Our First Herding Adventure!

Yesterday, Bear and I went to 4U Farms in St. Norbert to take part in a Herding Instinct Test. Herding has always been something I’ve been interested in trying with Bear but until now, there has always been something to prevent us from doing it.

As some of you may know, Bear is a rescue and has been approved for a CKC Performance Event Number(PEN). This means that even though we do not know anything of his parentage, he looks enough like a Rottweiler to participate in Canadian Kennel Club Sanctioned performance events including herding trials. Believe it or not, Rottweilers and their ancestors have been herding for centuries, therefore, it is to be expected that today’s dogs will exhibit some of that genetic tendency so I thought I would like to see if Bear could herd.

Herding Behavior

Herding is, essentially, predatory behavior and according to Clarissa Von Reinhardt, in her book, Chase! Managing your dog’s predatory instincts, a full predatory sequence includes:

  1. Finding the prey
  2. Orientation posture
  3. Sighting the prey
  4. Stalking/encircling
  5. Chasing/driving
  6. Attacking (grabbing)
  7. Killing
  8. Dissecting
  9. Consuming and/or carrying away and burying (storing).

Through selective breeding many herding, guarding and hunting breeds have had certain aspects of this behavior enhanced and certain aspects eliminated altogether. A retriever performs the entire chain up to #6 and retrieves the bird to his human. A guarding breed may perform the full sequence depending on the the species of the intruder into his territory. Herding breeds mostly perform the sequence in various ways up to and sometimes including #6 depending on the dog and, I imagine, the livestock.

The Test

The Herding Instinct Test was explained to us by the evaluator, Roy Sage, as a way to evaluate a dog’s desire to herd and his herding style. For some people this knowledge is a way to confirm their dog behaves as a dog of his or her breed should and, for others, this knowledge will form the basis of a training plan if the dog and handler plan on continuing to work in herding.

The test began with us walking into the pen with Bear on leash. Roy Gave me the Brief History of Rottweilers and explained some of the things one might see in the breed while herding. He also made a point of petting Bear, giving him some good scritches and talking to him before we got started. He did this with every dog that went into the ring and it was interesting to watch. I thought of my own behavior with dogs in class and/or how I have seen other trainers interact with my dog and I can’t say I (or anyone else) interacts with dogs they are training that way. Part of the reason I do not, generally, is because I want the dogs focused on their human and not me. I wonder if it’s important for him to create a rapport with the dogs since he is doing most of the handling or if it is just something he does. I wish I could drive back to St. Norbert and ask him. If I meet him again, I will be sure to ask!

After a bit of Bear trying to chase the sheep on leash, I was asked to drop the leash. I was terrified. Bear has gotten into it with a dog or two – what if he hurt a sheep? Would I be able to pull him off a sheep? Would the presence of sheep shove him so far over the top he couldn’t listen. Knowing nothing about herding, I did as I was asked and Bear took off after the sheep like a rocket. Surprisingly enough he didn’t move in to bite or grab but circled around as they moved towards the evaluator. What was remarkable to me was that his body language was alert and excited but not crazed, stiff or out of control like he is before he thinks about starting something with another dog so I was able to relax and enjoy myself!

Bear showing a wonderfully relaxed face and body, but you can tell he's still on the job!

It felt like we spent an hour in the pen but, according to my video camera, it was more like 10 minutes including our chat at the beginning. During the 6 minutes Bear actively worked the sheep, the evaluator explained some of the things he was seeing in Bear and what he (the evaluator) was dong in response.

The first thing he noticed was that Bear did NOT like the bat they use to create pressure and move dogs off sheep. Bear’s response to the bat was to stop, back off and go sniff. In the video below, you will see the evaluator  drop the bat and use his arm to encourage Bear to change direction instead.

The second thing he mentioned was that Bear liked to work really close to the sheep – he even tried to get in a few nips. The evaluator though that this might be something we see more of as Bear becomes more and more accustomed to the sheep and the herding game.

Toward the end of the video you will see Bear get a correction with the bat for diving in to nip sheep. His reaction was (again) to back off and if her were human, I would say he was sulking. Personally, I think he was confused – we were letting him chase the sheep but not exactly the way he wanted to.  Anyone who knows me knows I am not someone who likes this kind of physical correction. After seeing his reaction, the evaluator said that Bear was a ‘soft’ dog that does not need such a hard correction. That much, I already knew. In no way was Bear physically harmed (the bats are hollow and plastic) and you can see he recovered and did one more ‘go around’ but it is not the way I want communicate with my dog. If we continue, I am going to ask the trainer about how to avoid that scenario (diving in on sheep) altogether I have a feeling that as I learn more, I’ll be able to keep him off with a little pressure.

The second most surprising thing to me (aside from not eating sheep) was that at the end of the session you will  see Bear do two downs with the sheep moving. I can’t imagine a much more distracting environment and he was able to use his brain (after I asked a couple of times – there may be hope for him yet!

A nice down while the sheep look on.

After our turn in the pen, we received a Herding Instinct Test Certificate and a very interesting evaluation form which was completed by the evaluator. There was way more to evaluate than I would have thought possible and the following website explains each section along with how and why a dog may fall into a certain category.

This experience was, without a doubt, one of the best things I have done with Bear. It was enlightening to see him doing something so naturally. When you spend as much time training for various things as I do, sometimes it is easy to lose track of the really amazing things our dogs can do. I am a little saddened by how long it took me to do this for Bear. The positive part, however is that I have a better sense of just how hard things like rally, obedience and agility are for dogs that have been bred (more or less) for centuries to chase, hunt and herd.

My favourite photo of the weekend!

2 thoughts on “Our First Herding Adventure!

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