IV. Training The Herd Dog

There are special herd dog training classes that are fun to participate in with your herding breed dog.  There are competitions (called Trials) that involve real livestock and there are set rules, and styles to this.  I have participated in this for several years before but that is not my interest at this time and there are better people to instruct you on herd dog training than me.  It is fun and a great way to develop a working relationship with your dog even if you don't even have livestock.  All this being said consider herding as an advanced training level.  All herd dogs MUST master the basics I have covered above before moving on to herding actual animals.  A herd dog's whole training is based upon his need to exert self control over himself and to listen to his trainer immediately (obviously a herd dog who won't stop and stand but gives into his desire to plow into a herd of goats or sheep is not a useful tool for you.)  So make sure his training is impeccable away from the livestock first.  If he thinks the game is that he gets to chase livestock all over the place (which is highly rewarding for him- more so than your treat) while you stand there screaming at him, then he is useless to you as a work mate. 

 

Instead you will want to follow these steps:

  1. Train, train, train your dog on basics.  He should be perfect!

  2.  Expose your puppy to the livestock by him being attached to you at the hip or on a long line outside the pen.  Have him follow you in your daily chores.  Do not ask him to interact with the livestock, just follow you and get to know the routine.

  3.  Move into training him under distraction.  Within sight and smell of the livestock (but not amongst them) put him through his paces.  Very basic paces.  Come, sit, stay, drop, etc.  Get him to pay attention to you no matter what else is going on!  He should be perfect.

  4.  Simple interaction.  At around a year of age the dog should be having some sort of self control and his training should be well advanced.  Try him out with the livestock very gently.  Still use a long line that you can grab should he break from his commands.  In a small pen with just a few animals have him follow you as you go around the animals.  He needs to stay to the outside and hug the fence.  The stock would prefer to stick with you than with old Fang back there so you must have eyes in the back of your head and by using a broom or a shepherd stick keep your dog off the stock and along the fence.  A herd dog's natural breed instinct will be to round up the stock and the dog will run around and around them madly but you are asking him to do it in a controlled manner.  Of course his wolf instinct will want to come out too and he may break from circling and just lunge in trying to grab a mouthful of wool.  Don't let him get away with that.  Do this simple exercise for no more than 5-10 minutes.  Quit while you are ahead and he is being good.  This is mentally exhausting for him and he will only get naughtier the longer you work him.  Another start to this training could be with ducks if you have some.  Some dogs get intimidated by the larger livestock so starting small is good.  There are many more levels of herding from this but that is another entire book. 

 

I just wanted to give you a feeling for how to start your herd dog on stock.  Some people think they can just throw their herd dog in with the livestock and magically the dog will know what to do.  This takes careful training based on their instinct but does not mean they can be of help to you without careful training.

 

Usefulness-  Because I have dairy goats I use my dogs in very tight quarters.  This is difficult for them because they have to be brave enough to stand up to the animals so closely and they must have good control so they do not panic the animals in tight spaces.  But as anyone knows who has ever had goats, they can be pushy and willful.  I need my dogs to hold the gates for me while I am going in with the hay.  That gate can be left wide open with the dogs guarding it and the goats stay put. If goats get out they like to scatter to all different directions.  I use my dogs to round them up.  One dog is a heel biter and moves them forward while the other is a nose biter and runs to their head to turn them.  At this point the goats usually decide they would rather go back to their safe pen than face the consequences.  We have used dogs on our beef cows before but not regularly as we don't really need their help moving them from one pasture to another.  But once in a while we get a stray cow that has escaped and using the dogs to stop them in their tracks and return to the safety of their herd has been very useful.  One fun side effect is that one of our dogs decided that she would be the poultry police.  She rounded up all the stray chickens outside their yard and was even able to eradicate the ones that had taken to roosting in our hay barn.  She would climb the hay stacks and even walk along the rafters to get to them.  They did not like that so they chose the safety of the chicken yard to stay in after that.  She even keeps an eye to the sky against eagles, ravens, crows, and other raptors that would like to feast off of my chicken yard and chicken eggs.  Again, harassment is a form of herding as it gets animals to think about their options and usually they choose the calmer path- even the wild birds of the air.

 

So now I have given you an in-depth overview of what to expect in this new life of dog ownership.  Some of you are experienced dog owners and know the drill.  Some of you had dogs as children but you were not in control of their training.  Some just like the idea of a friend and companion and hadn't really thought about what to actually DO with them.  Some don't do anything with them until they have an animal that is ill trained, that no one likes, that is a problem, and then out of desperation they sell that dog or worse just have it put down all because they themselves could not be bothered with doing the work that needed to be done.  If you like the idea of a puppy but are not prepared to deal with the work of a puppy or handle the adult dog he will turn into, then buy a stuffed animal and hug that.  If however, you look forward to investing of your time and money into having a life time companion then do what needs to be done and do it well.  The pay off is so rewarding that there is nothing comparable in the world to it.  I have taken the time to write this in hopes that this will start you on your way to doing the homework necessary to be well informed. 

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