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Photo by Lori Herbel

Most herding dogs are naturally fetching dogs. That is, they always want to bring the sheep towards the handler. Some herding dogs are naturally driving dogs. That is, they move sheep in any direction without regard to the location of the handler. A very few herding dogs are both naturally driving and fetching dogs. You’d be very lucky to get one of the latter, a dog with balanced instincts. (I’ve been very lucky in that all my Enzo x Xolotl pups that I’ve tested have both fetching and driving instincts). This breakdown is true within most of the herding breeds although the exact proportions may vary from breed to breed.

You’ll make more rapid initial progress with a natural fetching dog. By using your body as a target, you can control the direction the livestock get moved. A good handler can get a HT/HCT on a biddable fetching dog after just one lesson. Most dogs flunk HT/HCT either because the novice handlers don’t know how to handle the dog through the course or because they’ve waited until a lot of bad habits were put on the dog. However, a driving dog has to be taught where to bring the sheep. Thus, it won’t be able to pass the HT/HCT until it has been taught how to move sheep in the indicated direction.

Teaching driving to a natural driving dog is relatively easy. The leap from the 1st level trial classes into the 2nd level trial classes is a relatively small one for a dog with natural driving instincts. But teaching driving to a dog that is just a natural fetcher can be a very frustrating challenge. The leap from the 1st level trial classes into the 2nd level trial classes is a relatively large one for a dog without natural driving instincts. You must get the dog to work contrary to its fetching instincts, which is a very hard concept for a dog to accept. Only the more talented/tractable dogs with persevering handlers are able to make it past the 1st trial level.

The following are some tips for teaching driving. Their geared especially toward the natural fetching dog.

  1. Stay right next to or right behind the dog for the longest time. Then, when all is going smoothly, GRADUALLY increase the distance between you and the dog. If your dog stalls, move closer. Teaching a natural fetching dog to drive is a long process; You are asking the dog to do counter instinctive work. The key is to keep at it, without trying to rush the dog’s progress. Eventually, after a lot of repetition, it will click for the dog. Have a lot of patience. Don’t expect rapid leaps and bounds in progress. It takes a lot of repetition of the driving training until the fetching dog assimilates driving.
  2. Don’t let dog turn drive into fetch. You must stay alert. If he starts to go around, stop him. Give redirect (back towards side of stock he should be staying on) and then a “There” when he’s at the right spot. Clearly, your dog needs a solid stop for this to work. If you’ve been negligent on training the all important stop, then you should use a long line to prevent the dog from going around. (Remember #1, and don’t be rushing taking that line off.)
  3. If #2 starts to happen, do not give the dog a correction (other than a yank on the line to get him back to where he should be). He doesn’t understand driving yet. Never correct for confusion. If you do, it will surely shut the dog down. Just follow rule 2 (stop, redirect, there), and keep your cool. Don’t get upset that a natural fetching dog is following its instincts; the dog will read your emotions and get confused as if you had corrected him.
  4. Avoid calling dog to you to get it back in drive position. Avoid body language/hand signals/crook signals. These things tend to make dog focus on handler. In driving, we don’t want dog focused on handler. We want its attention on the stock. Note: This does not mean that you can’t praise or keep up a barrage of encouraging chatter. Just don’t do it in a way that it breaks the dog’s attention on the stock and diverts it towards you.
  5. Use a Drive Alley. It’s a narrow, long passage with sides a dog can’t pass through. You work with enough stock that they take up the width of the chute. This makes it very difficult for the dog to go around to the head.
  6. Don’t do exclusively driving. Break it up with stuff dog knows well (fetching, penning, graze, etc). Learning something new is mentally very tiring. Keep it brief, especially in the beginning.Photo by Lori Herbel
  7. But always separate driving and fetching exercises. That is, do some driving, take a break, and then go back and do fetching. Don’t go straight from driving to fetching. This will avoid more confusion. Also, doing gathers immediately after driving, without a break in between, will really erode the outrun, as will letting the drive turn into a fetch.
  8. Do the difficult exercises (i.e. driving) first in a training session. This is when the dog’s brain is freshest. End the session with easy exercises that the dog doesn’t have to think too hard to do. End it with an exercise the dog really enjoys. Example1: Free style fetching – go on a walkabout where you don’t have to give any commands. Example2: Graze tending work.
  9. Always be on the watch for mental exhaustion. A glazed look in the eyes is a good indicator. Stop your drills whenever you notice it. Either quit altogether or, after a rest, do non-thinking (purely instinctive) exercises. Dogs will mentally exhaust easily when trying to learn difficult exercises.
  10. Stock that move easily off the dog are best for teaching driving. Unlike starting a dog where you want heavy stock, for drive training, you want stock that dog doesn’t have to work at to get them to move.
  11. Your first driving lessons can be bring the sheep back to their home pen at the end of their workout. The dog doesn’t have to do much more than follow along. However, if your stock are such that they make a mad run for home, this won’t work.
  12. Make your driving destination goal orientated; Don’t just move the stock around aimlessly. Make a concrete goal that the dog can understand as a goal when reached. Destinations can be pens, trailers, hay, water troughs, gates to the next pasture, a group of shady trees, etc. Any place where it would make sense to bring a group of sheep and leave then. Some handlers pick a telephone pole, etc. for them to practice straight lines with, but this is not a goal the dog can readily understand. Especially, if they never actually arrive at it. Using a destination goal will help the dog to make more sense of driving. Dogs DO look where they are going, although it may not be apparent until circumstances such as tall vegetation cause them to be less subtle (rearing up) to take sightings on their goal. I know that at some trials, I have had trouble getting my dog to take a command because she has incorrectly determined what our driving goal is. She refuses the command because it doesn’t make sense in terms of the misperceived objective. (It isn’t necessarily easier to trial a thinking dog with lots of instinct..) So, give your driving lessons a purpose for the dog, and he’ll pick it up faster.
  13. Always work to maintain enthusiasm in your dog. If it starts to wane, it’s time to stop and figure out what you’re doing wrong. Probably, you’ve confused the dog with inconsistent corrections or corrected it for an offense it doesn’t yet understand or let out anger when you shouldn’t.

About the Author: Dorothy DeLisle was first introduced to herding through TV. Then as a grad student, she accidentally encountered it when doing stream surveys on range land in Arizona, when her totally untrained German Shepherd dog, Ramses, would drive the cattle our of the streams and hold them off while Dot worked. However, it wasn’t until later GSD’s and 1994 that Dot got involved in herding training and trialing. Since then she and her dogs have earned 83 herding and 5 obedience titles. Dot has successful competed in AKC (all 3 courses), AHBA, ASCA, USBCHA (cattle only), and WCDA on sheep, goats, ducks and cattle and has even won a chicken herding jackpot. Dot and her GSD, Klaatu, even got first place in one of the go-rounds of the World Cowdog Challenge. Dot is both an AKC and AHBA judge; however, in the real world, she is a biochemist involved in pharmaceutical discovery working on cures for cancer and the common cold.