Herding – or shepherding - is one of the oldest professions. For those of us who farm; a good dog makes livestock handling easier. For those of us who become interested in herding as a sport – you are choosing the most difficult of all the venues for you and your companion dog. It can be very very rewarding; because you are training with pure canine instinct, in a partnership with your dog, configuring prey drive into a positive function. The discipline of herding enhances your relationship with your dog. Ultimately you are using talents your dogs were born with and want to use, rather than training them to adapt to disciplines contrived by humans. A good dog working livestock is, to use a common but very apropos aphorism ‘poetry in motion’. What you see is a harmonious communication between three species of animal.
One of the most difficult challenges for novice handlers in learning herding are the infinite training variables. When you enter an arena with livestock nothing is ever the same. What applied in one situation may not apply in the next even if the context may appear similar. You, your dog, and the sheep are always changing. Nothing can be generalized. It’s important to remember that herding is learned in small pieces. As a beginner you will work on all these pieces and as you and your dog improve you will continue to work on all the same elements on the next level of difficulty; in a larger area and on more challenging sheep. It can take years to feel you can start putting these pieces together. This journey however long takes you to wonderful places and provides hours of fun and challenge.
Stock knowledge is part and parcel of learning to herd. If you don’t know how to read livestock by anticipating their moves you cannot hold up your side of the job with your dog . This takes time, patience, and experience.
Essential Elements in Training:
- Recall off the stock
- Flanking commands
- Walk Up
- Interest is the first thing you must establish. For some dogs it’s right there and for others it takes time to develop. With patience all dogs can learn to herd including non-herding breeds.. Don’t be disappointed if your dog doesn’t turn on the first moment in the arena. Other dogs go for the chase. Slowly introducing structure and showing what you expect from your dog and what they can do and make happen often solves both these reactions. We teach the dogs to respond appropriately contingent on the action of the livestock.
- Recall off the stock mandatory. It is a necessary tool of training. Many people use the well known command ‘that’ll do’.
- STOP! It can be a stand or down. You stop your dog in relation to the sheep to move the sheep in any direction.
- Flanks. These are the commands ‘go-bye’ and ‘away to me’. To ask your dog to move clockwise or counter-clockwise around the sheep. Flanks are not to move the sheep. They are commands to position your dog to move the sheep.
- Out – or Get Out. From whatever position the dog should move straight away from the sheep. This is used often to re-position the dog to make a wider flank and to take pressure of the sheep when the dog is pushing them too hard.
- Walk Up. This is the command to move the sheep in a direction of your choice, whether it is to you or away from you or towards a particular goal such as a pen or a drive panel.
Some Basic Herding Terms:
- Fetch or Gather
- Bubble or Flight Zone
- The Outrun is sending the dog from your side to a set of sheep far away and to stop onbalance on the other side of this group of sheep.
- The Lift is at this point the dog walks straight up to the flock and starts moving them towards the handler.
- At this point it becomes a fetch as the dog is fetching the sheep to you. When the sheep are in front of you and your dog stops this is a ‘presentation’.
- At this time, you, the sheep, and your dog should be in balance. This means that wherever you are you usually can draw a straight line from the handler through the sheep and to the dog. Beginning herding students work a lot on balance. The dog learns to keep the sheep in balance to the handler. There are exceptions; the balance picture changes depending on other influences on the sheep such as a draw to an exhaust gate for example. Balance is relative to motion, pressure, and draw.
- Pressure is the influence of the dog on the sheep and visa versa. Pressure is also used by the handler on the dogs and the sheep to assist the movement of livestock.
- The Bubble, or Flight Zone is the ever varying circle around livestock that if entered will cause the animals to move. This zone is also around people and dogs. These bubbles are never the same at any time and will vary according to the livestock, weather, or if it’s black fly season.
- The Drive is when the dog learns to push the sheep off and away from the handler.
Suzanne has been training dogs since 1992 when she got her first dog, a Belgian Groenendaal. Since then she has trained her Belgian Shepherds to advanced levels in herding, tracking, and obedience and titled her dogs in AKC and ASCA venues. She has also been an AKC Tracking Judge since 1999. A significant influence in her herding training was the great teacher Bob Vest with whom she worked with for 12 years until his death. There is always something to learn when it comes to training dogs whatever venue. Suzanne continues her own herding training with Tenley Dexter. ‘The journey is never over’.