Herding, the Three Ring Circus

And You are the Ringmaster right?

3 Rings to Master

We often hear people talk about Herding as an activity much like Puzzle Solving or carry on about it’s challenges and difficulties compared to many other dog sports or training experiences they have had with their dogs.
A woman once came up to me at an obedience training school inside a big coliseum. There were four rings going and in each, there was an instructor teaching something to a small collection of people. The woman had a large German Shepherd dog on the end of her leash and I recognized her from an instinct test a couple of years back. She was memorable because she was funny and enthusiastic when she came with her keen shepherd to an instinct test run by the club a few years earlier. Her dog had done well, and she was so impressed with his ‘natural’ ability, she asked many questions, and said she really wanted to get involved. Then I never heard from her again until that day in the training school.

She approached me excitedly and reminded me of her time at the farm, and said she has been very busy with her dog and work etc. She finished by saying she really wanted to come back to herding but she wanted to get all the HARD things out of the way first!  Hahahaha, I laughed out loud at her definition of herding as one of the “Easier” things she could do with her dog. But I guess she didn’t know just how complicated herding actually was.

She did in fact come back to herding maybe even a year or two at least later and had finished her CD and a few other things with her dog. He was now 6 or 7 and she wanted to try herding. She was a keen student and attended a couple of clinics on sheep and even went to try some cattle work. The dog was awesome and even though he had lost some athleticism with his years, he was a tough cookie, mellow, and easy to train.

His handler however was aghast at the very dynamics of the sport and was completely challenged. Between trying to figure out what she was supposed to do, why the sheep kept moving, and where was the dog supposed to be: she became frustrated but was so fun and animated when she spoke or complained it led us all to hysterical tears listening to her describe her three ring circus. “How can you teach your dog what you want when you don’t know what you want! , “ she exclaimed… “… and why do these sheep keep trying to kill me! “ … “ I don’t know anything about cows? ! “ Hahahahaha. “ Ducks? OH hell no” she said.

It was hard not to giggle at her complaints because she wasn’t angry. In fact she was quite amusing. And since most of us felt the same way at one point or another and or some were still at this stage where they realized, unlike other dogs sports, there was much more to learning what you need to know and then trying to find a way to teach it. But just figuring out WHAT you were supposed to be learning was often unclear. Add a second dimension, Instinct! Add to this, an ordinarily compliant dog, coming to life with ideas of his own which far over weigh your wishes. Finally the Third dimension of the 3 ring circus was the Sheep or any other type of livestock you might choose to work).

Knowing little or nothing about livestock, can keep you at a distinct disadvantage than someone who might have livestock experience.
So as you venture into sheepdog training, I often think there should be a whole pre-requisite to work on a farm with farm animals for a number of years to best understand How Sheep think or How Cows think, ducks geese and so on….. A second year or two to best understand Instinct in predators, canines especially, how they hunt, what exactly is Instinct, how herding is a modified Hunting behaviour and maybe even live with a prehistoric tribe of early hominids discovering the art of stealth, stalking, standing your ground against other predators, and working with your tribesmen to stay alive.

Finally if only there was a machine that could help you think like a dog. However cool it would be , it can only be best understood by getting a clear picture of your species, and with dogs, even more specifically, sub species, race or breed as we call them. Within a breed there is also specific LINES and whose lines which were selected for herding instinct will vary among bloodlines and within a breed quite readily. Where you get your dog from and how much went into the selection process to create a great dog for herding purposes, poses the question ; What kind of herding?

What? What kind, what do you mean? See the article on Many Breeds can herd.

Your herding dog may or may not have come from working lines of a specific breed. And according to what sort of use or purpose your dog was intended to work at; farm, ranch trial, strictly cow dog, or sheep field trials, fowl etc. Will determine what sort of traits have been selected for to make what he or she is considered to be a good dog. There is no such thing as a perfect dog, and in working dogs, there is a perfect dog for each kind of work but rarely the perfect dog for everything.

Back to our three ring circus. Herding is a very dynamic, ever changing sport. Because there are at least three significant variables which can change in a split second, you must be aware of yourself, your dog and your livestock. As far as dog sports go, there is nothing like it except I think hunting or tracking live animals – the third variable. In fact, even though we use the terms group, flock, herd,  there could essentially be a 4th (yes a fourth) variable – where a significant individual in a group, flock or herd, behaves outside the “norm” for a group or flock etc. and changes the dynamic even further. For those of you with extensive experience with livestock movement, you are familiar with the “rogue”animal. These individuals that inexplicably depart from flock mentality or often dictate the flock/herd/group behaviour, are the leaders and the ones you may need to watch even more closely.  They are the pain in your asses, the unexplainable, the “out of nowhere” or the more difficult, the dog challengers etc etc. and the list of colourful names we give the outliers is extensive.

The fact is their behaviour was likely quite predictable if you were paying close attention, and was likely brought on as a counter action to his/her environment (the dog, you, the surroundings). However, it is not always is it possible to explain animal behaviour and this is quite acceptable, but it does make one want to more astute to behaviour and livestock and “prey” responses to predators. Because after all, both you and your dog sit upon the food chain much higher,  and in an entirely different category than most livestock intended for the dinner plate.  Their behaviour is dependant upon many things; the fact that they are essentially prey animals, their past experience with a predator such as yourself or dogs, their level of arousal – if they are in a state of fear or calm etc. Remember that herding is a modified form of hunting and at the very least, you need to be aware that your stock and your stock dogs’ reaction is a variable, not a constant.

There is rarely a group of sheep or ducks or cattle – which move perfectly as a group. More often than not, there is a leader, followers, rogues and even sheep who believe themselves to be invisible and use evolutionary live saving strategies to escape being one of the flock.

If you have ever trialed, these anomalies, you will understand to be the norm. The importance of understanding livestock is underestimated in herding as a general rule. Those who have a special gift for reading livestock or the benefits of growing up on a farm, might adapt more quickly to reading sheep and have a better understanding of what is going on in their own “circus”.

I have attended several clinics over the years where there were no dogs involved. Just people and livestock and expert handlers demonstrating how to effectively move stock through gaining a better knowledge of what makes them tick. Many people are reluctant to pay good money to attend a “livestock handling” seminar because they want to put the time and money into training with heir dogs. My advice to you is to try as much as you can to get involved in the everyday handling of livestock and try to work with people who respect the stock and handle them with care. Once again, there are sheep, then there are light sheep, heavy sheep flighty sheep, aggressive sheep, gregarious sheep – and yes some who fail to see the pointing sticking together. Within breeds and among breeds of sheep, cattle and fowl, there are many different collective and individual behaviours. Bloodlines operate in the same fashion as they do with the dogs, as many ranchers may selectively breed for strong mothering instincts and therefore possibly more aggressive stock wrt dogs. While others may be breeding for calm docile animals made easier to handle.

The courses on each individual livestock will delve into each species on the whole and try to explain variations in livestock. See Sheep, Cattle Ducks and Geese.

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