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• Getting Started in Herding
• Insights Into Instinct
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Insights Into Instinct

by Ann Witte

Closing the gate on the sheep
Despite the successes of my Beardies in various herding activities all over North America in the past eight years, I have never forgotten the first herding instinct test I tried (90° heat, on ducks, in a small pen that some exhibitors had used as an exercise pen for bitches in heat!). I was testing "Cooper," a mature intact male, who was quickly declared "useless." He later earned the Pre-Trial title and ROMI. Had he not been eleven and one-half years old when he started trialing, he could have gone on easily.

Properly run and judged, a herding instinct test will reach into the soul of a Beardie and let him be his best, natural self moving sheep. It hasn't been so long since the ancestors of our dogs were all farm workers, doing livestock chores daily. Testing any Beardie cannot only be fun to do, but will give the owner some additional insight into their dogs' behaviours.

Instinct testing is done in a pen or arena, preferably of such size and configuration as to allow the Tester to prevent any crashes. Stock is usually sheep - a species of interest to Beardies yet safe for people. Tests can be held on ducks (not of much interest to many dogs) or cattle (large and therefore risky for untrained dogs and people). Although some obedience training is useful to control an enthusiastic dog, an extensively trained Beardie may need more time to free up his mind to allow his instincts to kick in.

An accurate three-generation pedigree is a critical contribution to the BCCC herding database. It not only affects certain awards (such as the ROMI); but, in time, can help to discern which bloodlines exhibit specific behaviours. while herding, such as the degree of bark used and the degree of "eye."

Preparation for an instinct test is quite simple. If you can give the dog some limited exposure to sheep in advance, do so, but not direct contact unless an experienced stock dog handler is available. You can allow the dog to observe and react to sheep across a fence at some distance (ten feet or so) from you. If your dog is interested, stop with praise so that he does not become over stimulated. If he doesn't seem to care, play with him near the sheep and leave on a good note. Plan to wear comfortable "grubbies" appropriate to the expected weather conditions, and boots. In a word, take the farmer's lead! Try to arrive fairly early, regardless of what time you may be scheduled; both you and your dog need to become familiar with the area and try to relax. Check in with the registrar, do any necessary paperwork, and go visit with and watch the others. Beardie people are as social as the dogs, so wander around and introduce yourself and your Beardie; you will surely find others who have tested before and can help you relax. Do keep your dog well back from the fences around the test arena and keep him reasonably quiet out of consideration for both the Tester and the dog that is in the arena. A crate is a good idea, so that your dog can rest, and you can focus on the activities.

When you are called to the arena, walk calmly with your dog on~lead to help prevent excess excitement. The Tester will ask your dog's call name, and usually will actually "work" the dog for you. Most Testers will offer a brief explanation of how the test will be run and instructions to you. This is the time to ask the Tester any questions. If you have been watching other tests, you will have a feel of how to proceed. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your dog is NOT to expect any specific behaviours, but rather to mentally free your dog to follow his instincts. Most "failures" occur when the dog is so strongly bonded to or dependent on its owner that the instinct toward livestock is suppressed. You have 15 minutes once your dog is released for the instinct to surface, and a good Tester will have quite a bag of tricks to turn on a reluctant Beardie.

The first approach to the stock is usually on lead, so that the Tester can assess the dog's level of interest without risking the stock. If the dog either is too geared down by the lead, or has an easy approach to the stock, the lead will be removed. If the dog's interest is keen and he shows a high degree of intensity, the lead may be left on the dog but dropped. The range of canine interest in stock runs the gamut from ho-hum, yeah-so-what to lemme-at

Intrinsic power in the dog can be assessed by watching the response of the sheep. Simply put, the more power the dog has, the greater the "flight zone" of the stock. The sheep will "read" the dog's intentions. Some dogs with softer, easier ways will be able to come quite near the sheep before they move, and other dogs will cause the sheep to move from across the arena. Watch the heads and ears of the sheep. When the heads turn away from the dog and the ears go back, the sheep will begin to move away from the dog - you have seen their "flight zone". Puppy seeing sheep for the first time at a herding  instict test.

Whether or not your Beardie passes an instinct test, remember that it has been one time on the day. It is one Tester's opinion that the dog has or lacks herding instinct. Any number of conditions can adversely affect a dog's performance; other dogs may pass from excitement at a new game and would never work again. The requirements to pass are a sustained interest in and attempt to move stock with no evil intent or deliberate attack on the stock; and evidence of trainability. Whereas some dogs "turn on" very young, others may need more maturity before their instincts will surface. One of my most talented Beardies had no apparent interest in sheep until he was nearly two years old; now, at four years of age, he is trialing in Advanced in both AKC and ASCA programs! The point is, if your dog passes an instinct test, you cannot know if he has any real herding TALENT unless you work him consistently so that he can compete in trials successfully or unless he does livestock chores reliably. If your dog doesn't want to work on the day of a test, he might well do beautifully under other conditions or when he is more mature. It is a rare dog that begins its herding career by exhibiting pure talent from square one.

A "clinic" is a one-on-one training lesson for you and your dog. Once a Beardie shows the desire to work, he needs to learn how to work to accomplish a specific task. The clinic training session can help you to learn how to control the dog so that the dog can control the stock to achieve a desired goal. For the more trained dogs and more experienced handlers, a clinic is a place to solve problems that have surfaced during training or chore work.

Going herding with your Beardie will be immensely rewarding for both of you. Getting outdoors, exercise, growing as a team, all are priceless results of training to herd livestock. Many good dogs only train once a week, and progress nicely. Read as much as you can, and then let common sense and experimentation tell you which methods will be most useful for your particular Beardie's style. View as many videos as you can as well. Ask questions of experienced trainers (remember, the only dumb question is one that needs an answer but goes unasked!). A list of recommended materials follows this article.

Herding is becoming a very popular sport. All Trial systems are designed to allow novices to compete at a reasonable level and move up over time to more difficult levels as the dogs and handlers become more adept. Even finding a training facility can be difficult and may require an intense effort on your part to accomplish, but the end result is well worth it. Perhaps you will be the one to organize others with an interest in herding, form a club to do herding, create a training facility, and get the ball rolling.

There is nothing in your relationship with your Beardie to compare with the pride and pleasure derived from a successful day of herding. Even if the score at a Trial is less than perfect, watching your Beardie doing those tasks for which he was originally bred is a priceless experience.

A few months ago, I entered Robin in Novice Cattle at a USBCA (Border Collie) Trial. Three ranchers were watching to see if a dog could be useful to their cattle operations. One Trial handler scored quite well, but he had directed his dog every step throughout the run. One rancher's comment was "What's the use of a dog if I'd have to tell it what to do the whole time?" Robin's score was last is the class: his outrun was too tight, he put the cattle on the fence and fetched them along the fence, he ignored many of my commands, he held and penned the cattle readily, but not on command. As we left the arena, the three ranchers came up to ask about MY dog for their cattle! The ability of my dog is more important than any score. The pleasure of his talent to both Robin and me is immeasurable. With a lot of determination and some time and effort, you may share these unique experiences with your Beardie. It all starts with instinct.

Copyright © 1997[Ann Witte]
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Last revised: November 11, 2010