Herding dogs

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Although now more often used in sporting contests rather than their original work, dogs continue to be employed to round up and drive herds and flocks. These dogs need to be brave, keen, very observant and able to act independently. Sheepdog competitions are the most common, although cattle herding contests are sometimes held in the United States and dogs are used to herd any type of animal, including geese and pigs.

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Natural aptitudes

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Border Collies have a very good natural aptitude for herding, so it’s no surprise they are used in many different countries, including the UK, USA, France and Australia. These lively, agile dogs, which are very intelligent, work at a distance from the flock, adopting a characteristic position close to the ground and seeming to hypnotise the ewes to move them into a corner. As outstanding herders, Border Collies are mainly used to drive flocks into a pen.

Other breeds have their own special skills:

- Beaucerons and Picardy Shepherds are calm and agile dogs that prefer open country.

- Briards work farther away from the flock.

- Australian Shepherds are dogs of rare intelligence.

- Pyrenean Shepherds are able to protect herds from any predators.

Farmers can choose from among the different breeds, depending on their needs. In competitions, dogs are primarily judged on their obedience, but the ability to take the initiative is the most highly prized trait in a sheepdog.

Educating sheepdogs

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The first stage in a sheepdog’s education is a general one in which the puppy learns to follow simple commands (sit, down, come, stay). It will also have to be taught to stop and stay at a distance. But it’s in its work with sheep that the dog will be able to show its herding instinct and to truly express itself. For this to be able to happen, the shepherd must introduce the puppy at a very early age, and on a long leash, to the animals it will be trained to work with.

The presence of another dog skilled in the work is always beneficial, as the puppy will be able to imitate it, will become bolder itself and will learn how the animals respond to its movements.

The next stage is getting the dog to work with the flock off the leash. These sessions should last between 15 and 20 minutes so as not to wear it out or put it off, because it will be expected to complete brief, but intense and repetitive exercises. By working very gradually with small flocks of twenty or so ewes, the dog will learn right from left, which will allow the shepherd to guide it from a distance.

The dog will gradually move farther away from the shepherd, working on the far side of the flock. It will also start learning more difficult tasks, including getting the sheep (or other animals) to move in a given direction and moving away from the flock on command when it is too close.

Only when these skills have been learned can the dog move on to the final stage of its education, learning to work in a small area (rounding up, exploring, guiding, holding the flock in a group), on roads and paths (guiding from the front, reversing, guarding one side when passing a vehicle), in pasture (moving the flock forward without rounding it up, guarding a bank) and in the mountains (exploring, guarding a dangerous passage).

Sheepdogs have often surprising abilities, so the shepherd will very quickly allow the dog to take the initiative. Generally speaking, a good sheepdog knows exactly what it needs to do in a given situation. The shepherd will scarcely have to speak; these two team members can read each other without the need for words, which shows just how intelligent a dog can be.

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Herding dogs
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