Introduction to Herding with Collies by Jane D. Johnson

Herding is the art of moving livestock from one place to another.  Herding trials provide a forum in which handlers and dogs can publicly demonstrate the abilities and teamwork that help define this art.  For collie enthusiasts, trials provide an opportunity to show that the modern collie has retained many of the characteristics and instincts for which it was originally bred. 


Competitions began in Britain well over a century ago, and continue today most frequently in the form of ISDS (International Sheep Dog Society)-type trials.  Of all the herding events, these "border collie trials" are the most traditional but (perhaps surprisingly) few collies are found competing in them.  A look at these most traditional of herding trial courses, though, can introduce the reader to all the basic elements of herding competitions. All ISDS-style trials are held in a large field and present some variation on a basic plan.  A small group of sheep are set out at some distance from a handler's post. The handler sends the dog on an outrun.  The dog ideally stops at balance (the position which enables it to best control the stock's direction of movement), then lifts the sheep from their spot and fetches them down the centerline back to the handler.  Rounding the post, the sheep are then driven away from the handler toward a gate, which they pass through before being turned by the dog into a cross drive on a line perpendicular to the centerline.  They pass through a second obstacle, turn toward the handler, and proceed to a free-standing pen.  Handler and dog work as a team to pen the sheep, after which the sheep are released onto the field again, where the team proceeds to shed one or more designated sheep from the group.  Upon completion of the shed, the run is over.  Scores are based on a maximum point total (usually 100), with points deducted for each error. 


This complex ballet is orchestrated by the handler, using just a few time-honored commands to direct the dog: Go bye (flank clockwise around the stock), Away-to-me (flank counter-clockwise around the stock), Walk up (walk directly toward the stock), and Lie down (for collies and other large "upright" dogs, this command is often replaced by Stand).  Lesser-used commands are Get back (i.e. "Back up") and Look back ("Check behind you").

For the modern-day herding enthusiast, there are a number of trialing venues available.  AKC, AHBA (American Herding Breed Association), and ASCA (Australian Shepherd Club of America) all sanction trials and award titles to those performing to particular benchmarks.  This series of articles will discuss in greater depth each of the trialing systems in turn. 

Generally speaking, each organization's trial divisions coincide with three levels of expertise:  Started, Intermediate, and Advanced.  A dog at the Started level is expected to be able to fetch the stock toward the handler as handler, sheep, and dog move together through the course.  The Intermediate-level dog should have solid commands, an ability and willingness to work at a greater distance from the handler, and some ability to drive the sheep away from the handler.  The Advanced dog should be able to handle all types of stock with maximum control and minimum stress, and work efficiently at any distance from the handler while displaying a great deal of teamwork and initiative.[1]


Many attributes contribute to the ideal herding dog, including balance (the ability to hold stock to a particular line or point), intensity, intelligence, soundness, judgment, initiative, obedience, and power with the ability to rate (i.e. adjust pressure to control the stock's pace).  Like most herding dogs, the typical collie will possess many of these traits to one degree or another, along with an innate sensory understanding of livestock.  The collie, as we know, was originally bred to herd sheep in the Scottish mountains, possibly because of the breed's "great intelligence and, some claim, telepathic power."[2]  Less well known outside the collie fancy is that the smooth collie developed out of the rough, through crosses with smooth coated drovers' dogs, and was used in the more temperate southern climes to herd cattle.  Some breeders experienced with both varieties have attributed a more "workmanlike" attitude to the smooth.  Elsewhere it has been observed that "in general the smooths tend to be a bit more aggressive" and show a "noticeable increase of stamina and vitality."[3] The validity of these assertions, and how they translate to herding ability, is difficult to assess, given the low number of dogs working today.  Whatever the case, the collie, rough or smooth, is what's known as a loose-eyed, upright breed.  These terms distinguish its herding style from that of the strong-eyed breeds (kelpies, border collies), whose method of working is marked by a stare and stalking crouch.  While some believe the crouching stare dupes the sheep into reacting to the dog as predator, it is amusing to note that once upon a time, the demand for dark eyes in collies was justified by the claim that a yellow-eyed dog frightens the sheep![4] 


The collie uses a variety of means to move and rate livestock.  When power is called for, a collie may simply throw its shoulder into a sheep to move it, (the "body slam"). Some collies will naturally grip (bite) stock when necessary, although others must be trained to do so.  The collie bark, often considered a drawback in pets, can be welcome on the trial field, since a force bark may move some stock, particularly cattle, where eye and crouch are less effective.  Like other upright dogs not built for ducking kicks at close range, collies may choose to work well back from cattle, relying on this bark and physical presence, rather than a grip, to push the animals forward.  Looking at the other side of the coin, a nice working collie often possesses the ability to "turn down" its power where appropriate, either by displaying its calm demeanor, or in some cases by simply averting its gaze.  The famous gentle nature of the collie permits it to work flighty stock in very close quarters, which can be difficult for dogs of greater size or intensity.  It is not unusual to see a collie moving ducks or lambs by nudging them along with its snout. 


A nice tribute to the breed is contained in John Holmes' recollections of the old-fashioned Scotch Collies of his youth: "They were all easy-going, level-headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there was nothing better to do.  Personally I think it a great pity that this type has been practically exterminated by the increasing popularity of 'strong-eyed' dogs.  For all-round farm work they were often far more use than the classically bred dog."[5] 


For his judicious editing, thanks to Jerome M. Stewart, Jr., who coined the opening phrase, and who continues to inspire students with his unique approach to herding, which borders on the metaphysical.


[1] Australian Shepherd Club of America, Trialing Guidelines (Bryan, Texas: 1997).

[2]Harper's Illustrated Handbook of Dogs (New York: Harper & Row, 1985): p. 245.

[3] Ross D. Clark and Joan R. Stainer, Medical & Genetic Aspects of Purebred Dogs (Fairway, Kansas: Forum Publications, 1994): p. 198.

[4] Milo G.Denlinger, The Complete Collie (Washington, D.C.: Denlinger's, 1949): p. 149.

[5] John Holmes, The Farmer's Dog (London: Popular Dogs, 1963): p. 55.