We were standing around at work talking about what we were all going to do on the weekend. Seemed everyone had plans -- a graduation party to hold and one to attend, a child's baseball game to coach. And then it was Barbie's turn to share what was happening in their house.
"My husband's taking our dog, Fletcher, herding," she said.
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My ears perked up. "Have you done it before?" she was asked. "No, it's the first time. We're gonna see how it goes," she answered.
I thought the sport of herding sounded intriguing. We've had Australian shepherd and German shepherd mixes, who seemed to have the instinct to herd. In fact, according to Diane Blackman, dogplay.com, dog herding programs make "heavy use of natural instinct, then gradually shapes and develops it."
Linda Rorem, who maintains the website herdingontheweb.com, offers information and suggestions for getting started in herding.
Although the best way for a herding dog to learn is to grow up in a working situation, gradually becoming experienced with livestock, urban dogs don't have that opportunity. So, to get started in herding, your dog should be mature enough for training, about a year old, and you need an experienced herding trainer.
The trainer will provide individual instruction suited to the particular dog. The livestock and facility will be suitable for various levels of handlers and dogs in training, for beginners, as well as those with experience. The lessons usually involve several short sessions of instruction interspersed with rest breaks.
While the dog rests, the owner learns by watching other dogs and handlers. While private lessons are best, clinics and organized herding instinct tests are also available to the beginner.
Rorem cautions, "Whether in a private situation, clinic or test, the first introduction to livestock must be carefully supervised."
Dog owners who are considering training their dogs to herd have to be willing to devote time to regular training. After the dog has been introduced to stock and shows evidence of herding potential, owners need to commit to taking their dog to stock, preferably two to three times a week. Less time in training is unfair to the dog as well as the livestock.
It's unfair to tease the dog with intermittent small tastes of herding, with no progress being made. It's also unfair to the stock to subject them to an over excited dog, which will be strange and upsetting to them, rather than being confronted with a more settled dog.
It's necessary to prepare your dog for the early work with livestock. Since herding will be such a potentially exciting activity for the dog, it's necessary for the dog to have a good recall and good stop (down or sit). These commands have to be practiced away from stock in many situations and with a variety distractions.
First, a regular stop, sit or down, whichever is best for a particular dog, is taught while the handler is stationary. Then the handler asks for sit or down while he continues walking. The final step is to ask for sit or down while the handler is clapping hands and running excitedly, playing with a toy or ball. All of this should be firmly enforced and done in a happy, play-training environment.
Through the use of the stop, the handler takes the pressure off the sheep, who will be more likely to settle into position, which then helps settle the dog. From there, the beginning handler learns positioning and handling, which helps the dog learn more easily and reduces the stress on the sheep, the dog and the handler.
As important as the dog having a good stop and recall is, it's also important not to overuse the commands in early training lessons with stock.
It takes a lot of education, time and groundwork to train a skilled herding dog. Rorem notes, "The dogs have herding instinct -- but people don't -- so it's of great importance that the person learn about herding and about stock behavior and care."
So, if you are thinking about getting into herding with your dog, read about it, visit clinics and talk to a trainer.
Herding, as with any other activity you choose to participate in with your dog, takes a commitment of time and energy. But as you and your dog train together the benefits are endless. Spending time with your dog is the important thing.
The Buddy Foundation is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its shelter building. Come and join the party from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, June 22, at 65 W. Seegers Road, Arlington Heights. For information, call (847) 290-5806.
• The Buddy Foundation is a nonprofit, all volunteer, no-kill animal shelter dedicated to the welfare of stray, abused and abandoned cats and dogs. The shelter is at 65 W. Seegers Road, in Arlington Heights. For information, call (847) 290-5806 or visit thebuddyfoundation.org.