In 1990 I walked into an indoor arena at the CCA national specialty with my Collie Perry and tried something we’d never done before, we’d entered the Herding Test level of one of the very first AKC Herding Trials. Neither one of us had ever even seen sheep before! The judges helped us out, and I was encouraged to continue on with Perry. That week the herding bug bit me. In 1990 a total of 32 Collies earned AKC Herding Titles in the first three levels of title progression. Since then we’ve gone from one course and one title for all types of livestock to three different courses and title designations in three kinds of stock. In 2013, just using the A-course stats (and combining all stock), in Collies there were 21 HT titles, 19 PT, 27 HS, four HI, five HX, and three Herding Champions - a big jump from those early days!
So why add one more thing to the “to do” list? Because it’s the most fun and challenging thing you and your dog will ever try! Start with instinct testing. Attend an instinct testing day—or better yet, encourage your club to put one on. Testing events are usually laid back, with folks happy to explain the basics. One thing to realize is that HT means Herding Tested and is the first level of AKC titles requiring some training before competing; the Herding Instinct Certification (HIC) program requires no previous training and simply instinct-tests the dog.
Often at an instinct test you will first start your dog on a long line to be sure the dog won’t harm the stock. If things look calm and relatively under control, the tester might take the line off. The tester is almost always the one to start the dog if the owner has no experience with herding or stock. If your dog passes the test and you want to pursue training, ask those who herd where they go and whom they would recommend. Internet searches are fine, but best to determine ahead of time what the training philosophy of the instructor/tester is and whether they are familiar with and open to working with your breed. It can sometimes be difficult to find information, so contact local Herding Group breed clubs and see if they sponsor herding events. Attend herding trials and observe. Sometimes instinct tests are given at the herding trials, especially if it is a specialty breed sponsored trial.
In 2008 the CCA initiated the regional herding program. Because our national comes on the heels of winter, when it’s tough to practice ahead of time for an early spring event, trials are offered every fall in the East, Central, and Western regions of the country. These regionals usually offer Collies-only instinct testing.
The biggest reward for herding with your dog is seeing latent instinct kick in. The biggest deterrents, though, can be the distances one must travel to places that offer herding, and the cost. Finding a buddy to travel with helps defray costs, and you can share the driving. Learning about stock might not come naturally for some of us city or suburban types, but that’s part of the challenge and fun. And there are always ducks for the more risk-averse among us, although your dog will need more control and training to work the more fragile livestock. If your dog doesn’t “turn on” in the first introduction, don’t despair. It sometimes takes several exposures for them to realize they can in fact run around and “chase” sheep. But don’t confuse chasing with herding. To pass, your dog must show some aptitude for wanting to bring the stock to the handler. Ideally, talk to someone who is already herding with her Collie for recommendations on where to go for training. To get you started, check out more information on the Event section of this site. More information can be found by visiting the Collie Club of America and the American Working Collie Association.
—M.S. (March 2015), Collie Club of America