Text by Nanna Holt Kjaer (September 2001)
I think I have been
fascinated by herding dogs most of my life. I spent a few years of my childhood
in England, and some of that time in a small village on the edge of Dartmoor in
Devon. I made friends with a farm border collie there. He would wait for me
outside the village school at lunch, walk home with me and sit by my side with
his wonderful brown eyes watching me eat. It always paid off, of course J. We also played, especially chase. His name was Jip.
It said so on his collar. And I guess I have had a soft spot for border collies
My interest in the actual
working ability of herding dogs was probably sparked by watching the famous BBC
series “One Man and His Dog”. The commentary really made you appreciate each of
the tasks at the trial and just how clever these dogs are. I was particularly
fond of the interviews with some of the triallers where they are shown working
their dogs on the home farm.
My family got our first
two shelties while we were living in England. My first personal “real life”
experience with a herding dog was when one of these took off on a country walk:
she disappeared over a hill and came back with a dozen sheep. Of course we
humans didn’t hold up our end of the job, so the sheep just cantered by us
across the path and over a hill on the other side. I was about nine years old
at the time.
My first serious
experience with herding was years later, when I saw an advertisement for an all
herding breed instinct test in the Danish Kennel Club’s newsletter. I got my
mother keen on the idea, and we packed up our three adult shelties and a
nine-week-old puppy. None of our first shelties was alive by then, so these
were dogs with no prior experience with stock.
None of our shelties
showed any real herding instinct that day. I was not terribly disappointed, as
I had read that several exposures might be called for. There were two other
shelties there that did show a keen sense of balance and cover. It was
fascinating to watch. There were, of course, other breeds. I think about 25%
showed keen interest in the stock, and these were offered the chance of
participating in a weekly herding class.
I tried these three adult
shelties twice more at different locations. Only one showed an inclination for
cover and balance, but she lacked the confidence to keep sustained pressure on
the sheep and actually control them. This was Breezy’s mother-to-be, though I
didn’t know it at the time. Incidentally, one of the two shelties to show
ability for cover and balance at that first test was this bitch’s uncle –
Breezy’s great uncle in other words.
In spite of their not
passing any instinct test, I did actually get to do some meaningful work with
them by accident one day. One of our favourite local walks goes past a big
field of sheep. The fence is not always in the best repair, so one day we found
three big lambs on the wrong side of the fence. By heading around to the
outside of these three myself, my dogs somehow understood to go in the right
direction. They went around the sheep and set them off towards the fence. The
lambs of course wanted to go to their mothers now that “danger” was mounting,
which is most likely the main reason that we rookie herders managed the job and
actually got them back through the broken fence. But I was very proud of my
dogs, and they had certainly been a big help. I am sure those lambs would have
given me a good run around, had I been all on my own.
Breezy – My True Shetland SHEEPdog
Breezy is from the second
litter bred here at Shetla. My aim with the breeding was mainly excellent
structure and work ethic for the agility ring. I bred her dam to a Danish-bred
but 100 percent American male. Similar combinations had been done by the dam’s
breeder, who also owned this stud dog. Breezy is consequently 62.5 percent
American blood, and is linebred on the American import AM/Can /Danish Ch
Rosewood U.S. Marshall. Marshall was such a beautiful sheltie. His movement was
absolutely breathtaking. And I am overjoyed to see that Breezy has definitely
inherited some of that Marshall magic.
True to my main goal (the
agility ring), I played and trained Breezy with this in mind. One of the things
she was not only allowed, but in fact encouraged to do, was to chase birds. I
was very focused on rewarding speed and distance, and chasing birds was just
ideal for this. Perhaps this helped bring out her herding instinct as well, I
don’t know. I feel quite sure that all this early interaction with me laid a
solid foundation for our herding partnership. She was taught to cue off of my
body language and movement from a very early age.
Breezy’s frist exposure to
sheep is something I will never forget. She was only just nine months of age. I
had travelled to Norway with my other shelties to compete in a big week-long
agility event. I had been to this event before, two years earlier, so I had
gotten to know some the people from the hosting club. Among these friends was a
couple who own and breed border collies. They are also into herding, and they
didn’t live far from the venue site. So off we went on the midweek day of rest.
I was so happy to be able to let this place be Breezy’s first experience with
sheep. First of all, because the sheep would not be enclosed in a small pen,
and second because their experienced border collie is wonderful at holding the
sheep from far away, so novice dogs think that they are doing all the work and
get a big confidence boost.
Breezy and I sat outside
the field watching a couple of other dogs (border collies) work the sheep. She
didn’t take her eyes off those sheep the entire time. I was starting to get a
bit excited – she was showing a strong interest. I tried to keep my
expectations in check, though.
Finally it was our turn.
When I got within a few meters of the sheep, my host told me to let her off the
lead, and we would see what she wanted to do. Shep, the border collie, was
lying hidden by long grass some 40 meters away, up the side of a hill where the
sheep tended to want to bolt to. He was not actually inside the sheep’s zone,
so he wasn’t holding them – he was just there to be discovered if they did try
to bolt. I stood at the opposite side, nearly balancing Shep. This was not
something I was conscious of at the time; I just did what I was told to do. But
I now know more about herding, and I recognize how well set up this was for me
and my dog. Lucky I had such a good host/instructor.
Breezy did the most
wonderful thing. She made a half-circle around the five sheep and started to
come in on them at the balance point. It wasn’t neat and calm – duh, that would
be asking a bit much!! She barked like mad and she ran full speed, but she
certainly did appropriate actions. After pushing the sheep on, over and past
her klutz of an owner several times, she gave up on me and decided to take the
sheep to the instructor, who was standing a few meters from me. He, of course,
knew what to do and moved around the sheep himself, giving her work to do,
holding the sheep to him. I backed away to the fence line and just enjoyed
watching. I was amazed that she just worked with him and didn’t worry about me
not being there. Not that she is a very timid sheltie, but usually she does
like to have the assurance of my presence. And she was only just nine months
old, after all, and this man was a complete stranger to her. It didn’t matter
one iota. She recognized him as a good herding partner and that was all she
Oh, it was such a thrill.
I will treasure that day always, and I am so grateful to my Norwegian friends
for giving me and my dog such a wonderful start in our herding life. It is
difficult to tell others about the thrill of herding. It is just such a special
experience having your dog react instinctively to stock and to your own
movements. The dog’s ability to read the intention of the stock is utterly
amazing and leaves me in such awe. Every time my dog and I do the herding dance
with grace, it is a rush. That feeling of perfect partnership and communication
is what makes you hooked on herding.
Our next wonderful
encounter with sheep was in Sweden about a month later. This was with Maud
Grönberger, herding instructor and author of Herdeskolans ABC – Dansa med vallhundar (Dancing With Herding Dogs),
a Swedish book about herding with dogs.
I cannot express how
important Maud’s influence has been for me. I consider myself very fortunate to
have had her as my first herding instructor. Maud’s way is all about herding
being as low-stress as possible for all parties involved: sheep, handler and dog.
From the start she emphasizes that the handler reads the sheep: to be aware of
the sheep’s possible direction of movement; of certain places “attracting” the
sheep, like a gate or barn or hill. This influences the pressure point, the
dog’s position in regards to the sheep for getting them to move in a certain
direction. A herding dog wants to control the sheep, and therefore wants to
reach that pressure point quickly. If the handler sends the dog the long way
around the sheep, the pressure can be too much for the dog, causing him to cut
in through the sheep in order to reach that pressure point and gain control of
Breezy and I visited
Maud’s farm three times spaced out over slightly more than a month. Then we had
three “sheepless” winter months before I finally managed to find us some
training sheep in Denmark. Through an agility friend I got a place in a small
herding group of border collies. This was a group ranging from complete novices
to people with a couple of years experience and a little trialling in class one
under their belts. There was not any instructor as such; the more experienced
just generously gave out advice.
Breezy and I did mainly
walkabouts with constant changing in direction – basically me moving in
relation to the sheep and shifting the balance, which made Breezy shift her
position to cover the sheep. Maud had taught me to start off with letting
Breezy head the sheep again and again, so I had to keep moving around the flock
away from the heads of the sheep to give her work to do. The basic herding
instinct of a heading dog (border collies and shelties are both heading dogs
mainly) is to stop the sheep by going to their heads. And so if the handler makes sure to move away from the heads,
this lets the dog satisfy his instinct, which makes for a calmer herding dog.
Calming the dog down is important; novice herding dogs easily get excited and
overenthusiastic around stock.
Herding Clinic in Denmark
Our little training group
organized our own little weekend clinic. The more experienced of the group
invited a border collie breeder and herder (I think also a herding trial judge,
but I am not sure). All the novices were told to work their dogs on the outside
of a small holding pen. The handlers were to get an understanding of balance
this way. I have to say that I was somewhat annoyed by this instructor. I did
not feel that I was listened to or that Breezy and I were properly evaluated.
It seemed to me that it was just assumed that neither of us had any idea of
balance and cover. No, no, I had to learn that if I took a step to the right
around the sheep, my dog would also move to the right on the opposite side of
the sheep – duh! I do not like being treated like an idiot! Let’s just say that
this did not exactly warm me to this instructor. I think no matter what the
area of performance is, a good instructor individualizes the instruction to
suit the need and level of each dog-handler team.
Despite my reservations, I
was insecure because of my inexperience with herding. Maybe I did not have a
complete understanding of balance and cover. Perhaps this instructor saw flaws
that I was unaware of. So I did as I was instructed. Breezy circled and circled
that small pen, and she started barking a lot more than before. Finally when
that didn’t do the trick, she tried “attacking” the sheep through the fence. I
think she got frustrated by the sheep not moving. And I still don’t see the
point of us walking around and around that pen, first one direction then the
other. For crying out loud, my dog could cover sheep in the open field, what
did we need a pen for? Can anyone explain this to me? The instructor’s answer
was to repeat the initial statement of learning the dance of the balance. I
don’t think she listened to me when I said that we knew that dance, that we had
been doing it for two months on loose sheep.
I tried this pen thing for
a month with weekly training sessions. And perhaps I gained some more control
over Breezy in the sense that here I could concentrate on stopping her fully
without worrying about what the sheep were doing. But we certainly paid for it.
She grew frantic, barking and biting the fence in frustration over the sheep
not moving. These were not good pen sheep, to say the least.
When we went back to the
loose sheep, she was a nightmare and I went home crying that I had ruined my
incredible and talented little sheltie. She charged at those sheep, she bit
them, she split them, she was out of control and did not hold them to me. I did
not enter the equation. She no longer considered me as part of the herding
partnership. She just wanted to whack those woollies.
I still thank my lucky
stars that this “damage” was not permanent. At our next training session, I
thought I would give the calculated anger a try. So as soon as she started her
mad darting about amongst the sheep, I charged through the sheep right at her,
screaming bloody murder and threw the leash on the ground a few feet from her.
She stopped right in her tracks and looked at me with surprise written all over
her face: “Goodness – are you here?” Poof, I had my marvellous little Breezy
back. That day I went home crying with relief. Herding can be quite an
emotional roller coaster.
Progress – Doing “Real” Work
During that first spring
of herding training, we advanced to be among the three most reliable dogs
there. Hence we also advanced to “setting up the sheep for novices” duty. I
honestly don’t think that Breezy progressed a lot in her skills, but perhaps
she grew in confidence. Mostly I think I was the one who progressed in my
ability to help her move the sheep where we wanted to go. So maybe her trust in
me as a partner grew.
Part of our new job
description was fetching the sheep from a wooded hill at the far end of a big
field, walking the sheep through most of that field and then through a side
gate into the smaller field where the training took place. Oh boy, did we have
fun with this job. I think we both enjoyed doing something that had more
purpose than just walking about.
The first few times the
sheep would leg it somewhere along the long walk through the big field. They
liked to try and bolt from one end of this field to the other. Initially I
didn’t like to let Breezy chase after them – I was worried she would fail to
manage them on her own or grow some bad habits. But getting tired of walking
back and forth in this big field, I decided enough was enough: those sheep were
being trained to heat us. So the next time those tricky sheep tried to give us
the slip by running past me, I said “Tsssht Tsssht – go get them!” to Breezy,
and she seemed to kick into warp speed and positively flew across that field.
This was no beautiful rounded outrun. This was flat-out racing. She sped up
close alongside the sheep and barked at the lead row of sheep. I have later been
told that this is the sheltie way to catch sheep on the run. Shelties have to
make up for their small size. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a sheltie
to run wide and still chase down bolting sheep.
Once alongside the lead
sheep, Breezy soon turned the flock and had them coming back to me. Now we
still didn’t have control of the sheep; basically they were just trying to
outrun her in the other direction. There I was facing a compact wall of sheep
charging straight towards me at full speed. Goodness, me, I got a lot of
exercise during these first fetches. I had to run away to the side to keep the
sheep from running me down. Did I mention the horned ram in the group? Of
course my super fast little herding dog also responded to my moving to the side
and soon had the sheep heading straight for me again. Oh it was a good game,
that. Training a herding dog is excellent exercise for the person too.
Eventually both dog and sheep got closer to me, and she slowed down on her
flanking round the sheep, and control was established.
I think it took us three
or four sessions of this game before the sheep realized that they would not
escape anyway and stopped trying. I can still remember the first time we
managed to walk them along quietly through the field to the side gate. One of
those herding highs, you know.
Now that side gate is a
story in itself. Actually there were two gates to pass. First into one small
field, then into another slightly more elongated field. Now, through this
second gate it was also imperative to really watch it because the sheep wanted
to bolt for the far end of the field, away from all the dogs tied up at the
fence. So as soon as they came through the gate, I had to move quickly around
the sheep back to the gate. The reason I had to do this was of course that I
had practically no commands on Breezy. So she moved around the sheep in
relation to me and somewhat to external influences. Had I had a flanking
command, I could have just told her to move around the sheep to hold them from
bolting into the field. As it was, I had to do quite a lot of work myself, but
I enjoyed it. We were still discovering this wonderful work called herding
with Trials in Mind
Breezy and I have now
begun training more “seriously”, that is, with trial skills in mind. Step by
step her outrun is made wider and longer. Our main problem is distance to the
sheep. She tends to work close, so she needs to learn that she can also control
the sheep from farther away. We are also working on making her flanking
commands more solid at the same time.
Again I have found Maud’s
instructions extremely valuable. Before actual herding training, Maud believes
in teaching the dog to walk behind the handler on command, and to go away from
the handler on command (expelling the dog from its pack). Both are exercises
that dominate the dog, but used correctly they help make the dog calm about
working. I cannot explain this as well as Maud can, sorry.
The command for going away
comes in very handy for the outrun and flanking training. I use it much like
the “get out” command that I have seen described in English herding books. I
have found Breezy to be much more concentrated about doing the outrun when I
use the “go away” command to set her up for the outrun. I stand between her and
the sheep. I get eye contact and then I look away over her shoulder and tell
her to go away. When she has moved as far as I want, I tell her to stay there.
Then I look at the sheep to determine which is their likely direction of
movement, i.e. which way around is the shortest to the pressure point. When
increasing the distance or wanting to increase the chance of success, I then
place myself off to the side opposite to the side I am going to send her
around. This way the point of balance is closer for her initially and not all
the way around the sheep. “Go away, left” and she sets off nice and wide left
around the sheep. As she approaches the balance point in regards to me, I move
left around the sheep and keep moving till she has done a full half circle and
proper outrun around the sheep. Sometimes I have to add and extra “go away”
command to remind her to keep wide around the sheep.
Herding is still sometimes
an emotional roller coaster. Some days I drive home grinning from ear to ear
and singing out loud; other days I go home wet, cold, mucky and miserable, and
I wonder why I bother. I am sure Breezy also prefers the days when her herding
partner is attempting perfection, but hopefully she still finds fun and
satisfaction even on her partner’s off days.
On the way out to herding
practice, Breezy does this cute thing in the car. She sniffs the air that comes
out of the ventilators, just waiting to catch that first whiff of wool. When I
ask her if we are going out to see the sheep, she steps onto my thigh with her
front feet and gives me a few quick licks on the cheek. No barking, no being a
nuisance. Just alert and eager. A dog’s joy can be so wonderfully contagious.
Oh, we are hooked on herding all right. Happy herding!