Herding With the Shetland Sheepdog

A Pursuit in Working with Natural Instincts and Abilities

Prepared and copyrighted by the Northern California Shetland Sheepdog Herding Club. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the NCSSHC, 43 Alta Vista Way, San Rafael CA 94901, phone/fax: (415) 453-0848.
Contributed by Linda Rorem.
Cailie Herding

How far can a Sheltie go?

There are several Shelties that currently hold Herding Championships and many with Advanced titles earned in more than one herding program. These titles have been achieved on a variety of livestock, which demonstrates the versatility of the breed. Most of these dogs also hold obedience titles, a few have tracking titles. Shaela and sheep

How long have Shelties been herding?

The Shetland Sheepdog, since becoming formally established as a breed (1908), has not been bred or selected for its herding ability. However, its predecessors were used to work a variety of livestock in the rugged, rocky landscape of the Shetland Islands. Much has been written about the history of the breed standard as it evolved, but little is mentioned about the small working ancestors. These dogs behind our breed were well suited for working in the harsh environment on little food, and were frequently left alone to guard, as well as gather in the strays. Their size and temperament led them to be accepted as yard and house dogs in addition to their usefulness with all types of livestock from chicken to cattle. Scattered through the literature there have been stories of Shelties working on ranches since they were first imported into this country. With the more recent popularization as herding as a sport, there are many Shelties currently working on ranches and competing at herding trials.

How do I find a Sheltie with herding instinct?

The instinct to herd is largely inherited, not learned. Therefore, one should start with parents that have proven their herding ability. Insitinct is a response to stock that no amount of training can create. However, the greatest instincts are not useful without a willingness to work with the handler. Trainablility is as important as good instinct, so the greater level of working accomplishements by the parents, the higher the likelihood the offspring will achieve these skills. Without attention to this in breeding, it is all chance. A few individual dogs have produced good herding instinct consistantly. Today, only about 50%-60% of the Shelties tested have shown some herding instinct, but not all of these are capable of intermediate and advanced work. In choosing a puppy, outgoing temperment and an interest in chasing moving objects (balls, cats, vacuum cleaner, ect.) is important. Boldness and reserved self-confidence are desirable, but not aggressiveness or shyness.
Cailie penning sheep

Does my Sheltie have herding instinct?

The best time to have your dog evaluated is between six months and one year of age. Idealy, this should be done by someone familiar with the breed. You may go to an organized instinct testing day, but first arranging some time with an experienced trainer is preferable. It may take a few exposures before a dog "turns on." Just being on a ranch the first time, with all its wonderful smells, sights, and sounds may be too distracting or overwhelming. At the instinct evaluation, you may be asked to walk along with the evaluatore and, perhaps, grab a sheep. Sheep are recommended for testing because they flock together the best. Cattle should never be used with a young dog, and ducks do not flock as well to the handler. Starting a dog whi is older, or who has had extensive obedience training, often is more difficult because the dog's attention is focused on the owner, requiring some effort to transfer attention to and generate interest in the stock. What the evaluator will be looking for is a sustained interest in the stock shown by circuling to hold them to the handler and going to the heads to change direction as the handler moves. It is preferable to see, but not necesarry at the test, that the dog will counterbalance to the evaluator/handler and stay on the opposite side of the stock. Be prepared to catch your dog at the finish as enthusiasm often overrides obedience.

Why herd with my Sheltie?

There are some Shelties that are the breed of choice by the owners of ranches, but they are not the breed for working large ranches. They are ideal for small ranch/farm situations, and have proven to be dependable with a variety of stock including chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, goats and cattle. Most owners who participate in herding find great pleasure in working with their dog in a way that allows the dog to express its natural instincts and abilities. Many enjoy the competition of trials.

How do I find a trainer?

Contact those Sheltie owners who have advanced working titles on their dogs and ask for recommendations for someone in your area. These people are knowledgable about trainers who have experience with and an appreciation for the qualities brought to herding by the Shetland Sheepdog. After attending classes and participating in some of the organized test events, you will begin to meet others in your area who have participated in the sport longer. You should observe how their dogs work and talk to them about where they train. Re-evaluate your training as you progress, and don't be afraid to try someone else if you feel your trainer is not the right one for your dog. Some trainers are better at teaching handlers and dogs at different stages of their development, or prefer working with certain breeds.

When to being training and how often?

Serious training shuld not begin until a dog is 10 months to 1-1/2 years old, depending on the individual temperament and maturity. All early experiences need to be very short, positive, and happy. Using stock that will move from the dog and stay with the handler is critical at this stage. A younger dog will benefit from weekly or twice a month expposure to the ranch situation and watching other dogs work. Ten minutes per day is the ideal frequency for training after the dog is mature. Realistically, most dogs are able to reach the "started" level after about a year with once a week sessions. More frequent training results in faster progress for both the dog and handler. Although you can hire a professional trainer to work with your dog, Shelties tend to be very loyal to their owners and will achieve more with them. To reach the level to begin competition in trials, it takes consistency and time--and, often, the willingness to drive long hours for training.
Shaela herding!

What kinds of trials are there for Shelties?

There are several herding programs which offer a variety of elements for the dog and handler to master. The American Kennel Club program has been used at the ASSA National, which held its first national herding trial in 1994. The AKC has two test level titles that are judged on a pass/fail basis and require passing under two different judges: Herding Tested (HT) and Pre-trial Tested (PT). The AKC trial classes are scored and require three legs under three different judges: Herding Started (HS), Herding Intermediate (HI), and Herding Excellent (HX). After finishing the HX, a dog may continue to enter the advanced class for points toward a Herding Championship (HCh.). The American Herding Breed Association offers two test levels, three tiral levels, a Ranch Dog title, and a championship. The Australian Sheperd Club of America has three trial levels, a Ranch Dog title, and a Working Trial Championship attained when the dog accomplishes advanced titles on sheep, ducks, and cattle. Border Collie trials do not offer titles, but competitions lead to overall annual results and recognition of the top dogs.

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