Differences Between Herding Dogs & Working Dogs

German shepherds fall into the herding group.
German shepherds fall into the herding group. (Image: Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

There are nine breed groups listed on the American Kennel Club’s official website. Two of these, the working and herding groups, are known for their high energy, intelligent animals. However, subtle differences exist between herding and working pups; figuring out which dog is the best fit for your home depends on your understanding of the dogs in each group and their behaviors and temperaments.


Both herding and working dogs are bred to assist humans in performing a variety of tasks. Herding dogs are bred to help control the movement of animals, while working dogs are often trained as bomb sniffers and search and rescue companions. Because much of what herding dogs do is instinctual as opposed to trained, they can be difficult animals to work with for inexperienced owners. Working dogs are bred to learn and respond to commands, and are easier for a new owner to train.


Herding dogs all have one thing in common: They are bred to herd animals. Working dogs, however, can be trained in a range of professions. Working dogs function as police animals, sled haulers, water rescuers and property guards. Both herding and working dogs are high-energy and fiercely intelligent, but working dogs are more adaptive to lives that do not involve constant running and working. Herding dogs find inactive lifestyles frustrating and often develop destructive habits if left with nothing to do.

Physical Traits

The herding group contains a wide array of dogs in varying sizes, though most have medium or long coats due to the fact that they are bred to work outside. The working group has some of the canine world’s biggest pups. Coats vary from breed to breed, since working dogs are not always bred for outdoor work. Generally speaking, working dogs are larger than herding dogs.


Just because a dog falls into a specific group does not mean the dog can't perform a given task. German shepherds, for example, are categorized as herding dogs but most commonly are seen assisting the police and military. The same can be said for the Belgian Malinois. There is less crossover from the working category into the herding category, but almost any dog in either category can be trained to perform any necessary task. It’s all about the patience and experience of the owner.


Both working and herding dogs are high-energy, smart animals. Inexperienced owners often assume this means the dogs will be easy to train. However, it is much more difficult to train a smart, active and adaptive dog than one of medium intelligence or mellow temperament. You have to stay one step ahead of the animal and show immense consistency along the way, as smart animals will pick up variations in your behavior and exploit them. Because these dogs are bred to work, you must be able to challenge them both physically and mentally.

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