Meeker & Petey in Herding 101

06 Oct 2008Steve Schwarz

Well this time it was Nancy’s doing. She signed us both up for a one day “Sheep Herding 101” workshop with trainer Kathy Kawalec in Manhattan, IL. I had heard good things about Kathy from a number of students and other trainers in the area. Kathy used all positive methods and had a very positive attitude toward the handlers and the dogs. She emphasized the safety of all of us, the dogs and the sheep. I only have anecdotal evidence, but it seems there aren’t all that many positive herding instructors around, or I’m just not in “the loop” with that group of trainers.

It was a nice small class of only 6 dogs and handlers. Other than going to a few herding trials and having Mr. Peabody and Milo evaluated for herding instinct many years ago, I am truly ignorant of all that goes into sheep herding. (OK I used to watch One Man and His Dog on BBC America many years ago too).

For me it has always seemed to be a pretty demanding activity since you not only have to train yourself and your dog, but you also have to learn the traits and behaviors of the animals you are herding. As an instructor it was a good experience to be on the student side again for an activity where I have very little knowledge.

Kathy’s workshop included short discussions and a couple of drills away from the stock (see I’m sounding like I know stuff now :^). Each team had three sessions working the dogs with the sheep in a pen. Kathy had us all use a leash and she walked with us as we moved with our dogs and sheep in the ring. We started out just moving the sheep back and forth along one side of the pen. That allowed us to see how the sheep moved and let us work on flanking (moving clockwise/counter clockwise) around the sheep. We also worked on the “Steady” where the dog moves toward the sheep to drive them forward. Then there was the “lie down” a command to have the dog stop moving. Lastly was the stop working command for disengaging from the sheep, i.e. “That’ll do”.

In each working session we moved the sheep further around the pen. In the final session we moved them all the way around the (~100 ft sq) pen and through some gates. Of course there was too much information for me to fully digest and I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to try to echo any of it here.

I could definitely see how folks can get hooked on herding. Both Petey and Meeker showed that they have some natural herding ability. Kathy was telling us that the sphere of influence or “bubble” around the sheep varies with the dog and the sheep. It seemed Petey (even when he seemed to be mostly looking at the ground) was able to move the sheep from a further distance than Meeker. They also both resisted flanking and initiated flanking manuvers on their own to keep the sheep moving in a straight line, it was pretty cool.

Just so you don’t think we were naturals at herding… Kathy had all of us work on control for the dogs as they were very excited about the sheep. That was one of the hardest parts for both Petey and Meeker. You could see them start to loose it and bark and lunge toward the sheep. But both of them could be calmed down and get back to working. They both had their tongues hanging out after the ~10 minutes of working, it took a lot of concentration on both of our parts.

Here’s a little video from one of the early sessions just to show that we actually did it. You can see that sometimes they “get it” and other times they start to loose it and need some help to calm down. You can also see that Petey is a little more, shall we say, strong willed than Meeker… It seemed to be frustration on their part that they couldn’t control the sheep as they saw fit.

So, just like agility, it seems we might have another expensive and time consuming dog sport to get involved in…

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