Sheep Herding Basics

By Jeri Reinhardt

Why Herding

Herding Danish/Swedish Farmdog Suzie ready to herd
Farmdog Suzie loves herding -Danish/ Swedish Farmdogs herd sheep and small animals on the farm.

Having Border Collies, I have been fascinated by herding for a number of years. I mean, "How do they do that?" Both my BC's had their instinct test 7 years ago. Both passed with flying colors and I even found a herding instructor in my area but before we could get started, my instructor moved out of state, drat! My alternative was to traveling over an hour after work which wasn't realistic for me and I was already deeply committed to agility and flyball. So, herding went on the back burner. Then my BC, Meg, retired from agility because she "just wasn't' that into it" and I retired. I was then fortunate to find a herding instructor 20 minutes from my house. So, I finally had my opportunity.

Hooked on Herding

Farmdog Suzy is very serious about herding. Danish/ Swedish Farmdogs were breed to herd sheep and small animals on the farm.

Farmdog Suzy Suzy pushing sheep

Since I've retired, I know it is important to keep myself active and, with a history of dementia in the family, keep that brain working. For me, herding has added that new challenge beyond agility. With agility, it's developing that team work to move your dog through a course of obstacles and knowing where you need to be in relationship to your dog to get through the course successfully. Now imagine that those obstacles are now moving. So, I'm not only trying to figure out where I need to be and where the dog needs to be and... "Where in the heck are those sheep going!!!!" But, in those moments when it all comes together, wow, how cool is that. And, there is that extra bonus of just being outside and spending time with the dogs doing something that they love. Herding has become my therapy.

Why herding with Suzy

"I could teach my Golden to herd" was the comment I heard from Suzy's x-obedience instructor when I told her Suzy had started herding lessons. That comment to me is like finger nails on a chalk board. Not surprising that it came from the same person who insists on calling Suzy a "terrier." SHE'S NOT A TERRIER, SHE'S A FARMDOG! My purpose in starting herding lessons with Suzy was to see, being a Farmdog, if she had the natural instinct to herd. Different herding breeds were bred for different purposes and have different styles of herding.

Most people are familiar with the Border Collies who have a strong "eye" to intimidate the stock. They excel in working in larger open areas. The Australian Shepherd, on the other hand, has a loose eye, stands upright and was bred to work in smaller areas to move livestock in and out of pens. And, since there are no books or websites to learn about the herding style of the Farmdog, learning more about how a Farmdog herds is also part of the fascination. But, does Suzy have that instinct and/or ability to herd?

Meg Sheep Herding
it looks like we are just all going for a walk around the pasture

In the video above it looks as if the sheep are following the humans but it's the dog that's keeping the sheep to the handler. In this exercise Suzy is wearing the sheep. Her moving back and forth is a way of keeping them gathered in a group and as we are moving around the pasture she is trying to keep the sheep "balance" to the handler. If Suzy wasn't there those sheep would have taken off up the hill. The picture of Meg (on the right), it looks like we are just all going for a walk around the pasture but I occasionally have to have Meg lay down because she is putting too much pressure on the sheep and they start crowding me. As we turn, she doesn't get around far enough and one escapes.

Getting Started in Herding

Instinct test

The first step is to have your dog "instinct tested" to determine if it has the interest in sheep and show some of the natural tendencies to gather or move them. Some dogs will immediately show interest while others may take more than one exposure to the sheep to show they have the instinct. And not all dogs from herding breeds have the instinct to herd. There are a couple of ways of getting an instinct test. First, is to check with local herding breed clubs. They sometime have instinct test or clinics as fundraisers. Many of the California Farmdogs had the opportunity to do their instinct test at the WAGS for Wishes event in Southern California. The second way is go directly to a herding instructor. If you know you are interested in starting lessons, an instructor would do an instinct test before you would begin lessons.

Herding Capability Test

Suzies Herding instinct test

Finding the right instructor

Depending on where you live, finding a herding instructor can be difficult. If there are instructors in your area, the majority can be found on the internet. Some may be reluctant to test a Farmdog because they are unfamiliar with the breed. Other herding instructors who commonly work with different breeds of dogs many be more willing to test a Farmdog. I was turned down by my first attempt to find an instructor because, with a waiting list, they did not have time to work with a non-AKC breed. I was then fortunate to find an instructor who just moved to my area and was looking for students. Not all herding instructors are the same. They use different techniques and have different philosophies. Some even use clicker training and targeting which for me, isn't learning to herd (that's for training Golden Retriever to herd, yikes).

My herding lessons

The instructor in this movie is teaching me to move properly with the sheep.
The best scenario would be for someone to know what they are doing, either you or the dog. When starting with a rookie dog, its better that the handler, in this case, your instructor, starts working with your dog. And, in reverse, it would be better for the rookie handler, meaning me, work with an experienced dog. And, if things work out the way they should, everyone progress, especially the dogs, at a fairly decent pace. But... things don't always work out the way you wish. Although both Meg and Suzy have worked to a certain point with my instructor, they would rather work for me.

And, since I'm still learning myself, it adds more of a challenge to our lessons. At times, my instructor has had to drag me around with him as he works my dog. Fortunately, we have now progress to the point where he can give instructions to me from the side lines as I get dizzy or find myself tripping over gopher holes. Hey, I'm determined to get this! The instructor in this movie is teaching me to move properly with the sheep.

Basic Herding Commands

It is not an obedience heal but to walk at the handler side.
That'll do:
Stop and come back to me or, in other words, the herding equivalent to a recall. This is a must for the protection of the sheep. to a recall. This is a must for the protection of the sheep.
Lie Down-(or Stand Still):
Necessary to stop the dog's movements. This is also not an obedience lie down where the dog waits for a release word. The dog can go back to work based on your command, movement or in order to control the movements of the sheep.
Don't move until I tell you.
To send the dog clockwise around the sheep.
To send the dog counter clockwise around the sheep

Basic Herding Terms

The correct position of the dog related to the handler and the sheep in order to perform whatever task is required.
The side to side movement of the dog to keep the sheep grouped.
All the work the dog performs to bring the sheep together into a group.
After the gather, this is when the dog approaches and makes contact with the sheep. This is suppose to be quiet with the dog under complete control.
The act of bringing the sheep to the handler.
The dog moving the sheep away from the handler. This is more difficult to teach the dog because their natural instinct is to bring the sheep to you.
To separate the sheep into two groups

Herding Trials

Herding trials began as a "friendly" competition between farmers/ranchers to determine who had the best working dog. It also helps for breeding purposes to keep the strong working lines. There are several organizations that sponsor herding trials:

  • United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA)
  • Australian Shepherds' Club of America (ASCA)
  • American Herding Breed Association (AHBA)
  • American Kennel Club (AKC)

Trial CourseIn order to compete in any of these venues, the dog must be on its list of recognized herding breeds. With AKC, it also must be an AKC herding breed. As of yet, the Farmdog has not been recognized by any of these groups but could possibly be recognized in the future by ASCA and/or AHBA.

Although slightly different in each venue, each as several levels of competition ranging from a novice to advanced levels. At the novice level, the handler can stay with the sheep and dog as they maneuver around the course.

The idea of the course is to simulate working conditions for the dog which includes driving through gates and, depending on the level, ending with a pen. As the handler advances through the higher levels, the distance between the course increases until finally, the handler must stand in a fixed spot until the last test of penning the sheep. In the advanced level (Open) of the USBCHA trials, the dog is also required to Shed the sheep which means to divide them in have and hold one group until the judge is satisfied the task as been completed. In International competitions, the sheep are mark into two groups to designate how they are to be separated (I.e. the movie "Babe").