DogPlay Logo, Dog on a teeter

Activities   Articles   Behavior   Breeding   Getting A Dog   My Dogs   Shops   Stories   Site Map

   The Truth About Herding

October 29, 2002


HERDING - Page 1

It is amazing but true that the sport of herding was popularized by a pig. Ask any tyke who's seen the movie Babe and they can describe an imaginary world in which dogs or a precocious piglet move livestock in an orderly fashion through pastures and gates.

Herding is an original piece of work
by Canadian cartoonist Ron Leishman .

Order a Herding t-shirt here!

As you might expect, the real world of herding is not so simple or tidy. Herding is, in fact, a very complex world with a long and rich history. For the neophyte, it is difficult to even learn about herding for reasons that I will explain. Despite the challenge, I have managed to permeate this world.

As a result of my foray into this arena, I am going to discourage those of you who have not yet started this sport. Toss some Frisbees to that pup. Dabble in the benign sport of agility. Get anal in obedience. Let me explain why these activities are better and safer choices.

Herding is Nervous Making
Dog sports are supposed to be fun. With herding, there is always an underlying tension. This tension is easily understood when one examines the origin of this activity.

Centuries ago, in the wild, dogs pursued herds of animals and singled them out to be killed and eaten. In some cases the dogs chased the herds until a weak member dropped out. In other cases, they turned the herd back into the jaws of their waiting pack members. Today's herding dogs still reflect one of these two approaches, preferring to either drive or gather stock.

Somehow early man convinced dogs to round up the stock, rather than eat them, and then wait for a bowl of leftovers. This is one of the great mysteries of canine history. Without benefit of clicker, tennis ball, or food stuffed toys, this early dog trainer worked miracles.

Despite this history, herding dogs are not supposed to grab a sheep thigh like a smoked turkey leg. Out on the ranch, they may nip heel or nose to move reluctant stock, but in public, biting is a serious no-no. However, one can never forget that herding is a partnership that stops the dog just one click short of bringing in his dinner.


HERDING - Page 2

Herding Requires Interactions With Animals That Would Make a Good Stew
Herding is an activity that requires not only the finest dog training skills but also requires a group of other animals known as "stock." Just that word should raise your red flag.

Stock are big, dirty, and live in muddy places. They have no qualms about running over you. They are much more interested in sticking together than avoiding what is in their path. They are the original gangs. They are very difficult to understand if you did not grow up with them. More on that later.

Herding Teachers Have Lost Touch
If you are unable to keep stock, you must travel to a teacher who keeps such beasts. These people are delusional in at least two ways. They claim to know individuals among the stock. They say things like, "Yesterday Zip and I separated out that small sheep with the black face." In reality, all sheep are clones. Even if they stood still and stopped making that ridiculous bleating noise, they still look like they came out of a test tube.

But things do not stop there. Herding teachers ask their students to do the impossible like having their dog lie down instead chasing the sheep. This results in a lot of screaming and ineffectual swinging of a long cane intended to get the dog's attention. Herding teachers would earn many brownie points with me if they would ask something more realistic such as: Please stop your dog by executing a flying tackle and wrestling her to the ground.

Herding Is As Difficult As Playing Quarterback in the Super Bowl
In other dog sports, events happen in one direction. In agility, dog and handler run toward the A-frame. In flyball, the dogs run straight to the box and back to the handler. Herding, on the other hand, is multi-dimensional, and chaos is always imminent.

It is most accurate to imagine herding is like being dropped into the middle of a professional football scrimmage. The sheep scramble one direction. The dog flies the other to bring them back. The handler, like the quarterback, tries to orchestrate the movement by yelling or whistling. Covering one's eyes is always tempting, but it not a good option.

There is a real possibility of getting hurt while herding. If the dog gets a bit too wild, the sheep may charge toward the handler with considerable momentum. While they will not be screaming, "SACK," the effect is the same. One must have quick reactions to prevent a crash.

HERDING - Page 3

Herding is a Poor Spectator Sport
Herding is, of course, a real activity that ranchers practice daily versus a made-up activity like agility or Frisbee. Competitive herding trials are simulations of work that dogs might really do. Herding trials take a wide variety of forms, allowing dogs at different levels of competence to test their stuff with actual sheep, cattle, or ducks. This herding poultry thing is really weird, but that is another matter.

At beginning levels, dogs work sheep in a small ring to determine if they have more interest in sheep than a head of cabbage. At the highest levels, dogs work with their handler in large areas or on ranches to maneuver sheep through gates-often with no fences, mind you-and into weensy pens. When a good dog and handler work stock efficiently, it is a supreme partnership.

However, herding could be greatly improved as a spectator sport. At present, dogs, handlers and stock come and go in the arena with no input for the audience. Great interest could be added by having a knowledgeable announcer give a little background about each team. Here are some quick examples:

Our next team is Billy Bob with his Border Collie, Zip the 47th. They run a sheep ranch with 2000 head. Because Billy Bob's childhood friends were sheep, he can read every ear twitch. You may notice that Zip only has three legs after a tragic tractor accident, but it hasn't slowed her down a bit. Last week, Zip took her flock on a trip to the mall on the bus without Billy Bob. Everyone had a great time. Let's welcome these two quickly before Zip has those woolies penned.

Next in the arena, we have Mark with his Border Collie, Zip. Mark took up herding two years ago when he received a note from the Humane Society saying that his dog could not keep gathering the neighbors' children and pinning them against the back fence for three hours. Prior to that, Mark's previous experience with livestock was the family trip to the county fair once a year. Mark's first contact with a sheep was when it knocked him flat on his fanny. Last time we saw Mark, his dog was doing pretty much whatever it wanted and scaring the shit out of those sheep while Mark screamed "Lie Down" over and over. Let's give him an encouraging round of applause.

Our next team is Suzy with her Aussie, Zip. Suzy took up herding after purchasing this dog for her children. When the kids did not give a wet slap about the dog, Suzy, who was bored spitless taking care of her house, decided to see if the dog would actually work stock since she was told it was a herding breed. Generally, this dog shows about thirty seconds of interest in herding before it wanders off to find the hot dog stand. Suzy understands the concept of anticipating what the sheep are going to do when she is sitting on the sofa with a nice glass of Zin. However, when she is out here, she does not have a clue which way they are going. Let's put our hands together for our seriously herding-challenged handler and her disinterested dog.

HERDING - Page 4

Herding Requires an Entire New Language
If you identify with either of those novice handlers above, there is another hurdle to successfully entering the world of herding. In addition to being able to think like a sheep, you must learn to speak a different language. Here is a typical quote:

Once the dog is trained on the rake, we need to make sure the dog will move off your body pressure. (Billy Bob, 2001)

My feeling is that if you can get the dogs to rake, you should get them going with the lawn mower too. However, if you insist on herding rather than getting that yard work done, you must be prepared to acquire an entire new language as you would French or Italian. Make sure to consider that learning c'est la vie and Je suis heureuse could take you to Paris. The language of herding will take you to slippery, muddy pastures. Think this through!

If you are still determined to forge forward, you might as well get started on some key terms that you must internalize:

Bad Sheep: These are woolies that are not committed to the club. They tend to break away from the others. This makes a dog look bad. They may even turn and fight. This is smart in my mind, but shepherds want docile sheep that hang together. You might think of the rebellious sheep as "Sheep That Are Going to Be Lamb Chops."

Good Sheep: Officially these are the sheep that let themselves be herded and stick together. In my experience, these are sheep that keep trying to climb up on your shoulders to get away from the dog. This is not attractive because they have pointy hooves. However, they are highly prized in the herding world. I refer to this group as "Sheep That Are Not Going to Be Lamb Chops."

Outrun: This is the action when the dog runs out past the sheep to begin gathering them. For advanced dogs, this outrun is hundreds of yards long. Herding books say that the ideal outrun is shaped like a pear. Are these people kidding? Who cares about fruit when your dog is races away from you at top speed and becomes a speck on the horizon? I have had several dogs do an outrun but they were hot on the heels of a bunny. In my mind, the outrun is synonymous with the unhappy phrase, "My Dog Has Run Off."

Lift: This term refers to time that the dog moves toward the sheep initially in order to get them moving. I refer to this as the "Short Moment Before All Hell Breaks Loose."

Way to Me and Go Bye: These are the traditional Scottish commands for sending the dog around the sheep in either a counterclockwise or clockwise direction. These are musical sounding phrases that suggest they were lifted from Rogers and Hammerstein. Using these lilting phrases is a nice idea if one could freeze the sheep and dog for a moment to figure out which way is counterclockwise. As I suggested in my article on Border Collies, these phrases are often replaced in real situations by "Quit biting that sheep, you little shit."

There terms are merely the tip of the iceberg. From here you need to learn to string words like grip and flank together without getting arrested. You will know you have arrived when you can lean against the fence in your Wranglers and drawl, "After you pick up the sheep with a short outrun, you wear the sheep around the perimeter of the fence." But really, who wants to say that when you could be learning to say, "Je veux le crème brulee."

HERDING - Page 5

Some Shepherds Are Show-Offs
There are a group of handlers who know all the language of herding, and they don't even use it. They just stand in the middle of the pasture or arena and whistle while their dog is working. The sounds are quite pleasant, somewhat like a big bird talking to a nest of babies. The dogs try to cover for these handlers, continuing to work despite their partners' apparent lack of interest.

I have read that some judges in herding competitions penalize the handlers for whistling too much. I would suggest that the penalty should be imposed for failing to whistle a recognizable show tune. It is a shame that such good dogs have ended up in the hands of such detached owners. Imagine what these pups could do with some direction.

Herding Dogs Must Have the Right Stuff
Although you may want participate in this dog sport, herding requires instinct on the part of your dog. The movement of sheep screams, "DO SOMETHING" to dogs with the right genes. Dogs without these genes just stand around and munch sheep doo. The reality is that the best herding dogs will herd alone for days at a time (see The Truth About Dog Breeds: The Border Collie).

In addition to the instinctual ability to read stock, the dog must have the physical ability to react to the movements of stock and enough speed to affect those movements.

The bottom line is that your dog either has it or it doesn't. A dog that will only circle in one direction or whose interest in sheep lasts less than thirty seconds is a candidate for a different activity. Be relieved. Try something simple like teaching your dog to skydive.

All Herding Breeds Are Not Created Equal
Reading about the characteristics of different herding breeds is much like reading real estate ads. For example, we all know that an ad that says, "Doll House" means the roof is six feet high and the rooms are the size of postage stamps. Similar interpretation is required when reading about the herding breeds.

For example, experts might say something like, "Training this breed requires the handler to be extremely upbeat and enthusiastic." What this really means is that, unless you have professional cheerleading experience, these dogs may seriously try your patience.

In general, herding breeds can be grouped in four general categories. At one end of the spectrum, there are those breeds that are less than enthusiastic about herding. They have a lobby in Washington that is working to move them from the herding group to the couch potato group. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the high-drive, herd-until-they drop dogs. These dogs may even become so mesmerized by the stock that they may go into a trance. In between there are two groups. First, there are the dogs that try to bark the sheep to death. Lastly, there are the breeds that approach herding like bureaucrats. With briefcase in hand, these dogs move the sheep without much fuss. They may lack a little flash, but they rarely have a grievance filed by the sheep union.

In Conclusion
The point is if you don't have exactly the right kind of dog, you have your work cut out for you. Then again, if you do have exactly the right kind of dog, you have your work cut out for you.

If you have been thinking about trying herding, put it to bed with a simple "That'll do" and get on with a nice hike with your pup. If you have already gotten involved, consider spending the next herding trial in the bleachers with a cold beer. Wow the spectators sitting around you by saying something like, "He's using a 'banana' line. It looks good and straight and the entrance to the gates is lined up with the handler's post." Then take a nice hike with your pup.

References. In writing this article, I have drawn heavily from Herding Dogs: Progressive Training by Vergil S. Holland and Herding on the Web that can be found at Both are excellent resources if you would like to know more.




More on the Truth About Dogs

 * DogPlay icon*   Kids and Dogs Page

DogPlay Home Page  DogPlay Home Page
Lost? PageList lists all the DogPlay pages. Check the Help page. Help

DogPlay Shop
Great T-Shirts and More
Visit the DogPlay Mall. Fun designs on T-Shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, buttons, stickers and more. DogPlay Shops
Xylitol risk to your dog
Unexpected electric danger to your dog on the street


Help with Contacting DogPlay

For information on linking and other uses of this material see the copyright page.
Disclaimer and Privacy Policy
Unauthorized copy discovery is enabled
  Help        About                  Partners        Listing      Home