How to Use Your Working Dog’s Instincts Beneficially

While most of our dogs are simply lovable pets…

…many breeds were originally bred for very specific kinds of work: herding, hunting, or protecting their families. Educating yourself about your dog’s instincts can help you direct their energy toward positive behavior, keep them happy and healthy, and become fun and rewarding.

Herding Breeds Do Best With A Job

Lots of working breeds—particularly dogs that were bred for herding, like sheepdogs, border collies, Australian Cattle Dogs, and Komondors—make wonderful pets. But many families forget that these dogs were bred specifically to help farmers and ranchers protect, move, and herd livestock. This drive to herd isn’t intrinsically harmful, but it can cause behavioral problems in the house if your pup doesn’t have a natural outlet for those instincts.

Some of these dogs might “herd” small children and other family members, for example, by nipping at their heels or calves the way they would with a sheep or a cow. Other dogs might get protective of their family, barking or even snarling at strangers. And some herding breeds will stop responding to commands around other animals because they’re so hard-wired to look out for danger.

These behavioral issues can be avoided, however, if you’re willing to find an appropriate outlet for each dog’s drive. Find a local herding club, available in many rural areas, or consider competing in disc dog and agility training. Or simply take your dog out for a long, rousing game of fetch—even if you’re not giving him a sheep to herd, you’ll at least take the edge off his energy.


Play Detection Dog At Home

Working detection dogs are trained to sniff out substances like illegal drugs, explosives, blood, bodies, and more. Some can even detect cancer, predict seizures, or smell changes in human blood sugar levels. You’ve probably seen detection dogs working at the airport or border control. They’re often breeds with highly sensitive noses, such as Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labrador Retrievers.

While your pup may not have a future in stopping the cocaine trade, you can still harness your dog’s natural instincts with some playful nose games at home. Ask your dog to wait while you hide dog treats around a room, then let them use their sniffer to find each tasty treat. Try it outside, too—just loosely toss a handful of extra-yummy morsels into tall grass, then let your pup enjoy the hunt. If your dog enjoys exercising his nose, consider checking out the National Association of Canine Scent Work, which coordinates local events, educates dog owners about scent work, and maintains a list of certified trainers.


Let Your Sight Dogs Run Safely

Bred for helping hunters track prey by sight, breeds like the Greyhound, Irish Wolfhound, Whippet, and Basenji are intensely visual and extremely fast. They’ll chase anything that moves quickly, like kids, squirrels and other dogs. This can be frustrating for owners, because once they’ve initiated the chase they’re almost impossible to deter. The solution? Find productive ways to stimulate their naturally acute eyesight with fun activities like fetching a frisbee, chasing a ball, or lure-coursing.

Meet the Author: Charlotte Austin

Charlotte Austin is a Seattle-based writer and mountain guide. She has climbed, explored, and led expeditions in North and South America, Nepal, Europe, Alaska, and Patagonia. Her writing has been featured in Women's Adventure, Alpinist, Stay Wild, and other national and international publications. When she's not guiding in the Himalayas, she's exploring her hometown (Seattle, Washington), trying new recipes, and hanging out with Huckleberry, her giant black Great Dane-Lab mix. Read more about their adventures at

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