Herding Instinct Tests
© Jane Rothert &
Guest Author Kathy Stokey-Dillon
an AKC and AHBA Herding Test and Trial Judge
1st Published in January 2000 Malinois Performer
This month I am pleased to present a guest writer for the herding column. Kathy Stokey-Dillon is an AKC and AHBA herding test and trial judge. She has taught herding classes on her farm in central Virginia for 10 years. Her list of dogs that she has titled includes her husband's Belgian Tervuren, her own Malinois, her smooth Collies, a Bearded Collie, and Kelpies. She has participated in and judged many herding instinct tests. Her column gives her perspective on what these tests are, what they mean, and how to use them.
Herding Instinct Tests
What do "instinct tests" mean? Well, I'd answer that with another question... "who did the testing?" It's an important question since "testing" is tremendously variable across the country. If someone calls me and says they want to take lessons, I tell them I will have to evaluate the dog first. They may say "Oh, he PASSED an instinct test!" I then ask "WHO was the tester?" Depending on the answer, I usually still say, "I still will have to evaluate your dog myself."
"Instinct tests" are NOT a fail-proof way to pick a herding potential dog. It depends too much on so many conditions and the opinion of one person, who may or may not have any experience with your breed of dog. Herding instinct tests ARE a good way to get new people training. "Tests", included in an educational clinic format, at least teach people something about what is expected when herding and maybe what the next step might be. Even if your dog fails, you should go home with more knowledge than you came with.
Some of the many reasons I don't take HICs very seriously is the tester can be SOOOOO important as to whether you pass or fail. Some examples are as follows: one tester passes every dog who shows any interest in stock, regardless of whether the dog wants to have "dinner" or wants to breed the sheep instead of herd it; another tester is of such a strong personality that only strong aggressive dogs pass and all weaker dogs fail because of intimidation, even though this may not reflect herding ability or whether the owners of the strong dogs will ever be able to get control over them; a third tester may be a weak or passive tester who is not able to handle strong dogs or is frightened of them and fails them on the first sign of "high drive"; a fourth tester may stand there and simply watch the dogs run amok through the sheep without any guidance or help to get the shy dog interested; or a fifth tester who "bops" a dog as soon as it gets too close to the stock, even if the dog was just trying to smell what they are, and, thereby, turns the dog off. If I have to fail a dog, I always tell the owners to try again as one test is not proof the dog cannot herd.
Also affecting the results of the tests are the livestock, the facilities, the weather, the location, etc. I have JUDGED tests where the sheep were not "dog broke" and it was terrible! At this test, the sheep also hated humans and would bolt over the dog to escape. They would also get in a corner and stomp their feet. Only the strongest and fastest dogs with excellent natural balance could pass and complaints were numerous...including complaints about MY judging; like it was my fault about the sheep! I did one test with GOATS that really liked to get stuck in a corner and then burst out in every direction, butting the dogs and leaping around. If its muddy and the footing is bad, if the arena is too big or too small, if the sheep fly like the wind, leaping fences with a single bound or don't move at all and dare the dog to make them, or if the sheep are TOO broke so they don't react to the dogs well and stay glued to the handler's feet, the instinct test is affected.
My husband's Tervuren failed his instinct test but went on to get an AKC HI (herding intermediate title) and ASCA STDsdc (started titles on sheep, ducks, and cattle). I've been more than happy to accept new students here that someone else had failed. But the opposite has been true as well. Dogs who do GREAT at the instinct test level but when REAL training begins just don't pan out. Many dogs can earn the test level AKC titles but never make it to trial level.
Herding ability has numerous parts: INSTINCT, DRIVE, TRAINING, and TEMPERAMENT. A dog with a lot of drive and training may do well even if he lacks in the instinct department. Also a dog with tons of instinct may do poorly if it has little drive or a temperament problems. Let's say the owner wants to enjoy herding with his dog. We now have a relationship between the dog and handler in the mix. If there is a problem in that area, it will show up in herding. On top of that, the human is born with no instinct, usually no stock-sense, two left feet, and tends to get easily confused, even falling down at times. Even a good herding dog can not gain his full potential in this situation. To breed for herding ability, I tend to look at higher level titles, or view the dog myself, or use the opinion of a tester I trust. I would never consider an HIC as ground for breeding "herding dogs".
Herding Instinct Tests: The Actual Test
Tests may be "sanctioned" by an organization like the American Herding Breeds Association (AHBA), a national parent club, or a local club. Tests may also be informal "evaluations" by an instructor to see if you can start training your dog. If it is sanctioned by AHBA, there are rules to be followed. If the test is sanctioned by any other group or individual, check to see IF they have rules and what those rules are.
AHBA tests are held in a round pen which may be as small as 50 feet across. The test is timed. The tester is supposed to look for certain traits in the dogs and will fill out a "score sheet" for you to keep with a copy going back to AHBA to be recorded if the dog passes. Testers are pre-approved for these events. AHBA upgrades the rules yearly so before going to an AHBA sanctioned test, you need to get the most current copy. Any other group sanctioning or holding an instinct testing event should make the rules they will be following at the tests available to all participants. Evaluations or non-AHBA sanctioned events can be run anyway the group wants, so be sure to ask what the specific rules are.
At a typical test, the "tester" will ask you to come into the ring with your dog on leash. They may ask you some questions about previous training, while at the same time evaluating whether to let your dog loose with the sheep or not! In AHBA you will have to show a brief stay and recall (general control) before you are allowed to start the actual test. You usually get 10 to 15 minutes to complete the test. The dog may be let loose with its leash still on or with a long-line. The leash/long-line may be allowed to drag on the ground and the dog turned loose immediately or the dog may be walked around the sheep on leash a bit before the test starts. The tester will be carrying a staff, crook, or light pole (plastic (PVC) is common) to help guide the dog. If the dog is kept on a held leash at first, as soon as everyone is comfortable, the leash will be dropped and the dog will be let loose. The testing can not begin until the leash is dropped and the dog is loose. The dog may chase and split the stock at first. The tester may be guiding, training or correcting as the dog starts to work, and hopefully, starts to herd. The handler may be helping, too, or standing nearby, out of the way. If it's a clinic format, the handler should be instructed so that they can help work their own dog. The pole may be tapped or hit on the ground to get the dog's attention, to stop the dog from splitting the stock, or to push the dog out wider. During the time in the ring, the tester will be watching to see if the dog shows "herding behavior" and may also be looking for "trainability". Herding behavior may include, but not be limited to, "balance" on the stock, "rating" the stock, "barking at or gripping" the stock, "reaction to the tester", etc. The dog should show at least 5 minutes of cumulative herding behavior to pass. The dog which is not yet working well enough to pass can keep trying for the time allowed, and hopefully, the tester is trying everything they can to get the dog to pass. After the test, a score sheet is filled out for you which describes the behaviors the tester just saw.
At a sanctioned AHBA test, any dog who is too aggressive is to be removed. The tester should not have to "bop" your dog to get it under control enough to pass. The dog, however, must be off leash or with the leash dragging and can not be restrained for any of the 5 minutes of cumulative herding behavior if it is going to pass. A test is NOT a training session and only enough "handling" should be done to get the dog to pass, unless the test is part of a private evaluation session coupled with a lesson.
At a private evaluation, things are different depending on who is doing the testing. Here I will start in a TINY pen, walk the dog on a LOOSE leash around the perimeter and finally have the handler hold the dog while I catch and hold a sheep so the dog can smell it without the sheep running away. The dog is then walked on leash around the perimeter of the pen again. I also use my PVC pole and tap it in front of the dog to keep him from charging ahead. This also is to give the dog a chance to run into the pole on his own so he'll learn to move away from it when asked. If the dog is fairly settled, I let the leash run through my hands. Hopefully at this point the dog will start circling the sheep. As he does, I keep moving in a circle, too. I want to see if the dog will circle or "collect" his sheep. If I step out in a different direction, I want to see if the dog will "balance" to me and change direction. I also want to see if the dog responds when I put pressure on him as well as what happens when I back up. I am looking for "organizational skills" as opposed to sheep in every corner. I will guide and push the dog around at first, using verbal praise to let him know what is good and what is not, but then I will start to be quiet to see if the dog will do it by himself. At this point I hold the pole straight up away from the dog as I move around and watch the dog. Some nipping doesn't bother me here whereas at a sanctioned AHBA test, it would not be allowed. I am also studying the dog's body language. I can "read" whether he's being aggressive , fearful, confident, herding, or hunting. I watch the tail especially, but also the ears, mouth, and eyes. The way the dog approaches or circles the stock (body sideways or straight on), also is part of the dog's body language. At this point we will use the dragging leash to catch the dog. I will then discuss with the owner/handler whether the dog is ready for training. If the dog is ready, then the owner/handler will get a lesson on how to do what I just did!
There are also places I've heard about that scream and yell and throw things at the dogs. Over-correcting can CAUSE biting instead of curing it. At AHBA sanctioned tests you are pretty safe if the rules are followed. If going to a private test, or a test sanctioned by any other organization, ask to watch first and see if you are comfortable with how the tester handles the dogs and the sheep.
Once you have finished a test or an evaluation, you are ready to start TRAINING your dog to work. Only after the dog is actually able to work stock would I consider the dog to be a "herding dog".