BOOK REVIEW:
SHEEPDOG TRAINING, AN ALL-BREED APPROACH
BY MARI TAGGART

reviewed by Kay Spencer

first published in 1986, second printing 1991, Alpine Publications
1986 edition: hardback, sewn binding; paper quality excellent. Many black and white photographs.

Mari Taggart is a Border Collie trainer who both owned and worked with loose-eyed breeds at a time when herding training was almost entirely focused on Border Colllies. Her first book was Heeler Power: A Guide to Training the Working Australian Cattle Dog, published in 1984. She also wrote many articles for stockdog magazines, under several names: Mari Taggart, Mari Shaffer, and (latest) Mari Taggart Morrison. In secondary references her first name is sometimes mispelled as Mary.

Sheepdog Training is long out of print, but it was popular enough that it is still readily available from used-book on-line dealers such as Alibris, Powell’s, and Abebooks, and from smaller dealers via Amazon. It is still one of the best for the total novice with a loose-eyed breed of average, not awesome, talent, as this is her intended reader. The tacit assumption is that this novice is a “hobby herder” who wants to learn a fun new sport — it is not aimed at producing a practical farm dog, although her teaching methods do not preclude this at all.

Taggart has the refreshingly open viewpoint that all the herding breeds are very capable of becoming good stockdogs. She believes that almost all of them are gathering dogs, with the exception of the Old English Sheepdog, some Corgis and Bouviers, and a high percentage of Australian Cattle Dogs, which are driving dogs. This book is written for gathering breeds.

There are a few sections which are somewhat dated. At the time of writing, there were very few options for those with loose-eyed breeds, in terms of trainers, techniques, and trialing venues. She stresses that only Border Collie trainers have the experience to really help a novice; this is no longer true. But otherwise, most of the information is fresh, and written in a clear, step by step style that is easy to understand.

She starts with describing what herding behavior really is — something many novices do not understand. This is followed by a brief discussion of each herding breed, and the traits that make up a good stockdog, and how to pick a likely pup.

Taggart is not a believer in round pens. She feels an acre field is minimum for starting on sheep. Her observation is that dogs trained in small areas have a difficult time transferring their training to the open, and habituate to working far too close.

One of her more interesting chapters is titled “Is Your Dog Ready To Work?” Here she discusses the signs of being “turned on” versus not being ready yet, and the perils of starting your dog too young. She also stresses the importance of researching your breed’s natural style and not trying to make your dog into something they are not. She makes the point that there is a big difference between an unusual style and bad stockwork (something that confuses many owners of loose-eyed breeds, especially the rarer ones).

Taggart includes an excellent chapter on herding terms and what they really mean, and a section on basic do’s and don’ts of herding. By now we are already to Chapter Seven, in which the dog is finally introduced to stock. This begins the real meat of the book, with a very clear explanation of how to get your dog to circle the stock, stop, walk up, and learn their flanking commands.

She then proceeds to an in depth discussion of how to teach an outrun, focusing on the loose-eyed breeds which typically do not naturally run wide. Although this chapter is titled “Starting Short Outruns”, it actually goes into quite advanced outruns including redirects and blind sends.

She teaches penning using a free-standing pen; in parallel with her dislike of training in small enclosures, she feels that dogs must learn from the start to not rely upon fences. There is also an excellent chapter on teaching a dog to grip on command, which goes into the different techniques needed for strong eyed and loose eyed dogs, and for confident versus insecure dogs. She concludes her training section with how to teach the drive and the shed, with a good problem-solving section at the very end, with many of the problems addressed being those more common to less talented dogs or those who have been spoiled by improper training techniques.

If you are at the very beginning of your herding career, this would be an excellent first book, especially if you have a breed other than a Border Collie or Kelpie. For a more advanced handler, probably only the later chapters would be useful.

September 2009

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