Everything you need to know to handle your dog at your first herding trial. Everything you might actually be able to do well in handling at your hundred-and-first herding trial. Everything it took me years and years to learn, even with good teachers helping me.


by Pam Green (copyright 1990)



This article is written for those who are inexperienced in the arts of handling at in a trial but who are no longer complete beginners at working their dog on stock. Whether your first trial is an AKC Trial, an ASCA Trial, an AHBA Trial, or a Border Collie Trial, the same concepts of handling apply. Do not expect to master these concepts in your first trial or even your first hundred trial runs.

The goal of all herding is to move livestock efficiently and with the least possible stress from one point to another along a designated route and to perform various livestock handling tasks efficiently and with the least possible stress. This goal should be uppermost in the Judge's mind, and thus his primary criterion should be the ability of dog and handler to accomplish the route and tasks while keeping the stock as "settled" and controlled as possible.

The key to success is to keep the stock "settled", ie relatively calm and only minimally intimidated by the dog. Livestock , being prey species, move away from a dog only because they perceive the dog as a potential predator who is potentially capable of killing them. Prey who perceive a predator who is just casually strolling by at a distance, not currently interested in hunting, will remain quite calm about his presence, merely keeping an eye on him and strolling away if he approaches uncomfortably close. Contrariwise, prey who perceive a predator who is actively hunting, running directly towards them in hot pursuit and with lethal intent, will become most fearful and will , if possible, race away as fast as they can ; if flight is impossible (as for the mother of a newborn too young to flee with her) or if the predator seems too weak to win, the prey will stand and fight with last-ditch desperation. So the key to keeping the stock in a "settled" frame of mind is to keep the dog's demeanor and actions that of the casual not-on-the-hunt predator.

Keeping your stock "settled" is easier said than done ---rather like the ancient advice to "buy low and sell high". I offer a few maxims to help you along the way.


Don't just count your sheep, "read" them ! To "read" stock is to watch their body language in order to discern their state of mind and to anticipate their intended movement. In all species of stock, watch the heads to see the intended direction of movement: when the head turns, the rest of the beast soon follows. Watch the overall head, neck, and body for signs of anxiety: a high head, raised neck, and overall appearance of "shortened" body length denote anxiety and impending fearful flight. In cattle, the tail too will raise. Contrariwise, a low head and neck and "long" body denote calmness.

(Note : although I mention cattle from time to time in this article, you should NOT be trialing on cattle or even training on them until you and your dog have a really good solid training foundation. It is too damn easy to get your dog hurt , crippled , or killed by mistakes on cattle. You can get yourself hurt too.)

When your dog is just starting , you will feel impelled to keep your eyes on your dog in order to see whether or not he is obeying you so as to keep him under control. As your dog becomes more and more reliably obedient, you will be able to keep your eyes on the stock. You will then find that you can read the dog's position and movements by seeing it reflected in the actions of the stock. The reactions of the stock will mirror the actions of the dog. Also as , through progress in training, you are able to slow the actions of the dog and the reactions of the stock, you will find you have more time to read your stock and to think about what to do.

Meanwhile read stock that others are working. Try to predict the next action of the stock. It's much easier to do when you are not in the middle of the action and are free of the stress of performance. Carefully study the runs that precede yours. Are the sheep "light", ie free-moving, perhaps flighty & easily spooked ? Are they "heavy", ie less easily moved, perhaps "sticky" and prone to challenge the dog or even to fight ? Is their "flight zone" relatively close or relatively wide ? Do they regard the handlers as predators (the natural reaction) or as protectors (a learned reaction) ? Where is/are the "pressure point(s)" toward which the stock seek to seek to escape ? (Hint: the exit gate and holding pens are almost always a strong pressure point.) Notice how the dog's position and "balance point" must adjust to counteract the pressure points : rather than being in balance at the theoretical "12 o'clock" balance point, the dog's position will be more or less offset so as to intercept the escape route.


The first few seconds of interaction between your dog and the stock can facilitate or destroy your chances for a successful run ! If your dog terrifies , or merely alarms, the stock in that first impression, you will not be able to get them to "settle" within the time allotted to your run. If your dog initially conveys just enough authority and intimidation to cause the stock to feel that they are in no immediate danger but that they prefer to keep some distance between themselves and the dog "just to be on the safe side", then you have made a good beginning and the continued success of your run will depend on your ability to maintain this somewhat delicate state of mind.

Those aspects of a dog which are likely to alarm the stock are large size, unusual appearance (relative to the stock's prior experience), predatory intensity (aggressive state of mind), and the manner of approach (speed, straightness, closeness, and bouncy/bounding gait are alarming). Now size and appearance are beyond your ability to change (although a clipped down Bouvier might appear less frightening than a shaggy one) ; but the other qualities can be altered, increased, or decreased by a well-trained and widely experienced dog in response to his own judgement and in response to your commands. The "wide" or "get out !" command (to increase his distance from the stock) the "walk" or "slooow" or "easy" command (to move slowly , smoothly, and ready to halt at any moment), and the "whoa" or "stand" command (preferable to a sit or down as a stop for most dogs other than Kelpies and Border Collies) are your principal tools to regulate your dog's manner of approach in the initial outrun-lift-fetch sequence and during later maneuvers.

Almost all Bouviers (as well as Belgians, Briards, GSDs, etc) have sufficient natural "power" (=intimidating capacity) to move virtually any sheep that you will ever encounter in a Trial. thus a low-keyed first impression will almost always be the most productive. Should the sheep "stick" to such a low keyed approach, your Bouv can easily escalate his intensity to shift them. Even for cattle, which may need a more forceful approach at times, an initially low-keyed approach by a highly confident dog often works better than a challengingly aggressive approach that often provokes self-defense and a real rodeo.


Once underway , don't be in a hurry and , if possible, don't panic ! The time allotted for your run is bountifully adequate to take settled stock calmly and directly around the course, but it is woefully inadequate to chase and harass panic-stricken or self-defensive stock here, there, everywhere, and only by luck through the designated course obstacles. The latter style of execution won't get you much of a score anyway !

Whenever you read that your stock are about to unsettle, ie are a bit anxious, take the time to "re-settle" them. Re-settling consists of positioning your dog so that the line of escape to the pressure point is blocked, then halting for a moment or for quite a few moments to let the stock relax and think about their situation. Don't try to assertively move them towards your goal, but simply prevent them from fleeing elsewhere. (Note : while some judges might take a very small point deduction for the flock stopping motion, this small deduction is "insurance" well spent to safeguard the rest of your run.)

Never be afraid to "waste time" by giving the sheep a short "breather" and chance to re-settle. These pauses also give the dog a chance to "settle" as well.

This is especially important at gateways, chutes, and pens. If you try to force them to enter, they will decide it is a dangerous trap, to be avoided at all costs. However if you allow them to relax and to think, without excess pressure, they will probably perceive the opening as a welcome and comfortable escapeway from the mildly uncomfortable nearness of the dog and may go through without any added action by you or the dog. If added action is needed, wait for the stock to relax, then make your moves low keyed and slow. Often a little "nudge" is all that's needed: one step may do it , but two steps may undo it.

The calmer you can keep the stock, the less the incentive for your dog to go crazy and ignore commands. The more controlled and calm the dog , the less the stimulus for the sheep to panic and run. The calmer the stock and the dog, the less the stimulus for you to panic or get angry, to shriek and display body language which will arouse disobedience and excitement in the dog and panic in the stock.


Your own position and actions can influence the movement and settledness of the stock quite significantly! Human beings are by nature predators , with ducks, sheep , and cattle definitely among our natural prey. They know it , even if we have forgotten. The placement of our eyes, close-set on the front of our heads, keeps them reminded: nature's law is " Eyes to the front will kill in the hunt; eyes on the side will flee or will hide."

Thus the most natural reaction of the stock to the handler is to perceive the handler as a threat and to move away from too close an approach. (This is even more true of cattle than it is of sheep.) Again, as with the dog, an excited, angry, screaming, shrieking, arm-waving or fast-moving handler will appear to be actively hunting and will thus be much more alarming to the stock than will a very calm, low-voiced, and casually slow-moving handler. So keep yourself as low-keyed and "non-hunting" as possible most of the time. Think of yourself as a second dog and be aware of your influence on the stock so that it assists, rather than interferes with, that of the primary dog. (Note: in the case of cattle, their flight zone off a human may be considerably greater than their flight zone off the dog. So getting yourself out of the way can be absolutely crucial.)

You are doubtless already aware that some stock, chiefly sheep which have been used a great deal for training novice dogs, will have acquired the unnatural , learned reaction to the handler of regarding the handler as a protector and a safety zone. If every time the stock move away from the dog and towards the handler, the handler halts the dog for a moment (relieving the threat to the stock) and if while the stock are near the handler the handler uses the long pole to keep the dog at a bit of a distance (relieving the threat), the stock will learn to seek the handler as a refuge from the dog. Such sheep are called "dead dog-broke" or "kneecap kissers" or "pup-trainers" or "spoiled" (as they are useless for training more advanced dogs).

You have probably used "kneecap" sheep for most of your early training of your dog; but except for Instinct Tests , such as the AKC Preliminary and Principal Tests, and possibly the AKC Pretrial Test, you should not encounter such sheep at a Trial. If you have not done much training and practice with normally reacting, handler-avoiding, sheep prior to your first trial , you and your dog will find yourselves totally unprepared for the considerably different tactics required. All you can do is to think of yourself as a second dog, stay low-keyed, and do the best you can -- which won't be wonderfully well.

Whatever the type of stock, whether handler-avoiding or handler-attracted, when you come to the gateways, chutes, pens, etc, remember not to block the opening ! If you are blocking the hole, the stock will have difficulty perceiving it as an escape route. If while you are blocking the hole , the dog gets impatient and adds pressure, the stock may run through you or over you -- and Barbados sheep will leap right through you , with very painful consequences. If you are leading handler-attracted sheep through an opening , get yourself well enough ahead that they have a clear view and the widest possible opening. If you are repelling handler-avoiding stock (especially cattle), make sure that neither your body nor your threatening influence gets in the way of the opening. If you are adequately skilled at reading your stock , you can use your repelling influence to assist the dog in funnelling the stock into the opening by using your influence deliberately to inhibit the stock's potential escape towards your side. Sometimes a very minor movement, a crouch, or a hard-eyed stare from the handler can turn the head of the critical individual into the opening . Some tapping of your shepherd's crook against the ground behind the stock or to one side can inhibit escape in that direction; however you won't be able to make full advantage of this until your dog is advanced enough that you no longer use the cane as a signal to the dog for flanking moves.


At your first trial (and, indeed, for many thereafter), be realistic in your hopes and in your goals ! For a relatively inexperienced dog to perform half as well at a trial as he has been performing recently in training would be wonderful and should be accounted a thrilling success. Compare his trial run to his training runs of 6 months ago for a realistic appraisal.

At a trial, the stock are different in character from those you've trained with, the stock have never seen your dog before (and maybe never one of your dog's breed either) and vice versa, the stock are spooky and screwball because they are in a strange place , and --- worst of all --- you, the handler, are incredibly nervous and have left your brain outside the arena gate.

So concentrate on keeping your dog under control and on terrorizing the stock as little as possible. Concentrate on keeping yourself under control and keeping the panic out of your voice and demeanor. While a calm voice doesn't guarantee a good run, a shrieking voice does guarantee a rodeo.

If things are getting too wild and crazy, remember that you have the right to quit. If you can see that things are going from bad to worse, be smart and dismiss yourself. Grab hold of your dog in any way you can and put the leash on him (it should be on your person, not hanging on the arena gate); then turn to the Judge and tell him that you are dismissing yourself. By quitting before the Judge does it for you, you will minimize the damage to your dog's training, you will avoid incurring vet bills or market value payment for an injured or killed head of stock (don't think it can't happen to you), and you will gain the respect of all knowledgeable observers.

To quit the run on your own initiative is called to "retire" ; I've done it so foten that I swear I will name my next dog "AARP" !

If the Judge says "watch your dog", that means things are getting too wild and that if you can't regain control of the situation you will soon be dismissed. If the Judge says "thank you" or "that will do", it means that you have been dismissed. If the Judge says "time", either you have been dismissed or else you have used up the allotted time. Catch your dog, leash him, and leave the arena with as much pretense of calmness as you are capable of faking.

(And if the Judge says "two minutes", he is simply warning you that you have two minutes left out of your allotted time. Don't let that panic you or cause you to try to rush through the rest of the course. Just keep working calmly and steadily. I once finished a course with very touchy sheep with only about a second to spare, and the Judge (who very well understood the difficulites!) teasingly commented that I had cut it rather close, to which I replied "if we'd gone any faste , we could never have finished at all.")


Try not to feel devastated by a bad run. Everyone has had wrecks while learning and still has them occasionally. Even the best handlers and best dogs sometimes have disastrous runs.

It is never possible to be fail-proofedly prepared for a herding trial, nor to be as well prepared for a herding trial as for other working dog sports. The stock in a herding trial are always a "wild card" and they are the single most important factor in the difficulty of a run. The range of potential behavior of stock is enormous and unpredictable. A very seasoned dog-handler team , with several years of widely varied experience, may cope will with most trial stock; but as a beginner, all you can really be sure of is that the stock will probably expose all your faults and weaknesses .

Be prepared to do some "repair work" ! Some wise trainers say that every trial sets your training program backwards at least somewhat. If your run got truly wild and crazy and your dog ran amok , then it may well have set your training back quite a bit.! Be prepared to temporarily return to an earlier stage of training to review, reconfirm, and repair the basics. Whatever fell apart at the trial must now be re-built. Wise trainers frequently review the basics anyway; a lesson may consist of 3/4 review and 1/4 advancement. Create a firm foundation of basics and be prepared to inspect and repair it frequently. You might even want to think of a trial as being an "inspection" rather than a "competition".

If your dog repeatedly "goes crazy" at trials, then you are almost certainly trialing too soon (without a firm foundation) and too often. It's also very possible that you yourself have not yet achieved enough emotional self-control and calmness. If so, you are not alone -- nor even in a minority! (This has been my own biggest problem in all forms of competition, and never more so than in herding. ) It's better to prevent running amok at trials from becoming an expectation on your part and a habit on your dog's part. Unfortunately there are very few "matches" or "playday" trials in herding to serve as an intermediate between training sessions and real Trials. We all need them. Once your dog has a good enough foundation and is under good control during training session, begin to seek opportunities to work strange stock and to work in strange places. If you have your own stock, trailer them to a strange place; they will behave far more spookily than at home. Keep alert for opportunities to work other peoples' stock --- and be prepared to pay well for the privilege.

The level of sportsmanship at most herding trials is quite high, and most of the really good experienced handlers are sincere in the desire to help and encourage beginners. So if you are offered advice by anyone whose own dog reflects good training and handling, listen well and takes notes, so you can discuss these ideas with your teacher. Thank your advisor graciously and be alert to any sign that he might be willing to have you visit his place for a lesson on his stock.

If you can arrange to videotape your run , do so. If you can arrange to audio tape-record your run do so; if not, ask a trusted friend to listen to your voice and be prepared to critique it to you afterwards. Watch videotapes of good and bad runs. By watching in slow motion several times, you may be able to spot those critical moments, just before things obviously came unglued, when dog or handler just might have been able to salvage the situation . Very tiny errors of timing or positioning, which you missed recognizing during the "live performance" , may become quite clear on replay. Also try merely listening to the handler's voice with your eyes shut : key your ears to catch that "problem pitch" until finally you can catch your own voice while you are actually working your dog.


All these bits of advice work together. As your dog becomes better trained and more reliable, you will be able to read your stock better and keep them more settled. As you read them better, you will better perceive the critical moments. As the stock remain more settled , the critical moments will be less acutely emergency in nature and you will better think of the right resolution. As your dog becomes calmer, more attentive, and more experienced, he will be better able to respond with just the right subtle adjustment, either on your command or on his own judgement.

But no matter how sophisticated the dog and handler, the stock will still remain a "wild card" and you and your dog will still make those micro-second and milli-inch mistakes that blow an otherwise lovely run. If you can accept this uncertainty and ever-present potential for debacle as being part of the challenge of herding, you will find trialing very rewarding. Certainly you should never find it boring.



(WARNING : The Surgeon General has determined that stockdog trialing is highly addictive !)


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1990 revised 8/18/03
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