A herding dog works livestock under any of three different basic "operating systems", ie three different basic methods of interaction of the dog with the handler and stock to determine the route along which the stock are to be conducted. Each system has advantages and disadvantages for various situations and each has requirements for success. The best dog-handler teams will finally achieve a smooth integration of the three systems so as to be able to handle a wide variety of tasks and situations.


by Pam Green (copyright 1991)

(The term "operating system" in the computer world refers to the basic program that controls the way the computer works and the way that the user interacts with it.. Attempting to run two different operating systems at the same time on one computer results in total dysfunction. A user familiar with one system who attempts to use a computer running a different system will experience extreme frustration. So what does this have to do with dogs?)

A herding dog works livestock under any of three different basic "operating systems", ie three different basic methods of interaction with the handler and stock to determine the route along which the stock are to be conducted. A handler who is familiar only with one of these methods, attempting to work a dog who is familiar only with a different method , is in for a lot of frustration. However it is not at all impossible for a dog to simultaneously use all 3 systems, with either beneficial or detrimental results. The best dog - handler teams utilize all 3 systems in a smoothly integrated manner, achieving superior stock-handling.

The three operating systems might be termed (1) the "Automatic Pilot" or "instinctive fetch" system, (2) the "Habit and Layout" or "task-oriented" system, and(3) the "By Command" or "handler-oriented" system.

AUTOMATIC PILOT (instinctive fetch)

When working in automatic pilot, the herding dog obeys his inherited instinct to keep the stock contained between himself and his handler and to attempt to keep the stock moving towards the handler. Under this system, the handler directs the dog simply by walking ahead of the herd or flock in the direction in which he desires the flock to move. For example to move the stock from one pasture to another, the handler opens the gate and walks through, letting the dog cause the stock to follow.

The success of this system depends primarily on the quality of the instincts inherited by the dog. These in turn depend upon the quality of breeding behind the dog : a dog descended from a line of good fetching dogs will generally work well in Automatic Pilot mode. If the instincts are lacking, the method fails.

It is amazing to the novice handler to discover how much useful farm work can be accomplished by means of the Automatic Pilot system alone. This method is easily learned by the novice handler and by the inexperienced dog. Simple practice , even without truly methodical training, will soon result in a useful level of proficiency sufficient for many tasks. No wonder the Automatic Pilot system has been the mainstay of shepherds throughout the world!

Most practical stockdog trainers and farmers thus begin the dog's education by invoking the Automatic Pilot mode.

However without some assistance from one or both of the other two systems, there are some important tasks that remain difficult or impossible. In the simple example of taking stock through a gate, it can be difficult for the handler to turn around to shut the gate without the dog turning the flock back towards the gate, unless of course the dog responds to the simple command to halt (eg lie down) which is part of the "To Command" system or unless the dog understands the nature and goal of the task. Penning can also be frustrated by the dog's instinct to whip to the front to "head" the sheep just as they are entering the pen, unless either some command is used or the dog has come to understand the nature and purpose of the task. Some tasks, such as "shedding" (=separating part of a flock from the rest), go directly contrary to the dog's fetching instinct.

HABIT AND LAYOUT (task-oriented)

When working by habit and layout, the herding dog uses his learned knowledge of the farm's daily routine and geographical layout to take the stock to their accustomed destination. The stock too know the routine and layout and thus often are quite cooperative about being taken to their usual destination. For example, the dog brings the cows in to the barn for milking each morning and evening. The cows receive the reward of being fed and being relieved of the discomfort of an overfull udder.

The success of the system depends on the repetitiveness with which essentially similar stock handling routes are done on the farm and upon the dog's innate tendency to form habits, ie to learn these routines. Relatively stable flock population, with newcomers in the minority, is also conducive to habit formation in the flock. It is also helpful to give the stock some reward at the destination. The dog's capabilities under this system continue to grow with greater and more varied experience. The success of the system can be greatly facilitated by appropriate design and layout of the farm's fences, gates, pens, etc so as to facilitate the flow of livestock as desired.

A great many farm tasks are repeated on a daily or weekly basis with enough similarity for dog and stock to learn such habits. The initial half-dozen or dozen performances can be performed using the Automatic Pilot system, modified perhaps by appropriate commands. Soon dog and flock have learned the routine. In some cases the handler's assistance may become unneeded, leaving him free to attend to other tasks. No wonder this system has been much used by the small-holding farmers of the world.

Thus the practical farm dog soon begins operating under some combination of Habit & Layout and Automatic Pilot. Usually these two systems combine smoothly and without conflict.

However this system tends to break down or become substantially less reliable whenever a new task arises on the farm or when dog and handler go elsewhere to work or otherwise attempt to work out of their usual pattern. An example of a situtation to which this system is very likely to prove inadequate is that of the Herding Trial.

WORKING TO COMMAND (handler oriented)

When working to command, the herding dog moves himself in accordance with his trained response to commands given by his handler. The stock then move away from the dog whenever he moves close enough to them to cause them to feel uncomfortable. For example , in the trial situation in which the dog is required to drive sheep on a straight line through a pair of panels, the handler commands the dog to move right, left, or straight towards the flock in order to steer as straight a line as possible.

This system depends for success upon the thoroughness of the handler's training of the dog. This generally requires a lot of time and skill from the handler. The dog's willingness to obey the handler is also critical. This in turn depends on the dog's breeding and upbringing, as well as his relationship with the handler.

Successful application in any given instance critically depends upon the accuracy of the handler's judgement in giving the right commands and his timing in doing so. This in turn depends on the handler's ability to read and instantly react to the body language of the livestock. In contrast, the other two systems rely on the dog's ability to read and react to the body language of the stock. Dogs tend to be far more proficient at reading stock than the vast majority of human beings are.

A few simple well chosen commands, used in conjunction with Automatic Pilot and / or Habit & Layout, can add considerable flexibility and ease to the performance of farm work. When the commands make good sense within the context of the task to be done and when the dog knows from experience the general nature of that task, the use of a command system integrates readily and profitably with the other systems in use. At the very least, all farmers greatly appreciate the value of being able to halt the dog on command.

It is in the context of the more advanced levels of trial work that the To Command system becomes essential and, to some, the primary system. At such trials, the rules generally limit the extent of the handler's movements so as to preclude working under Automatic Pilot , and the location of various obstacles in the trial layout is unknown to the dog thus precluding his operating by Habit and Layout. Thus the handler must communicate to the dog certain of the maneuvers needed to accomplish the route by means of Commands.

The drawbacks of the Command system are that it tends to substitute the handler's stock reading judgement for that of the dog. Unlike the dog, the handler has not been bred to excel in this regard and thus is more likely to make mistakes.

If the Command system is poorly and erroneously used, with frequent miscommanding by the handler, it may cause the dog to become very frustrated when the handler's commands interfere with the dog's control of the flock and may cause the handler to become angry whenever the dog ignores a command in order to obey his instincts to retain control of the stock. If such conflicts are frequent, it can cause the relationship between dog and handler to become adversarial rather than cooperative. If the handler is unable to impose his will upon the dog, being often unable to enforce obedience to his commands, the dog will learn to disregard the handler's commands and operate instead on Automatic Pilot and on Habit & Layout to the extent possible, with the results obtained tainted and spoiled by the dissention and anger between dog and handler. If the handler is able to enforce his commands and impose his will, then constant use of the Command system will gradually tend to cause the dog to abandon his own initiative and stock-reading abilities, becoming "mechanical" or robot-like in his performance. This is a waste of bred-in instincts, and generally produces a result inferior to that possible when Command is well-integrated with the other two systems.


Clearly the result most to be desired is a harmonious integration of all three operating systems. However that is easier said than done.

The Automatic Pilot system is the most natural and the most highly motivated. All trainers wishing to preserve the dog's bred-in abilities will begin training by use of this system as the primary one. Some give no commands at all, others very few, using the handler's movements and position relative to the stock to direct the dog. The handler's movements and training staff are used to encourage the dog to move towards the balance point and to discourage the dog from charging inwards towards the stock. Going for walks , with handler meandering about the field, leaving the dog to balance the flock behind the handler, gives the dog the needed experience to confirm and improve his fetching abilities. As the dog becomes more experienced, simple obstacles such as gateways are introduced. At first the handler walks through, but later veers off to the side and uses the cane to influence the dog to bring the stock through the opening. This is the start of the Habit or task oriented system and the start of the dog's realization that sometimes there is reason to modify his natural goal of fetching directly towards the handler in favor of fetching directly towards the gateway.

At some point , the experienced handler can begin to introduce basic commands , given so as to be in accordance with the dog's natural reactions to the situation. Ideally the dog is told to do something he is about to do anyway. Thus the halt command is initially given only when the dog is on the balance point, thus able to halt without the sheep scooting to one side or the other of the line from dog to handler, and when the dog is already a little tired and thus likely to welcome a moment's rest. The meaning of the particular halt command, eg "down" or "whoa" (standing halt), has usually already been taught to the puppy in circumstances not involving stock. The two sideways flanking commands, "away to me" (counterclockwise) and "go bye" (clockwise), are given just as the dog is about to change his direction in response to the movement of stock and handler. If need be, the cane is used to block the other side and thus influence the pup to move towards the open side, which is the side for which the command has been given. The "walk up" command to move towards the stock is given as the pup arrives at the balance point or after he has halted on the balance point, as the handler moves further away from the stock thus inducing the pup to move towards the stock to cause them to continue to follow the handler. The "get out" command, to increase the arc of movement further off the stock, can be given just as the handler's body movement or cane gesture is about to cause the pup to flare outwards. Some trainers like to teach a specific command for flaring out; others prefer to make it a habit for the pup to keep out a reasonable distance.

The crucial factor in beginning to teach and utilize a Command system is to avoid giving commands that are in conflict with the pup's instincts to fetch the stock to the handler or in a task-oriented modified fetch. Let the dog become well confirmed in understanding and obeying the basic commands in a context where these commands tell him to do something sensible and reasonable, before ever asking him to do something that feels totally unnatural. When initially giving commands that require the dog to move away from the natural balance point, try to do so in a context that provides a task-oriented reason for such a movement.

Eventually one will need to begin to give commands that take the dog out of a natural fetch situation and out of any familiar task situation. Teaching the dog to drive requires him to abandon his natural fetching orientation. Teaching him to shed even more strongly violates the fetching instinct. Getting the dog to obey off-balance commands willingly can call for all the trainer's tact and ability to convey his strong approval to the dog for obeying. Sometimes it can be helpful to temporarily use a light line to guide the dog into the desired response so that the handler can then express approval. The trainer who has good partnership rapport with the dog, who is not in a hurry, who asks for only a little bit at a time, and who praises soothingly will find that the dog becomes more and more comfortable with these "unnatural acts." There are quite a variety of techniques that may be used to introduce the dog to driving and other off balance work. These are described and diagramed in various books and can be learned hands-on from a good teacher.

In the final analysis , when to introduce commands and when to insist on obedience to off-balance commands is a matter of choice for the trainer and depends upon his goals. Some totally trial oriented trainers, those who intend to work the dog purely By Command, introduce the off-balance commands very early to deliberately break up the dog's obsession with bringing stock towards the handler and to substitute obedience to the handler for the dog's use of its own instincts. However the trainer who wants to preserve his dog's natural abilities and to work in partnership with a thinking partner , as well as the trainer who values his dog's abilities to do a wide variety of practical farm work, will take as much care as possible to first develop his dog's Automatic Pilot and his Habit & Layout capabilities and to utilize Command in harmony , rather than in conflict, with these two more natural systems.


site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1991 revised 8/20/03
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