself on top of the little hen, and managed to protect her from the entire pack until I got there. Ultimately I placed the chicken back in her pen where she carefully stretched first one leg, then the other — then one wing and then the other. Finding all four limbs in working order, she turned and ran at top speed into the hen house! Japheth, who had carefully observed the whole procedure, then looked up at me with a soft expression and waved his tail in approval.
Observing this type of behavior on numerous occasions in both my Collies and Shelties, I feel their forte is much too minimized by the oversimplification of the “herding” moniker. As well, I feel that competitive owners of herding trial dogs who often look down on our breeds as not typically sporting enough for intense competition actually flatter them with this observation. While Collies and Shelties are herding dogs and can certainly do the work to prove it, any observant owner can testify that they are also oh so much more!