What is Herding?
Herding is the act of collecting and holding animals in a group, moving the group from place to place, and separating out individual animals. Herding dogs are essential to the success of a farm or ranch as they help in the management of the stock. However, the dogs must be trained to do the work accurately and calmly – in a way that causes no harm to the stock or the dog. Interacting with sheep or cattle can be dangerous; it is not a time for play or reckless behavior. The same is true for “sport” herding dogs – at trials (and in training), the dogs are expected to move the stock in a controlled, thoughtful manner.
With that in mind, the dog’s herding instinct does come from natural predator instinct – either to collect and bring prey back to the pack or to chase down prey. The fundamental goal of training a herding dog is to modify that predator instinct so that the dog can be a working partner.
There are different styles of herding behavior across dog breeds, and within any breed, the strength of the herding instinct will vary. Herding breeds can be categorized as “strong eyed” breeds that rely on staring at the stock to control them versus “loose eyed” breeds that rely more on body movement to influence the stock. Strong eyed breeds are also generally characterized as “headers” because they prefer to go to the heads of the stock and stop them, in contrast to “heelers” who push from behind. Some breeds are not in solely in one group or the other but have characteristics of both types.
While a trained herding dog is helpful to those who own stock, training a herding dog is a great experience for anyone. Watching and facilitating a dog do the work that is instinctual to him – whether it is herding, retrieving, coursing, going to ground – is an amazing experience. And herding stock is what herding breeds are born to do.
Herding requires a close partnership between the owner and dog, working together to move stock safely and efficiently. The handler knows where the stock should go and the dog knows how to move them. The time spent teaching your dog the necessary skills develops a close relationship between the two of you. While the training takes time and work, there’s a great sense of accomplishment as you master those skills.
Herding requires training your dog not only to be obedient, but to take his natural instinct and apply it to the skills needed to control stock. The training has to be consistent but not discouraging – making sure to preserve the dog’s instinct which is the basis of herding behavior, but making clear that the handler’s commands must be followed. It is the handler who knows where the stock should be taken, while the dog instinctively knows what is required to move them to that spot.
Keep in mind that mastering any dog sport is a huge challenge for the first-timer – you have to learn the skills at the same time that you are teaching your dog what it needs to do, without having the big picture of how it all comes together. Herding adds an additional level of difficulty: the goal of herding is to move or control stock – these are animals that move independently, but will also react to the dog’s presence, attitude and movement, to the handler’s presence and movement, and to other factors in their environment. In any exercise in herding, your concept of how the stock, dog and you are positioned relative to each cannot be static; it has to change constantly since the stock will move as you try to accomplish your goal.
All herding dogs need to learn 6 basic skills:
The first lessons to teach these commands happen in a small pen, allowing the handler to keep control of both the dog and stock. As the dog learns the basic skills, he can gradually move to larger areas which allow for greater distance from the handler and from the stock, although the close work in the initial pen will always be part of your dog’s training.
The stock most commonly used for herding trials are sheep, ducks and cattle. Stock varies in how it groups together and how it reacts to dogs. Sheep will generally stick together as a protective reaction; because of their instinct to flock, they are usually the easiest to work. Ducks are less likely to stay in a group, although ducks raised together will flock; ducks can turn quickly and abruptly, and even small movement by the dog can result in a big response. Cattle, in contrast, do not flock together and require wide flanking motions (called wearing) by the dog to move them and bring them together.
There are several herding organizations that offer trials. The organizations offer different courses --patterns and obstacles (gates, pens) through which the dog has to move the stock. They all have different levels of competition. Non-competitive (pass/fail) events (tests) evaluate the dog’s herding instinct and trainability. Those tests include the Herding Instinct Test, Herding Test and Pre-Trial Test. Competitive (scored) events (trials) evaluate the dog’s skills for working stock. Trial competition is divided into classes, based on the dog’s skill level.
Sheep and ducks are the most common stock used in trials; cattle, due to the expense, are less frequently used. In our area, the herding trials sanctioned by the American Kennel Club (AKC), American Herding Breed Association (AHBA), United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA), and Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) are offered every year.