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Sheep Herding Basics

By Jeri Reinhardt

Why Herding

Having Border Collies, I have been fascinated by herding for a number o
f years. I mean, "How do they do that?" Both my BC's had their instinct test 7 years ago. Both passed with flying colors and I even found a herding instructor in my area but before we could get started, my instructor moved out of state, drat! My alternative was to traveling over an hour after work which wasn't realistic for me and I was already deeply committed to agility and flyball. So, herding went on the back burner. Then my BC, Meg, retired from agility because she "just wasn't' that into it" and I retired. I was then fortunate to find a herding instructor 20 minutes from my house. So, I finally had my opportunity.

Hooked on Herding

Since I've retired, I know it is important to keep myself active and, with a history of dementia in the family, keep that brain working. For me, herding has added that new challenge beyond agility. With agility, it's developing that team work to move your dog through a course of obstacles and knowing where you need to be in relationship to your dog to get through the course successfully. Now imagine that those obstacles are now moving. So, I'm not only trying to figure out where I need to be and where the dog needs to be and... "Where in the heck are those sheep going!!!!" But, in those moments when it all comes together, wow, how cool is that. And, there is that extra bonus of just being outside and spending time with the dogs doing something that they love. Herding has become my therapy. 

Why herding with Suzy

"I could teach my Golden to herd" was the comment I heard from Suzy's x-obedience instructor when I told her Suzy had started herding lessons. That comment to me is like finger nails on a chalk board. Not surprising that it came from the same person who insists on calling Suzy a "terrier." SHE'S NOT A TERRIER, SHE'S A FARMDOG! My purpose in starting herding lessons with Suzy was to see, being a Farmdog, if she had the natural instinct to herd. Different herding breeds were bred for different purposes and have different styles of herding. 
Most people are familiar with the Border Collies who have a strong "eye" to intimidate the stock. They excel in working in larger open areas. The Australian Shepherd, on the other hand, has a loose eye, stands upright and was bred to work in smaller areas to move livestock in and out of pens. And, since there are no books or websites to learn about the herding style of the Farmdog, learning more about how a Farmdog herds is also part of the fascination. But, does Suzy have that instinct and/or ability to herd?

In the video above it looks as if the sheep are following the humans but it's the dog that's keeping the sheep to the handler. In this exercise Suzy is wearing the sheep. Her moving back and forth is a way of keeping them gathered in a group and as we are moving around the pasture she is trying to keep the sheep "balance" to the handler. If Suzy wasn't there those sheep would have taken off up the hill. The picture of Meg (on the right), it looks like we are just all going for a walk around the pasture but I occasionally have to have Meg lay down because she is putting too much pressure on the sheep and they start crowding me. As we turn, she doesn't get around far enough and one escapes.

Getting Started in Herding

Instinct test

The first step is to have your dog "instinct tested" to determine if it has the interest in sheep and show some of the natural tendencies to gather or move them. Some dogs will immediately show interest while others may take more than one exposure to the sheep to show they have the instinct. And not all dogs from herding breeds have the instinct to herd. There are a couple of ways of getting an instinct test. First, is to check with local herding breed clubs. They sometime have instinct test or clinics as fundraisers. Many of the California Farmdogs had the opportunity to do their instinct test at the WAGS for Wishes event in Southern California. The second way is go directly to a herding instructor. If you know you are interested in starting lessons, an instructor would do an instinct test before you would begin lessons.