Herding Dogs in Colonial America

As elsewhere in the world, the introduction of herding dogs in America is closely connected to the growth of the sheep industry. The first sheep (Churras, a meat- and milk-producing breed) came to the Americas with the Spaniards as a source of food. They not only survived in their new environment, they flourished and multiplied. Sheep can survive on land with very little vegetation that is too arid to support other types of stock. The sheepdogs, the pastor leonés along with the Spanish Mastiff, a livestock guardian that came over with them were hardy individuals, too, toughened by exposure and capable of withstanding many hardships in the rough, dangerous, and uncharted lands of the Southwest during Spanish colonization.

By 1776, when the eastern colonies declared their independence from England, thousands of sheep had been driven from Mexico into the Spanish colonies in the Southwest and California. Spanish Pastor Dogs abounded throughout the sheep-raising the land that is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah. One early journalist described an immense herd numbering 17,000, guarded only by a few men and many remarkable dogs keeping the sheep together. The dogs continually moved around the outer edge of the flock and returned strays to the group.*1

Two kinds of sheepdogs were depicted in E. N. Wentworth’s classic text, America’s Sheep Trails. Those that guarded and those that herded. The dogs of the first two centuries in the Western Hemisphere were descended from the sheep dogs of Spain. “It guarded the migratory flocks from the attacks of wolves, and was especially useful in protecting weak and lagging sheep. These dogs were devoted to their masters and flocks, but showed extreme ferocity against intruders.”

Herding Dogs in the Eastern Colonies

When the English colonists settled Virginia and Massachusetts, they brought a small number of sheep with them. Dutch and Swedish settlers also brought sheep to New York and New Jersey for food and fiber. There was a difference between sheepdogs in New England and those along the Atlantic Seaboard; early accounts and old paintings indicate there were rough-coated dogs, similar to Old English Sheepdogs in the colonies before 1700 (although quite different from the modern OES).

A rough coated, bobtailed sheepdog.

These sheepdogs were intelligent, strong-framed, short-tailed animals, quite distinct from the “colley.” They were used principally for cattle but readily trained for sheep. To control the sheep, the dog would take hold of the fleece on the side of the animal’s neck or cheek, releasing it when the sheep turned in the direction the dog wanted. Wentworth described the type of sheepdogs, “Most of them were rough-coated dogs of rather general breeding. In England this kind was known as the “drover’s” or butcher’s dog as distinct from the “colley,” and was a strong-framed, short-tailed animal of superior intelligence. In color the strain was black and white, blue or gray, white, fawn, or brindle and white, and occasionally solid colored. While these dogs were used principally for cattle, they were readily trained for sheep. If it proved necessary to control the latter, the dogs were taught to take hold of the fleece on the side of the neck or cheek, releasing the sheep when they turned properly. Apparently the modern breed known as the “Old English Sheep Dog” was related to this stock – though selected toward a different ideal recently. In America the type degenerated considerably in size. Old paintings indicated that this dog was in the colonies before 1700, and it still persists in the farming states of the Midwest.”

Copyright © 2009 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor.

All Rights Reserved.



*1 – Guided by the shepherds and by tough cross-bred dogs, who were trained to pen the sheep and keep them together (and also to protect them against wolves), the flocks slowly advanced, raising up great clouds of dust. – Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age by Marcelin Defourneaux

See also Importance of the Merino:


See also Sheepdogs of the South West – New Mexican Sheep Dogs:


Flocks of the Mesta: