An Essential Process for Successful Herding
By Tammie Rogers - Permission Granted

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The following is a response to a submission to Herder's List. The original post was written by someone quite new to herding. In her post, she described her disappointment regarding the training techniques she experienced at a herding clinic, specifically the level of correction the clinician used and the fact that her dog was subjected to corrections for barking while herding."

At its very roots, herding is composed of two very critical components; the dog's proximity to the stock and the dog's position around the stock. It is my personal opinion that one must try to avoid, at all costs, using corrections to help the dog find balance (position around the stock that allows the dog to properly contain and control the stock). It's also my personal opinion, that correction techniques are often very successful to address proximity issues (meaning the dog's proximity to the stock as that directly influences the stock's behavior and proximity to the handler). If proximity issues are not addressed, herding is a dangerous endeavor; knees get mangled, handlers are overrun, stock gets injured.

Barking is usually a sign of frustration. Frustration is often due to the fact that the dog is too close to the stock. By too close I mean that the dog has penetrated the fight/flight zone (personal space) of the stock. Once a dog has gotten sucked into that space, it is often difficult for them to get out of there on their own. I believe that it's something like loosing ones glasses - everything is all of a sudden very blurry. That's where training comes in. The more proactive we are as trainers, the less often a young / inexperienced dog ends up penetrating the zone because we provide them feedback that they are getting too close prior to their penetrating the zone and keep the picture clear and bright for the dog. (While barking is not often the Border Collie action of frustration fast thoughtless movements are and can usually be handled in the same way.)

The correction that is required to move any one dog back off out of the zone is very unique to that dog. With some dogs, a backwards wave of the hand while taking a minor step into the dog is all it takes. Others require some verbal information, as well, but sometimes only a simple, "Agh!" associated with a small step at the dog. Other dogs require more intense information. The hardest to train dogs can require physical contact to get through to them.

Sometimes the level of correction required is due to the genetic make-up of the dog. There are a few tough, hard-headed dogs that can and do require physical restraint and/or physical corrections during early herding training from many herding instructor's perspectives. I believe that it is imperative that a dog learns to yield to a human in herding training. Often, however, the heightened level of correction that is required to get the dog to yield to a human is due to the fact that the dog has been poorly managed and improperly trained prior to its introduction to livestock. That's the sad part, because it is preventable.

Herding requires respect (dog to handler, handler to dog, dog to livestock, handler to livestock). In my opinion, dogs that have been trained using all positive techniques (and please note that I said ALL positive, not some positive) are often dangerous when they first are put on livestock because they have never learned that there is a hierarchy and that they are below the human on that ladder and that they must, sometimes, yield to a human. It's terribly unfair to put a dog onto stock that has never learned how to handle a correction. It's incredibly difficult, as a herding instructor, to deal with these sorts of dogs, and it is more difficult to deal with their humans. One can only tell a student so many times that, "your issues in herding are due to your dog's general lack of respect for you" before they get sour on herding. But, in my opinion, that is often the root cause of a lack of progress in training. It's rarely the dog. But, the dog bears the brunt of the poor or lacking training (away from stock) when he is working stock because there the issues are horribly amplified and present themselves as potentially dangerous behaviors.

It is the trainer's or clinician's job to protect the livestock when introducing dogs to stock. Over the past 25 years that I have been training herding dogs, I have seen a decline in the overall "compliance" based obedience that students have on their dogs prior to introducing them to stock. Please realize that I am NOT condoning the behavior of the clinician that was described in the original post. Although, on occasion, I have done so with some dogs, I am not an advocate of either physically touching or restraining herding dogs, nor do I throw objects at them, or use a rake, which I happen to think is a weapon that could cause some serious eye injuries. My preferred tool is a pig paddle that is rounded, smooth plastic that contain bead and makes a shaker sound. When I use the paddle's sound, I do so by hitting the ground at my feet, warning the dog to respect ME and my position rather than pushing it at him or in his face. I'm very much into going away from the dog's line of travel rather than at the dog. I don't typically advocate the "push him out" or "chase him off" methods.

A clinician that resorts to intense physical correction may be reacting to the dozens or hundreds of dogs he or she sees that present a dangerous situation due to their general lack of self restraint and respect for humans and livestock. Again, I'm not advocating the clinician's behavior as it was described by one person, and I think good clinicians take their time to assess a dog before they interact with it and use the minimal force necessary to keep things safe. I attended a clinic where I felt that the instructor was far too rough on the dogs. I wasn't entered, just auditing. But, I still saw a few methods, here and there, over the weekend, that I either use today, or that I think could be useful with some dogs. Had I been entered, I do not think that the clinician would have had to resort to harsh treatment of my dogs because they do not pose a threat to livestock or humans or themselves, and I have taught them to respect humans and to have self restraint.

I think that one good correction goes a long way, while constant nagging becomes quite frustrating to the dog. Since we are dealing with an instinct in herding, it's often better to allow and/or tolerate behaviors that are acceptable (even if they are not perfect in the beginning) and let the dog work as a reward (versus giving them treats along the way), while correcting behaviors that cannot be tolerated; making the correction strong enough that we don't have to repeat the same correction in two minutes. This is quite different than many of the contemporary training techniques used in, say, agility. But, agility is NOT an instinct. Herding requires obedience/compliance to some degree (to keep things safe) and it requires allowing the dog to feel its instincts and develop and grow them.

A herding dog trainer needs to be thinking and reacting very quickly and must remain quite diligent at all times to keep the stock safe, keep him/herself out of harm's way and get good training time with the dog. It's not easy and it takes years to master, and frankly, I don't think one can ever completely master it, since each dog presents new challenges. I certainly don't think that there is one method to train all dogs, and the level of correction required to address naughty behavior must be measured against the infraction and the dog's general demeanor and respect for a human.

I suggest in the future, consider asking for a spectator spot before entering your dog under an unknown (to you) clinician. Try to recall your time spent at the clinic to see if there was something of value that you could take home to your regular trainer. And, always continue to work on your own dog's general training (away from livestock) so that herding training goes better - and your dog learns to accept a required correction for proximity issues. I bet that will resolve his/her frustration problems promptly.

About the Author: Tammie Rogers and her husband Robert live on a fifty acre ranch in Brownstown, Illinois. Tammie has been training and trialing herding dogs for 15 years, is an AHBA herding judge and offers herding lessons and clinics. Her dogs have earned multiple HIT awards in ASCA, AHBA and AKC trials where she has attained those organizations' advanced titles on several dogs. A biologist by profession, Tammie left a 20 year career in the biomedical field to devote her full attention to DarnFar Ranch & Dog Training Facility where she raises meat sheep and runs a dog training school. The Rogers' also host herding trials and clinics at their ranch.

Page Updated 10/22/2007

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