Pastoral Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

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 on a hill
pastoral dog on a hill
pastoral dog on a hill

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.

pastoral dog in a field

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.

High-maintenance

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:

Exercise

Pastoral breeds need a lot of physical exercise. Exercising your dog two hours a day, every day, no matter the weather should include free running and ideally in a variety of terrains to keep their interest.

Training

Pastoral breeds can often the be the most rewarding dogs to train as their history working closely with their humans – and their intelligence – mean that they can easily become the stars of their training class. They do however learn bad habits as well as good ones and so owners need to be consistent and inventive to keep their interest and stop them going ‘self-employed’. A good reward-based dog training class is essential too as these are highly sensitive breeds.

These dogs often do best with a job to do – and as such can excel in canine sports such as agility, obedience, heelwork to music and many others which help focus their need for exercise and to use their brains while working with their owner.

Sociability

Early and ongoing positive dog socialisation is necessary for pastoral breeds as their sensitivity and alertness can lead to reactivity towards others if not prioritised. Those breeds in this group that were used as flock guards as well as livestock movers can become protective of perceived territory and ‘their flock’ if this instinct isn’t channelled appropriately and may always need to be managed around strangers (dogs and human).

Grooming

Pastoral breeds need to be able to work all day, every day, in some of the harshest of climates. This means that pastoral breeds are often the ‘hairies’ of the dog world and many have a soft undercoat as well as a harsher topcoat. In short lots of dog grooming, which means owners need to be as enthusiastic about coat care as they are about exercise and training. Owners probably shouldn’t be too house-proud either – as these breeds seem to bring a lot of the great outdoors back indoors.

Noise

Some pastoral dogs have a lot to say for themselves and this becomes exacerbated by boredom, excitement or frustration.

Affection

Generally, pastoral dogs are affectionate breeds who are highly bonded to their families and sometimes ‘one man’ dogs - but many prefer to show their affection by staying very close to their owner’s side and following them everywhere as a ‘canine shadow’ rather than by cuddles and overt physical displays.

Games

The intelligence and constant energy display by pastoral dog breeds mean they live for interactive games and canine enrichment. They need their brains to be kept occupied as much as their bodies, and dog games where they can work with their owner are their idea of heaven.

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!).
  • Have plenty of free time to spend with their dog – and want your dog to be a major part of your life
pastoral dog outside

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.

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.