Farmers know how irreplaceable the natural herding instinct in dogs is when managing livestock. It’s amazing how a small creature can strategically organize and calmly direct a herd of huge fearful animals. Some dog breeds, like the Border Collie, have the required genetic makeup for herding and will naturally have more tendencies towards easily and quickly learning how to herd. That being said, with proper training and approach, most breeds can master the basics and learn some tricks.
The vital thing is to start with the training as soon as your pooch is old enough to learn basic commands. If you want your dog to reach his full herding potential, giving them confidence and building trust from the earliest age is the turning point and it will bring the best out of your shepherd canine. Here are four easy ways to train a dog to the herd.
Teach the basics before getting down to serious business
This may seem like a redundant remark, however, before even letting your dog with the livestock make sure he or she has learned the basic commands. Obedience along with trust in their human trainer is the starting point for every herding dog.
Dog herding basically means reacting to a vocal command in the form of a whistle, sound, or a hand gesture, so a herding dog works with you as the handler, not alone. The dog needs to be able to react and perform any time you need him. This means you first want to establish a trustful and strong relationship before giving him the responsibility of organizing heavy cattle.
Teach your dog to sit, lie down, fetch, and react comfortably to your voice. He should be able to respond to your commands in any situation, especially when overly excited or occupied with something that caught his or her attention. This is the first step towards an obedient and efficient herder.
Playing catch will let you know if your dog has the herding potential, or whether he needs some more guidance. Retrieving at your command is good practice for establishing proper communication, as the dog starts to understand the notion of collecting things in one place which is safe.
Introduce the stock slowly
Making small steps may help the training process be less stressful and overwhelming for your dog. Before introducing him or her to the livestock, try practicing commands with one sheep or even a duck. Let your dog experience the process, but also practice the basic commands like “come bye” (turning the herd to the right), “away” (turn the herd to the left), “away to me” or “walk-up” (bringing the herd toward the handler), etc.
Practice in smaller arenas or fields in the beginning, otherwise, you’ll end up having your dog run around, not knowing what to do. Having heavier sheep and a smaller stock can also help in the first training sessions, as there will be less likelihood for the stock to get too flighty. As the training progresses, your dog will get more confident in its own ability and get accustomed to more sheep or cattle.
Don’t expect perfection immediately – patience is the key to success
For herding to be successful, you need to let your dog gain confidence in their own pace and let their natural instinct do the job. You have to find the balance between a strict trainer and a guide who observes.
For example, if your dog doesn’t perfectly gather the stock, which in the beginning he or she probably won’t, don’t lose your grip and shout, hold him back and raise the tension. It’s more important for your dog to keep its natural ability, balance, and drive, rather than lose confidence over some split sheep. Proper management of the situation and a composed attitude can make the difference.
Furthermore, the dog should feel in control of their herd. If there’s an escaping sheep, let the dog cover and bring it back. Don’t be bothered by the possible disruption of the stock, it’s more important that your dog knows they’re in charge than a slightly messy gathering. This is why most dogs tend to grip, race and slice in at the top of an outrun, as they don’t feel the need (thus the urge) to be dominant and get around the sheep properly.
Take it seriously – use some help
Last but not least, an important step to creating a good working dog is understanding your limits as a trainer. Teaching herding requires some advanced training knowledge and what you may call a minor oversight can have consequences on your farm business.
There are professional trainers and experienced handlers you can contact to help you properly introduce the right techniques, or just watch them work with their herding dogs. Finally, herding is also an international competitive sport, so you can test or practice your ability by signing up for something like this. The more you learn, the easier and quicker the whole training process will be.