Herding

   For centuries, shepherds and cattle ranchers have used dogs to help them do their work. Why? One good dog can easily do the work of several people because that is what they were bred to do - it is in their DNA. They can gather the stock much more quickly and efficiently and from much more rugged terrain than we possibly could. When we train a stockdog to work livestock, we are just modifying a natural behavior to fit our purposes. This behavior is based on prey drive – in other words, they are the predator, and the livestock is the prey. If you’ve ever seen one of those National Geographic programs where a wolf pack is hunting caribou on the tundra, you have seen prey drive at work. The wolf pack will circle the herd of caribou because that stops the caribou from getting away. The wolves will continue to circle the herd, which keeps the herd nervously moving around itself, until eventually the old, the infirm, or the very young fall to the outer edges. Lunchtime for the wolves, with the alpha wolf dining first.
In training a stockdog, who is just a modern-day descendant of the wolf with a strong prey drive still intact, we, as the handler, become the alpha wolf. We use the dog’s natural instinct to gather the stock, but rather than allowing them to then have lunch, we teach them to bring the stock to the alpha wolf, or to take the stock wherever we direct them. We may need the dog to move them to another pasture, to bring them in for doctoring, or to move them through obstacles at a trial.

  

Because this prey drive is instinctual, or inherent, we cannot teach a dog to work livestock who does not have natural instinct. Unfortunately, many of the herding breeds have been bred for many years to fit a particular “breed standard”–that is, the dog must fit within specified parameters for height, weight, ear set, body proportions, coat, and even color! Because this has been the case, many dogs who fit the breed standard (in other words, “pretty” dogs) were bred, despite the fact that they had little or no herding instinct. After only a few generations, you have pretty, but pretty useless dogs, if you want them for working dogs.

For a dog with strong herding instinct, the work itself is its own reward. We do not use food, toys, clickers, or any other “gimmicks” to get them to do the work–there is just something inside them that makes them want, above all else, to work livestock. In fact, many of these dogs, on a very hot day, will have to be monitored; we will have to tell them when it is time to take a break and cool down, or they can literally work themselves until they drop.

  

An added bonus of herding training is the fact that you end up with a dog who is a model citizen both in and away from its work environment. When we have control in a livestock environment over a dog who wants more than anything else to go to the stock, gather them, and move them about (in other words, where temptation is greatest), we have great control in our daily lives, whether we are hiking, at the dog park, taking them to Petco, or just trying to get in the door while our arms are loaded down with groceries without being knocked down. They absolutely, positively, and consistently come when they are called (without taking the scenic route), lie down when asked, and don’t get up until released or asked to do something else. Off leash. At distances of over 400 or 500 yards. Sound good? The first step is to do what we call an instinct test to determine if your dog has the inherent desire to work livestock.