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Canine Trauma

Herding Style is Not a Fashion Statement

Ann Garner

First of all, we need to say that on a farm, ranch or on the range, style of work is never a matter for discussion. A dog that performs his tasks in a manner that satisfies its master will continue to be used for that work. An incompetent dog will not be used in the livestock operation. Livestock managers also know that each individual herding dog employs a variety of techniques (styles, manners of working stock). However, that same individual dog will have a preferred manner of working, his own STYLE, if you will. Furthermore, any person who is familiar with livestock management knows that the basic task of any herding dog is to keep the sheep in a flock, and under the dog’s control, that is, the dog herds them. But beyond that ability, herding dogs have developed special herding techniques where the livestock economy demanded them.

Among people whose interest is mainly in herding as a breed performance test or as a dog handler’s competition, the subject of STYLE is often a cause of lively discussion. In fact, it does not take great powers of observation to notice that certain styles of herding prevail within various herding breeds. Three easily distinguishable styles are 1) driving, 2) mustering and 3) tending.

Driving is the act of pushing the livestock into a group and then controlling the group as the dog moves the stock away from the herdsman and into another area. The Aussie (not from Australia) uses this style in his stockyard work.

Mustering is the act of gathering scattered stock from long distances and fetching them to a stockman that may not even be within sight of the dog. The Border Collie is the premier practitioner of this style.

Tending is the act of keeping large groups of sheep or goats gathered on a spot and/or keeping the herd in orderly movement with the stockman by wearing -- or patrolling -- alongside the flock. The German Shepherd Dog is almost the only remaining practitioner of this style, a holdover from the traditional German open field system of intensive agriculture.

To continue our discussion of the driving style, the Aussie’s breed performance test, as usually presented by its parent organization, is contained in a simulated stockyard with gates, pens and chutes to be negotiated in mainly a driving style. This test showcases the Aussie’s ability to take even rough cows from one area to another without depending on the stockman to lead the livestock. This kind of dog is widely used in the Southwestern U.S. because the cattle raising economy often requires a dog that can work the chutes and push reluctant cows into pens for auction or shipment.

Quite a different sheep raising economy has long existed in Scotland and Wales where the Border Collie developed in response to the needs of the herdsmen there. In that cool, damp, grassy region, sheep wander freely over the sheepholders’ lands for months at a time with no contact with humans or dogs. As a result the sheep become quite shy of dogs and people. But there comes a time for the stockman to sell lambs, to shear wool for sale or to round up ewes for lambing. At that point he needs a dog that can sneak out and around the small scattered groups of sheep, stalk the timid sheep and cause them to flock together for protection. Then the dog wears -- moves to pressure points where sheep are trying to escape -- and covers the avenues of escape, all the time bringing the sheep in toward his master who is standing at the pen or barn. The Border Collie is the supreme mustering or round-up dog. This dog works in a quiet, very concentrated manner to fetch the range sheep to their rare contact with enclosures or humans. A sheep-raising economy that needs to muster nearly wild sheep had to develop the Border Collie to fill that need. The International Sheepdog Society has developed a breed performance test which demonstrates those special skills.

Sheep tending as practiced by the German Shepherd Dog is a product of the medieval German estate system. German Shepherd Dogs were working as living fences in the open fields of Central Europe as early as the 1400’s. By the sixteenth century, the working style and character of the breed had been settled. In the seventeenth century, the dog was already competing in sheep-tending trials. The tending work as performed by the German Shepherd Dog involved taking a very large flock of sheep, numbering in the hundreds even then, from the sheepfold, along the village road, alongside planted crops, and onto an unfenced meadow which was lying fallow for the season. The tending dog’s job is literally to keep the sheep in line until they reach their grazing area; then the dog must allow the sheep to spread out and graze. But should any sheep try to leave that area to steal bites of the neighboring turnips or beets, the dog should instantly put the sheep back on the legal grazing area.

The German Shepherd Dog developed the habit of trotting up and down the furrows between the plots of fallow ground -- the grazes -- and the planted crops. He became the living fence that warded the hungry sheep off the valuable crops.

Then when when grazing is over, the dog must pull the sheep from the plot and line them up behind the herdsman, keep them off the crops, out of the traffic, put them across bridges safely, and allow them to move in a safe and orderly manner all the way to the sheepfold. This style of work is the way herding is done in Germany today. That is why the SV breed performance test in herding for German Shepherds -- the HGH trial -- is a course that demonstrates the tending skill.

In conclusion, I will repeat that any individual herding dog may exhibit all three of these styles if the task calls for a particular manner of work. And certainly a competent herding dog can be trained to work even in a style that is not his preferred one. Moreover, not every Border Collie makes a good mustering dog and may actually be better at driving livestock. Some Aussies and German Shepherds make able mustering dogs at short distances from the stockman but will rarely be equal to a good Border Collie in this aspect of the work. German Shepherds, being highly trainable, can be used to good effect as driving dogs in a trial setting, but for most of them it is not their preferred manner of work.

It goes without saying that not every Border Collie, Aussie, or German Shepherd will have the makings of a herding dog at all. But for those who have the instinct, their trainers need to work with the nature of the individual dog and not try to make the dog work in an unnatural manner by placing the dog under command to the point that the dog’s basic instincts are frustrated.

Copyright 1997 Ann Garner. The author herd sheep with her German Shepherd dogs in Northern California and publishes the Internet's most comprehensive web site devoted to herding, German Shepherds in Herding.

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