by Beth Kerber
My herding journey began with an untrained Border collie—and it was a struggle as we both tried to figure out what to do. My instructor then gave me her retired, fully trained herding dog, and learning about herding and moving the sheep around the farm became a whole lot easier.
A herding dog can often make working with sheep and goats easier, quicker and less stressful. Once you decide to add a dog to the farm, the next question is: what factors should I consider when selecting a herding dog?
When selecting a working dog for the farm, your choices generally fall into four broad categories: a puppy, a partially trained dog, a fully trained dog and a retired, fully trained trial dog. Before exploring these choices, here are some factors to consider.
What type of job will the dog do? Will the dog gather the sheep from the pasture and bring them to the barn at the end of the day? Is the dog going to work for several hours a day? Do I need a dog skilled at moving sheep through handling equipment, into pens or one that can help sort sheep?
Gathering sheep and bringing them to a person is often taught early in a dog’s training, and many partially trained dogs can do this. While many older and retired competition dogs may not be physically up to several hours of farm work each day, many are quite capable of gathering sheep from a pasture a couple times a day. Moving sheep into pens and driving, or pushing, sheep to other pastures usually requires a dog with more training. Being realistic about what you want the dog to do can help you select the right dog for your farming situation.
What is your skill level? Have you worked with herding dogs before? Have you trained dogs? Are you comfortable working around sheep or goats? A horse saying is that “green on green makes black and blue,” meaning that an inexperienced rider paired with an untrained or partially trained horse results in injuries. An inexperienced herding dog handler and untrained dog can result in lots of frustration as well as possible injuries to the dog, person or livestock.
What is your budget? Generally speaking, a fully trained dog is going to costs the most to buy upfront. However, if purchasing a puppy or untrained dog, there could be ongoing training costs. Someone has to train the dog. These factors need to be figured into the cost of the dog.
What is your timeframe? Do you need a dog now, or do you have the time it takes to train a dog?
What is your time commitment? Depending on the dog, your skills and what you are training the dog to do, training a herding dog can take several months or a few years. Do you enjoy training dogs? Are you willing to spend the time to train the dog?
Do you have a mentor or knowledgeable herding person nearby? Because herding work involves three species—the dog, livestock and person, training is challenging, and an experienced handler can observe and offer guidance.
In our book, Think Like a Sheepdog Trainer: A Guide to Raising and Training a Herding Dog, my co-author, Kay Stephens, DVM, and I offer a complete chapter on how to select a herding dog and offer pros and cons to selecting a puppy, partially trained or fully trained dog. The book also addresses training skills for dog trainers and detailed instructions on how to teach specific herding skills.
Taking the time to evaluate what you want in a working dog, your skill levels, time commitment and budget will help you when selecting a herding dog for the farm.
Beth Kerber is co-author of Think Like a Sheepdog Trainer: A Guide to Raising and Training a Herding Dog, published by Dogwise Publishing. She uses her Border collies for managing a flock of sheep and herding competitions.