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Behaviour patterns in sheepdogs

Following on the previous discussion of the predator motor pattern is how this has been adapted for the 2 most commonly used types of sheep dogs for rounding up the livestock - the header and the heeler.

Header sheepdogs are dogs like the border collie. The motor pattern has been changed with them to exaggerate some stages in the motor pattern and to hypertrophy or minimise other stages.

Their motor pattern should look like:

... orient ... > ... EYE ... > ... STALK ... > ... CHASE ...

In this motor pattern the last 3 stages have become exaggerated, and a working sheepdog is never expected to 'catch' the livestock, but the exaggerated motor pattern allows the shepherd to direct the dog so that the chase causes the livestock to move where they are desired.

The herding behaviour displayed in this video is very different to the video below of a heeler. If you continue reading through this site and watch video of maremmas you will quickly begin to see the huge differences in behaviour.

Heeler sheepdogs are dogs like the blue or red heeler and have quite a different modification to the motor pattern.

heeler dog displaying the grab-bite sequence in the predator motor pattern which maremmas and other livestock guardian dogs must not display

Their motor pattern should look like:

... orient ... > ... eye ... > ... stalk ... > ... CHASE ... > ... GRAB-BITE ...

The heelers do not spend the time in the early stages of the motor pattern like the headers do, but are more concerned with rushing in and nipping at heels. They are more commonly used with large livestock as their heel nipping rarely causes actual harm on larger animals, but can damage smaller animals like sheep.

The video of this heeler action only shows a slideshow of images but they show the hard wired behaviour brilliantly.

How motor patterns are used to round up livestock

The sheepdog uses these motor patterns by orienting to the stock, eyeing, stalking and chasing the stock. They move into the livestocks flight zone, causing the livestock to move away. Now the interesting part begins - we don't want the dog just chasing the livestock anywhere, and we don't want the dog to catch the livestock either. This is where the role of the shepherd is brought into the equation. The shepherd trains the sheep dog to respond to a set of directions that instruct the dog where to go - around to a side or whatever is needed. The dog then goes through a kind of dance with the livestock, causing them to bunch up tightly, and then getting them to move in the desired direction, and keep them bunched up.

The eye is extremely important here as a predator usually hones in on a single animal in the herd with the intention of taking the motor pattern through to the kill. The sheep dog hones in on the entire herd, whilst taking directions from the shepherd, to cause the herd to go where the shepherd desires.

The bond between the shepherd and dog, with the intense training that is given to the dog allows this dance to proceed with only apparently minimal involvement from the shepherd, however the dog is being extremely attentive to the shepherd even whilst appearing to be most attentive towards the livestock, and the signals taught to the dog comprise of very short simple commands with both voice and body language.

Why don't livestock guardians herd their livestock?

Because livestock guardians do not use 'the eye', nor do they stalk, they are very poor performers in any attempt to round up livestock. They are also independent thinkers that are poor performers in taking instructions from a shepherd - they prefer to act in the way that they deem fit for a given situation!

However, livestock that are well bonded to their guardian can often be 'rounded up' to a good degree, by calling your dog home. If the dog responds, the livestock are highly likely to follow him. Quite neat for small holdings, but not a solution for getting livestock into a small holding yard.

This article is broken into topics for your convenience:


male maremma playing with his pups displaying the loving nature of these livestock guardian dogs

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