By Joan Andreasen-Webb
Published in Schutzhund USA Sept/Oct 2000
It is difficult to be prideful when one's knees and hands are several inches deep in straw, dirt and sheep manure. Just as one's dog meticulously runs each schutzhund blind in countless practices and saves the gallop directly to the sixth blind for trial, so to, being 'sheep-wrecked' rarely happens in that lonely field of sheep, dog and shepherd. It is always on trial day with dozens of on-lookers. The spectators having also picked themselves up from their knees laugh the loudest. I've learned to bring a change of clothes!
Close your eyes. Imagine a warm, sunny afternoon. You are surrounded by green grass and white fencing while a light breeze soothes your face when suddenly - sheep are racing at high speed from fifty feet away - directly AT YOU. Do you run, jump the fence and sprint to your van? Your instructor calmly advises you to 'keep moving' as the sheep envelop you, wishing they could jump into your arms and away from your dog. Those are words you will wish at times to push right back down your instructor's throat. 'Keep moving?' It would be easier to walk in a vat filled with large cotton balls.
In the beginning stages of herding, the human has a distinct disadvantage - that is - being human. The sheep and dog play their roles expertly while the human consistently bungles even the simplest maneuvers. Do you think sheep are stupid? Many people do just as I did. I now have supreme respect for sheep. It has been fascinating to observe sheep as they read dogs entering their enclosure. The sheep's response does not depend on size, breed or age of the dog. They read the power level and intentions instantly. Large, mature Rottweilers and German Shepherds have entered as the sheep yawn, barely looking up and continue grazing. Whereas, I have witnessed adolescents who prompt the sheep into a tight group, nostrils flaring, eyes in high alert. One of the funniest moments was with a ball-crazy play freak GSD. She entered the fenced area thinking joyfully that here were 5 playmates. She ran helter-skelter searching for a toy. "Are you going to chase me? Or should I chase you? Where's a toy? Where's a toy?" If you imagine sheep after too many espressos, you will have a picture of the scene. Their eyes crossed and uncrossed as they tried to monitor her movements. Another more touching moment came when a mature female was exposed to sheep for the first time. I call her our Earth-mother since she assumed the responsibility of grooming and supervising everyone in our kennel. We stood the sheep calmly in a corner so she could come close and inspect these wooly things. One sheep staring at her, walked slowly forward until his head was near her. She licked his face, ears and mouth. Here was prey and predator in a perfect moment of peace.
Most first encounters are not so memorable but tell you a great deal about your dog's mind. The drive to gather is evident in many dogs. What they do after they gather the sheep is revealing. Will they work with the human handler to balance the sheep and keep them in a group? Do they split the group for the joy of the chase?
We tested three pups from the same litter at the age of 5 months. Each of the two males gathered the sheep quickly. One male, who sped through life with great energy and not a lot of thought, gleefully ran in circles at high speed around his group. Attracting his attention would have required a large tree falling on him. With maturity, that amount of drive could develop into a good herding dog. The question was, 'Would he ever mature?' His brother gathered the group with determined calmness, came off the sheep when called, sat next to the handler while not removing his eyes from the sheep. The sheep were quiet and respectful as he gathered and moved the grouping while he remained mindful of the handler. Then there was the little female. In a matter of a few seconds, she had sized up the weakest and most vulnerable of the sheep. She split this sheep from the others and had it in a corner in record time. This was the dog I wanted with me if I ever got lost in the forest. Three pups of the same breeding all having great characters and all very different in herding instinct.
When I first watched sheep-herding, the lack of absolute obedience disturbed me. Handlers might command 'Sit' while the dog crept up, stood or moved away. The sit command might be repeated or an entirely different set of commands would follow; all seemingly multiple choice for the dog. What was the deal here? From an obedience perspective, the sit is an absolute: rump hits ground - and quickly. With herding, the interplay between dog, sheep and handler is very subtle. The dog has to be given a certain license to assess situations and act quickly as well as independently. The partnership is almost on an equal par between a shepherd and her dog. Each depends on the other to correctly read and control the flock. A slight turn of a head by one sheep can quickly turn into the flock escaping. If the shepherd is occupied with opening a gate and the dog reads this potential movement, the dog must have the assurance to act. It may appear that the dog is disobeying. It is when one watches advanced trials, that you see the incredibly intricate relationship of dog and human.
Are you a gambler? Do you like living at the edge with excitement? Go test your dog with sheep. Since the dog's instinct is the foundation for training, one can not totally prepare for what may happen with the sheep. It is recommended that the dog have a recall and a stop (like a sit or down). Your dog may come reliably off a hold and bark at a blind or have the fastest
sit-off-the-heel in your club but be prepared to feel like a nincompoop as your dog gallops around in circles deaf to your voice. This is why an experienced herding trainer should be present. Focusing this drive to calmly move stock and teach the dog how to effectively use its power, takes years of experience. Sheep-herding is not a hobby to be dabbled at. It requires as much work as schutzhund. If you think good schutzhund clubs and helpers are hard to find, try to find dog-broke sheep and experienced trainers for herding. (Dog-broke means sheep that have been worked by dogs so they know to group together and stay with the shepherd rather than splitting and running for the hills! Dog-broke sheep are essential for the novice dog.)
In recent years, the U.S. has had some increasing interest in the German style of herding or Herdengebrauchshund (HGH) title. This herding requires a fair number of sheep and is yet in its infancy on our shores with few trainers. With our breed's heritage of working sheep, I hope there will always remain core of enthusiasts to sustain this tradition. Numbers of herding trials and entries have been dwindling in Germany as the years go by. It is interesting to see strong, balanced herding instincts enduring in many of our dogs even with pedigrees that have not herded for many generations.
Various styles of herding exist. We have many choices in this country if we wish to pursue this hobby. The fetch and gather style of herding places the stock between the dog and the handler. Ideally, the dog constantly balances himself opposite the shepherd with the stock grouped in between. The dog anticipates the sheep's movements so to continually station himself where the stock will not escape. Driving sheep is where the dog moves the flock away from the shepherd. Generally, the shepherd is in the very rear with the dog behind the stock and taking directions to move the flock forward or turning left or right. Droving usually involves a cross-country or roadway course with the dog and shepherd working front, rear or sides as the situation calls for.
German Shepherd Dogs have traditionally been all-purpose herders with a strong sense of boundary and the ability to drive, tend or fetch and gather. They help with general farm chores of controlling stock. They are generally loose-eyed dogs meaning they do not stare intensely at the sheep like a Border Collie does. GSD's use their movement and placement to manage the stock. I am told that Border Collies want the sheep to stop moving and be still. GSD's enjoy nothing more than getting sheep to move - the faster, the better with novice dogs. This being the case, chaos can be easily achieved in the early stages of training!
Watching sheep-herding events, like an excellent cognac, is an acquired taste. When my husband and I first attended the HGH Nationals in Germany, he likened the excitement of herding to watching paint dry. A few years back, I persuaded him to try a bit of herding with one of our dogs. He has never mentioned the subjects of drying paint and herding in the same sentence again.
Organizations for Herding
The American Herding Breed Association (A.H.B.A.) began in 1986 to promote herding at a practical level through tests and trials. All herding breeds, multi-purpose breeds where herding was included in their duties and herding breed mixes are invited to train and exhibit in AHBA activities. The test levels display a dog's instinct and allow dogs in the early phases of their training to gain exposure to the competition experience. These tests show the dog's ability to gather and control the sheep, guide them through a simple course and demonstrates the dog's willingness to work with the shepherd/handler. The format for trials is on a standard course and ranch/farm course. Tasks of gathering, penning, shedding and guiding sheep through obstacles display the dog's talents and training in practical stock management. Most tests/trials are on sheep although some offer cattle or ducks.
The American Kennel Club began offering tests and trials in 1989. The tests and trials run on the A and B course are similar to the AHBA's. The C course has similarities to the Herdengebrauchshund or HGH of driving and tending the sheep. The flock is moved along a roadway with some vehicular traffic. Grazing is done in unfenced areas so the dog must tend the flock, keeping them within a specified area.
Australian Shepherd Club of America, United States Border Collie Handler's Association and other breed clubs also offer clinics and trials for herding.
American Herding Breed Association:
HTD I, II, III - Herding Trial Dog levels one through three
HRD I, II, III - Herding Ranch Dog levels one through three
HTCh. - Herding Trial Champion
HCT - Herding Capability Tested
JHD - Junior Herding Dog
American Kennel Club:
Trial level for courses A, B, and C:
HS - Herding Started
HI - Herding Intermediate
HX - Herding Excellent
HT - Herding Tested
PT - Pre-trial Tested
Several breed clubs offer herding instinct certification titles for dogs that pass a basic herding instinct test.
HC or HIC- Herding Instinct Tested
Organization addresses, books and general information:
American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA):
Membership: Lisa Allen, 277 Central Ave., Seekonk, MA 02771; 508.761.4078
(Newsletter is available to members)
American Kennel Club Herding Events:
Attn:Sspecial Performance Events, 51 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010
The Herdsman, AKC Publications Division, 51 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010
Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine: HC 69 Box 300, Oscar, OK 73569; 580.437.2213; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
North American Sheep Dog Society, Rossine Kirsch, Rt #3, McLeansboro, IL 62859; 618.757.2238
Herding and Stock information on the web:
The Stockdog Server: http://www.stockdog.com
International Herder's Home Page: http://net.indra.com/%7Ejmccrils/Herders/index.html
Good general information sites:
http://www.grandin.com (click on research articles)
http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/BREEDS/SHEEP (Pictures and information on breeds of sheep.You will be amazed!)
Joan Andreasen-Webb trains and breeds dogs under the kennel name of vom Framheim. After years of training obedience, schutzhund and conformation, she was persuaded to try some dogs with herding instinct tests. This proved to be so much fun for the dogs that since 1995, she routinely tests her youngsters for herding instinct and has trained dogs to A.H.B.A..titles. She would like to take this opportunity to thank Carol Lorenzon as well as many others that have helped immeasurably. Of course, any gratitude would be incomplete without mentioning the dogs who patiently teach without criticism, rectify endless handler errors and can't laugh out loud!