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Some Truths About Herding From Deborah Pollard

You likely have heard someone say that his or her dog is a herding breed and/or the dog herds all the dogs at the dog park. This same person just knows his or her dog could herd — if the dog were only given a chance.

So how do you go about finding out if your dog really can herd?

Your first step is finding a herding trainer, which is hard to do if you live in the city. Most herding or sheepdog trainers live in rural areas, because they need to have land to keep sheep or other stock. Depending on your breed of dog, it might be hard to find a trainer who can help you.

The most popular breed of dog to work sheep is the Border Collie. There are many trainers who work with Border Collies, but if you have a herding breed other than a Border Collie — say an Australian Shepherd or Corgi or German Shepherd (yes they are herding dogs!) — it might be harder to find a trainer. That’s not because there is any prejudice against the other breeds; it’s just that most Border Collie trainers are not familiar with how the other breeds work.

Today, herding has become a very popular sport for dogs and their handlers. It can be a fun and fascinating activity for dog and handler, but herding must be taken seriously since there are the sheep at stake. Most herding trainers feel that herding must not considered simply a “fun way to exercise the dog.” Herding requires a commitment of training so that the dog understands its purpose, which is not to “run with the sheep” but to do tasks that would simulate actual work on the farm.

If you’re thinking herding might be something for your dog because it needs a “job,” sorry to say that no sheep farmer is going to hire your dog. These farmers have highly trained dogs of their own to take care of the business on their farms. Understandably, everyone wants something fun to do with his or her dog. However, herding training takes a great deal of commitment in both time and energy.

The first thing to understand about herding is that it is based on prey drive, which is directly related to the dog’s desire to hunt and feed. Through domestication, humans have been able to temper the drive from kill to herd. That is due to “bidability” — or the dog’s desire to do a human’s bidding.

So if your dog is trying to “herd” all the dogs at the dog park, you might need to be careful around those other dogs: Dogs only herd things they consider prey. Running around a group of things is not specifically a herding trait; it is a part of herding, but it is not truly indicative that the dog can or will herd livestock.

If you hike with your dog in off-leash areas and there are cattle, sheep, or goats grazing, do not think because your dog has “chased the stock,” the dog can herd. And unless you have an absolute 100 percent recall, you risk the possibility of your dog being injured — or even killed — by the cattle or the owner for harassing the stock.

So how do you find out if your dog truly has what it takes to do herding as a sport? Find a competent trainer who is familiar with your breed and have your dog undergo an instinct or aptitude test.

If the dog shows promise, that’s when the real work starts. Many city-dwelling dogs have retained the natural instincts to help them become very acceptable competitive herding dogs. With the right guidance and training, these dogs can show that they still have what it takes to herd successfully.

Most of the dogs that are currently participating in herding events do not live on farms or ranches but instead go to a herding trainer for weekly lessons. If you cannot commit to a consistent training schedule, it is unfair to tease the dog with an intermittent taste of herding. And it is also unfair to the stock, because the animals involved could be confronted by an overly excited dog that is unsure of its purpose.

Whether or not the dog goes on to be competitive herding dogs is irrelevant; it is more important that herding gives dog lovers another area to interact with their dogs, a way for them to enjoy watching their dogs develop the natural skills they were originally bred for.

Deborah Pollard is the owner and operator of Herding 4 Ewe, Herding4Ewe.com, in Vacaville. She works with all herding breeds in all venues. Pollard has been involved with animals, including horses, dogs, and sheep, most of her life, and she is an experienced herding judge. 

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Border Collies are among the best-known herding breeds, but there are many others. 

Main article photo by: Photo, top: C. MacMillan – CC, bottom: CC