Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

Herding Instinct Awakens


herding instinct

Here I feed graham crackers to a few of my sheep. The shed mentioned in this story is off to my left, behind me.

My pregnant flock needs to go to a new, lush field to graze. It is a field at a right angle to from their normal direction of travel and sheep aren’t big fans of change.

Bracken, my eighteen-month-old German Shepherd Dog, plays with a stick a few yards away from me. I have not introduced Bracken to herding chores around the farm. At first she was simply too young and then later she was simply frightened of the sheep. Her fear made her bark at them fiercely. I don’t like my flock frightened so I just left the whole matter alone for a while.

But recently Bracken has shown me amazing off-leash control, dropping like a stone at any distance on command. It is the payoff for the training I’ve been putting in since puppyhood. It strikes me that she could down/stay off to one side, blocking the way to the sheep’s usual pasture. Bracken would still be many yards away from my flock and, since I trust her to listen, I decide to go for it.

On my word, Bracken folds instantly into a down. Putting her stick on her front legs, she watches me intently. Hauling open the gate (no gate on this farm does anything close to swing) I call to my sheep softly. No need for them to rush, I am in no hurry, a gentle word is plenty. Rising with pregnant difficulty from their resting spots, they trudge/trot toward me. Bracken watches, but not intently. Backing away from the gate, I move toward the new field. The sheep string out to nibble the spring-fresh growth, but they follow. This is a perfect speed. No stress, no worries.

But a few sheep are dawdling, threatening to head off on their own. Bracken watches. A crazy thought floats into my mind, the kind of thought I usually regret: I could use Bracken to move them along. This is a stupid idea as she might rush them, she might lose control of herself, she might, like her mother, view herding as a contact sport — but I look at her and realize those are my worries; the dog watching twenty yards back now is calm.

Easy” I call out gently. “Easy girl.” Bracken cocks her head slightly. “Huh?” is the clear expression. She doesn’t know what “easy” means. I try “Okay” and she rises. Picking up her stick she strikes off up our farm road, and jumps the ditch to the side. After a couple of dicey moments where she disappears behind the shed, she trots out, stick in mouth, to the right of the shed and the flock.”Wait,” I float out gently and she stops mid stride. “Good girl” I say with both pleasure and relief.

But all is not quite right; she is not in “balance” with the flock. Balance is the point that the dog chooses which brings the flock directly to the shepherd. It is part of the herding instinct such dogs are bred for. Without it, a dog cannot be a truly useful partner for the shepherd. It cannot be taught, the dog must simply have it within them. From where she is, if Bracken moves forward, the sheep would move to the left, away from both her and me.

The stragglers have not yet noticed her, so they have not yet started to move along. I decide to ask her to take a step or two forward. My hope is that the sheep will see the dog and that their desire to catch up with their buddies will keep them on track—not heading off on their own. “Easy” I begin nonsensically again. She still doesn’t know what the heck that means—it’s just sort of me verbalizing my hope. But now, I notice, she is looking intently at the sheep. After a few seconds, Bracken lets the stick fall from her mouth, marking the very moment awareness blossoms in her mind. This is not a game. This is a job. Ducking back behind the shed, she comes slowly up behind the dawdlers in perfect balance.

Stunned, I allow her to move forward. The sheep notice her and walk off calmly toward the rest. I call out a gentle halt and Bracken stands, alert, watching. I can see in her eyes that her world has changed. Somewhere deep in her intelligent brain synapses are firing, connections are being made and she is awakening to her ancestral task—herding.

Interested in Learning More? Herding Books on Amazon


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