Category Archives: Herding

Herding with Dan

This past weekend, Justin and I took Dan to his very first herding lesson. We all had a blast!

Dan saw some sheep in a pasture before we even started slowing down to turn into the drive and you could just see his face light up.

We arrived early and while we waited our turn, we practiced relaxed downs in the backseat of the car. He did great. In this type of situation, a new place that seems exciting, many times Dan will react to other dogs even from the car. The German shepherd who went before us walked by our car and although Dan was very aroused, he didn’t bark and was able to “check” (look at that) and remain focused on us.

The lesson began with our instructor working Dan. This was great fun for Justin and I to watch. There was a minute or two where Dan was barking, anxious, and just running in big, uncontrolled circles. His hackles were up; he was clearly on edge. However, he soon relaxed a little, his hair went down, his face relaxed, he stopped barking, and started to move in a more controlled way. It seemed as though he finally started to think about what was going on instead of just exploding! Our instructor started teaching him to turn away so that he would begin to move back and forth, bringing the sheep toward the handler, rather than just circling. Soon he had Dan taking the sheep exactly where he wanted. It was beautiful to watch.

Then it was my turn. Yikes! Poor Dan!! I have a LOT to learn.

The idea is that you turn your dog away from you by moving into his space, putting pressure on him, and when he turns you relax that pressure and let him do a quarter circle or so away from you around the sheep. Doing this back and forth teaches him to bring the sheep toward you. When you go the wrong way, the pressure is not let up as a reward, so basically your dog isn’t getting his reinforcer! I did this to poor Dan several times before the instructor provided more help and you could really see his behavior change. He became more frustrated, driving at the sheep harder and more aggressively. When the instructor stepped back in, Dan immediately relaxed again, doing his job as asked. When it was my turn again, I finally was able to move the right way. Although it wasn’t very smooth looking, it felt better and I was glad to be able to give Dan some resemblance of a reward. Good thing dogs are so forgiving!

I have to say, this was one of the best experiences I have had in dog training in a very long time. Dan and I have practiced so much impulse control, relaxation exercises, and loose leash walking – while these are necessary skills, they are all about fighting Dan’s instinctual and natural behaviors to run, chase, pull and bark. It was such a treat to get to embrace his natural abilities and see him just thrive in that environment.

Not only was it fun to watch Dan doing what he is meant to do, it was eye-opening to be the “student” again. I really know very little about herding. I just know the general goals and rules of herding trials. I have watched herding trials and been around sheep in several different environments, but watching and doing are two very different things!

I will be honest, it was very frustrating to do the wrong thing and feel like I couldn’t figure out how to do it correctly. This only lasted a few seconds before our instructor saved us, but that feeling is a really good one for any teacher or coach to experience regularly because, chances are, your students are feeling that way too!

Kay Laurence, a well-known dog trainer and speaker at the annual conference that my graduate school hosted, always talks about how important it is to her to always be learning something new. The last time I saw her, she was taking a glass-blowing class. I didn’t really understand that at the time, other than just for the sake of learning, but I was still in school. The experience of trying something that I had no idea how to do reminded me that learning is HARD! Getting to that successful moment was so important for me and extremely reinforcing.

We can’t wait for our next lesson!

Here’s a short clip of Dan doing his job, just a few minutes into our lesson:

Sheepdog Trials – a “quick” trip to Klamath Falls

This week I made a last minute decision to check out the USBCHA National Finals in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  I was already so excited to go when I learned that Klamath Falls is 6 hours away!  I almost didn’t go, but decided to make the trek through the woods and mountains of Oregon, which I learned can be a little scary by yourself in the dark with no cell service and the threat that the road I was on would close for the night only 20 minutes after I left it.  I made it though and got to see Wednesday morning’s runs.

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The woods of southern Oregon at sunset
PictureFirst run of the morning promptly at 8 am. Dog people are early risers!

The top 150 handlers from around the country were competing and just to emphasize how difficult the runs can be, only about half of them finished in time with a score.  Some ran out of time, some withdrew early due to a bad first part of the run.  Many of these handlers have been doing this for a lifetime and have several dogs at the competition level at any given time.  Although I am still just learning about all of the components of sheepdog trials, I’d like to share a little bit about the structure and rules so that you can all get hooked on the sport too!

In this particular organization, only border collies are worked, but any herding breed can find a place to practice and compete in herding (the rules and techniques may differ from breed to breed).  I watched the open runs, which is for dogs who are 3 and older.  During these runs, the handler and dog start at a post about 600-800 yards from the sheep.  The handler sends the dog to the sheep (the outrun) and the dog must curve way around so that the sheep are not disturbed by the dog.  The dog then begins to move the sheep (the lift) directly to the handler through the first set of gates (the fetch).  The dog must direct the sheep around the handler, through two more gates (the drive), and into the shedding circle.  Until this point, the handler must stay at the post and direct the dog with either a whistle or voice commands.  The dog then must split the four sheep into two clear groups without too much help from the handler, although the handler is allowed to move into the shedding circle.  Once the judge approves the split, the handler moves to the pen, the dog directs the sheep into the pen, and the handler closes the gate.  The handler is not allowed to drop the rope on the gate while the dog is penning the sheep.  The team has 15 minutes to complete these tasks.

Some of the common herding commands that the handler uses to direct the dog are:

  • Away/away to me: circle counterclockwise around sheep
  • Come by: circle clockwise around sheep
  • Lay down:  really means stop/slow down/crouch, rarely does the dog actually lay down all the way
  • Walk on: move directly towards the sheep
  • Steady/easy: slow down
  • That’ll do: stop what you’re doing and come to the handler/work is done

Those are the basics, but there are many subtleties and nuances to herding that you and your dog learn as you go.  The handler must know her dog very well and be able to notice the smallest difference in the way the dog is working.  The handler must also be good at understanding the sheep, analyzing how they work and predicting what they will do as a result of what the dog does.  It is all a very delicate balance and beautiful to watch.  There is just nothing like watching a dog work sheep, switching between broad large movements from a distance and tight control close in to the flock.

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Outrun – the sheep are way off to the left of the shot, but the dog must curve out and around to avoid startling the sheep.
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Part of the drive – sending them right through the gates.
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Penning the sheep. The handler can move around but can’t let go of the rope. The dog and handler work together to funnel the sheep into the pen and close the gate to end the run.

This weekend they will be broadcasting the semi-finals and finals live at: http://sheepdogfinals.org/wordpress1/live-webcast/

I urge you to take even just a few minutes to check it out, especially if you’ve never seen herding before.  It’s really amazing to watch!  Also, there is more information about sheepdog trialing on the USBCHA website at:http://www.usbcha.com/index.html and at the ABCA website at: http://www.americanbordercollie.org/.

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Beautiful Oregon. A snowy mountain behind Odell Lake on the trip home.