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Dog Sports - Herding: the Joy of Working!

Discover how the dog sport of herding delivers fun and fitness for both dogs and handlers.

In the 19th century, farmers and farm workers in many countries developed a competitive sport based on the daily work of dogs on the farm. 

Herding trials involve controlled movement of stock around a standard course that mimics situations which occur on a farm, e.g. gathering in stock grazing in a paddock and putting them through a narrow laneway or into a pen. 

Herding is different from other dog sports because it is not just about the handler and the dog: there is an equally important third party—the stock! The handler must watch the stock as well as the dog, and develop an understanding of their behaviour. 

The dog may have an instinctive knowledge of stock behaviour, but it has to grow in confidence and effectiveness while learning to respond to commands. The reward is that, if the dog has a strong herding instinct, it will love herding more than anything in the world!

The First Trials

Sheep Dog Trials for the Dog Society's Prizes
 (Elsternwick, 1883)
The first herding trials took place in the southern hemisphere, beginning in New Zealand in 1867, followed by Australia (the colony of New South Wales) in 1870 and the United Kingdom (Wales) in 1873. After this, the competitions spread rapidly through the sheep herding countries of the world. 

Trial courses and exercises reflect the agricultural practices of the countries where they originated. For this reason, continental Europe has developed a style of trial different from that of Australia, New Zealand and Britain. 

From the beginning, trials have not only been an enjoyable sport and social event but have also showcased best practice in breeding, training and working stock dogs.

Working Dog Trials

Although there have been changes in the rules and governing bodies over the years, working dog trials have an unbroken history in Australia and remain popular in rural areas. 

Trials and demonstrations at agricultural shows reach out to a wider audience, as do videos on television and the internet. 

Kelpie Gillie enjoys cattle training
Photo: Karen Edwards
In addition to the traditional sheep trials, new forms of competition have been developed, including cattle and duck work, yard dog trials, and competition classes for less advanced handlers. Some rural competitions also offer classes for “city slickers”, that is, non-farm handlers and dogs. 

In Australia, the main organisations offering working dog trials are the Sheep Dog Workers’ Associations

These are found in every state, and are listed on the Australian Sheep Dog Workers’ Association (ASDWA) website. The associations maintain registers of working dogs and seek to improve the quality of working bloodlines. 

Each state organisation runs a championship trial every year and the ASDWA runs the national championship, called the Supreme Championship, which is rotated among the states. 

There is also an annual competition with New Zealand called the Trans Tasman Test.

Shelley Donald's Collie Smooth, Ren, sends a stray back to the flock
Photo: Karen Edwards

About 900 people are involved in ASDWA herding nationally, with another 200 associate members who compete at the lower level. There are also specialist herding associations, for yard dog and cattle trials, for example.

A New Breed of Herding

The latter part of the 19th century was a time of growing interest in dogs and dog sports. Around the time that herding trials started, dog shows and kennel clubs were developing. 

In 1873, the (British) Kennel Club was founded to register and oversee the breeding of ‘pure bred’ dogs from a growing number of recognised breeds. Similar organisations soon developed in Australia but were based in the colonies and after the Federation, the States. A federal body, the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC), was not formed until 1958 and has since changed its name to Dogs Australia.

The different priorities of the dog show and working dog communities began to affect the herding breeds by the 20th century. Some breeds remained working dogs exclusively, and were never recognised by the kennel control councils. Others became established as show dogs and were known for that and for their achievements in other fields, so that people forgot that they were originally bred to herd. In a third group of breeds, there were both working and show bloodlines and there began to be a clear and visible demarcation between the two.

Shelley Donald's Collie Smooth, Ren, takes charge of the sheep
Photo: Karen Edwards
Fast forward to the late 1990s, when a group of Kennel Council members, from various states, but mainly Victoria, began to develop a form of competition designed to ”preserve the working instinct and ability of the (purebred) working breeds”.  
The first set of ANKC herding rules was approved in 2000, and took effect on January 1, 2001. In 2002, the Victorian group set up the Victorian Herding Association.

The Sport of Herding Today

Today, around 500 people are involved in the sport of herding nationally and there are herding competitions in all states. There is a list of the state kennel councils or canine associations on the Dogs Australia website where you will also find
more information about herding generally.

As in other sports, there is a series of levels to advance through. As well as advancing up the levels, competitors choose what type of course they want to compete on and whether they want to herd cattle, sheep and/or ducks. 

Meg Lewis' Rottweiler Seven works ducks during a trial

One interesting feature of ANKC herding is the C Course competition. A and B courses represent common farm situations which may be found in Britain or Australia, but C Course is based on the continental style of herding and is suited to breeds such as German Shepherds or Belgian Shepherds.

State Trials are held every year in all states, with an annual National Trial rotating among the states. 

Which Dog Breeds can take part in Herding?

Herding is not for every breed, but the AKNC Herding Rules list about 40 eligible breeds and sub-breeds and this list is likely to grow in the future. 

Margarite Frost's Samoyed, Tai
 easily controls cattle
Breeds include Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Kelpies, Australian Shepherds, Collies (Bearded, Border, Rough and Smooth), German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, Rottweilers, Samoyeds and many others.

Crossbred dogs which are “a mix or apparent mix of herding breeds” may be registered via the Associate Register of the ANKC but are required to be de-sexed. 

The ANKC also recognises dogs which are registered with an approved working dog organization, these dogs can be placed on the Sporting Register of the ANKC and are not required to be desexed

Australian Top Dogs 

For the top dogs in ANKC herding, there are four championship titles available and these are not awarded at single event, but are based on trial scores received in the period after the dog has won an Advanced title. 

The titles are: Herding Champion, Grand Herding Champion, Versatile Herding Champion and Versatile Herding Champion Excellent. There are specific and demanding criteria for each.

Koolie Snip shows off her skills -
Photo (and top photo): Karen Edwards
One of the champions is Margaret Widelock’s Koolie, TCH HCH Allambie Snippetts ADX JD SD SPD HXAs HXBd HIBs ET. 
(titles beginning with “H” refer to herding titles.)

Snip is both a Herding Champion and Tracking Champion and has won titles in a variety of other dog sports. 

"I was asked to ‘take on’ this little unassuming dog when she was just under one year. The owner hoped I could ‘showcase’ a bobtail Koolie, demonstrating that they were as valuable as Koolies with full tails. Obviously, tails have no effect on performance!" says Margaret.

Another star is Australian ShepherdRozate KennelsRozate Jackhammer, who holds Herding Champion, Grand Herding Champion and Versatile Herding Champion titles, among others.
Rozate Kennels' Rozate Jackhammer (Thor) in action - Photo: Karen Edwards

How can you get started?

Before you start herding, teach your dog a stop and a solid recall (short distance off lead). The best "stop" to begin with is probably a drop, but you can use a sit or stand instead. Then you need to find someone who will let your dog work sheep or other stock. This may be a friend with a farm or a person who offers herding lessons.

A good way to find a teacher is through a breed club or organisation. The teacher will provide the stock and the guidance you need. As with other training, some dogs 'switch on' straight away, others take longer. You will discover that it is not necessary to take food or toy rewards, praise and the joy of working are enough!

If you're interested in learning the definitions of command words and terms used by shepherds, farmers and handlers when working or training dogs for herding, we found an excellent resource of stock herding terms here.

Health & Safety Precautions

Herding trials are well regulated and supervised. The health and safety of people, dogs and livestock are top priorities.

Finally, herding is a great spectator sport, so even if you are not ready to participate, please come and watch these amazing dogs in action!

We extend our thanks to Jocelyn Clarke and the members of the Victorian Herding Association for their contribution to this story.

Suggestions for Further Reading

* Vergil S. Holland, Herding Dogs: Progressive Training, Howell Book House, 1994.
* Scott Lithgow, Training and Working Dogs For Quiet Confident Control Of Stock, University of Queensland Press, 1987.
* Bob Vest with Kathleen Freeman Kelly, The Travelling Herding Teacher, Rowe Publishing, 2014.


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