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What is Herding?

I went to a Sheep Camp run by three very skilled herding instructors in Southern Colorado two weekends ago. I worked Tagg and Cody, received some fantastic information, watched a bunch of other dogs work, and ended the weekend with three new titles - two on Cody (geese and sheep) and one on Tagg (sheep).

I also left with a lot of thinking to do, because, in spite of what many of the people thought, their dogs weren't really herding. They were in the arena with the sheep - sure - and the sheep moved through the little course fine (often better than they did with my border collies breathing down their necks!), but without dog-broke sheep, many of these dogs couldn't herd their way out of a paper sack.

This is not about lack of training, or lack of handling on their owner's part. It is about instinct, and how much of it is needed for herding, and what, after all, is herding?

This is not about right or wrong, or snobby border collie people saying crappy things about other breeds. And I certainly mean no disrespect to the handlers that I met, their wonderful dogs, or their incredibly skilled trainers. I am simply trying to ask a question: What is herding? And suss out an answer.

First, to be fair, most herding breeds were never meant to have to make huge gathers in uneven terrain like border collies were. Most stock owners have small fenced lots and dogs were meant to work within these smaller homesteads.

Some were bred to keep sheep from straying when no fence lines were available (tending dogs: Germans Shepherds, Malanois and other Belgian Breeds, etc...). They helped move the sheep from a pen along a lane or through a field, and then kept sheep from straying over boundaries. At night, they brought the sheep home.

Some were bred to move sheep down lanes from field to field or to market (corgis, Old English Sheep Dogs, and the like). They trailed behind mostly abiding sheep flocks as they ambled down the lane.

Some breeds were bred for cattle (Aussies, Bouvier, and cattle dogs), while others were bred to work in huge ranging spreads as well as close in (kelpies, border collies).

All of these breeds can and should have a feel for stock. They should be able to read their stock and make adjustments to ensure that the flock or herd keeps together and moves along at a reasonable pace.

This takes instinct, and very focused breeding.The more complicated the tasks required (huge outruns, or moving cattle in tight places without getting kicked) the more selective the breeding needs to be.

This is why it's so rare to see an AKC show line border collie at a big USBCHA trial that requires huge outruns and perfect instincts. Breeding for looks and instinct is an incredibly difficult, if not impossible task. At some point, when breeding for both a dog will be loaded with one half of the equation and nearly none of the other. Do you not breed your dog that just won the National Championships because he has lacks stock feel, and can't handle a single? The moment a breeder chooses looks over instinct, the instinct begins to fade, and it seems to fade quickly.

I am honest when people come up here with dogs for herding, and if the dog has little instinct, I usually tell them. That doesn't mean we cannot train the dog to herd; it merely means that for many of the tasks we will ask our dog to do, we will place them in the correct place through commands, not because the dog knows how to do it naturally. Many herding dogs possess some instinct to do some parts of the herding task by themselves, but will need obedience to get through the rest.

I call it Obedience around sheep. And the vast majority of off-breed dogs seen at some herding trails are doing just that, and winning.

So, the questions: is that herding? Does it matter? Since most people will never own sheep, and most dogs bred to herd sheep are incredibly difficult to live with, should we fight to keep instincts alive in these dogs? Is herding for many people no different than agility (dogs do not have instincts for agility)? If everyone is having fun, and the stock aren't being run or injured, does it matter?

The answers, of course, are, I don't know. There's a snobby part of me (the same part that rode only the best dressage horses and thought breed-specific shows were ludicrous (what's the point of having the best jumping Arabian when Arabian conformation does not create good jumping form??)) that says that herding should be this pure and rarified art form comprised of dogs who have the blood of champions running through their veins. I love to see dogs face off on a sheep or cow knowing that the dog alone will do everything necessary to get the stock to move and move calmly and efficiently to where it needs to go. There's so much depth in a good working dog, tens of thousands of generations shaped and sharpened until here's this animal that can read the thoughts of every head of stock under it's control, and with a glance, a dropped shoulder, an ear twitch, move them along in harmony. It makes my heart sing to see this.

Then there is the more egalitarian and (adult?) part of me, that sees the amazing communication required to get a dog and a packet of sheep through a course, and how incredibly empowering that communication, and completing that task may be for that dog and that handler. I see an imperfect representation of a dying world where dogs had purpose that elevated them beyond 'furkids' and creatures pushed along in strollers. These dogs could make or break a farm. Their efforts could separate an injured ewe for treatment, pull cattle out of the ravines and gullies, save thousands of man hours, and more. These dogs were not just pets, they were partners, trusted hands, and allies. And even if the instincts to read every flick of a sheep's ear have faded, many of these dogs still hunger for a job, for a sense of purpose beyond chasing a ball. The ghosts of their ancestors are still coursing through their veins.

I have friends who stand firmly planted on both sides of this line. Friends who see AKC and other arena events as a waste of time, as somehow fake, and as damaging to a herding dog's (read border collie - maybe Aussie or kelpie and that's it) ability to perform 'real' work. I have others who know that if we created herding trials that eliminated obedience in the presence of sheep, many venues would have few if any entries. That there are many herding breeds that are easy to live with, and that these breeds of dogs make better pets for many people, and if they want to herd, let them. Why kill a sport to keep it pure?

As you can tell by reading this (hopefully), I have no idea where I stand. I'd like to think that all dogs have instincts buried somewhere deep inside that would permit them to understand herding (after all, wolves read stock and have for millennia), and if we work hard, every dog can master some part of this ancient sport and in that moment, they can find the ghosts of their ancestors and see the stock as something over which they can attain mastery.

Stay tuned: I may head down a crazy new path to help explore the different sides of this question.

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