Herding

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Herding is both a sport and a job. Traditionally, herding dogs were used to move sheep, cows, goats, etc from place to place on a farm. And they still are. But, in modern times, this has also evolved into a sport with competitions, scores, ribbons and titles. Moving livestock can be a great confidence boost for a worried dog. I have seen this happen myself.

What: Herding
Description: Moving of livestock
Training: Classes are required if you wish to compete but an Instinct Test is available
Time until ready: 6 months to 1 year
Age to start: You should wait until around 1 year old for real formal training but you can expose the dog to livestock and some basics at a much earlier age.

One of the nice things about herding is that it involves your dog’s natural instincts. All dogs have prey drive. It’s how they used to hunt. Dogs were selectively bred for their “herding instinct” which really translates to “prey drive with restraint”. No one wants a dog to kill their flock of sheep so those animals were not kept. And dogs that didn’t want to push sheep around also were not kept.

On the surface, herding looks like a very simple sport and, on your own farm, it probably is. The basic idea is to move a group of animals from one place to another using your dog. The dog goes around behind the animals and using hand, verbal, whistled or other signals, you indicate to the dog where you want them in order to get the sheep to move where you want. On a farm with a relatively untrained dog, you are most likely going to simply get a dog that is able to gather up animals and bring them to you.

A trained herding dog is a beautiful sight to see. They are able to move out to the left or right, run out around behind (known as an outrun) without disturbing the animals. And then position themselves behind in such a way that they are able to move the animals effectively and efficiently. The most impressive are the ones that can travel over great distances and, with a whistle from the shepherd, move a group of animals around.

If you are watching a sheepdog trial, you may hear the shepherds calling out commands to their dogs. “Come by, away to me, lie down, walk up”. These are all common commands, or variants of them. When a shepherd uses a whistle, they are actually using it to replace these verbal commands. The different sounds of the whistle indicate the desired behavior to the dog.

To get started in herding, your best bet is to find a herding instructor that can do an instinct test. They will evaluate your dog and let you know if it just “understands” that it should move livestock around. Basically, they are looking for it to chase the livestock. The American Kennel Club and several other organizations offer this as a title you can place on your dog. A herding judge will take you and your dog into a pen with several sheep. The judge will watch how your dog behaves around the sheep and see if they pick up on the fact that they are supposed to move them around. Sometimes there may be a bit of help, such as moving the sheep yourself, in order to see if your dog will try chasing them. This is a relatively easy title to earn and I would encourage all owners of herding breeds to try it.

For herding instructors, you need to find one that aligns with your training values. Most, but not all, herding trainers are correction based or balanced (reinforce/correct). Few are truly positive reinforcement trainers but they do exist. So you may want to watch your selected instructor as they teach other new herding students. If you like what you see, then give it a try. Don’t be afraid to be an advocate for your dog. This holds true with any training and any instructor. If you don’t feel comfortable with what you are doing, then don’t do it. If you have a good instructor, even one that uses a correction based or balanced approach, they should respect your wishes and help you think of an alternative way to teach the behavior your dog is learning.

In North America, there are several national organizations that offer herding trials and certifications. In some places there may be regional organizations. Some states have state-wide organizations. Some breeds have breed clubs that offer herding trials for their specific breed.

AHBA American Herding Breed Association Herding breeds, rare breeds, multi-purpose breeds, herding mixes
AKC American Kennel Club Limited list of herding breeds (see website)
ASCA Australian Shepherd Club of America Limited list of herding breeds (see website)
CKC Canadian Kennel Club All breeds
USBCHA United States Border Collie Handlers’ Association Border Collies

Herding is an excellent sport for the dogs that were bred for it. It gives dogs a job where they can use their natural instinct to advantage. It also can increase a dog’s confidence. Herding instinct testing is very easy and definitely worth your time even if you never want to pursue herding further.

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