Giant Schnauzers In Herding Situations

By Susan Finlay Ailsby

Reprinted from Giant Steps © May/June 1996

General Description:

The Giant Schnauzer is an enthusiastic worker, bright and alert. The Giant is typically excited to be working and will not mind working with or for anyone. Giant Schnauzers have strong personalities and will not respond to direction unless they perceive the handler as having a stronger one. At the same time, they are not “tough” dogs to train, and demand fairness, gentleness and reliability in the handler. Given what they need, they are extremely easy to train, fast learners and intelligent, responsive partners. They respond to browbeating by turning off the subject entirely. A Giant should be both willing to and capable of tenaciously defending its owner or flock when threatened.


Description Of Herding Style:

The Giant Schnauzer can be trained for various types of herding work. They are versatile dogs and can be used on most types of stock if the handler wishes. While they are strong enough for cattle and can be gentle and reliable on sheep and lambs, most Giant Schnauzers view ducks and geese as lunch. They should therefore be trained and/or used on birds with great care.

The Giant's natural tendency is to gather and bring the stock to the handler, although the “bring to the handler” part is considerably weaker in untrained or partially trained dogs than the “gather the flock” part.



In Europe, the Giant Schnauzer was used for all farm work with all stock, so it was not necessary for the farmer to have four dogs to do four different jobs. Giants were used in Germany to do the daily chores, herd the sheep and cattle, drive them to market, then guard the resulting purse on the way home.

The Giant Schnauzer usually works quite close to sheep. Giants tend to work standing up, and most resist the Down command as it diminishes their power in front of the stock. Most trainers use the Down only to discipline the dog who fails to Stop or to emphasize the Stop command. Even though it is very intent on the stock, the Giant Schnauzer usually shows only moderate eye. It is generally a quiet worker although most individuals use a force bark with stubborn or uncooperative stock. Continuous or excessive barking is a useful sign of dominance over the handler, or, more often, insecurity or frustration with the training situation.

The Giant Schnauzer is an authoritative herder. He will generally use body contact before grip (noninjurious closing of teeth on stock) to establish respect, turn and control stock. There is a tendency for excited/untrained or partially trained dogs to want to pull wool along the flank, though this is easily controlled with voice discipline. The tendency is not nearly so marked, nor the dogs so rough, as in many other breeds.




Expectations In The Herding Instinct Test Situation:

It is NOT recommended that the dog be introduced to stock on a leash; being held back heightens the dog's desire to grab. (This technique is used to encourage protection dogs to bite and not appropriate for a herding instinct test situation).

When initially exposed to sheep, the average Giant Schnauzer will almost immediately show interest and move the sheep. It is usually necessary for the dog to sniff the sheep before they begin to work for the first time, and the first approach is usually slow. If the first approach is fast, the dog will probably be barking, but will stop as soon as he starts working. A few individuals will take multiple exposures to overcome excited barking, even while working. The dog will worry about down sheep and sheep which are not in the flock, and worry if an outside dog is working his stock. It is normal for a Giant to mother a down sheep, licking its ears and face and otherwise fussing over it. Recalcitrant stock are corrected and disciplined but not injured. Giants tend to make a religion of dominance. Most will quickly come to view the sheep as members of their pack, to be gathered controlled and disciplined when necessary.

The dog should circle, attempting to gather the sheep to the owner. It may show wear either naturally or with encouragement. Although many styles are possible, the wear is typically run welt down the sides of the flock rather than in small arcs behind. Quite often it is intent on circling the sheep for some time before being molded into a wear. The dog will likely want to work very close to the sheep and may grip or pull wool if allowed. In the excitement of the new experience, splitting of the flock may occur, but the dog should promptly attempt to regroup. Most Giant Schnauzers are headers, and new dogs frequently run into difficulty returning an individual to the flock because every time the animal tries to move toward the flock the dog heads it. It is extremely common, therefore, that untrained dogs left to their own devices wind up with a flock or an individual stuck in the middle of a pasture or jammed up against a fence, totally under control but unable to move. It is for this reason that most Giant Schnauzers are perfectly capable of “gathering” stock but are not very good at “fetching” stock until they have some directional control from the handier. The test should therefore differentiate between dogs which have caught and cornered and animal through an excessive desire to head, and dogs which are running down are attempting to isolate an animal for prey.

Giant Schnauzers are large dogs and very slow to mature. They have been used extensively as guard, Schutzhund and police dogs, but it is recognized that while the adult is usually an extremely powerful animal, the youngsters are not. An 18‑month‑old Giant Schnauzer, for instance, may appear to be an adult but may not be mentally mature enough to stand up to an aggressive animal. These young dogs would benefit from being left to grow up. Adult dogs, however, will usually turn on to the sheep fairly quickly, or not at all. Few adult Giant Schnauzers will benefit, as many Shetland Sheepdogs will, from repeated exposures if they are not interested initially.

Recommendations To The Tester:

When testing the Giant Schnauzer, remember the farmers that developed the breed desired a large, assertive dog with a great deal of intelligence and versatility. Regarding everything the Giant Schnauzer does‑water and dryland retrieving, hard work, pulling a sled, herding or any other endeavor‑ it is impossible to build the “correct” working style for every occasion into a versatile breed. Desire, intelligence, responsiveness and a willingness to try are more important than any particular working style. A soft dog will often gain strength with experience, and the excited or over‑eager dog will gain control. With training, the dedicated “header” will quickly learn to drive as well. Often Giant Schnauzers require active intervention to prevent wool pulling and overworking the sheep due to inexperience and enthusiasm. This intervention will vary with individuals from body positioning, verbal correction, to the use of a light pose as needed to block and deflect the dog. The very enthusiastic Giant Schnauzer may vocally challenge the right of the pole to give him orders, but very few are actually aggressive. If the owner is over‑ or under‑ controlling the dog, the experienced tester can usually work the dog very well alone.

On occasion a Giant may appear at first to be driving (naturally): this is usually due to one of the following:

  1. The dog is uncertain to work against the pressure of the sheep.
  2. The dog is chasing or playing with the sheep rather than herding.
  3. The dog is hesitant to leave its handler and work on the other side of the flock.
  4. The tester/handler is standing still rather than giving ground to a fetch/gather or defining a boundary over which the dog may not cross.
  5. The dog is trying to take the sheep from the tester to the owner (this happens occasionally when tester and owner separate.)
  6. The dog is attempting to contain the stock and is working mostly on the “high pressure” side of the sheep in order to keep them contained. If the pressure side happens to be behind the handler the dog may seem out of position (or to be attempting to drive). One must note the effect on the stock to determine if the dog is indeed correct in its choice of sides and is keeping the stock to the owner handler.


Stock tends to react to the presence of a very intense, untrained Giant Schnauzer quickly and a small area may cause the stock to panic (either in frantic flight or, lacking room to run, stubbornly stand ground). Either of these reactions may cause a dog to bite or pull wool. If the handler does not give ground to the fetching Giant, the dog may become frustrated and bark and/or nip; or, the sheep may stop and become aggressive (either frightening the milder dog or encouraging a grip). Even in these extreme situations, however, most Giant Schnauzers will grip and discipline rather that bite.


A Giant Thanks to Susan Finlay Ailsby of Dragonfly Farm for Submitting this Article.

Pictures provided by Joanne Thompson and Laura Feldt 

Copyright © The Giant Schnauzer Club of America, Inc. All Rights Reserved. MNT Publishing