The Connection Between Herding dogs and Biting

Did you know that two of the top 10 dog breeds most likely to bite* are herding dogs? Did you know that if you wanted to buy a dog to do bite sports or protection work, the top breeds you would look for come from the herding group?

There are plenty of breeds that people think of when they think about dog bites and aggressive dogs, and herding breeds are rarely at the top of the list - unless you ask veterinary staff! Ask a veterinary technician which breeds have them reaching for a muzzle, and I guarantee, pit bull is nowhere near the top of the list. In fact, it isn't even on the list!

What breeds are on the list? Chihuahuas and other toy breeds, dachshunds, most of the smaller members of the terrier group (yorkies, rat terriers, etc..), and then come the bigger dogs. German shepherds, rottweilers, heelers (Australian Cattle Dogs), Australian Shepherds, and Border collies.

The best breeds to get to do bite sports? Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd, and Dutch Shepherd come to mind. All of these dogs were initially bred to move and control stock.


Herding breeds were bred for generations to control and move other animals. For obvious reasons, these dogs cannot be permitted to maul or attack their wards. However, in the act of controlling stock, especially cattle, judicial use of teeth is not just helpful, but absolutely necessary. A cattle dog cannot move most cattle without the ability to bite to convince cattle that they are in charge.

Let's unpack that last sentence a bit. A cattle dog is under the directive of their handler, and is employed by their handler to take cattle from point A to point B. The dog has a fair amount of latitude, all built upon thousands of years of predatory instinct to make that happen.That means the dog chooses which cow to affect first, and if the cow turns on the dog the dog can choose (or not!) to inflict a bite to convince that particular animal to move. While some cattlemen will put a grip (bite) on cue, most will not, and will instead allow their dog wide latitude to enforce their will open the cattle.

Careful breeding over hundreds or thousands of generations has produced a whole group of dogs that not only desires to control another species (and by extension, their environment), but to enforce that control through the use of their teeth when necessary. These dogs have a built-in understanding that a face-off can and should be solved through aggression, and aggressive displays. They have also been bred to understand how and when an aggressive act will be effective, and when to risk outright aggression, versus simply using their eye and body language to enforce their will.

Further breeding in some breeds has produced dogs that lack the quick in and out snap necessary to move cattle while simultaneously, keeping the dog safe, and have inserted a grab and hold bite more appropriate for police and other bite work.

When we take these dogs into our homes it is necessary to understand how these dogs have used aggression to control stock and their environment in the past, and how that intact instinct affects their behavior towards everything from fast moving children, to approaching strangers, to cyclists and moving vehicles.

When we train stock dogs we teach our dogs when and how it is appropriate to use their teeth. Unnecessary 'gripping' (biting), gripping and holding on, and cheap shots borne out of frustration and anxiety are discouraged, while the use of a quick in and out bite is a powerful reminder to dog and stock alike that the dog holds power, and the stock had better heed that power.

There's an inherent dislike of chaos bred into herding dogs. A sense of decorum must be maintained by others under their care. Chaos and sudden movement are to be avoided and the perpetrators brought to heel. These dogs have a born in understanding that they have a will, and they can use it to affect the actions of another species through movement, body language, and aggression if necessary.

The good news is that we also put a 'handle' on these dogs. They want to work in concert with humans. This is why bitesports are overwhelmed with German Shepherds instead of Pitbulls. Pit bulls have a powerful grab and hold bite naturally, as well as a generally incredibly stable personality. What they lack as a breed, is that fundamental need to work in close concert with a human, and to take that human's directives even when they (the dog) disagrees.

If we give these dogs a clear appreciation of what parts of the environment are theirs to control, and what are not their business, and if we give them an outlet to use their incredible problem solving minds, we can readily help these dogs learn that the use of teeth in a given context may not be the best option available.

** The two herding dogs on the list are German Shepherd and Australian Shepherd.

*** These statistics are likely skewed by several factors: 1) Reported dog bites - the vast majority of dog bites are not reported. 2) Dog Bite Severity - the herding breeds tend to use a quick bite and release type of behavior, whereas terriers may grab and hold, resulting in more damage and higher incident reporting rate in the latter type of dog. 3) Breed numbers overall - if there are 1000 Xanga Max Tiger Dogs on the planet, and each of them has bitten at least one person, then it would be reasonable to assume that they should be included in the bite statistics; however, 1000 bites is a blip on the radar. Breeds by popularity: AKC says Labrador retriever; however, the AKC misses almost all of the Pitbulls type dogs in it's database, so even knowing who owns what is a bit of a crapshoot.