Good dog handling isn’t an accident. It is a learned skill. It requires a good working relationship with the dog, proper training, clear and consistent commands and the ability to read the livestock. You must know what the stock are doing and what they are about to do. There is only one way to know this, by watching the livestock.
When the handler watches the dog rather than the stock it becomes impossible to give commands at the correct moment. Herding errors, that need not happen, can become large point deductions. When the handler watches the livestock a slight flank, a steady or an encouraging “hurry” command, at the correct second, can eliminate errors before they became a costly penalty.
Building your handling skills begins by watching the livestock’s heads. Where the head is pointed the body will follow. Watch for little signs that relay the stocks intention and emotions. Ears forward head looking toward a gate can tell you they want to go there. High headed animals are stressed thinking of running. Relaxed head carriage tells you the pressure is correct for the livestock. Heads dropped can mean the animal doesn’t feel well or can be the signal that a fight is about to begin.
When the intent is to move the livestock on the fence line and you see the stock beginning to move to the open arena, they are telling you the dog is positioned too close to the fence thus lifting the stock off the fence; or the pull is to the open arena and the dog has not properly positioned itself to cover the draw. When the livestock stops moving the dog has moved too far up the side of the stock, stopping the flow. If the dog continues to move forward the stock will turn. A dog moving too fast or too deep inside the flight zone will cause the sheep to trot or run.
Our scenario, the livestock coming off the fence, is simply corrected by a small flank to the open arena. Usually the flank need only be a short distance. Watch the first animal’s head. The second it begins to turn toward the fence the dog has corrected the error.
It is time to give the walk up command. Your timing is critical. If you are late the dog will over flank, causing the sheep to stop or turn around. If you stop the flank too soon the sheep will continue to lift off the fence line.
Novice handler’s have the most difficulty remembering to watch their livestock. If you are a novice handler the first thing you may think is “If I’m not watching my dog I won’t know what it is doing.”
Let the livestock tell you where the dog is, its speed, its distance from the stock, and if he followed your command. Watch your livestock’s heads and actions. Everything written above applies to beginning dogs too.
Learning to keep your eyes on the livestock, developing your ability to read their body language will improve your handling and training skills. Practice will teach you the second to make tiny corrections in the livestock’s movement before an error occurs. Watching livestock, thus developing the ability to read livestock is a skill you must develop to become a truly great handler.
About the Handler:
Elsie Rhodes began working with livestock as a child living on a farm where the care of dairy and beef cows, horses, goats and hogs was the daily routine. Farm dogs, Collies, Germen Shepherds, Rat Terriers, Samoyed, even Bloodhounds and numerous mixed breeds were a part of life. In 1956 Heidi, a black tri Australian Shepherd came to the farm. She set the stage for Elsie’s love of Aussies, a breed she has owned since 1976. Elsie is an AKC and AHBA Herding Judge.