Types of Eye in Herding Dogs

by Dorothy DeLisle

Strong Eye

Dog makes strong and more or less continuous eye contact with the stock. Note, it is not necessarily eye-to-eye contact. For example, dog may have a fixed stare on the heels. Typical of Border Collies, McNabs and Kelpies, less typical of other breeds. As with all breed traits, exceptions frequently occur. Strong-eye is typically accompanied by a crouching stance and sometimes by a tendency to down a lot. The total image of the dog presented to the stock is that of a predator stalking them. If the dog cautiously approaches, the stock will cautiously move away to keep ahead of the presumed predator. Because of this predator stalking imitation, livestock often don’t relax under strong-eye. Strong-eye works exceptionally well with light livestock. Whereas, heavy livestock may refuse to move off strong-eye.

–> Sticky Eye

A dog with extreme expression of strong-eye is known as being sticky-eyed or just plain “sticky.” These dogs can exasperate their handlers because they will get “stuck” in a hold pattern with the livestock and it can be quite difficult to get them to stop doing a hold and to start moving the livestock. These dogs just want to stare down livestock. They are more comfortable when keeping livestock from moving, than they are when moving livestock.

Loose Eye

A catch-all category that includes several types of eye, unfortunately including non-eye. This tends to give the dogs with other types of loose-eye a bad name as they are often all pictured as being non-eyed. I list some of them below. Folks more familiar than I with other types of loose-eye are welcome to submit definitions for additions to this page.

–> Medium Eye

Dog makes good eye contact with the stock, but not on a continual basis. Contact intensity generally not as intense as in strong-eye. Dog will use eye only in certain circumstances, such as when precision work with light stock is required. Dog may alternate between eye contact and no eye contact every few seconds to relax the stock. Medium-eyed dogs may crouch a little bit, but nowhere to the extent a strong-eyed dog does. I shall collectively refer to strong- and medium-eye as direct-eye.

–> Roving Eye

Dog continually sureys entire flock, watching not just every head of livestock, but every EAR for the telltale signs that an individual is thinking of breaking away from the group. Dog zooms over to that individual and warns it not to do so. Typical of German Shepherd Dogs and other tending breeds Developed for situations where individuals absolutely could not be allowed to break away from the group/prescribed area.

–> Anti-Eye

Deliberately looking away from the stock to reduce the pressure.
Examples of use:

  • Direct-eye may put non-dog-broke stock into fight mode. This is especially true for range Rambouillets being worked in groups of five for the first time. By looking away, the stock relax out of fight, and turn away from the dog and move. Note: while not a form of eye, some dogs will feign disinterest with an alternate method — sniffing the ground, which also can be very effective with this type of stock. These dogs are NOT off contact; they are using sophisticated instinct!
  • While doing a hold, such as hold in the hold-exam pen or at the repen. With an anti-eyed dog, the stock are relaxed during the hold. Whereas, with a strong-eyed dog, they are tense. People with breeds without anti-eye think the stock will get away if the dog looks away, but a true anti-eyed dog is always watching out of the corner of his eye. I remember one hold at the repen in A course, when my Klaatu sat down and faced me, her back totally to the stock. I was thinking, I’m going to get dinged for sure, she’s not even just looking away, she’s looking at me. Well, one of the ewes started to life her leg and move forward. Klaatu swung her head around and gave her a “don’t you dare” glare. The ewe pulled backwards and put her foot back down where it was. Klaatu returned to looking at me. The ewe tried it again. And again was put back in her place before getting a full step and without Klaatu ever getting up from her sit position. I didn’t loose any points, but got a lot of comments from the audience.
Raven demonstrating anti-eye
  • ¬†While doing a “pick”. This is an American term for an element of style used in sheep herding in Germany. (Note: it can have its uses in more common types of herding, especially when repenning with a draw into the pen.) To pick a dog is to place it along the side of the path of the stock in such a manner as to cause them to cautiously move past the dog, rather than run ahead if the dog weren’t there. That is to make the stock move in a slow controlled manner rather than a wild rush. If a dog used direct-eye from that position the stock would come to a stop and not proceed to where the shepherd wanted them. Uses include: enter and exits of pens — prevents the stock from damaging the gates, fencing and themselves. On the entrance to a bridge — prevents the stock from going around the bridge. (They know to go to the inside of the dog.) The “sharp corner” — when shepherd needs to turn onto the cross street, he places a dog on the corner he will turn into. This prevents the flock from making too wide a turn, and straying off the road onto forbidden territory.


–> No Eye

Many dogs show no instinctual eye style at all. In my opinion, these should be referred to as non-eyed dogs rather than as loose-eyed.

It should be noted that a dog may have more than one type of loose-eye. he will alternate type depending on the situtation he is in. Most talented German Shepherd Dogs have medium-eye, roving-eye, and anti-eye — all in the same dog.

Note: dogs pictured in photos are English Shepherds – Peaslee’s Honey (showing varying amounts of eye) and Raven (demonstrating anti-eye).