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Herding Dogs Keep the Ranch Running

Mankind domesticated dogs 9,000 years ago so that they could herd meat animals and hunt them for food, and a herding breed exists in almost every country in the world. People breed each type of herding dog differently to fit varying environments and the type of work needed. For example, Australians created the Kelpie for the outback of Australia, and the Scottish created the border collie for the hills of Scotland.

People still use herding dogs today to manage livestock. Dairy farms, cattle ranches, and sheep ranches use dogs on a daily basis. These dogs move livestock from pasture to pasture, sort livestock, get them into corrals and trailers, and take livestock to the market.

I started out with a red heeler that I took to a local instinct test. At the test, I found that he liked it and was good at it. Also, it was great to watch him do what he was bred for. I then became passionate about the sport of herding, and I started a sheep ranch. Getting my own ranch made me realize that having a herding dog wasn’t only nice, but necessary. I found that you can’t manage a ranch without one. Next, I got my first Australian Kelpie and we competed in sheepdog and cattle trials.

I named my first Kelpie Red Zinger. Not a day went by that he did not wow me with his reasoning. One time Zinger pulled a ewe by her neck out of a flooded pasture to her lamb. The ewe would not go herself, and I could not carry her, because she was too big. I just looked at Zinger and asked him what to do. I have not seen anything like it. He just figured it out himself. He saved her and her lamb.

I have bred many Kelpies and most live on working ranches and dairies here in Sonoma County, though one went to Nicaragua and another one went to Argentina. Ranchers have bred Kelpies to herd since the 1700s, and they do not need much training.

Some breeds need more training, especially conformation show dogs, but many still have their herding instinct. Each breed has a different manner in which they herd. Border collies and Kelpies carry their heads low and use a lot of “eye.” Other herding breeds stay “upright” and use less eye. All herding dogs are keen on the stock, but they have an inhibited predatory instinct, which prevents them from attacking livestock.

There is something for everyone in the world of herding competition. The difficulty ranges from easy trial courses for beginners on up to very challenging and demanding competitions. Along with sheep, competitors can also herd cattle, ducks, and goats. A number of venues exist that allow all herding breeds and skill levels to participate. These include the American Kennel Club, Australian Shepherd Clubs of America, the American Herding Breed Association, and several border collie herding programs.

Herding is a rigorous outdoor activity for people who like challenging things to do with their dog. The rewards are many. For instance, you get the excitement of watching your dog use inherited instincts, you develop a strong bond with your dog, your dog gets to work his mind and body, and, both you and your dog will feel a great sense of accomplishment after a job well done.

For those interested in experiencing the joys of herding, the Santa Rosa ranch I own and run with Becky Self—Shephard Ranch—welcomes herding enthusiasts. Our backgrounds and interests seem to make us a pretty good team.

I started training my own herding dogs in 1979 and moved to Sonoma County in 1989 to be able to have a sheep ranch and sheepdogs. I train all breeds of herding dogs and also have done herding evaluations for many breed clubs. I have won many sheepdog trials and am a current sheepdog judge for the American Herding Breed Association. I love my sheepdogs and know that I could not run the ranch without them.

Self began her interest in collies as a small child, with her first dog being a rough collie. From 1985 to 1993, she competed with her collies in AKC obedience trials. She became the second-ranked collie handler in the nation in competition obedience. She later began herding with her collies and now is the Shephard Ranch manager.

At Shephard Ranch, we raise lambs for local clientele as well as for world-class chefs. With the Wool Growers Association, I have sponsored scholarships for youth in agriculture, and I have helped children with their 4-H projects. I also produce award-winning wool from the sheep at the ranch and give instinct tests and herding lessons for all herding breeds on site.


Joyce Shephard owns and operates the Shephard Ranch in Sonoma County with Becky Self. Both are experienced herding dog trainers and handlers. The ranch is near Highway 101. For more information, call Shephard at 707-585-0880 or email to come join the fun.

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Main article photo by: Chris Fithall-CC