Rich Godfrey and HTCh Diva's Solo work Barbados Sheep at the Bearded Collie Trial in 2004.  Photo courtesy Carol Delsman

Beginning Herding - After the Instinct Test: What to Expect and More...

The Typical First Three Herding Lessons for a Novice Dog and Handler

Here at Glenrose Farms, a lesson normally consists of the dog working stock for two sessions per visit to the farm. The dog usually rests for at least 45 minutes between sessions, depending on the ambient temperature and how enthusiastically the dog worked.

First Lesson - My goal for the first session is to elicit quality and constructive herding in the dog. Even if the dog has had a successful instinct test elsewhere, there is no gaurentee that the dog will herd in a new location or on different livestock.

At the same time, my goal is to begin to teach the owner about herding and the dog's responses to the stock. Assuming all goes well, I also start to explain to the dog's owner how to start working their dog. However, I rarely have the owner actually work their own dog in this first visit.

Second Lesson – I look for the dog to continue to relax and find his talents and abilities to herd and read the livestock. I also continue teaching the owner about what their dog is doing and what I'm doing while working their dog. I also hope to be able to allow the owner to handle their own dog briefly during at least one of the two sessions of this lesson, assuming the dog isn't too overly enthusiastic.

Third Lesson – In many cases, the owner is now handling their dog for most of at least one of the sessions in this lesson. I always start the sessions to settle the dog down for a couple of minutes before handing the dog over to the owner, though.

By now, the dog usually has started to figure out that herding happens regularly, assuming the owner was able to come to lessons with reasonable consistency. The dog is usually starting to relax and be less anxious in his sessions. This allows both dog and handler a little more "breathing" space and time to think and react appropriately.

Proper Attire For Herding for Both Human and Canine Participants

Laura meets some sheep as Leeloo pushes a little to hardHumans should wear closed-toed, sturdy shoes, preferably with leather uppers, such as all-leather tennis shoes or hiking boots, and long pants, preferably jeans. Shoes with cletes are not recommended because they grasp the ground too firmly. This is a fairly athletic activity with fast moving, heavy sheep (that like to step on toes) and faster canines. 

Sheep can weigh up to 175 lbs each, though they usually weight closer to 125-150 lbs. But, as you can imagine, their small feet can really pack a punch if they step on you. That is why shoes with all-leather upper surfaces are recommended.

Shoes with ankle support are also recommended, especially if you have weak ankles. If you do have weak ankles or knees, please wear whatever appropriate bracing or support you would normally wear during athletic activities to protect yourself.

Dress accordingly for the anticipated weather but shorts are not recommended.  Layers are recommended as students tend to heat up quickly while working their dog and cool down again while the dog is resting.

Canines should wear flat collars (buckle or snap-lock collars that fit properly with minimal risk of slipping over their head).  If another type of collar is required for control of the dog ringside while it is waiting it's turn, please bring that collar as well. 

The dog should also come with a 6' leash that is appropriate to the dog's size and that can be gotten dirty. This is because it may need to be allowed to drag in the dirt while the dog is working in order to facilitate catching the dog at the end of it's session

Frequently Asked Questions About Beginning Herding

1. What kind of livestock can be herded? Most types of livestock can be herded, including most types of barnyard fowl, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Most trainers do not recommend herding horses because they can kill a dog pretty readily or be easily injured by a dog. You can earn herding titles on sheep, goats, cattle, geese, and ducks. Please see Titles Your Dog Can Earn for more information.

2. What does my dog need to know before starting herding training? At a minimum, he should know his name and, preferably, to come when called. Everything else can be taught through herding.

3. What should I bring to herding class?  A non-slip collar (a buckle or snap-lock collar), preferably without a lot of jingling tags on it, a 6' leash that can be dragged on the ground without worry about it getting dirty, and, depending on where you are taking your lessons, a bowl and ample water.

4. Are there any hazards to me in herding?  Beginning herding involves a skill most people use infrequently - walking backward. This is so that you can watch your dog and the sheep to make sure that the dog is herding appropriately. Also, you will have stout and fast moving sheep moving around your legs. Sheep can run into the owner's knees and cause discomfort or actually trip them.

People have been known, on occasion, to trip and fall down when walking backwards or forwards in herding. For that reason, you will usually be asked to sign a standard release form before beginning training. If you have physical limitations that you are concerned about, please bring these to the attention of your prospective instructor and you might also want to consult your medical care provider before participating in herding.

5. Are there any hazards to my dog while herding? The most common injury is torn foot pads in over exuberant dogs, especially in sandy, hot, and arid conditions such as out west. This does not happen often, especially in grassy training fields, and usually heals quickly.  Dogs with weak foot pads that chronically tear may require dog boots which you can buy at among other websites on the internet.

Athletic injuries can also occur in a herding dog, but, in my experience, dogs are injured more often in frisbee or ball play than in normal herding.

6. Where can I go to watch herding events? Your herding instructor can often advise you of local trials in your area. Checking websites for AHBA, AKC, and other trial giving organizations is another way, as is subscribing to the various magazines and listservs about herding.  See our Schedule of Events page for links to these trial sanctioning organizations.

7. How long will it take for my dog to be ready for trials?  Expect the process to take about 6 months of weekly lessons to reach a beginning level of trial competition readiness. Some dogs are ready earlier and some later.  The AKC and AHBA Test level classes often take less time for which to prepare.

8. What kind of trials are best for my dog? That depends on your dog, his breed, his age, and your training motivation level.  Also, your access to training fields, livestock and/or trialing facilities can be limiting factors.

9. Do I need to compete my dog in sheep herding trials at all if I just want to take herding lessons?  No, not if you don’t want to. Most trainers understand the desire to establish a deeper rapport with your dog, and herding is an excellent way to do this.

10. How do I know if a trainer or instructor is qualified to give lessons?  Ask a prospective instructor about their dogs, their training and trialing experience, their students trialing successes. Also, attend trials where they will be competing, and ask others interested in herding in your area if they have any knowledge of the trainer you are interested in working with. You may also check with local training clubs and ask their advice. Unfortunately, it is not usually permitted to observe a trainer's lessons as this is very unfair to the students in the session.

11. Why should I train my dog of herding ancestry in herding if I never plan to own sheep?  Herding offers an opportunity to create a deeper bond with your dog than you probably have ever experienced together. Herding fosters a level of partnership and teamwork that is rarely matched in any other dogsport offered today. It also tests your breeding stock in a way that few other activities can provide.

12. Can herding with my dogs help to  improve my breeding program? Yes, it most definitely can. Herding provides many challenges not necessarily well tested in most dogsports. Trainability, sensitivity to the handler (biddability), the ability to learn and problem-solve, honesty, temperament, soundness, endurance, as well as pad, foot, structure, and coat quality, are all tested in herding to the degree that you participate in the sport. By incorporating your findings in your breeding program, you can readily improve the quality of dog you produce.

13. Where can I find out more information about herding? I have listed several other herding related web sites on my Links page. For books and magazines please see my Recommended Reading Page. Please use my links to or Barnes& as I get a small percentage commission on books bought using my links.

14. How often should I plan on taking lessons? I recommend weekly lessons to make good training progress. But this depends on your level of commitment. Most students take lessons once per week in order to make reasonable training progress, but I have had other students who were very serious about training their dog and took lessons twice a week when I was training full time. Some people train once a week and then increase the frequency of their visits before a trial.

But for most dogs and owners, they are able to make very good progress with regular weekly lessons. Less than weekly lessons usually results in slower progress, if any at all. Two or three lessons per month may result in some progress without too much frustration for dog or handler.

Lessons once per month usually result in little or no progress, usually serving only to maintain the current level of herding. However, such infrequent lessons sometimes result in frustration for dog and/or handler.

As such, I rarely recommend monthly lessons for adult dogs. However, for puppies over 6 months of age, I often recommend once per month herding sessions as a means of periodically testing to see if the puppy is ready to start lessons.

While I don't require that new students commit to competition herding, as do some trainers, I do usually request consistent attendance. Because I now teach on a limited basis, accepting only 4-6 students at a time, it is often very difficult for me to accomodate casual or intermittent herders.