Herding Foundations

Building a solid foundation from the ground up
Herding Foundations


What makes a solid foundation in Herding training?

Think about building the skills and training of your dog,  like you would a solid wall of a house or structure.  It should be strong enough to support the next levels and the weight or change in pressure from strong winds or changes in the environment. You know that if you put a very nice second floor on a poorly built lower wall or first floor, no matter how skillfully you build the second floor, if the main foundation is not solid, the second floor will come tumbling down.

The same applies when you begin to train a dog to do anything that requires a changing and growing skill set and to become an expert at something we want to learn and possibly teach to another – canine or otherwise.

You also have to consider what makes a good herding dog Naturally, or in other words, what traits, whatever the breed, can you define that make a great herding dog? The answer to this is different for different people who have a different purpose for their dog.  But in general there are many characteristics we hope the dog will come with through selective breeding for a working herding dog whatever the breed.

In the Herding Foundations approach to learning and teaching, I was always taught that MOTIVATION is the foundation for everything.  I believe this to be true.  Without a desire to do something, what compels the individual to exhibit the behaviour?  If I want to teach my dog a new trick or to behave, I reward good behaviour with something the dog finds valuable, and in most cases its food or play.  Sometimes it’s just the pleasure of my company. It really depends on the dog.

If you have ever worked with a very instinctive well bred herding dog, you are usually first astonished at their seemingly Natural ability to control livestock, the sense of group, their ability to read and rate the stock can be dumbfounding.  It is INSTINCT which is the companion of MOTIVATION when you are discussing herding dogs.  The instinct or nature of the dog’s desire to control stock or at least do Something with them, is all the motivation they need to set things in motion.

Figure 1 on the next page illustrates Motivation/Instinct as a critical part in the foundation for the rest of your herding training.  In many other dog sports, there are times we may need to motivate our dogs with more praise, or more food, or more play, while in herding, the trigger to work should be at least somewhat built in.  This doesn’t mean we never need to praise or reward in some fashion, but in herding, food is rarely the reward of choice, nor is tugging a toy etc.  Simply allowing access to sheep is reward enough.

Be careful however, with too harsh a correction, or unfair training methods, even a very talented, very highly driven dog can become unmotivated to work, and sometimes, especially for you. Very talented dogs are frequently misinterpreted as untalented when they are seen to quit or grip too often.  This can be a direct result of too much pressure too soon for a young or inexperienced dog.

Below is a rough draft of what your herding Foundation Pyramid might look like.  I suspect most should value Motivation and Instinct as a very critical force in the support for all things to come.  But another significantly important  variable to consider and develop is the dog’s willingness to please.  Look past this for now and review the diagram to see the importance of Instinct.  We will return to the second part of the base of this foundation pyramid shortly.


To clarify some terms…

Motivation,  Drive, Determination

Motivation can be described as :the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way or the general desire or willingness of an individual or group to do something.

Drive is : (of a fact or feeling) compel (someone) to act in a particular way, especially one that is considered undesirable or inappropriate and Correction

Determination is: a tendency to move in a fixed direction in spite of obstacles

When we teach others – dogs, other animals and or people; a key ingredient to the success of learning is motivation.  Without the desire to do something, most of us would lose interest or not find the planned goal interesting.

For example we use food rewards and praise when teaching our dogs other things such as obedience or agility or just plain good citizenship.  When we train a pup to come we use praise and touching if this is what the pup values.  Food is often the motivator for teaching our 4 legged friends new tricks or desired behaviours.  Alternatively we use some form of correction or removal of reward if they do not perform the task correctly.

Much of the discussion on rewards and corrections as they apply in herding are discussed in the course Rewards and Corrections.

It is important to note that all dogs must be motivated by something in order for them to have the desire or willingness to do something.   However in herding we rely on something called “Herding Instinct” to provide all the motivation we need for us to ask our dogs to learn new things.  Because they have a natural instinct to “herd” or keep stock grouped and move them from place to place under control, it is easy to shape their behaviour using a variety of techniques.  And the Reward is gaining access to livestock.  And you control access and dispense access to livestock when the dog is correct and executing the behaviours you desire.

It’s in this way we can keep them motivated and control the rewards by better understanding livestock and the dog’s behaviour at the same time.

There is another factor at play which we will address coming up and it is the dog’s desire to please you and do what it is you want in order to get what he/she wants.  This will be discussed in the next section under (Trainability and Relationship)


Instinct can be defined as: an innate, typically fixed pattern of behaviour in animals in response to certain stimuli.  So Herding Instinct we can explain as an innate or fixed behaviour to control livestock.  There is no specific training required and yet certain instinctive behaviours occur in nature such as flight in birds and birdsong, maternal instincts, and prey drive are all good examples.

Breeding is one way that individuals inherit the behaviour of feeling this strong desire to move and or stop/control livestock.  Often, but not always, the parents of the dog will pass on this instinct in a variety of different manners.  Not all dogs bred to herd will herd successfully and not all dogs exhibit instinct to herd in the same manner.  (Tully Williams)

There is an entire library of books and realms of literature on the determining factors of inheritance which I wont go into here.  But there are also a large variety of herding behaviours that run along a spectrum from the stalk, hunt, chase, catch and even kill part of un modified herding behaviours, and those less intense that guide a livestock guardian dog to protect and keep together a large flock of sheep. (Coppinger and Coppinger)

Natural ability is commonly referenced as the natural desire to keep stock grouped and not to separate/single individuals out from a group to catch them and harm them.  A dog who is very natural, seems to have immediate control over his flocks with little effort and little advice form his handler.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

A dog with natural ability can feel and “Rate” it’s stock without bad intentions.  But not all dogs start out this way.  Nor do all dogs or breeds of dogs demonstrate instinct int he same way.

In fact many different breeds were designed for entirely different purposes to assist mankind in their endeavour to keep and manage domestic herds or flocks of animals.

Again the topic of the number of breeds that were selected for their varying degrees of interest in managing flocks is a vast subject.  See the article Many Breeds Herd in the Member Resources section

Some breeds have been carefully selected to have intense eye, cast very wide and far across a field and gather hundreds or even thousands of sheep or cattle on a range while others were bred to work up close in pens and chutes, tight spaces and into corners.  Some are better at cattle while others reign as the premier sheepdog.

Either way, you may have one of these breeds or you may have a breed which was intended as a multipurpose dog; daily chores, family companion, part-time guardian and otherwise all around wonderful team mate.

Your job is to bring the best out in your job and a a good trainer will be able to see the value in any dog provided they show interest or motivation to ‘work’ the livestock.

Having discussed the importance of Instinct and its companion Motivation, we see also, the importance of as dog’s inherent desire to please his handler, a term commonly referred to as biddability or trainability.  Each dog will have fall on a spectrum where they have either a strong desire to please, no desire to please, and somewheres in the middle.

For the purposes of this Foundation Pyramid, the companion to Trainability, assuming a dog is born with a certain kind or amount, is Relationship.  Like Instinct (what one is born with or its nature) is companion to Motivation (something we can nature or inspire).  Then so is one’s Relationship with one’s herding partner, a nurture-able thing, where often one can see a great dog handler team, has established a good solid working relationship.  On the contrary, we see some dog handler teams which have little to no relationship , yet the dog with a different handler may rightly shine.


Biddability: another term in herding used to refer to the dog’s interest in taking direction, or trainability.  Some dogs are actually born with a good Work Ethic.  They inherently want to please you and inspire of their instinct to control livestock they are willing to consider doing it your way.

There are many dogs which might take a little convincing that you are worth listening to.  Which is part of the purpose of this program.  That you become a better handler, learn to see what your dog sees and how to motivate him to work in a fashion that matches his natural ability and suits you both.

Training a work ethic, although possible to develop, starts as a pup with expectations on your dog as a team player.  It is important that the dog considers you at least an equal partner if not, and hopefully, a leader in this game of managing livestock.

Whether the dog has a strong work ethic, was born with this characteristic or not, the dog must demonstrate some degree of accepting you as their leader.

Relationship: your role in the dogs mind

If Biddability is built in, hard wired or instinctive to a degree, you can alter, mold and adapt the dog’s willingness to accept you as their leader through developing a good relationship with the dog.  Whether you start your relationship with your dog as a puppy or a more mature dog starting a career in herding, all dog’s seek to understand their role in the team in all of the activities you engage in.

Your dog wants to be clear in what your expectations of them are, from the walks you take, to training classes, tricks you teach, and especially in herding.

When Instinct plays a role, it is far less likely you will be better at it than your dog.  If he is a herding dog he is far more likely to know more than you when starting out.  If he is a tracking dog he will be more natural at this than you are and will have a better nose than you, he will be faster than you, thinking ahead of you and perhaps – even thinking completely different things than you are because he/she is hard wired for this with their INSTINCT.

This is particularly obvious when a newbie herding person starts out in herding with a naturally talented dog or a very keen, intense, or overly excited dog.  What might have been a perfectly obedient dog during walks and social gatherings appears to have no obedience, no training and NO respect for their owner whatsoever!  Sheep are everywhere, handlers are yelling out DOWN DOWN DOWN and nothing is working.

This is why sometimes if you will see people being dragged to the stock by their dogs, it is a good indicator of who is in charge.

Your relationship with your dog is reflected in everything you do and often the more you do with your dog – the better your relationship.

This diagram below illustrates the Foundation Approach to Herding.  It has two basic premises; 1) the Foundation for everything is Motivation and in herding it comes in the form of Herding Instinct which drives the dog to do what he is bred to do, or not.   2) your dog’s willingness to please you also known as Trainability or Biddability, is better understood by his natural work ethic and his choice to use his instinct and talents to work for you.  A good solid Relationship with your dog, can assist if you are working with a naturally more independent dog.

Both Instinct and Motivation are like the Nature/nurture counterparts.  One they are born with while the other one, you can nurture.   It is much the same with a dog’s natural inclination to want to please you – or something often referred to as Biddability.  Your dog was born, either by accident or through careful breeding, to want to please you or not.  And in varying degrees.  Some dogs are very malleable and see herding as a team sport. Others are quite independent and even with a strong handler – may have difficulty relinquishing any control.  The latter are not the easiest dogs for beginners to take on.

Some dog handler teams have a wonderful relationship off the field and a completely non existence respect when they get to livestock.  It is a frequent question I ask people when they first introduce their dog to stock; “ Can you call him off?” .  Some answer with a version of “I have no Idea”, and others who come with a dog completely obedience trained offer the Patent “ YES I CAN” and are surprised to learn their wonderfully obedient dog says “Hell No”, and continues in hot pursuit of a single sheep.  No amount of calling the dog will take his eyes off the livestock.

Making the Call – Off, one of the very first things you will need to consider teaching your dog. 🙂 .








Finally, this philosophy is based on observation, and learning by doing.  It is critical you are a keen observer and can understand your own dog’s behaviour.  You should be able to detect when you are applying too much pressure on the dog either by introducing a task more complicated than he is ready for.  Or livestock which are too challenging for the dog at his particular stage in maturity and training.

The Foundation Method approach to training of any kind, is grounded with a solid understanding of your own dog and your ability to discover his natural ability.  Looking at herding from the dog’s point of view may sound ridiculous but it is the ability to consider what is happening and why, in every given situation.

Remember it is a Three Ring Circus and any circumstance or problem you might be having in training, requires you to be able to evaluate the dog, the stock and your handling.  It’s never just the dog’s fault.  Nor is it just bad sheep or cattle etc.  If you learn to be observant and respect the Foundation Approach to training, there is likely a clear solution to your problem.

To clarify; when facing a problem in herding, it is much more likely you may be attempting something more challenging than your dog is prepared for (genetics, experience) or trained for (this one is on you).  It is much more likely that you are expecting the dog to do something you haven’t trained or you are missing the bricks beneath this skill which support upward growth.

It is very important to be certain your dog has a solid DOWN for example in order to successfully and more easily teach him to drive.  Since DOWN is an early foundation skill, we would expect that we have taken the time to teach a dog the DOWN both AWAY from stock and then with stock adding distraction, duration and distance.

Although it isn’t necessary to DOWN during driving, it will be a very KEY brick to leave out of your foundation wall for future skills you will want to develop.

To review the diagram, take Scenario A , let’s assume we have tons of motivation and lots of natural instinct.  But you have little of the dog’s desire to please anyone other than himself.  He is inherently a hard worker – will never quit, but lacks the objective or working WITH you or FOR you.  This is a critical opportunity for you to identify what you can do to better your relationship.

Scenario B, we have a moderately talented dog but he is tremendously interested in working with you.  This might be an easier dog to begin to train with.  In fact, sounds like a really fun dog to work.  Wants to please as well as has enough genuine interest and instinct to keep stock grouped, retrieve stragglers, stay calm.  Only time will tell if this dog will be able to go the distance of yew are looking for competition material or wide open spaces in a ranch setting.

Scenario C, just for fun, a dog who is not at all interested in stock but wants to please so badly, he will do anything you want and tries to learn and understand herding by putting himself in the correct position.  This will be a fun dog but might not keep you out of difficult situations, and often these kinds of dogs will take their eyes and pressure off of the livestock long enough that the stock also feel they are not being controlled. This sort of dog as I said is fun, but I would not rely on this dog for real work – or likely for trialing either.

So dogs are all on a continuum with respect to where they lie in natural ability or instinct, and how important pleasing you will be in your future work.  If you are intuitive, and have read and understand the dog you have, and you continue to build his confidence with every training session, you will be well on your way to a wonderful working relationship with your dogs.

Key Points

The “Ten Commandments” of Herding Foundation approach and how to remind yourself to always look at things from the dog’s point of view.

  • Try to look at things from the dog’s point of view. ALWAYS stop to consider; is the dog skilled enough to do what I have asked? Has the dog been given proper FOUNDATION training to be sure he has the support beneath to handle the bricks you are laying on top? Has the dog enough EXPERIENCE or CONFIDENCE required to execute the lessons you are teaching?  Are the stock you are using appropriate for the work you are trying to train.
  • Body Language is Key. You are either intentionally or inadvertently applying pressure to your dog. People are far more animated and vocal than dogs.  We flap and yell and swing things about….Be aware of your body and use it as carefully as you can.  Dog’s are minimalists, they can frighten off a whole litter of unwanted puppies by sucking in a growl, or raising a lip to reveal a single shiny white tooth!
  • Always go back to Foundations, this is not a bad thing to revisit and brush up on basic skills for a day or two or a week. In fact I would love to spend the day at Kindergarten again where everyone is nice, there is lots of fun things to do, I get much praise and access to all the toys I want without correction….. Walk abouts are great Kindergarten exercises.
  • Rewards and Corrections in Herding are unique. Access to Livestock is a Reward, as is a Release of Pressure.   Corrections can involve adding pressure through body language or preventing access to stock before you get what you are seeking from the dog. Verbal praise and correction can be more valuable to one dog than to another – try to figure out your dog’s favourite reward and most effective correction – (hint – pressure and access).
  • Always consider Your Role in the Three Ring Circus. It wouldn’t be a 3 Ring Circus without the second and third variables – your dog, and the stock.  All three things must be considered when evaluating a situation, good or bad.
  • Allowing the dog to work, un impaired by your handling or direction (using Bob’s walk about approach and trust) will tell you a great deal about your dog. Knowing what kind of dog you have will only be possible if you allow him to work and show you what he came with and what you might have to ‘install’.
  • Try to work on one thing at a time and choose one thing which trumps all others so that if you meet your objective, you will be aware to make a big deal of your dog’s success and not overlook it because he didn’t do everything else you wanted. The Man Who Chases Two Rabbits Catches None – Chinese Proverb
  • Trust your dog along the way and if there is reason not to, retreat and show the dog again what you expect, then trust again. A dog will not intentionally try to piss you off.  This is a myth.  If he has developed a bad habit, you were the leading force behind it. No excuses.
  • Be Kind, for every moment your dog is out there with you he is trying. My friend Bob used to say: “If he hasn’t left the arena , he’s still trying.”  And if he has left, consider looking at things form his point of view, were you Clear? Were you Fair?
  • Be Grateful, this is only one moment in time you will get to spend with your dog among all the days they wait at home for you to “pick them” to work, or to go for a ride, or travel to the trials.  Their lives are short and never enough, so be grateful you have this wonderful companion to work with.







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