If Australia was built on the sheep’s back, it was only made possible by the resilience and hard work of our herding breeds. While these dogs may be urbanised, their herding spirit lives on, as Kristie Bradfield discovers.
The herding of livestock is perhaps one of the oldest jobs performed by domesticated dogs. Without these dogs, the vast cattle and sheep stations that were so integral to our country’s growth would have surely failed. It’s become increasingly popular for herding breeds to make their home in the suburbs, far from the open fields and bustling stockyards known by their ancestors. Unfortunately, this quieter lifestyle has spawned a range of problem behaviours exhibited by dogs coping with environments that don’t challenge them. Enter herding, a sport created to reconnect these dogs with their herding DNA.
Claire Stipic and her Border Collie, Hamish, started herding three years ago. “Hamish was young and I thought I’d try him on sheep, as I had noticed him having an interest in livestock we had encountered while he was a puppy,” says Claire. “Also, being a herding breed, I felt it was something that we should at least have a go at. Well, the first time he was on sheep I realised that we would have to continue herding. He loved it and he knew a lot more about what he was doing than I did.”
What is herding?
Herding is not unlike agility and obedience — a sport that celebrates the unique herding instinct of working breeds. Handlers control their dog’s movements by a series of commands and together they work to move livestock — generally sheep, ducks or cattle — around a course. Organisations like the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) have established programs to preserve the unique instincts possessed by these herding breeds. Through tests and trials, the ANKC have been able to provide a benchmark against which a herding dog’s basic ability and instinct can be measured.
How do I get started?
A number of breed clubs around the country hold herding events throughout the year, but over the last five years there have been specialist herding schools popping up to provide regular training with livestock. Unlike herding trials, which are competitive events and only open to recognised herding breeds, herding training is usually open to all who are interested.
If you decide to become further involved you can compete in herding trials, but before that you and your dog need to pass three test levels. The first is the instinct test, which is performed in a small area where the dog is on a long lead and must show sustained interest in the stock (cattle, ducks or sheep). The judge can choose to drop or remove the lead at any time and the dog must be able to be called off the stock, come to its handler, and be able to be caught.
The second test, the herding test, is also done in a small area but this time off-leash. To pass, the dog must be able to hold a pause or stop at the beginning, move stock around pylons in a controlled movement, stop when told, and return to the handler.
The final test is the pre-trial test and this is conducted in a larger area. It involves working sheep through obstacles and putting them in a pen, which may sound straightforward but it’s not.
There are three different trial courses you can compete on, each developed with different breeds in mind. Levels begin at Started, Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. Trials are only available to ANKC-sanctioned herding breeds, including:
- Australian Cattle Dog
- Australian Kelpie
- Australian Shepherd
- Bearded Collie
- Border Collie
- Finnish Lapphund
- German Shepherd
- Norwegian Buhund
- Old English Sheepdog
- Welsh Corgi.
Some breeds from other ANKC groups such as Rottweilers, Giant Schnauzer and the Bernese Mountain Dog are also eligible to compete because they have a background of herding in their development.
What are the benefits of herding?
Dogs like Hamish are very smart, but their intelligence can sometimes get them in trouble. If they don’t have a suitable outlet for their energy and intellect they may turn to herding children at the park, nipping at heels or digging trenches in the back lawn. Dogs that have that herding DNA will benefit from being able to do what comes naturally to them.
For Claire, that is exactly what she sees when watching Hamish. “I love that Hamish pretty much knows what he should be doing,” she says. “We get to develop our relationship with the job he was traditionally bred to do, and that he instinctively knows how to do. These dogs were bred to be doing this job and even though we live in suburbia, he still loves to do it and I love being able to enable him to work with this instinct.”
Giving dogs an outlet to do what is instinctual is a great alternative to the tired old walk around the block. “A short time herding is more fulfilling for Hamish than a whole afternoon running at a park,” says Claire. “He gets to use his brain and also his physical ability. I also think it does help herding breeds of dogs to express this instinct in appropriate ways, therefore minimising problem behaviours that may be related to this instinctive behaviour, such as inappropriate chasing and herding of people and other animals, or even things like cars.”
For people considering herding, Claire says to do it and you won’t regret it. “Get out there and have a go. Even if you can only access herding training every so often, your dog will benefit from it and I think you will develop a new level of understanding and respect for your dog,” she says. “Make sure you find a trainer who has livestock that will be appropriate for a beginner dog and who also will help you train in a way that sits well with you. Go along and see some workshops and herding trials, but be careful — it’s highly likely you will catch the herding bug.”
Where to get more information?
Keen to start herding? The best place to get all the information, rules and regulations relating to herding in Australia can be found at the Australian National Kennel Council website at ankc.org.au
Skilled handlers can control their dog’s movements using a few simple commands. Here are some examples.
Come-bye: go to the left of the stock.
Away to me, or just away: go to the right of the stock.
Cast: gather the stock into a group.
Find: search for stock.
Get out/get back: move away from the stock.
Bark: bark at the stock.
Look back: return for a missed animal.
That’ll do: stop working and return to the handler.Make sure your furry friend is always looked after at our DOGSLife Directory