When I signed my daughter’s 4-year-old Australian Shepherd, Cooper, up for a herding instinct trial, I planned on bringing my senior German Shepherd Dog, Zoey, out for the day, but I didn’t preregister her. Although she’s joined us at festivals, hikes, cycling races, and my husband’s hang gliding fly-ins across the nation, she hasn’t participated in specific dog sports. Could I truly expect Zoey’s instincts to surface at age 12? Was it even fair to try a new activity with a senior dog?
I pulled into Destiny Ranch in Bertram, Texas, for the Texas Herding Association’s activities and spontaneously decided to sign Zoey up. I left her resting in my SUV. I didn’t want her to wear herself out or over-focus on Cooper’s or any other dog’s reactions. Zoey has been around many animals, but she hasn’t had access to sheep. Besides, I had to familiarize myself with the scene and people, and handling one dog was enough. Cooper and I were going first.
I had never handled a dog in a herding instinct trial. The judge was helpful, explaining my limited role. Herding dogs have the natural aptitude to control livestock movement, so mainly my purpose was to encourage Cooper. As we stepped into the ring, Cooper’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. He focused on me for a while, skeptical that bossing sheep would be rewarded. But in short time his instincts kicked in, his leash came off (each dog starts with a long lead), and he started to herd. Aussies are hands-on workers, so Cooper moved right to the sheep, herding them with a few authoritative yips (if yips can be deemed authoritative). He acted a tad sillier than necessary, but I enjoyed his agile demonstration. That’ll do, Cooper. A qualifying score!
A Bearded Collie, a Shetland Sheepdog, a Miniature American Shepherd, and some Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs came next. Each dog evidenced a distinctive, albeit immature, herding approach. Bearded Collie Brodie, for example, added a renowned bark to his work. Beardies, one of the oldest herding breeds, gathered free-ranging sheep and drove livestock in Scotland. Then and now, they use power, a bounce, and a bark to move livestock. The bounce was my personal favorite.
The Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs’ owner, Jennie Chen of Austin, Texas, is no stranger to dog sports. “I’ve worked with Greater Swiss dogs in drafting, backpacking, weight pulling, water rescue, herding, and even coursing,” Chen says. Chen’s youngest Greater Swiss, Torrent, desperately wanted playtime with Cooper, but herding was the sport of the day.
“The Greater Swiss, bred to herd cattle, is more of a generalist than a specialist,” Chen says. According to Chen, the breed was often called the “poor man’s horse” because if you couldn’t afford a horse, a Greater Swiss could do the farm work. “The Greater Swiss has the confidence and power to move large livestock, generally without barking,” Chen says. “Their persistence and unflappable focus, combined with a shouldering technique, helps them move cattle efficiently.”
After Chen’s last Greater Swiss’ turn, Zoey was queued up. Accustomed to diverse environments, Zoey was rather nonchalant (yes, that’s code for rather snooty). She started heeling with me, convinced that her job was to stay with me and ignore distractions. The judge assured me that obedience-trained dogs took a while to loosen up to herding. In a short time and with my reassurance, Zoey realized I was asking her to herd sheep. Game on! She had work to do. I stood back and watched her work, delighted to see my old girl so confident in her element.
German Shepherds typically work in a deliberate style, and Zoey was no exception. She had a plan of some sort. She certainly tolerated no sheep stragglers on her mission. She didn’t put undue pressure on the sheep, but they heeded her direction. Zoey was clearly delighted being the boss, possibly for the first time in her life.
Perhaps it was that exhilaration that kept her awake on the way home. Cooper fell asleep immediately, but Zoey stayed awake for hours, on a herding high.
Tips for getting into herding
Has Zoey’s experience inspired you to test your own herding dog? Here’s some advice to get you started.
“Look up local herding events, but keep in mind that not all herding events include an instinct test,” says Connie Nelin, the Texas Herding Association’s event secretary. “Searching the herding judges list provides direction to someone local who can tie you into nearby activities.”
AKC herding trials only allow purebred breeds in the herding group (and a few other exceptions) to be tested. “The American Herding Breeds Association, however, allows herding mixes and rare herding breeds,” says Sheryl McDonald, president of the Texas Herding Association.
If herding isn’t your dog’s forte, explore other sports and activities such as dock diving, disc dog, drafting, barn hunts, agility, rally, therapy work, weight pulling, skijoring, packing, and more. Even a senior dog is likely up for at least a modified adventure.
And sign up for fun, not performance. I had to put my own competitive nature sheepishly aside when I let Zoey into that ring, and we both had a blast. In addition, I now better appreciate her sometimes-annoying drive to keep our family all together when we’re out and about. We must exhaust her even more than that one errant sheep who kept moving from the herd.
If you’re game to try agility, any breed or mixed breed is welcome. Or perhaps the laid-back sport of rally draws your eye. Barn hunts will appeal to your dog if he loves tracking prey, and the sport is open to any breed or mixed breed dog.
And lastly, if the idea of packing with your dog sounds fun, no formal event is required. Talk to your dog’s veterinarian about your dog’s weight-carrying ability, and then head out walking. And if you see a sheep or two on your journey, explore your dog’s instincts by bringing him toward the fence.