Instinct Test

Introduction to Herding Instinct Tests and Guidelines For Herding Instinct Tests Conducted at Glenrose Farms

Purpose and Introduction

The purpose of a herding instinct test may seem obvious, but a few key points should be addressed.  The goal of an instinct test is to create a positive setting in which the dog is allowed to succeed at attempting to herd livestock. 

Dogs need to be provided with a constructive situation where the goal is obvious to the dog and easily attainable so that they can find and develop their herding abilities. Some dogs need to dig deep to find these abilities and instincts and this often requires near optimal circumstances for them to do this.

Sheep are the most typically used type of livestock for beginning herding instinct testing and subsequent training.  Only livestock that are tame, healthy, tractable, willing to stay grouped with tester, and accustomed to being herded by breeds of dog similar to your own should be used for an instinct test. 

Instinct tests should only be provided by experienced herding trainers who, preferably, have experience in working with your dog's breed. Some instinct tests are done as public or group activities and others are done as private one-on-one appointments with a trainer, often interspersed with their regular lessons.  The text below applies to both sorts of instinct tests. 

Most instinct tests, especially public sessions held at dog shows or other events, typically consist of only one work session on livestock, sometimes called an "exposure" to the stock, by the dog. Here at Glenrose Farms, our instinct tests usually consist of two works, which is the same structure as our lessons. We find that dogs usually think quite a lot of about their first attempt while resting and generally come into their second session with a MUCH better idea of what to do and how to do it. As such, we usually see a marked improvement in the second session.

Whether one session on stock or two, most instinct test sessions and early herding lesson sessions don't usually last very long, assuming the dog is actively trying to herd. It is important to keep sessions to an optimum length to ensure that it is ended on a positive note. Sessions that are too long often result in the dog regressing or ceasing herding altogether.

Dogs fatigue quickly when first learning to herd livestock, no matter how fit and athletic they may be. Tapping into their herding ability seems to be very mentally taxing for most dogs. Add this on top of the physical demands of the activity of herding and the result is usually a session far shorter than their usual ability to concentrate in other activities. Think of it as walking, chewing gum, patting your head, rubbing your tummy, and talking on the phone while deciding on redecorating your home all at one time.

Dogs that are allowed to work too long may lose interest, start to nip at the stock, or otherwise attempt/exhibit poor herding traits as they fatigue. Thus, I feel that it is very important to monitor the length of time that the dog is allowed to work in all cases but in particular for herding instinct tests. I do this by monitoring both the time the dog is working and, most importantly, the quality of the dog's work.

I have found that most dogs only last for about 6-8 minutes of optimal herding time (or less if the dog is being very vigorous), especially if the dog immediately starts trying to herd as soon as it is released. In fact, 4-6 minutes is often the optimal time I usually see for dogs that show a great deal of enthusiasm when first released on stock. Dogs that are timid or show low interest may be in the ring for 10-15 minutes while the trainer and owner try to spark some instinct and drive, but, if the dog does go to work, the actual work portion is usually only about 6 minutes before they start to fatigue.

While this may seem to be a very short period of time but the dog is calling the shots here, so to speak. As stated above, it is very counterproductive to push the burgeoning herding prospect into longer sessions. 'Quality over quantity' is always an important thing to keep in mind throughout the dog's herding career, and that begins from the very beginning of the dog's career. Also, most dogs quickly increase the time that they are able to keep herding well.


What To Do and Not Do:

• Do keep your dog on leash until instructed to release your dog.
• Do keep your dog quiet for the neighbors’ and other participants’ sake. Barking and whining dogs can be distracting for the dog that is currently in the ring.
• Do praise your dog for looking eagerly at the sheep.
• Do keep your dog 6-10' away from the test arena fence and from any sheep being held nearby for future tests or resting from previous tests.
• Do keep your dog away from other excited dogs to avoid potential injury from clashes with other excited dogs.
• Do keep your dog from getting too excited and tired ringside before his turn if he is being very exuberant while watching other dogs.
• Do use a collar that will allow you sufficient control over your dog while waiting your turn but that isn't going to restrict their interest in other activities.
• Do bring a flat buckle collar and 6' leash that you don't mind getting dirty for the actual test.


• Don’t discipline your dog for barking or lunging at the sheep ringside.  Rather, simply remove him from sight of the sheep.
• Don’t practice obedience training, play fetch, or practice “attention”-type training that focuses the dog's attention and energy away from sheep while waiting for your turn.
• Don’t allow your dog to harass sheep through the fence.
• Don’t allow sheep to harass your dog through the fence.
• Don’t allow your dog to get away from you or be too near the fence and distract another dog being tested.
• Don't expect your dog to obey you with his/her usual good manners, obedience, and attention but you must still maintain basic control and respect from your dog.


1. How can I find out if my dog has any herding instinct? By taking your dog to a qualified herding instructor who is experienced in working with novice dogs for an instinct test. It is best if the instructor is familiar with your dog’s breed.

2. How old should my dog be before it's first exposure to livestock? I feel very strongly that young dogs should not be tested before 6 months of age. Some trainers do not share this opinion, but many do.  Puppies under 6 months old are often very emotionally vulnerable as well as physically immature and, as such, are quite clumsy and ready for the rigors of herding.

Any mistake, such as a sheep threatening the puppy, or the puppy accidentally getting squeezed between the sheep and the fence, no matter how careful the trainer tries to be, can scar a puppy for life and you may never know how good that dog would have been because the trauma is often not fully reversible.  Even ducks can try to attack a young puppy!!!

3. Can my young dog be allowed around livestock before it is instinct tested? The general rule of thumb is that a puppy can be allowed to be around stock under supervision such as at chore/feeding time (but not IN with stock) until the puppy begins to get interested in the stock, especially in the movement of the stock. At that point, most trainers recommend that the puppy no longer be allowed to be loose around stock again until after the pup's training has been started.

This is because it is very important that a herding prospect must NOT allowed to work on their own (even if only through the fence). A pup that is interested in the moving animals and is allowed to be around them (such as at chore time) may start working on it's own (even herding through the fence can satisfy the herding drive in their mind), or slip into the pen when the owner isn't looking. Disaster may ensue, including the stock attempting to injure the small pup or the pup learning very bad habits that can take a lifetime to fix.

Many dogs who learn that they can work on their own, where they satisfy their herding drive by themselves, will be very difficult to train because they know that they don't have to work with their handlers to satisfy that herding drive. This is a VERY difficult hurdle to overcome and is almost always completely avoidable.

It is also very important that a pup is NOT scolded for harrassing the stock through the fence during chore time. This is because the pup won't understand the difference between herding through the fence and herding in the arena when it comes time for the pup's first instinct test and will only know that he's been scolded for herding. Thus it is best to completely remove the pup from stock once the pup starts to show interest in them.

4.  I just got my dog as an young adult or adult - how long should I wait till I take it to be herding instinct tested?  I recommend that new dogs should be in their new home for at least 6 weeks before they are taken for their first herding instinct test.  That is not to say that they can't go and watch herding before that, however. The socialization maybe very beneficial if a safe venue is available. However, if after 6 weeks, the dog isn't yet listening to you or if new behavioural issues have come up, you may decide to wait longer before testing your dog.

5. Does it make any difference if my dog is a rescue? Rescue dogs that have a history of mistreatment should not be rushed into any activity quickly. I feel that it is very important to work out any issues the dog has, or to at least make good progress on them, prior to participating in a public activity like a herding or agility class, which can be very stressful due to the new location and the other dogs present.

6. What breeds of dog can be herding instinct tested?  I feel that this is more limited by your individual dog, and the trainers and livestock available in your area than the actual breed of dog.  I am willing to test most breeds and many mixed breed dogs. I have worked Dobermans, Afghans, Poodles and several other individuals of "odd" breeds, or dogs you don't associate with herding, with good success in many cases.  Conversely, I have tested other individuals in breeds in the AKC Herding Group that showed no interest in livestock at all.

7. What does my dog need to know before going to instinct test? At a minimum, he should know his name and hopefully to come when called. Everything else can be taught through herding. However, young dogs may be instinct tested without knowing this much.

8. Why shouldn’t I correct my dog for being excited while watching other dogs herd? Until your dog has been allowed to herd and has herded successfully a few times, he won’t understand that he is being corrected for being excited OUTSIDE of the ring. He will only know that he is being corrected for being excited about livestock. Period. Later encouragement to herd INSIDE of the ring is usually not enough to overcome the earlier correction for enthusiasm outside of the ring.

Once you show your disapproval outside the arena toward his interest in herding and livestock, he may decide that you never, ever, want him to herd, under any circumstances. Once he has actually herded a few times and has decided that herding is permitted and a lot of fun, then you can provide reasonable correction to him outside the ring for unruly behavior.

9. What do I do if my dog is unruly or noisy while waiting for his turn? Take him out of sight of the “action” and let him calm down. The goal is to get the dog interested in stock before his turn and if your dog is that enthusiastic, your work is done and you should take your dog away to rest and await his turn. If you are experiencing difficulties with removing your dog from the test area, please see one of the test helpers for assistance, if available. Other spectators and or participants, if they feel qualified, may also help you.

10. What do I do if my dog is wearing himself out “spectating”? Take him out of sight of the “action” and let him calm down. If you are experiencing difficulties with this, please see one of the test helpers for assistance.

11. Why does the instructor usually have a dog dragging its lead while being tested? This helps us catch the dog more easily at the end of the session in order to end on a good note. It also allows the tester to catch the dog midsession to set up again, if needed. Even the most obedient dog can be difficult to catch during or after a fun session of herding and we don’t want to end a fun session on a bad note by having to scold it for not coming when called. Thus the owner is told to “catch your dog”, NOT “call your dog.”

12. Can my dog be tested off leash? If the dog is reticent to work with a dragging lead, the lead will be removed. It may also be removed for other reasons at the instructor’s discretion. Otherwise, leaving the leash on is a protective measure to ensure that the session is concluded on a positive note when it comes time to collect the dog at the end of the session.

13. What kind of livestock are best for instinct testing? I recommend calm, tame sheep that won't try to scare a small dog, nor that will try take off running in terror, which may risk triggering aggression in large dogs.  Whitefaced breeds of sheep are usually the most suitable, though some hair sheep breeds are also very good for novice dogs. Blackface sheep are often too aggressive for working with novice dogs. Cattle, most types of goats, and most rams (male sheep) are usually too aggressive to use with novice dogs, as well. If the only livestock available in your area are aggressive types of livestock, then you might consider that testing your timid, first time dog on them might not be the best idea. 

14. Why does the instinct tester want the dog on a buckle collar and with a 6' leash that can be dragged? This is primarily because almost any other collar besides a buckle collar (or a snap-lock collar, though I don't recommend these because they can come undone at inopportune times) may give an unintended correction to the dog when stepped on when the leash is being dragged during the instinct test.

The purpose for the 6' leash is to allow for a smooth transition onto the stock and to allow recapture and/or further guidance of the dog as needed during the session and at the end of the session. A handler should never try to recall their dog (use a "Come" or "Here" command) at the end of a herding session because the dog will probably not obey out of excitement. Failure to obey such an important command should then be disciplined, which then means that an otherwise positive herding session ends on a very bad note. This is obviously not what we want.

It is much simpler to just step on the lead that is trailing behind the dog while it is still eagerly following it's sheep! However, if a dog is troubled by the dragging lead, it can usually be removed. Collecting the dog at the end of the session may be a little more difficult but can usually be managed in a positive manner without too much difficulty.

The Usual Procedure for Instinct Testing:

1. When it is your turn, enter with the dog on leash and tell the tester the name of your dog, its age, and anything unusual about its history. This history information could include if your dog is a rescue, ANY prior livestock experience (intended or otherwise, including any accidental herding, discipline for herding, etc.), anything the dog might be afraid of (especially sticks, whips, strangers, and dragging leashes), etc.

2. Do not drop or remove the leash until clearly told to do so by the instructor.

3. The instructor will then probably tell you to move toward the sheep along the fenceline to help get them out in the open to make a good start for the session.

4. In most cases, when the sheep are in a good position, the instructor will tell you to “Drop the lead and come with me” or "Drop the lead and go to the fence".  Excited or exuberant dogs may cause the instructor to ask the owner to remain by the fence until the dog has calmed down a bit as it is easier to work such an enthusiastic dog without having to worry about where the novice owner might be.

5. When dropping the lead, try to drape it over the dog’s back to reduce chances of the dog stepping on the leash.

6. While the dog is being tested and if the owner is walking with the instructor, the owner is ONLY to say positive things to the dog. Allow the instructor to make the necessary corrections that the dog may require.

Corrections by the owner at this formative time can be devastating to a developing herding dog, while a similar correction from a comparative stranger often does not create such an impact. Also, the instructor knows better what to correct and how best to deliver the correction, thus will do so more accurately.

7. While the dog is being tested and the owner is walking with the instructor, the owner needs to try to stay with the instructor at all times. The dog wants to bring the sheep to its owner, not some stranger in the ring, but the owner is usually a novice and doesn't know what to do with the flock their dog has just delivered to them. As such, the instructor and owner will be at crossed purposes if they are on opposite sides of the flock of sheep during the dog’s test.

8. Do not pet the dog excessively, if at all, if it comes back to the owner for reassurance. Herding requires the dog to be with the sheep, usually across the flock from the owner, and we don’t want to foster a dependence of staying with the owner from the start.

However, some dogs do require reassurance in order to stay out with the stock. In these situations, the tester may tell the owner to go out and give the dog well-timed, brief, but enthusiastic, praise and then immediately send them back to work. I often refer to this as "fluffing the dog up", meaning that the handler gives the dog a good but quick fluffing/rubbing tactile reward along with verbal praise, followed immediately by release and encouragement to go back to the sheep.

Wait for your instructor to determine which method is most appropriate for your dog and to provide you with instructions before acting.

9. At the conclusion of the test, the instructor will usually tell the owner to “catch/collect your dog”. Note the use of the words "CATCH" or "COLLECT", not "CALL" or "RECALL", when collecting the dog at the end of the test. This may include stepping on the dragging leash, getting the dog's attention, and making a quick grab of the collar, etc. The owner should move in between the stock and the dog when attempting to distract and collect the dog while the instructor will continue to protect the sheep with as little movement of the flock as possible while the owner attempts to catch his or her dog.

10. The owner should get between the dog and the sheep and use the dog’s name and encouraging recall sounds (such as "Puppy, puppy!" or other informal command) but should NOT use obedience-style commands such as “COME!” that are not likely to be obeyed in the heat of the moment.

In very difficult cases, the flock may be moved to the fenceline to reduce the area that the dog is able to run around, or the sheep may be put into a pen and the gate closed before the dog can slip in after them. In all cases, the collection of the dog should be positive and as quick as possible to end the session on a good note and not risk anything bad happening in those last moments while the dog is starting to tire.

11. Once the dog is caught, secure the leash on the dog, praise the dog profusely, and promptly head for the exit gate with a firm hold on your dog.  At this point, or soon thereafter, the instructor should give you an evaluation of your dog's performance on sheep.

Laura working with Leeloo

Laura working a novice German Shepherd during an instinct test. The long flexible cane she is holding is used to give guidance and indicate direction to an untrained dog. She will tap the ground with the cane in an area behind the dog to move it forward or in front of the dog to reverse it's direction. On rare occasions, the cane may also be used to help Laura defend her sheep against an unruly dog or get the attention of an out of control dog.