While I grew up on a farm and we always had dogs that worked with the cattle and hogs, I had never seen how dogs like Border Collies and Australian Sheep dogs were trained. I had seen the very complex patterns these dogs can do with sheep, goats and even things like ducks and geese at herding trials. They are able to keep groups of livestock together, move the group from on part of the field to another, move the livestock through gates and even get the live stock to load into trailer or go into holding pens.
I had supposed that all of the herding patterns were the result of some very complex and intense training. Sure I knew that these dogs had been bred for hundreds of years to herd. I saw that there was to be an Introduction to Herding Clinic up in northern Ohio. Got up at 4 AM so I could be there at the 9 AM starting time. Sort of a cold and rainy day but that was OK, the training farm had in indoor training area. People with Border Collies began to show up. Something to note a number of these dogs were “rescue dogs” they had been recused from shelters, some were at foster care, some had been adopted through the rescue organizations. Many of these incredible dogs present would have been put down had the rescue groups not stepped in. Why did they end up in shelters? Shepherd dogs are very active and energetic and also very intelligent. They often are not a “good fit” for a lot of people. There were a number of sad stories about how these dogs ended up in shelters – mostly through no fault of their own but rather the owners not understanding or willing to care for them.
Most of the dogs present had never been exposed to livestock before. Most were also young 6-7 months to a couple of years old. As people arrived with their dogs the first thing I noticed was everyone of the Border Collies were friendly both to the other dogs and to the people present. In the past I had the great opportunity to work with a great trainer in Cleveland Ohio. All types and sizes of dogs came to her training classes. The common thing was many dogs barked and lunged at other dogs and sometimes people others were very afraid and shy around other dogs and people so the first thing at every class was to get the dogs settled down.
The Border Collies are not like this at all, they all were quiet and friendly toward the other dogs and the people, some were pretty shy but seemed to “get over” the experience of new dogs and people very quickly. They pretty much did not pay a lot of attention to other dogs and people. All were on leash which is to be expected at any training event. Really interesting every single dog was “crate” trained. Even the more timid and shy ones would go into their crate or carrier and simply quietly lay down. While I have been around and worked with a lot of different breeds of dogs, I had never been around Border Collies or Aussies. The training facility I worked at was urban and so there were not many “farm” dogs – I had the only “herding” dog – a Tri Color Collie.
There was first of all a class – the dogs had been put in their crates, carriers or cars during the class. Then people got their dogs and we all went to the indoor training facility. They brought several sheep into the training area – this was an open area inside a barn – there was a small area for dogs, owners and observers that had a fence and a gate. While these dogs really had little reaction to other dogs and people just about everyone of them immediately were totally focused on the sheep – really watching them.
This is when the true “magic” started. The trainer captured and held a sheep (note here these sheep are very used to dogs and dogs working with them. I doubt that sheep that had never been around dogs would be like these sheep were. Step one each dog was taken into the training area on leash and brought up to the sheep and allowed to “smell” the sheep’s “back end” – the dogs would take a sniff and then back away. That is all they needed to recognize what “sheep” were. Once done – some dogs were very fast at this recognition others took a bit longer and a couple had to be “encouraged” to get in close to the sheep – the dog was led out of the training area back to the waiting area. One dog at a time was “introduced” to the sheep that the trainer was hold onto.
The next step was amazing. A dog on leash would be brought back into the training area, the owner would walk the dog all around the area past the sheep. This would get the sheep out of the corners and away from the walls. Next the owner would take the leash off and the dog was allowed to simply act. The dogs would approach the sheep and then drop to a down right where the sheep would begin to be in a single group. The dogs would get up and move and again drop to a down or run at very high speeds around the “flock” causing them to bunch together. If you are not familiar with how herding dogs “work” livestock here is a You Tube video (just click the link)
The thing I did not know before going to the herding clinic is these dogs instinctively “know” the stop, down, stalking, and running behaviors shown in the video. This is simply what they have been bred to do. Training is really about “adjustments” and corrections and getting the dogs to do what the handler want them to do. The dogs already know how to do all of this. In the video you can see that the dogs are looking at the sheep – constantly – they are not looking at the handler at all – the whistle signals are just instruction – the dogs already know all of the “moves” – or how to get the sheep to do what the dog want. The Borders and Aussies are highly “biddable” – they Really want to please their owner. Herd training is about letting these dogs simply do what they do naturally with the owner guiding them as to what they want done not how to do it.
What I saw at the herding clinic was dogs that had never even seen sheep before that were able to move and group sheep as well as “hold” them in a position. One dog for exam had be just adopted from rescue and had been with his new owner less than a week. The owner had no experience with herding – the dog had come from a very difficult shelter and horrific life to rescue and had been with a foster home for only a few weeks. This one grouped the sheep, held them, moved them – all of the herding things you can see in the video. He simply “knew” all of this – the trainer was just telling the owner how and where to move – (the owner had had almost no experience or contact with any sort of livestock).
There was of course a range of how well the dogs did in this first session which in many cases was their very first exposure to livestock. Some “got it” and knew exactly what to do immediately, some need some encouragement and guidance – all were allowed to “discover” on their own what they were bred to do.
They stopped for lunch, the dogs were placed back in their crates, carriers and cars. They were given the opportunity “to think about their experience” away from the sheep. After lunch and a new group of sheep – the owners and dogs were brought back to the observation area and the truly amazing things was almost every dog did a lot better the second time out – plus every dog waiting to go into the training area was closely watching what was going on. Training these dogs is about letting the dogs simply discovery what they instinctively already know and adding some guidance to fine tune their behavior.
After all of the dogs that were new to working with livestock finished one person who had an Aussie let his dog in with the sheep. He did not go into the training area at all. In fact the owner was sort in the back behind people up close to the fence watching. The owner is very soft spoken I was standing right beside him and could barely hear him as he told the dog what he wanted – soft spoken words only, no hand signals or whistles – this owner kept his hands in his pockets. The dog some 50 feet away intently watch the sheep and grouped them, moved them, held them, moved them the other direction, brought the sheep up to the fence, took to sheep to the far side, put them into each corner and moved them to other corners and held them. The dog would separate a single sheep away from the herd and keep it separate and them allow the sheep to get back with the herd. This dog did absolutely everything the owner wanted done only from his very quiet spoken words while the owner was in the back, people were talking to each other, the training area was fairly noisy. Really amazing to watch. As it happens this particular Aussie is one of the top competitive herd dogs in the USA. The reality is this was a herd dog doing his job and what he was bred to do – help the owner work with livestock.
It was an amazing day, and I am really glad I got up at 4AM to take a 5 hour drive to go watch some amazingly talented dogs doing what they were bred to do and some owners learning the basics of letting the dog figure out how to do things when it comes to working with livestock. Further training is all about training the owners to start to add commands and start to do some guidance and correction to dogs that are born to do this type of work.
The thing to know is Borders and Aussies are very intelligent and instinctive and so are able to figure out on their own how to do things. They are very high energy animals, while not very large they can be really fast. Around livestock they intently watch the livestock, they do not look at their owners at all. This means that hand signals used with a lot of dog training will not work. These dogs are very sensitive to what their owner want them to do. This all means that these are not the type of dog to have as a family pet that lays around with nothing to do in the back yard, or will not work out living in a city apartment or being taken on leash to the park. In other words these are not the perfect dog for everyone. The sad thing is a number of these dogs end up in shelters because people have not taken the time to understand and work with them. The good thing is the rescue groups are very careful about placing these dogs with owners that can learn to work with them. While they naturally and instinctively work with livestock, they can enjoy things like agility courses – the thing to know is the Borders and Aussies need active things to do.
Next time I go to a Intro Herding Clinic I will bring my video camera. What these dogs do totally based on instinct can be best shown with video. The way to train and work with these breeds is very different from “normal” dog training and obedience.