Home   Shetla's Boisterous Breeze shows off her stunning profile
Member of the Danish Shetland Sheepdog Club
Member of the Danish Kennel Club

How I Got Hooked on Herding

Read about my highs and lows herding with Breezy the first year,
and why herding is such a different activity from agility and obedience.

Text by Nanna Holt Kjaer (September 2001)

My Herding History

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 ever since.

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 First Herding Experience

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 needed.

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.

Actual Training Begins

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 the sheep.

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.

Our First 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.


Making 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 sheep.


Skill Training 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.

Hooked on Herding

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!