Canine Sports: Herding Competitions

LOTS of training is required to compete in herding – but the result should be a very well-trained and happy dog.


[Updated February 7, 2019]


What is this sport? In herding competitions, cued by handlers, dogs use their physical presence to move livestock to specific locations.

Prior training required? Moderate. A candidate should possess good self-control skills and above-average performance at basic obedience tasks.

Physical demands? On the dog: High. On the handler: Moderate.

Best-suited structure? This is a physically strenuous sport. Dogs should be very fit.

Best-suited temperament? Dogs with natural herding instincts, but many breeds enjoy herding.

Cost? Moderate to high.

Training complexity? Moderate to high.

Mental stimulation? High.

Physical stimulation? High.

Recreational opportunities? Depends on where you live.

Competition opportunities and venues? Moderate.

Fetch. Drive. Flank. Come-bye. Go-bye. Way to me. Outruns. Flight zones. Pressure point. That’ll do! The sport of herding has a unique vocabulary that distinguishes it from all the other canine sports. In addition to basic obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, and come, dogs are trained to respond to cues that tell them when to start moving livestock, in which direction to move them, when to stop moving them, when and how to move them into pens, and how to use their physical presence to pressure the stock to move but not to scare them into running or stampeding. There is dirt, there is dust, there is livestock that can break bones and bruise a body, and there is livestock poop. And herding teams love it all.

History of Herding Competitions

Working collies were imported into the United States in the 1800s, which coincided with the arrival of the Cotswold, Leicester, and Merino sheep breeds. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote in personal correspondence that the French herding dogs he imported from France, similar to modern-day Briards, proved to be excellent herders for his Merino and Barberry sheep.

Today, herding competions offer a wide variety of “courses” to test a herding dog’s ability to move livestock in specific directions over varying distances depending upon the competition venue and level of competition. According to Carolyn Wilki, who runs Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm in Bangor, Pennsylvania, “Courses can take place in an open field or a small arena and involve hundreds of yards or hundreds of feet, three to 100 sheep, and each run on a course can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes.” Wilki, a full-time dog trainer, herding instructor, and shepherd, has helped her students attain more than 100 herding titles with their dogs.

There are a number of different groups that organize competition and titles in herding activities; see the list on the next page. The rules, and even the type of livestock used in competitions, vary depending on the organization and the specific trial. Sheep, ducks, and cattle are common, and geese, turkeys, and goats are also used. Types of herding competition include:

Fetching and driving livestock through a course – The dog must “pick up” or gather livestock from a starting point and, under the handler’s direction, move them through a course into a pen. As the level of competition increases, the courses get longer, include a greater variety of turns in direction, and require the dog to work at a greater distance from the handler.

Ranch courses – These take place in larger areas, outside the standard competition arena. Dogs must select specific sheep from a group and move them to specific locations. The number of livestock can range from just a few to large flocks.

Tending courses – The dog must move the sheep from one location to another for grazing and keep them there by acting as a “living fence.”

Each group requires demonstration of different skills and has unique rules. For example, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) offers “driving” courses rather than “fetching” courses and requires two qualifying legs for each title before moving up to the next level. ASCA’s rules are more lenient than others when dogs make contact with the livestock while other organizations penalize teams whose dogs grip the livestock. ASCA also allows any breed to compete; others restrict which breeds can compete.

Border Collie trials involve huge outruns to compete successfully while others may only require distances of 15-25 feet at the beginning levels. Each organization specifies the distance of outruns as well as many other rules.

Competition points are assigned to different elements involved in running a course. For example, a sample point schedule for an American Herding Breed Association (AHBA) course includes the following elements: Outrun: 20; Fetch: 20; Wear/drive through first panel: 15; Wear/drive through second panel: 15; Weave/drive to pen: 10; Pen: 10; Hold: 10.

Positive Training Challenges in Herding Competition

If herding piques your interest, be aware of two challenges you will face in getting started. The first is perhaps the easiest to overcome. Is there an instructor or school within a reasonable driving distance? The availability of herding training and competition varies widely depending on where you live. Clearly, there will not be as much opportunity to find large pieces of land and livestock in urban areas.

The second challenge can be more daunting. Many herding instructors use training techniques that include verbal and physical corrections. Yelling, hitting with hands and poles, and harsh physical handling have long played a role in some shepherds’ training. These techniques stem from the belief that herding dogs’ “drives” or instincts make it impossible to control them any other way in order to protect livestock and get the dog trained quickly.

Sound familiar? The belief is not exclusive to herding. It is, unfortunately, an entrenched belief in other dog activities or sports, too. You might hear it in relation to big, physical breeds. In some sports you might hear about the need to “proof” training by setting the dog up to fail in a particular exercise and then correcting him, in the belief that corrections are the only way to get reliable behavior. Whole Dog Journal and its contributors eschew this belief. Since our start in 1998, we have promoted only positive training solutions for all situations.

The trainers interviewed for this article use positive reinforcement. Your challenge will be to find a trainer in your area who is committed to using positive reinforcement or who is at least willing to listen to your needs and adapt his/her training to match those.

Herding Without Physical Corrections? Yes!

Herding has a long history of using harsh training methods to teach dogs not to injure the stock while doing their job of moving the stock from place to place. Although there are many trainers who train with positive reinforcement and negative punishment (such as a timeout from the prized activity), there are just as many who still use training techniques that include hitting the dog with poles, heavy-handed handling, and other harsh corrections.

With every sport, but perhaps this one in particular, we recom-mend that you ask about the trainer’s philosophy regarding positive training and corrections, to make sure that it is congru-ent with your own. Also, be sure to watch several classes with an instructor before enrolling.

The trainers interviewed for this article are both experienced and accomplished shepherds, trainers, and instructors commit-ted to using positive reinforcement. Here are their comments on the subject of using positive reinforcement in herding.

Carolyn Wilki
Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm, Bangor, Pennsylvania

One must be careful about the way the herding training is done. The shepherds I learned from believed that you could not punish a dog without consequence, and that the dog should always be set up for success in training, not failure.

The herders who influenced me the most used minimal punishment. They might remove an out-of-control dog or not let a dog herd if he looked out of control before herding. They might step on a leash or use a longline to slow the dog down.

If the dog made a mistake, these trainers would never blame the dog. They would blame themselves for not being clear enough to their dogs; then they would try to think of future training setups to convey that training message with more clarity. They never used harsh physical punishment or correction. Instead, they tried to show the dog what to do, not what not to do.

I have seen dogs who were trained with compulsion and correction develop issues that did not exist before the herding training, including (but not limited to) person aggression, dog aggression, sheep aggression, noise phobias; and leash, stick, hand, voice, and human sensitivities and shyness.

Kathy Warner
TeeCreek Dog Training Center, Welland, Ontario

A person who has done her groundwork will not need to make many adjustments to the dog’s position. You will not see how a skilled trainer uses subtle body movements to adjust the dog’s position. A slight lean by the trainer toward a specific spot on the dog’s body will convey volumes of information to a dog who has been trained to respond to body cues during groundwork training. For these dogs, placing the rake between the stock and the dog becomes an effective “barrier” to the dog that he will not move beyond.

People tend to expect the animals they are working with to understand them; instead, they need to learn to understand animals. Herding is a predator and prey situation and handlers need to educate themselves on this before starting herding.

Training Herding Dogs

Many people’s first introduction to herding is an “instinct test” offered at local dog events. This is an opportunity to put your dog in with a small group of goats or sheep and an experienced trainer who is able to evaluate your dog’s potential. Carolyn Wilki has conducted thousands of instinct tests.

“The phrase ‘instinct test’ is sort of a misnomer because the dog brings the sum of his experience to a herding instinct test, not just his ‘instinct.’ However, it is a shorthand way to refer to the naïve dog’s first exposure to herding livestock and what happens in a more or less standardized setting.

“It gives me a snapshot of what a dog wants to do with livestock that day. If the dog ‘flunks’ – shows insufficient interest or over-the-top aggression – it could mean he has other issues that impede the expression of his herding behaviors that day. It does not mean that the dog has no herding instinct. There is a saying among wise shepherds that you don’t know what the true herding instinct is in the dog until after you have finished training him/her.”

Wilki says that most herding instinct tests involve the use of a stick, rake, lunge whip, or livestock paddle to protect the livestock from an out-of-control dog. People might also yell at your dog in a strong voice or run at your dog or throw a hat or other object.

“I do none of these when I test dogs,” says Wilki. “These things are used on your dog as aversive consequences, i.e., punishments for out-of-control chasing behavior. If the use of the aversive objects bothers you, have a discussion with the instinct tester before you enter the test. Some might allow you to work your dog outside the livestock fence. Others might allow you to handle your own dog or handle your own line. But have that discussion. There are gentler ways of doing things; but herding trainers can only do what they know how to do.”

Instinct testing can tell the instructor more about the dog’s current level of training and relationship with the owner than about long-term predictions about successful herding training. That is because much more goes into herding training than just an innate interest in livestock.

To the casual observer watching her first herding team work together, it can look deceptively like a dog simply chasing livestock around a pen. In actuality, herding is about controlled movement under “stimulus control” (the cues of the handler). Although many herding instructors start lessons with dogs working immediately with livestock, Kathy Warner of TeeCreek Dog Training Center in Welland, Ontario, prefers to start dogs with “groundwork.”

At their working farm and training center, Warner and her partner Dave Harris train a variety of dogs for a variety of dog sports. But herding is Warner’s passion.

“There is a lot of training and teamwork that goes into herding,” says Warner. “Dogs are expected to know what direction to flank around the sheep, when to slow down, when to stop, when to look back for escaped stock, how close to get to the stock, how much pressure to put on the stock to get it to move, how to cut out one animal from the flock, and much more. Groundwork is where I use the clicker and food or toy as the reward.”

Common groundwork for herding includes:

■ Motivation to work for food or toys

■ Circle in both directions around the toy or food (flanking)

■ Walk a straight line to the toy or food (walkup)

■ Out (turn away from toy or food and walk)

■ Stop (stand)

■ That’ll do (leave what he is doing and come to you)

■ There (turn into the toy or food and face it)

■ Down (instantaneous response from a distance and stay until released)

Another important element in Warner’s beginning herding training is called “dry work” during which she practices the dog’s training without livestock. For example, she practices the dog’s understanding of “visual pressure” so that he knows to move into or away from the livestock. She uses a rake, presenting this visual object to cue the dog where to move.

Warner will also use a clicker in the ring with the handler, dog, and livestock when she needs it to precisely identify correct behaviors from either the handler or dog. “Dogs who do not have a great interest in stock or have too much attention on the owner benefit from the clicker. The clicker can capture that exact instant the dog looks at the stock. It also can capture the exact instant the handler pays attention to the stock instead of her dog!”

Like many dog sports, herding training can reap benefits far beyond the sport itself. Wilki works with many dogs with challenging behavioral problems. “Herding training can be helpful in teaching a dog to respect the owner, people, dogs, and other animals; and for teaching the dog how to control his basic canine impulses to chase, to run away, to bite, etc. It’s also good for teaching the dog to listen and calm and focus in extremely tense, demanding situations. Herding training can help the dog become more tolerant of the usual bumps and bruises in life, and it can help to boost his confidence. If a dog can handle difficult herding situations, there is not much else in life the dog cannot handle.”

What It Takes to Be A Herding Dog

Herding is “an equal opportunity sport” according to Kathy Warner. “We have people of all ages and walks of life herding with us. Some grew up on farms and some grew up in cities. We have had several physically challenged handlers as well.”

This sport requires a lot of room and livestock. Although you can practice the groundwork skills at home, this is a sport that requires at least a flock of ducks, if not goats and sheep.

In addition to livestock costs, herding lessons are expensive. They range from $40 to $120 per 30-minute private lesson and $20 to $40 for group lessons. Depending on the individual instructor, group lessons may allow you several times with the livestock and trainer or as few as two to three times, waiting your turn as in most group classes.

Entry fees and travel will be your second biggest expenses. Depending upon the competition venue, entry fees run between $35 to $65 per entry.

Even if you don’t want to compete, herding is a great outlet for dogs with a lot of energy and a desire to move livestock. Warner believes it is one of the best sports for both people and dogs. “I think the most important thing is that it builds a strong bond between the dog and owner. If nothing else, it sure brings out your shortcomings in your relationship with animals! Herding teaches you more about yourself then you would ever think possible.”

Realizing a Dream of Herding

As long as she could remember, Sharon Arthur has loved dogs, doting on a variety of mixed-breeds her family adopted from a shelter in her medium-sized city in Ontario, Canada. When she was six years old she saw a working Border Collie on a relative’s farm, and her fascination with Border Collies began. She was enthralled by how the farm hand appeared to just slowly move around and the dog brought the sheep to him.

As a young adult, the first thing Sharon did when she moved from an apartment to a house with a yard was to fulfill her dream. A good friend had found a local breeder who bred working collies on his farm. Together, they went to look at a litter, watched the parents work, met the puppies, and came home with an eight-week-old red and white male pup she named Madigan, called Maddie for short.

Maddie was typical of his breed: he was precocious, ac-tive, and smart. Arthur had researched the breed and looked forward to the training she knew it would take to get him ready for her dream of herding. Even so, she wasn’t quite prepared for a puppy who quickly grew into a “single-minded intellect inside and an overactive and single-minded four-legged body.” A basic obedience class she took when Maddie was six months old was frustrating. “It was quickly clear that the instructor may have understood how to teach obedience to most breeds, but had no understanding of the herding breeds. Maddie had trouble handling all the movement around him. The trainer just kept telling me that herding breeds were no good for obedience as they lacked focus.” Arthur didn’t give up and worked hard to train a basic recall, sit, and down. She also began to search in earnest for a trainer who could help her.

Arthur’s search took her to TeeCreek Dog Training Center and Kathy Warner and Dave Harris in Welland, Ontario, about 10 minutes north of Niagra Falls, New York. “Kathy’s inexplicable connection and ability to translate Maddie’s behavior and our relationship led us to move out of the herding ring to find a means to harness and focus his energies while teaching me my role in this team.”

Under Kathy’s tutelage, Arthur took up clicker training, tricks, basic pet manners, and flyball. “Flyball is a game of send and teamwork. You train your dog to go away from you, travel the hurdle path, retrieve the ball from a target, and return to you for the reward — tug, food, whatever works. Train-ing the small pieces to complete the whole relay race taught me patience, my role in team leadership, and trust in Maddie’s role in the team. It taught him that it was alright to be sent away from me.”

Finding a trainer who understood the bigger training picture was essential for Arthur to hold onto her dream of herding with Maddie. “Kathy knew that all this other training could translate into a dog and handler who had a better understanding of each other and trust in their abilities to work as a team. Our herding sessions became more fluid and less fear-based. I relaxed and so did he. I began to listen to the lessons he could teach me about herding and realized I needed to learn more about the livestock so I could understand what he was trying to tell me.

“After lots of hard work, fun, and frustration, a year later I realized my lifelong dream: I stood with tears streaming down my face while my boy and I were handed the score sheet qualifying us for our first leg on an AHBA herding title in our very first trial.”

Since then, Arthur and Maddie have earned more flyball titles, learned more tricks, and completed their first AHBA Ranch Dog title. Arthur has also added one of Maddie’s sons and a Corgi to her pack.

Arthur says herding has given her more than just an outlet for her dog’s high energy and genetics. “I know how important the smallest success and the lessons learned from the worst failure are both positive human motivators, and I will never tire of witnessing the power of animals as companions, teachers, and healers in our lives. As the TeeCreek motto says, ‘We do not stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.'”

Terry Long, CPDT, is a writer, agility instructor, and behavior counselor in Long Beach, CA. She lives with four dogs and a cat and is addicted to agility and animal behavior.