Choosing a Puppy for Herding
© Author Jane Rothert
1st Published in January 2001 Malinois Performer
People get into herding one of several ways. One way is to inherit a sheep ranch and a herding dog along with it. A more common way is to own a dog from the herding group, take the dog to an instinct test, and watch the dog pass brilliantly (all best buds pass brilliantly!). You are now hooked on herding so you find a trainer, take the dog to trials, and decide, with visions of glory in your eyes, that you need another dog to train, without the mistakes you've made with your first one. After all, the saying in the herding world is you always ruin the first dog you train to herd! This time you'll do it right, but how do you find that great next herding dog?
There are several ways to go about this. One sure-fire way is to buy a started dog from a reputable trainer. The drawback here is that any dog that someone has started and wants to sell is probably NOT a Malinois. Another drawback will be that you won't get a puppy. Depending on how much training the dog has, it could be anywhere up to several years old. You will also pay according to the amount of training the dog has and the herding potential the trainer thinks the dog has. I'm not going to hazzard a guess as to how much such a dog might cost, but it could be substantial.
The option that, again, most of us take is to buy a puppy and train it. How do you find a good puppy, though? I was told by someone years ago that all herding breed dogs can herd; all you need to do is get a dog from the herding group and it will herd. That's not true, at least not with the breeds I've owned and worked with. I've seen Malinois that had absolutely nothing on their mind but finding the mint jelly to put on their lamb chops. I've seen Malinois with this in mind from both working lines and show lines. Conversely, I've seen excellent herding Malinois come from working lines as well as show lines. You can't assume anything when looking for a good herding Malinois. What you do need to do is some research and some heavy thinking about what you really want that puppy to become and to be.
First what do you REALLY want out of this puppy? Is passing an instinct test all you are interested in? Do you want a dog that can earn a started trial title? Do you want a herding champion? Do you want a dog to do chores around the farm with minimal help or guidance from you? How much time do you have to train? Will you be doing the training or will someone else train the dog? Do you want a hard dog that will take a lot of work to be safe around stock? Do you want a dog that could probably get it's pre-trial title the first time it sees stock? Do you want a dog that needs to be out working sheep 12 hours every day? These and more questions should be asked and answered before you start looking for a puppy.
A general rule of thumb among herders who have been through this several times is if the parents herd the way you want your dog to herd, the odds are good, so will the pups. In other words, figure out what you want in a herding dog and buy a puppy from parents who work like that.
I'm assuming here that herding is your number one interest. If not, where is herding on your priority list? Is it something you'd do with your dog when you have time but will mostly just have a dog as a conformation dog or agility dog? If that's the case, buy a good conformation or agility prospect and hope it herds. If herding is your number one reason for getting a puppy, evaluating what your lifestyle is, how you train, how often you train, and what your skills or your trainer's skills are is important in getting a dog that can not only succeed but exceed your expectations! Oh, by the way, those same herding experts add that "just in case the pup doesn't turn out to be a great herder, get a pup you like so you'll be happy with it no matter what."
Yes, even when you buy from a long line of successful herding dogs, there is no absolute guarantee that the cute little 9 week old puppy you picked out will turn into the next herding champion. In Malinois you can just about guarantee the dog will be interested in sheep, but it may be all prey drive and no herding instinct at all! There are no guarantees!
You've now found a litter you think has potential and you want to pick the best puppy. Evaluating young pups may give you a little insight, but not much. There is no single test you can use that will tell you which of those cute furry little bodies is the next herding champion! There are almost as many ways to evaluate puppies as there are people who evaluate them, though. One suggestion for puppy testing is to wait until the pups are at least 10-12 weeks old and then put them into a circle pen with some very blasť sheep and let them work. Another suggestion is at 6 weeks start putting the entire litter in with blasť sheep and an older calm working dog and see what happens. One way is to put a lamb in the puppy pen with the puppies and keep the pup that grabs hold of the hock or the nose and won't let go! Another way to test puppies is to put the pups on the OUTSIDE of a secure pen and put sheep and a trained dog INSIDE the pen and let the pups watch. The pups that are determined to get into the sheep, and maybe actually DO get in with the sheep, are the best ones for herding. One final suggested test is to put the entire litter into a pen with either ducks or lambs and see what happens, selecting the pups that naturally fall into a trot and try to herd.
There are other methods that don't use stock but that determine intelligence, persistence, and/or boldness in a puppy. Using an animal-shaped pull toy to see if the pups will chase and try to herd versus eat it is commonly used. The towel test in the standard PAT's works very well as a prey-drive/herding test for the herding breeds according to some. Do any of these methods work? You bet! Can you pick a puppy based on them? Yes. Will it truly tell you the best herding puppy in the litter? Probably not!
One interesting comment I've heard from several people that have tested multiple Belgian litters, not necessarily Malinois, is that you do not necessarily want the boldest, pushiest puppy in the litter. Sometimes the pup that stands back during the tests will end up being the easiest dog to train. The pushy ones sometimes have too much prey drive or too much confidence and will be hard dogs to work with and train. The quieter ones, on the other hand, may be the best bet in the long run! They may be the sleepers; the pups that show NO interest in herding at a young age but turn into top herders with a little more maturity!
So, how do you pick a puppy for herding? Find a litter of pups whose parents work the way you want your puppy to work and then pick a pup you like from that litter: one whose temperament fits yours, whose looks you can live with, and who you instantly fall in love with. If your chosen puppy doesn't herd, you'll at least have a new best bud!