Downeast Dog News


By Marcia Welch | Mar 31, 2017
Photo by: Nancy Gaffney

Tending flocks of animals/livestock is an ancient tradition, often a lonely occupation. Many flocks of sheep, ducks, geese, turkeys, etc., herds of cattle and goats, and occasionally hogs are maintained with the help and companionship of a dog or dogs. Today, farm and ranch work and management of the flock or herd is very demanding. A dog can be very valuable to the shepherd as it can do the work of several people!

While we may think of acres of lush green pastures and the image of a border collie when we think of herding, much of the herding work in this country involves moving the herd or flock from summer to winter grazing, wrangling cattle out of heavy scrub brush, and working in tight areas like pens, alleys, and chutes. Many other dogs from the Herding Group lend a hand with livestock including Australian Shepherds, Bearded Collies, Old English Sheepdogs, Shelties, Collies, Corgis, German Shepherd Dogs, Australian Cattle Dogs, Belgian Tervurens, Belgian Sheepdogs, Belgian Malinois, Briards, Bouviers, etc. Many dogs that are from the Working Group, including Rottweilers and Bernese Mountain Dogs, also exhibit a great deal of talent and instinct for herding. Some nice working dogs are a combination of different herding breeds. Most of the flocks in New England tend to be “hobby” flocks and are fairly small, so the dog that helps with the flock is sometimes also the family pet!

Out of this tending and management of the livestock came the “sport” of herding, later developing into what we now call Herding Trials. Who knows? Maybe the development of the sport went something like this: Farmer Brown boasted to Farmer Smith about his wonderful working dog. Farmer Smith believed he had an equally talented dog. (Maybe they even placed a wager on the outcome!) In order to determine which dog did a better job, they may have designed a rudimentary “course”: Perhaps the task was: Send the dog to pick up a group of 10 sheep, bring them around a distant tree, then take them between two rocks, and finally, after sorting out a few sheep, put just 3 sheep in a pen and drive the rest off. Today, there are many opportunities to participate in the sport. It has evolved to include specially designed courses which include panels and pens. Some Herding Trials take place in large, unfenced areas. Some of the Trial courses are designed for an arena. A variety of livestock is used in Herding Trials including sheep, goats, ducks, geese, and cattle. It is most important to remember the original “roots” of this activity, caring for and protecting the flock. It is understood that all livestock is, of course, treated humanely. There are several organizations which host such Trials: AKC (American Kennel Club), AHBA (American Herding Breed Association), USBCHA(United States Border Collie Handlers Association), ASCA (Australian Shepherd Club of America). There are many opportunities to get involved in the sport of herding; however, many people are not interested in Trialing but are interested in learning about the practice of herding and would like to teach their dog ways in which to be helpful in managing their own flock.

Some of the skills required for herding are: An “outrun” (sending the dog to get the stock); A “lift and fetch” (gathering the stock and bringing it to the handler);”flanks” (directional commands – right and left – “away to me” and “come bye or go bye”.); A “drive” (taking the sheep to a destination away from the handler). In order to be a useful helper around the farm, even requiring more precision and complexity as a“Trial Dog”, other skills must be mastered: Putting the stock into a pen; taking them out of a pen; holding the stock off the feed pans; sorting the stock into different working or grazing areas. A dog must be authoritative enough to convince challenging, large, stock to move and gentle enough to work with smaller stock such as ducks and lambs. Many dogs intuitively understand how much “presence” and “pressure” is needed to do the job appropriately and confidently without upsetting the stock unnecessarily.

While dogs in the herding group are generally born with some herding instinct, rigorous training is also required to help the dog understand what the handler is asking him to do. The biggest challenge for (human) newcomers to this sport is that they are not familiar with and do not understand the behavior of livestock and at the same time are trying to teach their dog what to do when, often, the dog “reads” the livestock and knows, innately, more than the human part of the team! In this training, the dog and handler are learning at the same time what is required to manage the livestock. Another challenge is that there are three different types of “beings” in a somewhat small area, and maybe each has a separate idea about what to do at any given time! Developing an understanding of livestock as well as shaping desirable behaviors in the dog and communicating effectively are extremely challenging. It requires a great deal of training time, (2x weekly on livestock is a minimum commitment) often also requiring traveling some distance to find a training facility. Other necessary attributes for the trainer are: energy, patience, perseverance, and a sense of humor! The guidance of a committed, educated, and understanding trainer is very instrumental in helping as a “translator” to create a balanced, cooperative, and harmonious working relationship between dog and handler.

Now that winter is over and the weather is improving, you might decide that you’d like to learn more about herding: Attend a trial, do some reading, watch some videos, visit a working farm, or you might even decide you’d like to give it a try!


Marcia Welch has over 20 years of herding experience, both as a competitor and trainer with her Australian Shepherds. They are working Stockdogs on the farm as well as Herding Trial Champions on the Trial Field. Marcia has worked with a wide variety of breeds. She has been helping people to improve and enhance relationships with their dogs in the Midcoast area for over 20 years. She is the co-owner of Positively Best Friends Dog Training LLC, Canine Activity Center in Edgecomb. In addition to Herding, other interesting activities such as Agility, Obedience, Puppy & Beginner Classes as well as Workshops and Seminars are also available for you and your dog working with the professional trainers at PBF! To learn more about Marcia and HERDING opportunities, please visit the website. Email: