A Working Dog?

Regular readers will remember the somewhat guarded appraisal of my dog Oban I wrote a few months ago. Specifically, I was unsure that he would ever be of much use around the farm. In that post I mentioned that I am a novice dog owner, and I pointed out that my inexperience has made training a dog, especially a dog as energetic as Oban, a learning process for both of us. And herding is exponentially more complicated than basic commands, relying on a complex interaction of the dog, the livestock, and the handler. Which is to say, I am in no way qualified to judge his merit on this count.

To get a more professional opinion on exactly what Oban would be suited to, I contacted Sarah Todd at Dog Days Farm. She does general training for dogs of all breeds, but her herding work focuses on dogs that have an upright habit, meaning they don’t stalk, and they don’t have a strong eye. Basically, this means most non-Border Collie working breeds, including English Shepherds.

In the past few weeks Oban had been showing some promising signs. When a lone pig got out, he helped bring it over and keet it in place until I got it back in with the rest of the herd. When I’ve moved the cows recently he has run around in a way that makes me think he’s trying to help. But beyond being sure he wouldn’t try to kill any livestock I had no idea what to expect when I drove him out for his instinct test. Because herding relies on a whole bunch of complex behaviors enacted in an ever changing environment, a dog is either instinctively capable of doing it or not. Most any dog can be taught to chase livestock, but all of the more desirable activities rely on centuries of selection for inborn abilities. An instinct test seeks to establish the extent to which a dog possesses these tendencies.

We got out of the car at Sarah’s farm, where Oban greeted her with his usual enthusiasm. She had put three sheep in the training pen, where they were standing in a group, watching us. This was a good sign, since it suggested Oban had a strong presence, also sometimes called power, an undefinable quality that makes livestock respect some dogs more than others.

Sarah put him on a long line and took him into the pen, where Oban, as I expected, enthusiastically made for the sheep. They split, of course, which is exactly what you don’t want, though it's apparently often the result of a dog's first exposure. This was a clear example of my lack of knowledge and the usefulness of an experienced eye; in an event that just looked bad to me, Sarah saw a positive in that Oban, rather than fixating on a particular sheep, had looked at both groups, meaning he was keeping track of the whole little herd.

The test unfolded over three sessions, with breaks for Oban to process what was happening while Sarah told me what she was seeing. There were some not entirely surprising negatives. Oban does not naturally wear easily. Ideally, a dog exerts the minimum pressure required to maintain control, amping it up as the situation dictates and dialing it back when things calm down. This makes everything less stressful, particularly for the livestock. Oban is more inclined to work at a dead sprint, so subtlety will be an area of focus in future training. He also headed off the sheep, which basically means he would get in front of them and turn them in the wrong direction.

But by the end of the test he was already working slower, moving the sheep in a nice circle around the perimeter with Sarah's guidance, and the final assessment of his potential was far better than I had hoped for going in. I already knew about his drive and energy, but he also has excellent instincts and presence. In other words, there’s no reason he can’t be a great worker.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that anyone who needs help with a dog, particularly an upright herder, contact Sarah. Just doing the instinct test, not even a formal training session, was more helpful than any of the books or online resources I’ve read. As I said before, she also boards dogs and does obedience training. Her farm is in Salem, NY, about an hour north of Albany.

-Garth

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