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Canine Trauma

What To Expect from a Herding Instinct Test

Ann Garner

First of all, the spectators expect to see orderly and humane treatment of the livestock and the dogs, or herding for sport gets a bad name. So be prepared as an entrant to follow the tester’s instructions exactly while your dog is being tested. The first "leg" of the test can be conducted entirely by the tester if the tester is willing, so you may choose to have a great deal of assistance from the tester. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn about livestock and their reactions to dogs.

But what do you actually do as an entrant? When your name or number is called, you meet the tester at the gate or just inside the gate to a good-sized stock pen. Your dog is on leash and should be calm at your side. You tell the tester your dog’s call name and you frankly tell the tester exactly how much exposure your dog has had to livestock and what the dog’s reaction has been.

The tester may tell you to keep the dog on a long line or a short line to see how the dog reacts to the stock. If the tester approves of the dog’s attitude and behavior, the tester will ask you to either drop the line and let the dog drag it for a while or the tester may ask you to remove the line altogether.

1. The Ideal Picture

Herding instinct testers for AHBA (American Herding Breed Association) carry a mental picture of what the ideal herding dog’s introduction to livestock would be like. For most of them it would be as follows:

a) the handler -- with dog on leash -- approaches the flock until one of the sheep raises its head and looks very alert. The handler and dog stop, the handler lays the dog down and removes the leash.

b) on being released, the dog leaves the handler’s side going wide around the flock and gets to the opposite side of the flock; the sheep -- being well-schooled in this routine for most test situations -- come immediately to the handler’s knees and the handler begins to walk in a serpentine pattern while the dog wears (changes direction of movement) to keep every member of the flock with the handler until the tester says he has seen enough of the dog’s work.

c) the handler walks into a corner of the pen; the sheep stop, the dog lies down, the handler walks toward the dog, takes it by the collar and reports to the tester, thanks him and usually receives high praise and maybe even an offer to buy the dog. I have seen it happen.

That is the ideal that does occasionally take place. Certainly with slight variations due to clumsiness on the part of the handler or excitement in the novice dog, we often see such an introduction to livestock. And handlers are of course supposed to assist the dog to accomplish the task at this introductory level. So stopping the dog if it gets too excited, or touching the dog occasionally, or giving "out" or get back commands are all very helpful to an excited dog who is working with the right attitude and behavior, but just coming too close or getting that "glazed-over" look in the eyes.

2. Less Than Ideal, but Still Trainable

In a group of dogs you will usually find the most common reaction to sheep to be something like this:

a) The dog is led into the arena very excited, but under control. The handler cannot take the dog very close to the sheep, because the dog’s excitement is affecting them.

b) The tester tells the handler to drop the leash, allowing the dog to drag it. The dog flies directly toward the sheep, not circling the flock, but the sheep, since they are schooled in this routine, run directly to the knees of the handler.

c) Now it becomes a game of chase-the-sheep-around-the-handler while the handler whirls in place as the dog windmills the 3 or 5 sheep round and round the handler. If the handler can manage to walk a few yards and keep the dog from damaging the sheep in the excitement, the dog is deemed to be showing working drive and enough trainability that it can be made into a useful stockdog. This dog, too, will probably earn a leg toward the Herding Capability certification.

Many introductory sessions on the livestock by working dogs -- those involved in the sport of Schutzhund -- fall into those two categories above. Herding dog pedigrees in Germany -- especially the pedigrees of the national herding trial participants -- almost all include the same great working dogs that Schutzhund sportler are accustomed to seeing on their own dogs’ pedigrees. So the reactions to livestock might be intense, but most of them will be controlled. After all, 80% of the protection routine probably relies on good basic obedience training. This will serve the dog well in its introduction to livestock, too.

3. Alternate Reactions to Introduction to Livestock

There is a variation to number (1) above, which often happens when the dog has a pedigree heavy in HGH titles:

a) The dog would be able to go into the pen off-lead, but is not allowed to, of course. The dog approaches this all in a rather matter-of-fact way, recognizes immediately that the sheep are its natural responsibility. But the leash can be removed after meeting the tester.

b) The dog will regard the stock intently, will approach it quietly and may be able to approach quite close.

c) When the dog approaches the standing stock, the handler starts moving away from dog and sheep. The dog will set the sheep in motion and they will come to the handler. At that point, the dog will run up and down alongside the flock. In this case, the handler should move to the fence line and let the dog patrol the open side of the flock while the handler moves up and down along the fence line.

There is another variation that is recognized as herding behavior. It will often happen when the flock is not very cooperative in coming to the handler.

a) The dog will approach the stock in its preferred manner, either directly toward the flock or by circling around the flock. But the flock will "double back" on the dog and go into a corner or just stand along the fence line. An inexperienced dog may simply patrol back and forth, holding the stock in position, awaiting help from the handler.

b) The handler should go to the dog, try to calm the dog’s frustration and if the sheep will not come out to the handler, allow the dog to continue to patrol along the open side of the flock while the handler stays between the dog and the flock, moving slowly along the fence line.

c) The sheep will move along with the handler, huddled on the fence line for safety as the dog either arcs or patrols in a straight line from front to rear of the flock in order to keep them in motion but not allow them to get away.

The two variations outlined above in this section (3) may or may not earn Herding Capability recognition. It depends very much upon the background of the tester. I have personally worked two different dogs that exhibited each of those alternate behaviors respectively, and they both became very fine sheep tending dogs.

Tradition of the GSD in Herding

The Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde has fostered the herding tradition since the beginning of the organization. Herr Max von Stephanitz exhorted members of the now world-wide body to always return to the roots of the breed if they wanted to understand and develop their dogs to their fullest capabilities.

If one studies nineteenth century photographs of sheep tending dogs in Germany, or if one observes the modern herding dogs of Germany, he will see dogs that look like American "Aussies," Border Collies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Briards, Poodles, Schnauzers, Belgian Shepherds, Bouviers, and of course, like the twentieth century German Shepherd Dog. Before the 1890s, all these dogs were called German Shepherd Dogs if they worked sheep in Germany. The dogs that are not bred to a standard are now called Old German Shepherd Dogs (Altdeutscher Schaeferhund) and those that are bred to the breed standard are known as the German Shepherd Dog (Deutscher Schaeferhund).

"The German national herding performance event stands today ... as a positive signpost for our club (SV). At this event, we showcase the origin of our breed.... it is established beyond doubt that the conformation and the talent for work which our breed exhibits at the National Breed Show and at the National Field Trial have their foundation in the breed's original daily work with the flock." -- Herr Peter Messler, SV Zeitung, 12/95.

To recognize the herding dogs within the breed, the SV supports a formal program of training and titling, and the SV and USA recognize the title of HGH (Herdengebrauchshund or "Herding Utility Dog") by admitting the Herdengebrauchshund in to breed surveys on an equal status with the Schutzhund or the working protection dog. (See USA Breed Registry Guidelines...Breed Survey Rules, Part III. Prerequisites for Participation in Breed Surveys.) Section B: "Proof of a minimum of a SchH1, IPO1, DPO1 or HGH under a USA recognized working judge." This rule is adopted directly from the SV regulations.

Shobeq, a trained sheep-tending dog, patrols the boundary of the graze.

To continue backward chronologically, in order to demonstrate the continuity of thought within the German parent club in regard to the herding dogs, I quote here from our breed founder Max von Stephanitz's commentary on early breed surveys:

"...these dogs (for survey) are the progeny of trained and approved parents or from sheepherding working dogs. Only parents who descend from active herding field-service allow for progeny that are especially capable of being trained and are later oriented for in-service work. A concern of our Schutzhund Clubs in sheepherding areas is that such progeny need to be entered on survey day in their regions -- not only the progeny but also the parents themselves who are actively engaged in herding field work. Our registration regulations for the Breed Book, and also the survey regulations make special allowances for the shepherds and their herding dogs and are simplified and provided at reduced fees....If it is at all possible to attract sheepherders and have them take part in our activities, then we serve three participants: the sheepherders,... the service dogs,... and finally -- German Shepherd Dog breeding." Max von Stephanitz, Preface to the 10th SV Survey Record Book. 1932

And finally, to quote from our breed bible, The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture published in 1925 by Max von Stephanitz, founder of the breed and of the SV:

"There is no doubt in my mind that the genuine and noblest vocation for the shepherd dog is tending flocks."

None of the above creates any special status for the active herding dog above the trained sport dog; however, neither does it convey any special consideration to the sport dog -- or even to the in-service protection dog. That does not mean that working dog organizations cannot choose which kind of dog they want to promote. Certainly working dog organizations in the United States are free to promote both breed performance standards -- HGH and Schutzhund -- or they can choose one and ignore the other.

But when it comes to the international breed performance standard, the quotes above declare where the parent club in Germany stands.

The ABHA "instinct tests" are only the beginning of exposure to the livestock. A "title" based on that kind of elementary test would not be considered indicative of any competence level in the HGH program. The HGH relies on instinct of course, but that title denotes a high level of competence, whereas the AHBA’s HIC (or whatever the trainer offers) indicates that the dog showed some kind of herding instinct.

© 1998 by Ann Garner of Herdenhunde vom Weiher. You are invited to check in at the web site for German Shepherds in Herding and see German Shepherds working sheep in Germany and in the United States.

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