by Melodie Grabner

What is Herding?

Herding is behaviour similar to that shown in the  behaviour of wolves and other wild dogs which cooperatively go out to capture large prey. Some of the pack attempt to head off the prey while others chase it from behind. From this, herding ability has been derived, with a dog attempting to control the direction of stock and learning to do so in cooperation with a human leader. Most dogs tend to be gatherers, which naturally run out to head off stock, group it, and readily learn to move it toward the handler. A few may be naturally drivers, which will also try to keep the stock grouped but move the stock away from the handler.

CH Rockymountain Shale CD (Onslow) with the judge at the Herding Instinct test sponsored by the Collie Club of Canada
Berners by their Swiss standard should be natural drivers or more properly “drovers” The definition of “drover” is: moving large groups of animals down roads or cross-country usually to market. It should not be confused with "driving" in the narrow sense of the handler & dog being at the rear of the group. Drovers led, followed, or walked along the side as the situation required, and their dogs likewise worked front, rear or side as needed.  Bernese were used for droving, not herding as we think of it. The pace was that of a man's walk and the course a well worn trail from pasture to pasture or pasture to barn. The dog's job was to help keep dairy cows moving, on the course, and to keep track of any inclined to wander. This is very different than helping men on horseback to herd free ranging beef cattle (different temperament) across open, and unfamiliar, country. It is also very different than moving large groups of sheep from pasture to pen. There are not very many dairy cattle farms that I know of that will let you herd  or move their stock with your dog so, if you are interested in learning to herd with your dog you must learn and train with what is available, normally sheep.

How to Start?

A prospective herding dog should grow up in a working situation, gradually being introduced to and gaining experience with livestock. This is still the most suitable way for a dog to learn to herd. In our more urban society, this is not always possible. Herding will be such a exciting activity for the dog, so some preparatory steps should be taken to help make the early work with livestock easier for all. It is important that the dog have a good recall and a good stop (sit or down). These must be practiced away from stock, in many situations and with many distractions. Doing this work first, the dog gains a working relationship with its owner without the added stress of the presence of stock.  The next step might be to have your dog instinct tested. There are many clubs that offer this trial. It will give you a good idea if the potential is there and you should continue with herding. After the dog has been introduced to stock and has shown evidence of herding potential, the owner must carefully consider several factors. Are you in a position to devote some time to regular herding lessons with a dog that is mature enough to begin training (usually around a year of age)? Are you in a position to take your dog to stock on a regular basis -- at least once a week, preferably two or three times a week. It is unfair to your dog to "tease" it, with small tastes of herding, and no real progress can be made under these circumstances. Owners who are unable to become actively involved in herding due to their current circumstances can continue to learn about herding through other means until such time as they can .      

Can/Am Int CH Allsgold's Studebaker
CD DD Am NDD CGC TT HCT, "Odie" herding
Not all Berners have herding instinct. Of my six, five who have been instinct tested and trained on sheep, three will herd, one would rather be a “herd protection” dog and one has way to much prey drive to be trusted.  "Odie" is a natural drover. He loves to keep the livestock moving. He has no problem standing up to “bad sheep” and does not worry the calm ones. Heidi, is a natural gather and  loves to bring the livestock to me. She is very good at pen work and  moving livestock from one field to another and through gates. She is a very gentle worker, but will stand her ground.  Echo, the “herd protector” does not like other dogs in with her livestock. She has a different talent and is more suited to keeping predators away from her livestock, and that includes other dogs. We had a visiting  Blue Heeler working our goats and I thought Echo was going to come over the fence and take him down as she felt he was being too much of a predator when he went to nip the heels of her.

Starting Training

There are many methods of training, but the general principles are based on use of the dog's natural instinct. First,  the dog is taught to lie down or stop on command, away from stock. Then the dog is taken to stock, its introduction supervised but with little direct commanding taking place at first. The dog is encouraged to move freely around the stock. A good gathering dog will readily go around the stock and balance itself in relation to the handler and stock, putting itself in a position to keep the stock grouped and moving toward the handler. (In the case of those relatively fewer dogs which are naturally drivers, the dog will approach the stock and move it away from the handler, still balancing relative to the handler and stock.) The handler, largely through positioning, gives subtle guidance to the dog. A long pole or shepherd’s staff may be used as an extension of the handler's arm, helping guide the dog's movements and helping the dog learn to keep a good distance from the stock. The handler must learn to be a shepherd. You have as much to learn as your dog.  

For owners who are interested in getting started in herding, the best way to begin is to work with an experienced herding trainer. The trainer will be able to provide individual attention and instruction suited to your dog. The stock and the training facility should be suitable for beginners as well as for those who are more experienced. A good herding dog must use its own judgment, but be responsive and obedient. It must be bold in facing down defiant stock, but gentle with cooperative stock. Judgment, adaptability and soundness of body and mind are important qualities of the herding dog.

Working ability, including herding is genetically emitted as well as learned. All dogs come with the eye, stalk, chase, catch, kill, and dissect instincts. How we work with and train these instincts are up to us. A champion herding dog is bred through a pedigree, and then trained at an early age. I don’t know any Bernese breeders who are actively breeding for herding ability. If you are really serious about herding it would be my advice to get a Border Collie from a working breeder, and start at the beginning.

Ready to Trial?

Herding, while fun, must be taken seriously. It is not something to be viewed as a weekend sport or occasional hobby, a "good way to exercise the dog." The dogs have herding instinct, but people don't! -- so it is of great importance that the owner learn about herding, and also learn about stock behaviour and care. In addition to lessons and clinics, there are books, magazines and videos available.

The first herding titled bernese in Canada "Ariel"
(Ch Swiss Star's The Tempest, HT) owned and trained by Gina McDonnell



 HC or HIC -- Herding Instinct Certified 

Trial Program

All Courses:

 Beginning Level -- HS -- Herding Started  
 Intermediate Level -- HI -- Herding Intermediate  
 Advanced Level -- HX -- Herding Excellent 

Test Program

 HJ– Herding Junior 


Trial Program (small initials after title indicate type of stock):

 Standard Course: Beginning Level -- HTD I -- Herding Trial Dog I  
 Intermediate Level -- HTD II -- Herding Trial Dog II  
 Advanced Level --HTD III -- Herding Trial Dog III 

Ranch Courses:

 Beginning Level -- HRD I -- Herding Ranch Dog I  
 Intermediate Level -- HRD II -- Herding Ranch Dog II  
 Advanced Level -- HRD III -- Herding Ranch Dog III 


 HTCh. -- Herding Trial Champion 

Test Program

 First Level -- HCT -- Herding Capability Tested  
 Second Level -- JHD -- Junior Herding dog

Herding on the WEB