Herding With the Malinois

By Nancy Bennett

This article first appeared in the "About the Breed Columns" section of the December 2009 AKC Gazette and is reprinted with permission. Subscribe to the Gazette.

To my mind, there is nothing more exciting in the dog world than to watch an animal do perfectly what it was both bred and trained to do. The coming together of instinct honed by experience and training is a truly beautiful thing. Unfortunately, many of the original uses of our dogs have become obsolete in the modern world. It’s a tribute to the deep, historical bond with our dogs that so many owners make an effort to seek out activities that let our dogs amaze us with their natural abilities.

If you’ve ever asked yourself, "I wonder what my dog would do if he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a flock of sheep?", the AKC offers herding-instinct tests that will let you find out. Herding trials are also sponsored for trained dogs that are more advanced in this activity. You can find out more at www.akc.org/events/herding.

To help you get started, and to give you some idea of what to expect when introducing a Malinois to sheep, the American Belgian Malinois Club herding committee has created a beautifully illustrated brochure, "Herding with a Belgian Malinois," which can be found on the club web site at malinoisclub.com. The following is from the brochure:

"It is not recommended that the Belgian Malinois be introduced to stock while restrained on a leash. However, the dog can drag a long line in the event he would need to be controlled. Being restrained on a leash can heighten the dog’s desire to grab by frustrating him.

"When initially exposed to sheep, most Malinois will almost immediately show interest and move toward the sheep. The tester needs to understand the difference between prey-drive and herding instinct. Prey-drive, or the desire to chase something that is moving, is generally the first reaction of a Malinois when he is exposed to stock. For a Malinois that will show herding instinct, this chase game should almost immediately be replaced by a desire not to injure or catch a sheep and bring it down but to bring the sheep to the handler.

"The Malinois displaying herding instinct should circle, attempting to gather the sheep to the owner. [The dog] may show ‘wear’ (moving behind the sheep in a pendulum motion), either naturally or with encouragement. Although either style is possible, the wear is often run well down the sides of the flock rather than in small arcs behind. Even at the first exposure to stock, the Malinois should be encouraged as quickly as possible to wear rather than circle.

"The Malinois seldom walks straight onto stock without training. Gripping or pulling wool should not be allowed at this first exposure if at all possible. In the excitement of the new experience, some splitting of the flock may occur, but the dog should promptly attempt to regroup the flock."

OK, spring shearing will be coming up in a few months.
Get out there and introduce those dogs to the sheep!

–Nancy Bennett, Princeton, N.J.; nancyb@ignet.com