In an instinct test, I will take
your dog in with 3 or 4 sheep. Primarily, at this point, I am
looking for sustained interest in the stock. What the dog does that
first time on stock depends on a number of factors - the dog’s breeding, age,
maturity, temperament, and upbringing, to name a few. Some dogs are
immediately drawn to the stock, and begin moving them about; others may eye
them curiously and take some tentative steps toward them; still others may
spend their time sniffing the ground, seemingly unaware of the stock.
I will keep the sheep moving, for it is the movement of the sheep
that draws the dog in; I will encourage the dog each time it does
go to the stock.
Often, I find that dogs need “permission” to work livestock.
In their daily lives, they have lots of rules: don’t chase the kitty, don’t
get on the furniture, don’t harass the goats, horses, or other livestock you
may have on the property, and so on. They have learned that those things
which are the most fun for them are the ones that get them into the most
trouble. So here, a stranger takes them into a pen with livestock, and they
figure this must be a set-up - if they act on the urges they have inside of
them, that is, to go get the sheep, they know they’ll get into big trouble.
I have a number of ways of working with this type of dog to reassure it
that it’s really alright. Most of the time, dogs who need permission do
come to understand that they will not get into trouble for following their
instincts, and begin working.
I take the dog in with the stock for only a few minutes,
followed by a break so they can get some water and also to think about what
has just occurred. I generally take the dog in with the stock a total of 3
times that first day. The majority of the time, with each subsequent time
I go in, the dog’s interest and intensity grow.
The expression that is used when a dog becomes aware of the
stock and shows an interest in them is that s/he “turns on.” This describes
it well, for it is very much like turning on a light switch - one minute, you
may have nothing, then suddenly the dog seems to understand why s/he is on
the planet. Livestock! They have no conscious understanding of why that
is, but the draw of the livestock is so great that they are willing to do
just about anything to be allowed to continue. I have indeed created a
I may or may not see anything that first day; however, that
does not necessarily mean that I do not have a herding dog. It means I do
not have a herding dog that day. I may tell you to bring the
dog back in a week or two, or, if it is very young, in a month. I
will try again. Often the dog will have more interest on a subsequent visit.
I have had some pups, even those from the best working lines, come out
every week, month after month, and show no interest. Finally, at a
year old, they turned on. Others may show strong instinct as early as
8 or 9 weeks old. I also do see dogs who, frankly, just have no
desire to do this; I can’t force it to happen. And I never know
until I put the dog in with stock. But when your dog does turn on,
and you decide that this is an activity that you’d like to pursue, then
you’re ready for