Your Pet, Our Passion.
Border Collie sitting on top of a mountain with tongue out.

Pastoral Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

17 min read

Pastoral dog breeds come in many shapes and sizes, but they all love nothing more than having a job to do. Here is what you need to know about these hard-working canines, from grooming requirements to the type of exercise they like best.

Pastoral dog breeds love working with their owners and will wag their tails whenever the whole family gets involved, whether it's training, exercising or play time. Given their expertise in moving and protecting livestock, it's no wonder that pastoral dogs can easily become reliable members of the family, always happy to cooperate, but extremely keen on large amounts of exercise. Find out what makes these dogs such beloved companions and discover the diverse line-up of pastoral breeds, including the short, but sturdy Welsh Corgi as well as the larger German Shepherd.


A pastoral dog's job

Pastoral dogs hail from all over the world, and were originally bred to herd, move and sometimes also protect, livestock. Depending on their size and skills, pastoral breeds were entrusted with diverse jobs that involved looking after sheep, goats, cattle or even in some cases reindeer.


Pastoral dog breeds sizes

As a result of their diverse background, pastoral breeds come in virtually all sizes and coat types, from the smaller heelers (who move livestock by nipping at their heels) to the giant breeds who are guardians as well as herders and hence need to be larger and more powerful.


The natural instincts of pastoral breeds

Like all working breeds, pastoral dogs utilise their natural canine behaviours to do the jobs that humans have developed them for. Pastoral breeds are specialists in watching livestock and then working with their owner, using the stalk/chase part of their hunting behaviour to move them where they need to go. A herding dog shouldn't bite their charges and so individuals who were weak in the 'bite' part of the predatory behaviour were generally used to create these breeds. The exception is the heelers - for whom nipping at the heels of cattle was their strategy for encouraging animals more than 10 times their size to go somewhere they might not want to.

As this predatory behaviour is self-rewarding for dogs owners have to be aware that not only do their dogs enjoy carrying out these behaviours, they also need an outlet for their hard-wired instincts to stay healthy and happy. This doesn't mean you need a flock of sheep in the garden, but it does mean that these are hard-working dogs who relish having a job to do that involves owner interaction, and controlled stalking, chasing and brain work.


Pastoral dog breeds behaviour and personality

Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether a pastoral dog is the companion for you.

Constantly active and on the go

Pastoral dog breeds are among the most active canine groups.

They are very active and need to be able to work all day, every day. Since they are constantly on the go, this means pastoral dogs will not be the most relaxing canine companions for couch potato owners!

They like to work closely with their owner

Pastoral dogs love to co-operate with their beloved owner to do complex tasks. But although they like the company, you can expect them to also be independent and confident enough to take initiative. Bear in mind that their need to work closely with their owner means that separation related behaviours are common.

Strong-willed and hardy

Considering their main job has always been looking after sheep, goats or cattle, their personality evolved to reflect a strong character able to cope with the elements. Therefore pastoral breeds can be stubborn - after all they learned to move even the most resistant livestock. Also, they won't mind going out for a walk whatever the weather conditions.

Acute sense of self-control

No matter how difficult their charges are, pastoral breeds had to be able to move livestock without injuring or hurting them. Therefore, they have learned to control their instincts pretty well which shows whenever you try to teach them new tricks. Their ease of training means that they will learn quickly and easily and can be the stars of any training class or dog sport.

Don't like boredom

Boredom and/or frustration from lack of exercise or owner interaction will give rise to all kinds of behaviour problems in these breeds - including reactivity, excessive barking, hyperactivity, destructive behaviours, and potential aggression.


Pastoral breeds are high maintenance dogs who are not for the faint hearted or part-time dog owner but for those with the time and energy, they can be the most rewarding of canine companions.


Is a pastoral breed right for you?

These skills mean that if you think a pastoral breed is right for you, you need to consider the following:

The pastoral dog owner checklist

If you're planning to welcome into the family a pastoral dog breed, here are a few characteristics that a dog owner for this beloved group should have:

  • Love exercise and the great outdoors.
  • Have plenty of space (so either a large garden or very close access to open spaces and walks).
  • Want a dog to train and work with - possibly in canine sports.
  • Enjoy grooming (and aren't too house proud!).
  • Want a dog who is very attached to you and shows their obvious affection with constant contact.
  • Have a smaller property - either rural or urban.


Feeding your pastoral dog breed

Many dogs within this group developed as working dog breeds, so they had to be very resilient and capable of fending for themselves when necessary - for example, by hunting rabbits and other small prey, or scavenging where they could to survive. Being inventive with how you deliver your dog's daily food allowance will appeal to their foraging instincts, and will keep them far more occupied than if you just presented their food to them in a bowl twice a day!

Scatter a third of your dog's daily dry food allowance as widely as possible on the lawn so they can have fun sniffing it out, and hide another third in food-dispensing toys or empty cereal boxes for them to discover outside. The remaining third can be split into two meals, presented in a bowl morning and evening, so that your dog will always continue to see you as a 'parental' food provider.

If feeding your pastoral dog wet food, use other more convenient treats as rewards when training, but be careful to include them when calculating their daily food requirements. Your dog should be fed at least two meals per day; the main meal should be made up of one half of his allowance, with the other half split up into 4-5 smaller portions and hidden in widely spaced locations for him to actively seek out. Remember to ensure that all your bins are secured with heavy or lockable lids so that your dog doesn't manage to break in and help himself to any scraps - it might seem like a good idea to them at the time, but it could easily make them poorly.

To keep your dog healthy, simply follow the feeding guidelines on your dog food packaging. If, after scattering their food for them to find, they rest of the portion looks small there's no need to worry. If your dog has all their daily food allocation and a complete diet, they'll have all the nutrients they need to keep them satisfied and in top body condition.


Bonding with your pastoral dog

Nothing replaces time spent together and these dogs like to be constantly with you. Reward-based training, dog sports and interactive brain games - along with being involved with everything you do - will all improve your bond - as will relaxing with your well-exercised dog beside you in the evenings.

Dogs of this type sometimes bond strongly with one person, but they can enjoy the company of all members of their human family. It is a good idea to ensure that all family members play with your dog and everyone feeds them, but especially trains and exercises them, so that they don't become reliant on one person. Pastoral dogs can also form great bonds with other dogs in the home and, given enough early socialisation and training, with cats as well!

Your clever pastoral dog is well-attuned to your moods, and tends to respond well when you're calm and signal your intentions clearly. For example, if there is a loud, unexpected noise, your dog will probably look to you and assess your reaction. If you are calm, they will be reassured that there is nothing amiss; but if you look anxious, or make a fuss of them in an attempt to comfort them, your dog is more likely to become anxious in future.

Making your dog part of your everyday life is important - they will love pottering around the house and garden with you, 'helping' where they can. Give your helper little jobs, such as putting their toys in a box at the end of a play session, or fetching named items (slippers, their grooming brush, their lead, the post) as your dog is highly trainable and very willing to work for you. Being well-socialised and well-trained, your herding dog will also be a pleasure to take out on visits to dog-friendly cafés, gardens, pubs and to see friends. People are sure to love your dog's friendly and energetic demeanour, and lots of attention will be forthcoming!

At the end of a busy day, your herding dog will like nothing better than to lie at your feet or beside you on the sofa, snoozing and enjoying the occasional stroke. Physical contact is important to this type of dog, so they may put their head on your feet or lap, or simply lean against you if you stand still. Return the compliment by grooming your dog regularly. Not only will daily grooming ensure that any debris picked up from forays into the countryside is removed, and any skin and coat health issues detected early, it will also be a relaxing bonding experience for you both.

If you love dogs that are not too shy to show off their multitude if skills, we've rounded up some of the smartest dog breeds. Discover who they are, next.


Discover all the pastoral dog breeds (as recognised by the Kennel Club, February 2020)