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Canine Trauma




Herding Dogs And The Golden Middle

Ulf Kintzel Copyright 2000
ulf@sheep-herding.com
http://www.sheep-herding.com/

Much has recently been said and written about the "Golden Middle". Since I think this is an important topic I would like to add my opinion to it.

As a shepherd I would like to use the example of herding dogs in order to describe my viewpoint. I would like to distinguish between structure (including color) and temperament.

Structure:

Sheep herders certainly want a trotting dog. However, most herding dogs that are used to tend large flocks don't have the angulation that you see quite often in the show ring. Sheep herders in Germany just don't think it is necessary. From my own experience I can say that a less angulated dog trots pretty well also. GSDs that lack angulation too much and/or are too long for their height have problems to sustain a trot. They often gallop which uses up a lot of energy and tires the dog much quicker.

Dogs that have too much angulation often do have a problem to run fast enough when sheep bolt. They also have a problem jumping a high livestock fence the same way a less angulated dog can. My least angulated dog is the fastest runner and the highest jumper among my dogs. The best built dog that I have is also the best trotter.

However, all this doesn't mean you only see dogs herding that received just a "Good" in the show ring. "SG" and even "V" rated dogs are out there tending sheep also.

There are certain show criteria that don't influence the working ability such as high tail set or expression. However, there are criteria that do influence the working ability. I named two. However, the best structure won't do you any good when the dog does not have the willingness to work. A well spirited dog will carry itself through minor structural faults. On the other hand, the best spirit doesn't help when the dog has to trot several hours a day in order to keep a flock of sheep in the pasture and the structure doesn't allow it.

The "red" dog with a relatively small black saddle seems to be in fashion these days. That is quite alright. It seems it is just like one person likes a perfume of this brand and another a different one. The part I don't understand is: Do people in the show ring all like the same perfume or do the judges like the smell of just one? What ever happened to the sables?

The majority of shepherds (here I am not talking about the shepherds whose goal is to sell as many dogs as possible and as expensively as possible to America) tend to prefer darker dogs. There are two reasons for it: darker dogs are better respected by sheep than lighter dogs and they are easier to see at night (many shepherds tend their sheep well into dark).

Regarding the structure I would definitely say that the ideal dog's structure is somewhere in the golden middle. It seems to be the best for the herding dog. Extreme structure (extreme angulation) is not desired or not necessary.

Temperament:

I believe the Golden Middle has sometimes been described or understood as the "jacks of all trades and masters of none". I am convinced that the term golden middle created by Freiherr von Stephanitz is not meant this way. In addition, one can breed for excellent temperament characteristics without sacrificing other excellent characteristics.

A dog that tends sheep has to at least occasionally deal with very difficult situations and has to therefore be a golden middle dog but yet a dog with very good skills and characteristics in order to perform satisfactorily:

  1. Herding dogs often have to work many hours in extreme weather. The physical ability and the willingness to keep working for hours in temperatures even above 100 degrees are an absolute necessity. I remember seminars where I was called a liar when I answered "Yes" to the question if herding dogs keep patrolling for hours along the flock when it is that warm.
  2. Herding dogs should be by nature willing to obey. Very often they work several hundred yards away from the handler. A dog that needs to be fought with in order to have it obey is most unsuitable.
  3. When shepherds move sheep to the next location or when they tend sheep in an area with a lot of hikers and vacationers the dog often has to work next to people, move through the crowd while dozens of hands try to pet the dog. Here the dog should just ignore these people. No aggression or insecurity is desirable. The biggest crowd I experienced was about 70 people in the Black Forest right along and on the dog's border while I had to keep 1,200 sheep in a pasture.
  4. The very same dog has to show a pronounced grip at high level herding competitions. Many get also breed surveyed. Even when some of these dogs don't hit the sleeve exactly like a "Freight train" - it is still quite a task to distinguish between these two described situations and to have the good nerves to do so.
  5. In addition, the dog should be also a good companion and easy going when it is not herding and possibly with your children.

I believe that all those characteristics together are not easy to find in one dog. To breed for all that at the same time is rather difficult and sometimes you don't succeed. I am sure that Freiherr von Stephanitz meant exactly that when he described the "Golden Middle" - and yes, that is what I need when I tend sheep.

I believe it is much easier to breed for a single extreme i.e. just the looks or just the hardest grip possible at the expense of another characteristic.

I am not trying to claim all that I described and I believe a shepherd needs I always have in my dogs. Of course, my dogs have faults also. I am just trying to explain what I, as someone who uses German Shepherd Dogs to tend sheep, is looking for in a dog.

The author welcomes comments about this article. Please forward your thoughts to Ulf Kintzel ulf@sheep-herding.com




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