What are the Basics of Sheep Herding?

Jessica Ellis

Herding sheep is a means of driving a group of sheep from one area to another for purposes of feeding, shelter, or even for competitions. One of the oldest types of domesticated animals, sheep have a natural herd instinct and thus generally prefer to stay with a group and follow the movement of dominant sheep or herding animals. Still practiced in many agricultural societies, the basics of sheep herding give only a brief introduction to the complex skill set for domestic sheep care that has evolved over 11,000 years.

Donkeys may be used to protect sheep from predator attacks.
Donkeys may be used to protect sheep from predator attacks.

In order to understand the basics of sheep herding, it is first important to understand the behavior and mechanism of sheep. Sheep tend to have excellent hearing and vision, making them alert to potential predators. This means that shepherds and their herding and guard animals must walk a fine line between controlling the sheep and frightening them. As herd animals, sheep rely on safety in numbers, meaning that if one sheep bolts, the rest are likely to follow. Keeping sheep calm and docile is a major part of sheep herding.

To be a successful sheep herder, it is important to understand sheep behavior.
To be a successful sheep herder, it is important to understand sheep behavior.

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Sheep are believed to have poor depth perception, meaning that it is vital for shepherds to know and understand the terrain. Panicked sheep have been known to stampede off cliffs, and even an absentminded sheep can end up in life-threatening situations due to this issue. Generally, sheep are grazed in penned pastures where this is not an issue, but sheep that graze in highland areas or on mountains must be watched and guided carefully around any dangerous precipices.

Sheep herders need to protect against coyotes.
Sheep herders need to protect against coyotes.

One of the major components of sheep herding is the use of herd animals. Some dog species have a sheep herding instinct, such as border collies, old English sheepdogs, and Australian shepherds. While these dogs require extensive training to ensure that they follow commands, many become extremely skilled at maintaining a herd and guiding it in the right directions. Sheepdog trials are popular competitions where the best of the best herd dogs must guide a group of sheep through a series of obstacles in a specific order, competing for the best time and accuracy.

Believed to have poor depth perception, sheep have been known to stampede off cliffs when panicked.
Believed to have poor depth perception, sheep have been known to stampede off cliffs when panicked.

In addition to herd animals, many shepherds rely on guard animals to protect the sheep from their natural predators, including wolves, bears, and coyotes. While dogs are often used for guarding as well, some surprising animals make excellent sheep guards. In South America, llamas have been used for centuries to protect sheep from predator attacks. In some areas, donkeys are also used.

Sheep have excellent hearing and vision.
Sheep have excellent hearing and vision.

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Discussion Comments


@Calvin77 - Yes, herding dogs are trained with both word and whistle commands. "Babe" was actually a fairly accurate movie. It was the first movie I saw with sheep in it -- I'm also a city person.

If you ever want a cheesy horror sheep movie to watch, "Black Sheep" is the one. I've never laughed so hard before -- they had sheep driving cars, doing leaping kicks and all kinds of crazy things. Definitely not for the soft stomached though.


@Jacques6 - Who would have thought that old Eeyore had it in him?

I heard about llamas as guards from when my mom had me drive her out to get llama wool. We actually went to a llama farm out by where she lives. I sat and chatted with one of the farm hands and he told me about how they didn't have to worry about their llamas being attacked.

He also told me that they had sold several llamas are herd guards to the local farmers. It was very interesting to learn about since I've live in the city most of my life.


@Calvin77 - I did reading on donkeys as herd guards, so I thought I'd share what I learned. They seem like the perfect guard!

Donkeys are considered the very best guard. The sheep will actually hide behind the donkey if they see something. Donkeys also have good ears and they will bray loudly if they think danger is nearby.

Donkeys are known to charge at coyotes, pumas and foxes, striking them with their front hooves. Their strikes are powerful enough to send any of the three attackers running for cover.

I know that donkeys are the top choice and now I see why.


The movie "Babe" has a lot of sheep herding in it. That's where I first learned about it as a kid. I always thought it was so interesting how shepherds use the dogs. In the movie, they use whistle commands to control the dogs. I'm not sure if shepherds really do, but it would make sense when herding around noisy sheep – the dog doesn't have to distinguish what the shepherd is saying.

I knew about the llamas and donkeys as herd guards. Where sheep run away, llamas and donkeys fight. The one other animal that wasn't mentioned here is a mule. Mules make great herd guards too.

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