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Types of Cattle Dogs: Characteristics & Choosing the Right One

An Australian Cattle Dog laying in fall leaves looking happy.

Handling a farm or ranch can be enjoyable and rewarding, but it’s not exactly easy. If you’re in search of a loyal companion that can help with herding your livestock, there’s no better candidate than man’s best friend – a cattle dog.

I’ve volunteered at a farm a few times over the years and I’ve seen how the owners’ lives became much easier when they got a furry friend to help with protecting their cattle. If you want to reap the same benefits for yourself and are curious about which cattle dog will work best for you, this article will guide you…

There are many cattle dog types to choose from. The American Kennel Club currently recognizes 32 herding breeds. Among them are

  • Australian Cattle Dogs
  • Pembroke Welsh Corgis
  • Border Collies
  • Shetland Sheepdogs, and more.

Choosing the right dog depends mainly on the work you want them to do.

If you want to learn more about how to choose the right cattle dog for your farm, keep reading for more information about certain types of cattle dogs, their good points, and the criteria you can keep in mind for choosing the right cattle dog.

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Types of Cattle Dogs

Cattle dogs are also known as:

  • herding dogs
  • stock dogs
  • shepherd dogs
  • sheepdogs
  • working-dog

They are dogs bred and trained for the purposes of helping with livestock by:

  • gathering
  • herding
  • protecting

All cattle dog breeds share an instinct to control the movements of other animals. Their high intelligence also makes it easy to teach them additional skills that can make them incredibly helpful both at home and on the farm.

Australian Cattle Dog

The Australian Cattle Dog is a breed from Australia, descended from wild dingos. They’re also known as Blue Heelers or Queensland Heelers, due to their style of herding — they nip at the heels of the herd to keep them moving. Australian Cattle Dogs are well-muscled and incredibly agile, making them well-suited to running across large swaths of property.

Australian Cattle Dogs are born with white coats that darken into distinctive mottled or speckled blue-gray patterns. Their coats are short and straight, so you won’t have much trouble with grooming. They stand around 17 to 20 inches tall at the shoulder.

If you’re in search of an energetic and loyal dog to keep you company on the farm, the Australian Cattle Dog can be a great fit. Just make sure that you can actually keep up — if your dog doesn’t have a sufficient outlet for their energy, they can become bored and mischievous.

Australian Shepherd

The Australian Shepherd, despite its name, is a breed that comes from the American Southwest. They’re medium-sized dogs with medium to long, thick fur, especially around their neck and chest. They come in several colors, such as:

  • black
  • red
  • blue merle (a mottled pattern with contrasting shades)
  • tri-color (tan, black, and white)

Australian Shepherds share a similar herding style to Australian Cattle Dogs, even if they come from different countries. The impulse to herd is inherent to them, so don’t be surprised if they end up herding birds, other dogs, and even humans.

FUN FACT: Australian Shepards are incredibly active and remarkably smart, so they can be a huge help around the farm with the right training. Their boisterous personality makes them a joy to be around!

Bearded Collie

The Bearded Collie hails from the Scottish Highlands, with a thick, heavy coat that’s well-suited to the unpredictable weather of the area. Some affectionately liken their appearance to a sentient mop.

Throughout their 12 to 14-year lifespan, they’re playful and friendly. They’re one of the friendliest herding dog breeds, being affectionate towards family, good with young children, and also good with other dogs.

If you live in an area that frequently sees bad weather, the Bearded Collie is a companion you can depend on regardless of rain or shine. They tend to get bored easily, so putting them to work as cattle dogs can help burn off some excess energy.

Bergamasco Sheepdog

The Bergamasco Sheepdog is a distinctive dog that originates from Italy. It has distinctive-looking thick and matted fur, which makes these dogs suitable for the Italian Alps — as well as any farm in colder climates.

While its coat might look matted and tangled, it actually serves a purpose. It’s made up of three different textures of hair that form naturally-occurring mats or “flocks,” which provide added insulation against cold temperatures and added protection against predators (e.g. wolves) and other threats to your livestock.

A Bergamasco Sheepdog with matted fur of light color standing in the grass.
Matted fur provides insulation for cold-weather living

Compared to other cattle dogs, Bergamasco Sheepdogs require less exercise. However, they still require adequate training and attention to help them reach their fullest potential as cattle dogs. They shine the most when they’re keeping watch over their charges.

Border Collie

Border Collies are one of the most popular herding dog breeds. They stand around 16 to 26 inches in height and have medium-length coats that typically come in black and white.

This breed’s main claim to fame is its unique “eye” — it has the power to command livestock with its intelligent gaze. Their capability of establishing power and authority comes in handy when herding livestock.

FUN FACT: The power of their “eye” can vary among Border Collies and is hereditary. However, it doesn’t get passed on well when they’re crossbred.

These dogs are remarkably hard-working and affectionate. When the workday is over, they’ll be content to cuddle up next to you.

Finnish Lapphund

The Finnish Lapphund is one of Finland’s most beloved breeds. They’re relatively rare outside of Finland, but they’re very friendly and well-suited for herding.

FUN FACT: Aside from cattle, Finnish Lapphunds have also been used to herd reindeer.

They have shaggy coats suited for colder climates and spitz-like features. They stand 20 inches tall at the shoulder and are muscular, quick, and agile. One of their key traits is their strong “startle response” — they startle easily as their history in herding reindeer requires quick reflexes to avoid their hooves and antlers.

German Shepherd

The German Shepherd may be the poster child for police dogs, but they originally began as guard dogs for sheep in Germany. They are large and muscular, allowing them to keep up with any flock at great speeds. They stand 26 inches tall at the shoulder.

These dogs excel as all-purpose working dogs due to these traits:

  • intelligence
  • agility
  • loyalty

German Shepherds are large and muscular, allowing them to keep up with any flock at great speeds. They stand 26 inches tall at the shoulder.

German Shepherds defining characteristic is loyalty and courage. When trained well, they can confidently carry out various tasks. They can be fiercely protective of both their family and flock and are even willing to put their life on the line to defend them.

A happy German Shepard with an open mouth and tongue out laying outside.
German Shepards are known for their loyalty and courage

Pembroke Welsh Corgi

The adorably tiny Pembroke Welsh Corgi might not fit the idea of an imposing cattle dog but they’re actually great at herding.

They may stand at barely a foot tall but this small stature can be an advantage at times — they can easily weave through the legs of the herd and can nip at their ankles without bending down significantly and losing sight of their surroundings.

Unlike other herding dogs, Pembroke Welsh Corgis herd cattle from the back instead of circling them. They’re bright and affectionate, with a confidence far greater than their size.

Shetland Sheepdog

The Shetland Sheepdog originates from the Shetland Islands off the coast of Ireland. They resemble Rough Collies with their long coats, although they’re much smaller. Their maximum average height is only 16 inches. Similar to Corgis, they use their smaller size to their benefit.

Shetland Sheepdogs are very obedient and intelligent. They’re a popular pick for families looking for both a herding dog and a family dog because they are:

  • affectionate with family members
  • patient with young children
  • friendly towards other dogs

Choosing the Right Cattle Dog

With how many different herding breeds exist, it can be hard to figure out how to choose the best one for your needs. Here are some criteria to help you decide which breed of cattle dog is best for you.

The Type of Work You Want the Dog To Do

First, you want to determine what kind of help you need on the farm. Do you just move your livestock around small pens, or do you have expansive swaths of land that you allow them to roam in?

There are only a handful of breeds that will scope out long distances, but there are many that can handle large areas, such as:

  • Australian Kelpies
  • Border Collies

Aside from herding, you might also want to get a dog for guarding livestock or keeping vermin out.

Livestock guardian dogs live among the flock and watch over the surrounding area instead of chasing or herding them. Good examples are:

  • Great Pyrenees
  • Maremma Sheepdogs
  • Anatolian Shepherds

Vermin dogs, or ratters, are great if you have a rodent problem on your farm. Many terriers are excellent at hunting down rats.

The Type of Livestock You Raise

Some breeds are better suited to raise certain kinds of livestock, based on their behavior.

For example, Border Collies are renowned for their ability to stare down sheep to direct their movement. They may nip at a stubborn sheep occasionally, but they generally keep it to staring and chasing.

For cattle, Australian Cattle dogs tend to herd by nipping at their heels to get them to move. Cows and sheep generally stick together, so they’re often easier to herd than goats.

TIP: If you’re herding goats, you want to get a dog with experience working with sheep and cattle first, as goats can be aggressive and headstrong. 

A Shetland Sheepdog standing outside in colder weather, it has longer orange, black, and white fur.
A Shetland Sheepdog is great for some families with a farm

The Area Your Farm Is In

The climate is an important part of choosing the right cattle dog, but most may not be aware of it. If you’re in a sunnier, hotter area, short-coated dogs can cool themselves off better and are also easier to groom.

In colder climates, dogs with heavy, thick coats are better equipped for the weather.

If you’re unsure about a breed, you consult other local farmers for what types of cattle dogs they have.

Your Willingness To Train the Dog

Getting a dog properly trained requires a lot of time and effort. If you’re willing to put in the work, it can be cheaper to get a puppy and raise it yourself.

When you’re training your dog, you need to take into account where you want them to stay — at home or in a kennel with other animals — as this can impact how they need to be trained.

NOTE: A good resource to start with is the American Herding Breed Association’s list of trainers and facilities.

If you don’t know how to train a dog or you don’t have the resources necessary to train them, you might want to opt for a trained dog, even if it’s more expensive. 

Wrap Up

The right cattle dog for you depends on several factors, such as:

  • the type of work you want help with
  • the type of livestock you raise
  • your climate
  • your willingness to train them

Border Collies are one of the most popular cattle dog types, helped by their intelligence and energy. They’re quick to learn and easy to train.

Australian Cattle Dogs are another popular choice due to their agility and athleticism, they’re great at chasing around cattle.

Aside from these two, however, there are still many other types of cattle dogs to choose from. Hopefully, this guide will help you decide!

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