Herding with Belgians (it's long)

Posted By: Kadi <malndobe@juno.com> (cache-ntc-ag09.proxy.aol.com)
Date: Monday, 9 June 2003, at 6:35 a.m.

I saw a post a couple weeks ago asking about herding with Malinois, I don't remember who posted it though. Here is my experience with herding and some of my dogs. First a couple of definitions.
dog-broke sheep – sheep that may or may not like humans, but have learned that if there is a dog in the pasture/pen with them, the safest place to be is next to a human
heavy sheep – sheep that are calmer, less reactive. Either because of basic temperament/breed, or because of experience with dog. Or both, positive experience can make sheep "heavier" negatives can make them "lighter"
light sheep – sheep that are more flighty, reactive, will try to jump or crash a fence to get away. Either because of basic temperament/breed, or because of experience with dog. Or both. Certain breeds are known to be lighter than others, a gross generalization is that the hair breeds are lighter than the fleece breeds.
hair sheep – breeds of sheep that don’t have a typical fleece that is shorn, but instead shed it. They almost look like a goat vs what most people think of as a sheep
fetch – to bunch the sheep up and bring them to the handler. It does not mean to tackle an individual sheep and retrieve it to hand :-)
flossing – biting the sheep
pole – made of various materials, some people use a pvc pipe, some use a wooden crook, others use material that is more flexible like a long plastic solid rod or something that looks kind of like a lunge whip, without the rope whip part at the end but instead a plastic tab.
wearing – moving back and forth behind the sheep in a half moon pattern, moving them somewhere (across the pasture, towards the handler, etc) power – the dogs ability to impress the sheep. Some dogs have a lot of power and need to work further away from the sheep to keep from scaring them, other dogs have less power and the sheep will test them, or even run right over the top of the dog. Power and "out of control" are different though, the sheep can tell when the dog is in control of the handler, and when it isn't. So they may show fear and panic around a dog without much power, because they know that dog is very very close to trying to lunch them at any moment.

I have introduced most of my Belgians to sheep so far, plus some of the dogs from my breedings. Some of them just got to see them a couple of times for a basic temperament test, others went on to take lessons on a semi-regular basis. I'll give my experience with the 4 I've introduced most recently, since they were each different ages, level of training, and personalities. I will say I also haven't had to purchase a sheep yet. For an introduction to sheep if you have an experienced evaluator, and dog broke sheep, the risk is reasonably minimal. The more training the dog had, the more controlled they were the first time out. The fact that the training was mainly in bitework was not IMO a negative. It was a positive either because the bitework training is coupled with an equal amount of obedience, or it was because the dog actually knows what "out" means. Not sure which, probably varies from dog to dog.

Enzo – FRIII E was 6 or 7 I believe when he first saw sheep. To begin with, E wasn't a "critterish" dog. After retiring as he got older he began to think chasing the cats was fun, but when he was younger and working he ignored cats, rabbits, squirrels, etc. for the most part. The first time he saw sheep, he wandered around the pen, got a drink, relieved himself, had a little snack, etc. Then he wandered near the sheep and "turned on". He immediately decided these were creatures to be controlled and bunched them up tight. The evaluator made the comment later he would have been a great penning dog, because his instincts were to either bunch the sheep tightly into a corner or on the fence, or fetch them to her. But he was equally strong in both areas, where as most Belgians initial reaction is to just circle the sheep like crazy, and do some fetching. He was not mouthy at all with the sheep, which was a surprise to me at the time because of his Ringsport background. If one got out of line he would go in and shoulder slam it to get it back in the herd, vs biting. He was also very aware of the entire herd, vs focusing on an individual sheep and chasing it around. His goal was one of two things, to bunch the sheep near a fence and hold them there, or bring them to the evaluator. Once he had done this, he would loose interest in the herd, unless one tried to escape or the evaluator moved away. Then he'd rebunch and fetch them again. All of this is pretty different than the most of the other Belgians I have started or seen started. I think in part it showed the level of maturity and training E possessed vs the younger dogs, but also his basic character and drive, which was more balanced vs extreme prey. E took a number of lessons later in life when he was 10, and still worked sheep just like his first time out. Nice control, worked more out of a desire to control the movement of the sheep, than a modified/controlled desire to lunch a sheep. He would have made a nice real working herding dog IMO, because he worked when needed then "turned off" when he wasn't needed. So he wouldn't wear himself out in the first hour of the day obsessing on the sheep or constantly harassing them.

Cali – FRI Cali was 2ish when she first saw sheep. Raving lunatic outside the pen waiting her turn to go in, barking, pulling on the leash, etc. When we turned her loose, her first reaction was to race in and try to floss. Couple smacks from the pole and me yelling at her made her realize that wasn't acceptable. So then she started circling the sheep at warp speed. A few more prevented attempts at flossing and she decided to remove that obstacle and take the pole away from the evaluator LOL. An "out" comes in handy here, the evaluator won that tug-o-war (I've had 3 different dogs do this). I took the pole at that point and started working her. She settled reasonably quickly and started taking directions so she was wearing vs just circling. She had pretty good focus on the herd vs picking out an individual and chasing that one around while ignoring the rest. She would "loose" an individual on occasion though, if she had most of the sheep bunched up together she'd ignore the one lone sheep instead of adding it to the group. She showed quite a bit of power, if a sheep even considered squaring off with her she had no qualms about backing it down. I continued on with lessons with Cali and she shows the potential to be a nice herding dog. After just a few lessons she earned the first leg of her Junior Herd Dog on pretty light, not very dog-broke, sheep. She comes out pretty hot and takes a minute to settle, but then she shows nice control and balance. And she can walk behind the sheep right up next to them without feeling the need to floss. With a lot of mileage might make a decent real world working dog, but she'd need to learn to work the sheep when needed, and settle when not needed. Right now she's reasonably calm when working, after that initial excitement, but when not working she's to wound wanting to get back out there. Funny story time. We were learning the initial outrun, gather and fetch. The instructor had put some grain on the ground so the sheep would bunch in one area, then I was sending Cali, from about 50 feet away, out to gather them up and fetch them back to me. 1 sheep refused to leave the grain, she would move off it but as soon as she got about 10-15 feet away she'd break out of the herd and race back to the grain. Cali would go get that sheep, but in the process the rest of the herd would take the chance to circle back and try to get to the grain also, so she'd have to push them all off it again. After having to go get that one sheep 4 or 5 times, and bring it back to the herd, she finally had enough. She was chasing the sheep back towards the group, and she ran up behind it, grabbed it by the hock on the rear leg, yanked back, and flipped it end over end. Then proceeded to put it back into the herd. Ms. Sheep decided after that maybe she better behave, and we finished the pattern of gates we were working on without an incident. Sheep was unhurt, except for some minor scratches on her leg, and she gained a much better attitude in the process. Cali only worked in the round pen for 2 or 3 lessons, then we went into the pasture. This was because she worked better with more space, so she could get a little further from the sheep, but also because she worked better with a larger number of sheep. She has to stop and think more when she's trying to control 9-12 sheep, vs just 3. Generally you do all your ground work (directional changes, stopping, walk up, get out, etc) in the round pen because it offers a more controlled environment and is much easier. The pic is Cali working some Barbados crosses (light/hair sheep) and a couple "regular" sheep.

Dax – he first saw sheep at about 8 months. The introduction was very similar to his mom Cali as far as raving lunatic outside the pen. Biggest difference was he didn't have the level of obedience or control she had, my recall under distraction was still just showing him a kong. The first time out there was one ewe that had successfully chased a couple of other beginner dogs that day. They were ranch sheep, as scared of the people as they were the dogs so they wouldn't willingly fetch anywhere near the handler. VERY light, a couple jumped the round pen fence and took off, but also willing to fight if needed. NOT sheep that a dog should be put on for their very first experience. Dax tried to move this ewe first thing into the pen and she rushed him. He hit the dirt, then looked at her like "wait just a second here, I'm the dog, you're the sheep" and lunged for her. She backed off and he decided he could do this no problem. A few more tried to rush him or stand their ground and threaten, but he jumped right in there and convinced them otherwise. But he figured out very quickly not to floss, and did a nice job of taking direction for wearing. Naturally tried to fetch, didn’t show any real desire to gather and hold them in one spot though, he preferred to move them around. Not as much power as Cali, but enough to get the job done, and with maturity he gained power and confidence. Had a hard time bunching the sheep first time out though, he was to fast and excited and they panicked if he got to close. To close being within the round pen with them, it wasn't large enough for him to get enough distance for them to settle. His next time out he was much better, it was in a larger area and with more dog broke sheep. His sister Dare saw sheep for the first time the same day. Very different reaction. She was much more controlled, much calmer, and was able to actually get the sheep to bunch up and move around some because she wasn't scaring them racing around like a fool.

Chaos – she was 4 months old the first time she saw sheep. Lots of confidence for a little pup, she jumped right in there and started chasing them around. She didn't realize she was being backed up by the guy with the stick. :-) It's the one time I saw the handler smack the sheep instead of the dog LOL when one of them decided it could probably stand up to this little pup and maybe take her out. A quick thump right when Chaos barked at the sheep and it turned and ran. After that if they didn’t move or tried to face off with her, she'd head right at them and bark in their face and they would turn. She tended to focus on one sheep only, but if a couple of them got near each other she would realize there was a herd, and start trying to work the group and keep them together. Didn't show any real desire to fetch the sheep to the handler, but did try to hold them against the fence. Actually showed a preference towards being at their head, about a 50/50 split. My other dogs have all been more inclined to hang out at the rear of the herd and push them along, vs wanting to be a heading dog.

If you have any interest in herding, I'd suggest taking the dogs out and giving it a shot. It's a lot of fun to see what the dogs natural instincts are, sometimes they can really surprise you. You don't have to have the typical herding breeds either (GSD, Belgian, Bouv, etc) I've seen quite a few Dobe's out there, doing a very nice job.