Herding breeds may not have herding instincts

Published 8:42 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2019


K9 Corner

Even those people not particularly interested in dogs, were introduced to the sport of sheepherding when the film “Babe” came out featuring a young pig who learned how to herd sheep.

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However, in real life, the sheep herding pup is not able to learn a “password” to get the sheep to follow instructions. Instead, the pup must go through rigorous training, usually with older, more experienced dogs.

But before schooling, the youngster is taken to a herding instinct test, to see if it has the ability to herd.

Even members of the canine herding breeds may not have this talent. I remember observing a herding instinct test several years ago and watched an Old English sheepdog, a border collie pup and several others confidently move the band of five sheep from one side of the pen to the other.

Then, a beautifully groomed Shetland sheepdog came into the testing area with its owner. The handler was instructed to remove the leash and the dog stood quietly, looking bored, even though the sheep were milling around only feet away.

The judge gave the handler instructions and the handler put the dog on a stand- stay and moved several feet away. She then gave the command to “go out” and waved her hand in the general direction of the sheep. The dog looked at her, looked at the sheep and sat down.

“You don’t expect me to go near those things, do you?” was the expression on the little Sheltie’s face. The judge suggested that the handler put the dog on a “heel” command and see if the dog would get the idea if she moved toward the sheep. The woman did, and the dog dutifully swung into position and followed the owner around the testing site in the correct heel position, until they came close to the sheep.

At that point the dog broke away from the handler and went to sit in the center of the area where he could watch his owner herd the sheep from one side of the area to the other — by herself. The judge finally stopped the woman and told her to retrieve her dog who, although a member of a herding breed, had no herding instinct.

If the dog passes the herding instinct test, the real work starts. The shepherd, that’s the handler, has to assist the dog as it learns the finer points of herding. Most dogs like to bring the sheep to the shepherd, so it is important that the person keeps ahead of the dog and sheep and on the correct side. Friends who have attempted this training say that this phase is very physical and tiring, but well worth the effort once the dog understands.

Some trainers like to start the dogs herding flocks of five ducks or chickens and then progress to sheep. The various herding titles are available to any registered dog that qualifies — even mixed breeds can compete.