What to Look For in a Herding Instructor
© Author Jane Rothert
1st Published in March 2001 Malinois Performer
"How do I find a herding instructor? I have a great dog, I just know it can herd, but where do I find a good instructor?" This is by far the most common herding question, and yet, certainly not as easy to answer as it would at first appear!
What do you want out of the training? Do you want to learn about the art of controlling livestock with a dog? Do you want to "have fun" with your dog? Do you want to earn a test title? You don't know for sure but figure you'll just try and see what happens? There is a big difference in learning how to control livestock with a dog and herding for titles, at least to some instructors. To other instructors, they are one and the same. Since livestock is involved and herding is a necessary part of the livelihood of the stock handler, "fun" is not always part of the equation. Not to say you and the dog can't have fun, but if this is a "have-fun-for-the-dog and we'll-pay-for-the-dead-sheep" experience, you might want to take up perching with your dog instead. Most herding instructors take teaching dogs to herd as very serious work. Not a chance for the dog to go out and "play" with the livestock.
Where do you live? Do you live in the country on several acres and plan on buying your own livestock? Do you live in the city with no possibility of owning stock? Do you want to train at the closest place to where you live? Do you want to train at the best place for you and your dog? I've been told over and over that if you can't train at least 2-3 times a week, don't bother because your dog will NEVER be trained well enough to herd. That's not true. If you had the opportunity to train 2-3 times per week you would probably get farther faster than if you can only train once per month. If you can't train that often but you are persistent, you can still end up with a trained herding dog. If the only good instructor is 3 hours drive from where you live and you could only get there once a month, well, I'd opt for that ANY day over a bad instructor right up the street. It might take longer, but odds are you'll end up with a better product.
Who is going to train the dog? If you like to do things with your dog, you'll want to train the dog yourself. If you are more comfortable with someone else training your dog, there are people who will take your dog for 6 months or a year or more, put a title on the dog, and return it. Others will train the dog and compete with it, but the dog will still live with you.
There are also a number of questions you need to ask potential herding instructors. One of the first questions might be, has this trainer ever successfully trained a Belgian to an advanced degree? If not, how far has this trainer succeeded in training a Malinois or other Belgian? How does this trainer feel about Malinois? Do they feel Malinois can't really herd? Watch their actions around your dog. Are they afraid of the breed? What is their real opinion of the breed? This is a hard one, but a clue might be if the instructor says "your dog isn't like most Malinois. It can herd!" odds are this instructor really doesn't have high hopes for your dog!
How advanced is the most advanced dog this person has trained? Have they successfully trained other upstanding breeds or just the "eye" breeds? Too often the attitude is all breeds are trained alike. If you've successfully trained a border collie, then you can train a Malinois and if not, it's the dog's problem, not the trainer. This is NOT true! If you want to NOT fulfill your dogs potential, train your Malinois as if it were any breed other than a Malinois! Better yet, find someone who trains the individual dog without breed generalities complicating the mix!
If the trainer you find has trained upstanding dogs to advanced levels, the next question should be how do these dogs work? What do the dogs look like when they are working the stock? Are they mechanical, only moving when told to do so? Do they watch the handler all the time? Do they pay attention to the sheep? When you watch a dog, do you feel that the dog is in control of the stock? If possible watch several dogs work at different levels so you can get a feel for how the dogs are being trained. Do all or most of the dogs work the way you think a herding dog should work? If not, don't go there!
There are several different schools of thought in herding. One is to train exclusively for competition. These dogs are often slow and mechanical with every move controlled. A second school of thought is to train exclusively for farm or ranch work. The end product might not be pretty, the dogs often lacking finesse, but they will get the job done on the farm and often with little direction from a handler. The third school of thought is you can have both a working stock dog AND a competition dog. Find out which school your potential instructor fits into and why and decide if that's the same thing you believe in. If it's not, you and the instructor will be training at cross purposes to begin with and no one will come out ahead, especially not the dog!
Another question to ask a potential instructor is how long does it take the average dog training with this person to get to the trial level? Preferably how long does it take a Belgian to get out of the test classes and into trial classes? What you are looking for is whether this instructor is successful. Can this instructor actually succeed in a reasonable time to train you and/or your dog or will they just make a living off of your lessons? If the "norm" at this trainer's is 2-3 years of 2-3 times a week training before you see progress, I'd say find another instructor.
Find out the philosophy of the instructor. You have to agree with the basics because you don't want to be fighting the instructor the entire time. Each instructor has slightly different ideas of how to get to the final product and what that final product should be. If you don't feel comfortable or it doesn't feel right, don't go there. You are paying them which means they work for you. It has to be right for you AND your dog and if you aren't sure, then it isn't right!
Most of this boils down to using your common sense. If you aren't comfortable with picking a trainer because you don't know anything about herding, take someone you trust who is experienced in herding to evaluate the instructor.
Unfortunately, most of us don't have a number of instructors in our area to choose from. My advice would be, if you have any doubts about the instructor, it would be better for you and your dog to NOT take herding lessons. Beware, be careful and use common sense. If you find a good trainer who will take you where you and your dog want to go and it's fun getting there, then you've struck gold and I hope to see you at a herding trial soon!