HERDING “101 “

Have you ever wondered about herding with your OES?  Does your OES herd other dogs, kids, etc.?  Or does he like to chase birds, squirrels, and rabbits or retrieve a ball?  Does she try to run after joggers, bicycles and motorcycles?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, your OES almost certainly has a strong herding instinct.  Even if the answer wasn't yes, your dog may still be a herder. 

There is nothing like seeing a dog who’s never worked stock “turn on” and instinctively begin to do the work it was originally bred for!  And the dogs that have the instinct love herding more than any other type of activity.  Once they have the idea, all they want to do is work, work, work those sheep.  Can you imagine loving your job THAT much that all you wanted to do is work!!

If herding isn’t something you’ve tackled yet, perhaps reading this will persuade you to have your dog instinct tested if you have the opportunity to do so. 

Herding Instinct Test

For an instinct test, which is often the first step to herding training, you and your dog are not required to have any herding knowledge or experience. 

The herding instinct test is a basic introduction to stock (usually sheep) in a round pen with you, your dog and the tester in the pen.  The tester will be an experienced stockdog trainer who will assist and evaluate the dog.  The dog enters the pen on lead and is walked up to the stock (usually three or four sheep) to determine interest.  Depending upon the dog’s reaction to the stock, the lead may be removed or simply dropped.  The tester then guides and encourages the dog to herd the stock and usually carries a “stock stick” or a pole to help guide the dog through the test.  You, as the owner, are only in the pen to support the dog and help give it confidence. 
CKC Herding Tested (HT) Requirements

You may be interested in learning what is involved in acquiring a CKC Herding Tested (HT) title.  Firstly, the HT level isn’t a competitive event - it is simply a pass or fail situation.  The dog must receive a pass in 2 tests under 2 different judges at CKC approved trials in order to earn the title. 

Tests may be done on cattle, ducks and sheep but sheep are used virtually exclusively.  The stock that are used are what are referred to as “dog-broke” which means that they are accustomed to being worked by dogs.  The course consists of 3 fenceline obstacles and an exhaust pen.  The fenceline obstacles are usually a fence panel placed 8 to 12’ from the fence for sheep and an exhaust pen is where the handler and dog put the stock at the end of the course. 

For the test, the stock is placed out in the arena for the handler, and the handler may choose to enter the arena before or after the stock are moved into the arena.  The number of animals that are used may vary from 3 to 10 head but all runs at each level must have the same number of stock  The arena is a fenced field which for sheep and cattle must be no less than 100’ by 200’ and no more than 200’ x 400’ in size.

In order to pass the HT level, a dog must:

1.pick up stock in a calm, controlled manner;

2.subsequently demonstrate a brief pause, stop or down somewhere on the course;

3.take stock through the fenceline obstacles; and
4.pen the stock.

The handler may walk through any of the obstacles and may enter the exhaust pen.  The judge is in the arena with the handler and is encouraged to help make a success of the run with suggestions where necessary. 


As you can see from the above, the HT level is set up in order to do everything possible to assist the handler and dog to succeed.  By allowing beginners to succeed, it helps to build confidence and is encouragement to continue their herding training.  I do believe that this lends itself to giving beginners the encouragement to carry on.

In order to to give HT a try, you and your dog will need some herding training and the extent will depend on both you and your dog.  However, generally speaking, it should not require a lot of training…...the more in-depth work comes with the next level which is Herding Started (HS).
The instinct test usually does not require more than 10 minutes and the tester completes an evaluation form and/or certificate if he/she feels that the dog has demonstrated herding instinct. 
Sometimes, a dog does not display interest in the stock during its first introduction and it can take a few exposures before the “light comes on” for the dog or it feels confident enough to try working the stock.  When issued, a herding instinct or capabilities certificate is not an “officially” recognized title..
The course for your test is posted in advance and with just 3 fenceline obstacles is pretty straightforward.  Any courses I’ve seen place each of the obstacles logically after the other so there is no “zig-zagging” back and forth.

The handler enters the arena with the dog on lead and walks up to the stock until the stock begin to react.  At this point, the dog is put into a “stop” which may be a down, sit or stand and is told to stay while the handler walks part way to the sheep.  I should explain that the handler and dog are a team which I’d liken to the “good cop/bad cop” scenario with the handler being the good cop and the dog the bad cop.  The sheep look to the handler for security and safety from the dog.  So when the handler places him/herself near enough to the sheep and the dog is released to gather the sheep, the sheep have a tendency to move toward the handler and follow the handler provided that the dog is applying pressure and provided the dog does not encroach into the stock’s “flight zone”. 

The flight zone is the distance between the dog and the stock at which the stock begin to react and “take flight” and are no longer being worked in a “controlled manner”.  The flight zone will vary from dog to dog as well as the stock.  A dog having a lot of “power” will have to work further back from the stock whereas a dog with less power may be able to get very near the stock before they react.

The course may require either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction through the fenceline obstacles.  It is completed utilizing the fetch which is the handler in front, then the sheep and the dog at the rear keeping the sheep to the handler.  Fetching is instinctive to herding dogs and relies on hunting prey drive with the handler being the pack leader and the dog a part of the pack that is hunting dinner.  Driving sheep, where the dog takes sheep away from the pack leader, is not an instinctive skill and is taught to the dog…..although there occasionally are dogs who do not respect their handlers, and which are “working for themselves”.  These dogs may appear to be driving without having been taught.

When the obstacles are completed, the sheep are moved to the exhaust pen.  The sheep are inclined to want to go to the exhaust pen because they know that it means they will be able to escape the dog and the handler and they feel secure there.  When the exhaust pen area is reached, the handler places the dog in a stop (either the stand, sit or down) in such a position that the dog is applying pressure and the stock are unlikely to break and head back out into other areas of the arena.  The handler then opens the gate, sends the dog around the stock making them enter, closes the gate, calls the dog, puts it back on lead and the trial is over!!

I hope that you consider doing some herding with your dog(s) and show the rest of the herding breeds that OES are, indeed, capable sheepdogs too!

In the future, the next levels of the CKC herding trial program will be discussed.