Why Do I Herd?
© Author Jane Rothert
1st Published in May 2001 Malinois Performer
I was sitting with a friend a few weeks ago and we were, as usual, talking about our dogs. Herding came up and with it a discussion of injuries incurred while training. Without warning came THE question: Why do you herd?
I was sitting there with a finger so swollen I couldn't get my ring off, we were talking about a friend who had torn her ACL and was still recovering from surgery, and I had to come up with a reason that made us sound, if not insane, at least not totally stupid! Why WOULD anyone want to be battered by horns that would make a water buffalo proud, be stomped on by sharp pointy hooves, be scraped and scratched, be rained and snowed on, be covered with mud and, ahem, other things, be sunburned and windburned, and be at risk every second for a serious permanent injury? Why would we indeed!
It took me only about 1 microsecond to say why I herd. I thought of the last time I was out with Lacie. We had a group of ewes and their lambs. One ewe, Mary, is really snotty. This ewe goes out of her way to look for fights, whether she has a lamb or not and on this occasion she had a lamb. (Yes, Mary had a little lamb!) Lacie was working hard because Mary had decided it was too windy outside and she didn't want to play any more. Lacie was having to fight Mary most of the way. I, on the other hand, was just standing around keeping the dust out of my eyes. When we went to put the sheep in the stall, the gate to the stall was closed so naturally the sheep head straight into the main barn. I continued to just stand there fighting the dust, sending Lacie into the barn to bring back the sheep. This group of sheep had about 4 ewes and 4 or 5 1-month-old lambs. For a few seconds, I heard and saw nothing. It was dark in the barn and even had I been close to the door, which I wasn't, I couldn't have seen much. I was starting to worry as I didn't want the lambs to be accidently hurt. Suddenly out come the sheep, Mary and her lamb leading the flock acting like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Lacie brings them to me and we turn and take them into the correct stall. THAT is why I herd.
Having a dog that makes your work and life easier is a feeling impossible to measure. It's why dogs were first used by man millennia ago. Today most of our dogs are companions. This is a good thing. They make our lives fuller, lower our blood pressure, give us unquestionable love. Dogs are very good at this.
Dogs are also gigantic ego boosters. Having a dog that wins in the breed, obedience, agility, herding, or SchH ring means you're a great trainer or you have a good eye for a dog. Dogs become extensions of ourselves. Love me, love my dog. Our dogs winning in the ring means we win in the ring. For one brief shining moment we are better than everyone else because our dog won!
So why would someone herd? Why not stick with agility or obedience, something a little less risky? Not counting passing an instinct test with your dog but really learning to herd; training day after day or week after week, why do it? If it's an ego trip your after, there are safer ways. Why herd?
One common reason is because you own stock and need help with their care. Other reasons are because of pressure from the breeder or a friend or because you feel this is another way to earn more titles. The reason I herd is because of the joy of working with my dog doing something that neither of us can do as well separately as we can together.
Herding isn't about the dog having fun. Yes, the look in my dog's eyes when she is working tells me she's happy, but it also tells me she is in HER element. She's doing this because it's in her blood. She can help me. She can use her own brains and work with me. I'm not doing all the thinking and she's doing only what I tell her. This is a partnership. We are working together to accomplish our goals.
I assume people with service dogs feel this way; people with seeing eye dogs and police with their canine partners also probably feel this way. It's the true partnership involved that makes the dog and handler a team. That phrase, dog and handler team, is used in agility and obedience, but most competition venues are a measure of obedience. In herding competition, obedience plays a large part as well, but in real world herding, the shepherd and his dog are a team. Each working to accomplish the same goal. It means the dog working, not for a reward of a cookie, but for the joy of working, for a pat on the head, and for a chance to be with the owner doing a job together.
To experience this partnership, to be able to stand outside the barn and tell my dog to get the sheep while I do some other chore, to be part of a team managing livestock successfully is why I herd. When you get to that level, you will understand. Until then, titles, winning, yes, those are important. However, the true joy of herding, the reason many of us risk life and limb to train and herd with our dogs is to experience the rapport of a true working team. To us it is what herding is all about.