If you are interested in herding with your AKC Herding Group dog but you have little or no idea where to begin, this article is for you. If you don't already have a good stockdog trainer to be your mentor and teach you the basics and beyond, then your first task is to find one, because you will get nowhere fast without one. If you aren't happy with your current teacher or if you want to move on and start adding knowledge from other experts, this article will help you recognize a good mentor and make the best use of her / him.



by Pam Green , copyright 1991

If you are interested in herding with your AKC Herding Group dog but you have little or no idea where to begin, this article is for you. Perhaps you have already read a book or two and perhaps you have been through some sort of Instinct Test; but now you don't know what to do next.

Well , the bad news is that you aren't going to get anywhere, other than in trouble, without an experienced stockdog trainer to be your teacher and guide. The good news is that there are plenty of them out there. The bad news is that 99% of them have had little or no experience with AKC breeds and about half to three-quarters of these have no desire to work with them. (Update : in the years since this was first written, those figures have improved quite a bit.) The good news is that the rest can and will help you if you can find them and approach them in the right way.

The purpose of this article is to tell you how to do so.


First of all you must recognize that as of today there are less than a handful of really skilled stockdog trainers who are not primarily interested in one or another of the "eye" breeds, ie Border Collie, Kelpie, and McNabb. (The McNabb is really a special line of Border Collie, so I won't refer to it separately again.) At present in the entire USA, there are only a few really skilled trainers who are primarily focused on the "loose-eyed, up-standing" breeds, which includes all the AKC Herding Group breeds and the Australian Shepherd. Additionally there are a few Border Collie/Kelpie people who have been working AKC dogs and/or Aussies over the past few years. I believe both these groups will increase greatly over the next decade, but that's in the future and you want to get started now.

(Update : I wrote the above paragraph in 1991; now in 2003 it is a decade -plus later, and there is a larger cadre of skilled trainers of loose-eyed upstanding dogs. If you are lucky you may have one available. (Do make sure you find one who works dogs in large fields as well as in small arenas. Make sure you find one who doesn't train only to pass one specific kind of herding test, or you will at best wind up able to do only that one specific kind and may well have ruined your dog for general herding work.) But the Border Collie and Kelpie folk are still likely to be the ones who will be the most insistant on teaching you the essential skill of getting your dog inot the habit of out-running and flanking properly, ie without invading the stock's flight zone.)

So you have to look for help (mostly) among the Border Collie and Kelpie trainers. Some of them are incurable breed chauvinists and won;t give yo the time of day or will blame every fault in your dog on his breed. Some of them don't know how to train a dog from the ground up so they couldn;t help you even if yo had the most talented young border collie ever whelped. Some are geniuses at training dogs, but cannot teach anything to human beings , and you should keep such people in mind for much later on when you will be able to learn from watching them. And, contrariwise, some are lucid and enchanting talkers, but very poor dog trainers and anything you learn from them will be by watching and seeing what NOT to do. . So you have to sift out the ones who can and will help you.

The crucially important thing to keep in mind is that the training of a loose-eyed up-standing AKC dog is really NOT diametrically different from the training of a strong-eyed Border Collie or Kelpie. Believe me ! The same training syllabus applies to both types of dog and the methods of training are pretty much the same. Some lessons may take longer to teach to one type of dog than to the other, some lessons must be taught with more or less "pressure" from the handler for one type of dog than for the other, and the order in which various lessons are best taught may vary with the type of dog. But all of that is true within breeds too : a truly skilled trainer always modifies his methods and his lesson plan to suit the individual student.


Seek out local livestock breeders who use stockdogs. Begin with livestock magazines, the local newspaper, and the local auction yard. Ask such livestock breeders for the names of good stockdog trainers, especially those oriented towards practical herding rather than exclusively towards trials. Ask them for advice on livestock management. Cultivate their friendship. The better you understand the minds of livestock, the better you will understand how to herd them. Eventually you may be getting your own stock and will need to know how to care for it. Also when your dog is ready to begin working strange stock in strange places, some of these people may trust you enough to provide opportunities.

Seek out local herding trials and those not so local. Begin with livestock magazines, stock-dog magazines , and county fairs. When you attend trials, watch for handlers whose dogs appear to be well trained . Such handlers appear to have a smooth and easy partnership with their dogs, resulting in a team who are able to keep their stock calm and under control without a lot of screaming and stick waving by the handler. (The very best dog-handler teams have that appearance of seamless harmony and near-telepathic communication and graceful flow of movement of dog and stock and handler as do the best Ice Dancing teams.) At an opportune time, ie when the handler is not preparing to run a dog, ask each such handler who trained his dog and who trained himself as a handler, as well as asking him who he could recommend locally as a possible teacher for you as a beginner.

Keep a notebook, and you will soon find that certain trainers are recommended repeatedly. These are the ones to interview.


Ask the trainer if he usually trains his own dogs from the very beginning. Someone who generally buys dogs that are already started or fully trained is not likely to know very much about training the basic fundamentals which form the essential foundation for more advanced training. It is the fundamentals which you most need to learn.

Ask the trainer if he is interested in training dogs for practical ranchwork or in training dogs for trials or both. I recommend that you begin with someone whose interests include practical work, as such trainers generally give their dogs a more rounded education and are more inclined to cultivate the dog's own stock-handling judgement than are those trainers who are exclusively interested in trial competition.

You might also ask directly whether the trainer believes in letting the dog work partly on his own instincts , initiative, and judgement (while still requiring him to obey any commands given by the handler) or whether he believes in working the dog strictly under command. I'm not sure how much reliance you can place on the answer however, as I've observed that many say one thing and do the other. As a beginner , you won't have the faintest idea what commands to give to place the dog correctly relative to his stock, so your chances of employing the strictly to command approach successfully are not good. I believe you will learn more from those who work their dogs as thinking partners rather than as robots. (But I'd better confess that my own personal philosophy is strongly in favor of preserving the dog's initiative.)

Ask the trainer if he has at least one dog that he would be willing to occasionally have handled by a student, yourself, so that you can experience and get a feel for the dog's balance and influence on stock and can learn about your own position and influence on dog and on stock. .The value of this is considerable. Most good trainers have some "old reliable" dog who can be so used. Second best would be if you were allowed to go out on the field with the trainer and follow him around putting yourself right behind one hip (what I call "the pickpocket position") so you can see the same view of dog and stock that he is seeing and so you can get a feel for the moves he is making and the dog's reaction to them.

Ask if the trainer will teach you about stock as well as about dogs. Your ability to "read" and influence stock is crucial to your teamwork with your dog to handle stock smoothly in both trial and practical situations. Also notice if the trainer's own stock look healthy and whether they seem to trust him and his handling of them, as evidence of the trainer's respect for his stock and his knowledge of them.

Ask the trainer if you can meet some of his other students or, better yet, watch them work their dogs at lessons. Ask these students whether they find the trainer easy to understand and whether they are satisfied with their progress under his instruction. If you can see videotapes of the same students 6 months ago (or more) and compare the earlier performance to their present abilities, you can get an idea whether or not these students have benefitted. The ultimate test of any teacher is that most of those under his instruction demonstrate improvement over time : ie the proof that the teacher can teach is that most of his students do indeed learn ! (Of course there will always be one or two dunces who don;'t learn or who have dogs that cannot progress beyond the basics.)

Ask the trainer if he has ever trained and worked a dog (of any breed whatsoever) that was naturally "loose-eyed, up-standing,and close-running". If your dog is a Bouvier, Belgian, Briard, or GSD, you should probably also add to that description "powerful and forceful". Don't worry right now what these words mean, just memorize them : they describe the typical dog of your breed , especially as compared to the typical Border Collie or Kelpie. If he says yes, ask him whether he was successful in training the dog to an intermediate or advanced level of accomplishment and whether he likes working with dogs of this nature. If the trainer replies that although he personally has not trained such a dog, he has seen some trained by others and was favorably impressed by them and would love to work with such a dog, that too is a favorable reply.

OK, now we are ready for the big question : is the trainer willing to help you train your dog , who has the above mentioned qualities, but who is not a Border Collie or Kelpie ? Add that you know from reliable informants that your dog should respond to very similar training methods, therefore you are asking the trainer to "just pretend that he is a Border Collie" and then modify the training techniques as needed as you go along.


There are many different ways to start a dog , although most of these have certain basic principles and certain basic methods in common. There are many different ways to teach an inexperienced person to work a dog. Before you actually begin to work with your trainer, she or he should show and tell you how to conduct yourself in the ensuing lesson. Appropriate methods of explanation may include demonstrations of the trainer (or a more advanced student) working a dog through the next lesson, videotaped demonstrations., verbal explanations, diagrams, and assigned readings. Letting you attempt to do the lesson with a dog who already knows it and will respond appropriately is , of course, the most valuable final preparation for trying it with your own dog. For some lessons , the trainer may initially teach your dog himself and separately teach you to do it with a more trained dog, then re-unite you with your own dog. (That is the approach commonly used in horse training, where any attempt of an untrained rider to work a untrained horse would be likely to land the rider in the hospital.)

Whatever the method to be used, do your best to be sure you understand what you are about to try to do before you do it. Ask whatever questions you need to, then let your trainer guide you through it.

As you watch the trainer work his own dogs, keep asking yourself why the trainer is doing what he's doing ? How do the trainer's actions influence the dog? How do the trainer's actions influence the stock ? How does the dog's actions influence the stock? Ask yourself similar questions as you watch other students work their dogs; additionally keep asking whether or not the student's position and actions are having the intended effect. Check out your tentative answers with the trainer and ask questions about anything you don't understand --- but of course not so as to interrupt the training session.

Whatever the methodology and syllabus of training used by your trainer, you should be prepared to stick to that method consistently for several months. Don't run from one trainer to another and another, trying this and that until you and your dog are thoroughly confused. If you go to a "clinic" or seminar taught by someone else, go as a spectator and take careful written notes, to be stored away for later study. Don't try to work your dog at such a clinic, and don't be tempted to let the clinic instructor , who is unfamiliar with you and your dog (and may be totally unfamiliar with loose-eyed upstanding dogs and may have no belief in their ability to work), work your dog. Expose yourself to various ideas, but don't try them out on your dog before you have discussed them with your trainer. As you gain experience and judgement, you will become able to judge for yourself whether and how a new technique might fit into your training program for your dog; but while you are a total beginner , you will have to rely on your trainer's judgement.


During the first dozen or so lessons, you will probably feel that your dog's progress is very dramatic. Much of that initial apparently dramatic progress is due to the sudden display of the dog's herding instinct and to your recovery from initial feelings of helpless ignorance.

So you may be disappointed and frustrated to find that from that point onwards for the next hundred lessons or more, you are not likely to have the feeling of dramatic progress. From one lesson to the next , you will probably not be able to perceive any progress. This is a period of consistent work and much repetition , with progress inch by inch, of building and consolidating a solid foundation of skills. However whenever you compare your current capabilities to those of 2 or 3 dozen lessons ago, you should definitely see obvious progress : the impossible will have become very difficult, the very difficult will have become noticeably less difficult, and the moderately difficult will have become fairly easy. Although at times you may seem to be standing still , or perhaps even have taken a step or two backwards, at other times you will find the puzzle pieces suddenly falling into place.

It is essential for you to realize that the making of a really well polished and sophisticated stockdog, or to be more accurate, of such a dog-handler team, takes a long time. For an experienced trainer working his dog several times a week, such advanced attainment requires about two years. So for you as a novice working your dog once or twice a week , it will surely not take less than that. Realistically it will take you much longer to make progress than it takes a skilled trainer to make similar progress. It may help you to do as airplane piloting students do . which is to to think in terms of how many "flight hours" you and your dog have accumulated , rather than how many months or years you have been at it.

The pleasures and challenges of stockdog training are more subtle, more varied, and more infinite than those of any other form of dog training, never fully mastered and therefore never boring.

(Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that stockdog training is incurably addictive.)


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1991 revised 7/15/03
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