CONSIDERATIONS AND CAVEATS ON FINDING A HERDING INSTRUCTOR
With Apologies to Everyone From Whom I Have Stolen Ideas and Advice

by Kay Spencer

So, you have an Australian Shepherd and have a desire to learn how to move stock with your dog. You’ve realized that you won’t get anywhere except into trouble, without experienced help (perfectly true).What are some of the things you should think about before embarking on this project? Mainly, you need to decide why you want to do this, how much effort you can put into it, and finally, how to use the resources available to you.

A little history
The field of stockdog handling instruction is in transition. Not very long ago, the only people who knew anything sophisticated about handling a stockdog were those who trialed Border Collie sheepdogs, a sport which began in the 19th century, out of the British system of sheep management. Cattlemen or general farmers who used dogs were likely to have virtually untrained instinctive workers who operated with very few and simple commands.

The ASCA trialing system began in 1974. Its creators were mainly the ranchers described above, thus there has been a continual learning curve; by all accounts, the first ASCA trials were pretty rough affairs. Then came the advent of the AHBA (1986) and AKC (1989) trialing venues, both being responses to the rising interest of purebred dog owners in participating in facsimiles of their breeds’ original work (other examples being lure-coursing for sight hounds and earth dog trials for terriers). At about the same time, cattlemen began developing their own trials, to encourage development of stockdogs for the cattle industry, some under the auspices of the USBCHA (the Border Collie trial group), and some separately. Because of all these modern developments, there are many more instructors than there used to be. However, they are not all necessarily suitable for you and your dog.

defining your goals
Maybe you have livestock and have decided that a dog could be useful to you in your chores. Perhaps you already love dog sports and want to try out a new one, herding. Maybe you just want to see how much herding instinct your dog has. Your goals will influence your choice of instructor.

Some instructors are completely trial-oriented, and everything they teach is about succeeding in the particular venues they compete in. This can result in a very controlled approach in which the dog is manipulated around the field. Others are focused solely on making usable ranch/farm hands, which means the dog must learn to work responsibly by itself, finesse being of lesser importance. Many fall somewhere in between, but for all good instructors, herding is not a game. It is fundamentally, work, and the goal is to move livestock efficiently and without undue stress. Bonding with your dog, letting him experience his natural instincts, or adding feathers to your cap, are byproducts of stockdog training, not real ends. Just giving your dog a chance to have fun chasing sheep around is not what herding is about at all. If this is your goal, try frisbee or flyball instead.

land
If you live in the country, and have or plan to buy your own livestock, you have a great advantage. You will most likely progress quite slowly without access to practice stock between lessons. However, there are ways to get around not being able to keep your own stock at home, such as buying practice time, renting a field from a farmer, or creating or joining a “livestock co-op” with other people in the same boat.

determination
A lot of determination is going to be necessary. Learning to work stock with a dog is not a natural skill for most people, even if you have experience with livestock and/or dog training. It takes a big commitment and considerable perseverance. It is also unfair to your dog to dabble occasionally in herding, as he will always be very excited but without the skills to channel that excitement. He will never have the satisfaction of success, and neither will you.

time
A stockdog trainer will typically work a dog every day, for a half hour or more, for a month or more, before they begin to call them “started”, and it takes several years and hundreds of hours to make a truly finished dog. For a novice handler with a green dog, even getting to a started level will take a considerable time. Remember it is the number of hours on stock that counts. If you are only bringing your dog to stock for a lesson a week, that is probably about two hours a month of what will at first be fumbling. So, patience is a virtue. The more you can practice, and especially, the more practical chore work you can do with your dog, between lessons, the faster you will progress.

It is best to stick with one instructor until you feel you fully understand their techniques, before you start going to other people’s lessons or clinics. Adopting a smorgasbord approach of hitting up every clinic and trainer in a five hour radius is going to be very confusing for you and your dog.

What to look for in an instructor
Find out what your potential teacher’s background and interests are. If the person you are considering has only trained Border Collies for sheep trials, they may have no sense of how an upright, loose-eyed breed like the Aussie works or thinks. They may feel your dog is poor material, because he doesn’t work like the strong-eyed dog he isn’t. Such a teacher is only going to be demoralizing to you and your dog. There are also those who buy started or even finished Border Collies, and trial them—these people may not know how to put a foundation on a stockdog.

Some instructors who mainly work with the AKC breeds are used to training dogs with a limited amount of instinct or interest, and emphasize strict obedience over letting the dog’s innate abilities unfold. This style can make a keen working-bred Aussie shut down, or rebel in frustration. Be sure to ask this kind of teacher whether they work their dogs in open fields and do real-world practical chores with them.

If you need your Aussie to move cattle, making the effort to find an instructor who specializes in cowdogs is well worth it. It is a skill unto itself.

Ask all potential herding instructors whether they have worked with Aussies, particularly working bred Aussies. Have they ever trained one to an ASCA Working Trial Champion (WTCH) level? Have they trained other loose-eyed breeds to advanced titles? Take the time to go out and watch them work at a trial or at their facility. Do this handler’s dogs seem to be controlling the stock themselves and making decisions, or do they wait for orders all the time? Do they look at their handler a lot? (A stockdog should only watch the stock, never the handler, unless they are being corrected or called off). Let your intuition be your guide: are these dogs working the way you would like your dog to work? A skilled handler makes stock work look easy, and they, their dog, and the stock, are calm and controlled.

Talk to their students as well. How successful are they, and how long did it take them to get there? If the teacher is good, most students who apply themselves will make significant progress over a reasonable amount of time. How happy are they with their instructor? Watch some lessons—do you like what you see? If you don’t feel comfortable, follow your intuition. It is better—much better—to drive a long way to get to an excellent teacher than to try to save time and money with an incompetent or incompatible teacher close by.

Then there is the personality factor. It isn’t unusual to come across animal trainers who communicate a whole lot better with animals than with people. These teachers can be hard for a novice to learn from, although if you stick with it, you may end up better off than with a teacher who is accessible but doesn’t really know what they’re doing.

It’s a truism that you can tell a great deal about a stockdog trainer by observing his stock. Are they calm, obedient, and respectful, or are they frightened, or obliviously rude? Panicky, or conversely, spoiled “doggy” stock that run to the handler and refuse to leave, can mean stock that has been abused by poorly controlled dogs. Rude stock that challenge dogs or step on and push the handler around can be a sign of weak dogs or lack of stock management skills.

Becoming a good stock-handling team with your Aussie is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your dog, and it will save many man-hours of labor on your farm or ranch. Whether your goal is to bring home trial ribbons or just get those cows out of the creek when you want them as opposed to when they feel like it, your Aussie will do his best for you.