The Herding Instinct Test

A few years back, my husband and I loaded our Jeep and trailer with ourselves, our stuff, and our two Briards, Hero and Ivy, and headed to Connecticut for the Briard Specialty. The highlight, I felt sure, would be the Herding Instinct Test. This test, for A.K.C. herding breeds, was designed to see what aspects of the instinct to herd are innate in each dog.

We arrived early, to see what we might be getting ourselves into and especially to see other, more experienced dogs at work on their Herding Trials, rounding up 20-30 sheep and driving them from one end of the field to the other. We kept back from the fence, where another Briard was working six sheep – much though we wanted to see the action as close as possible – so as not to confuse the sheep or distract the other dog then working. Hero was happy just to be near all the other dogs, attempting to greet each of them, and for all the neat new smells.

As our turn drew near, so did Hero and I. My husband sat a distance away holding Ivy, then just nine weeks old, thus a bit small to risk getting underfoot. Hero saw a goose that had wandered out of an adjacent pen. He stared. He trembled. He slowly sunk towards the ground. Just when it seemed he might leap up, the goose turned completely around and strolled away, and Hero lay down, as did I — mentally!

Yet even had we wished to rest, our turn was fast approaching. I knew he would do well in some respect as soon as I saw that his eyes, as if iron filings, were glued to the “magnetic” action in the pen! This, I felt sure, went beyond the sustained interest the judge would be looking for him to demonstrate, clear into fixation! On a 12-foot lead, we entered the pen’s gate, received a few last-minute instructions, and – we’re off!

Hero strained at his end of the leash. I think I looked determined on my end. The sheep “baaa-ed” and eyed him (nervously?). Soon the judge trailed around in the dust cloud that was our wake. Back and forth ran Hero as the judge and I struggled to keep up. She shouted some instructions, to keep him a bit further from the sheep, and to see if I could get him to change direction. (Not a chance, which explains why he was still an obedience beginner). When I had a spare second I used it to hope that he wouldn’t repeat his very first dog show antic, dragging me so that I wound up on my butt!

Hero was still raring to go when our five minutes were up. The judge said he had the right instincts, but just as surely needed training. My helpful mate claimed that from his point of view, it looked like a four-legged game of tag in which our fuzzy boy was just delirious to be “It.” I was quite glad Hero didn’t take a leaf from his cousin’s book and indulge in sheep droppings, or nip any heels.

In addition to “Interest” (sustained, some, or none), the judge(s) evaluate the dog’s “Power” to move stock as being sufficient, lacking, or excessive; “Temperament” as to whether s/he readily adjusts, is easily distracted, or is frightened of the stock or situation; and “Movement” (chases, keeps stock grouped, doesn’t regroup, singles out individuals, or loses contact being the many possibilities).

Informational observations not included in the evaluation of whether the dog will be considered qualifying or non-qualifying are performance of “Style” – fetching or driving being usual, but Hero was marked “other”; “Eye” – loose, medium, or strong (think of the stare often seen in a border collie); “Wearing” – shows some, a little, or none; and “Bark” – silent, sustained, or forces bark.

Even without participation, watching this was a fun and educational way to spend a day or half, which I definitely recommend it to anyone with a dog from one of the herding breeds (a few others are Welsh Corgis, Komondorok, and Old English Sheepdogs). I wish I had known about it when my family had a puli: I would have understood why he ran around barking at us when we were leaving (just until the last human went out the door – then he seemed resigned to his fate), and why he looked puzzled at the pigeons flying away from him on the school playground. He was only trying to herd us – and them!

Hero passed, and ever after could use the letters “HC” after his formal name – a title!


About majaramirez

former assistant instructor in tai chi chu'an; current TreeKeeper (#467); former Master Gardener; member of American Bird Conservancy, Audubon, Fraternal Order of Police, and Mensa; recently retired career cop; wife and mom.
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