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Drawn on a cave wall, this image depicts a man and his dog hunting.

Sheepherding goes back a long way. I mean, a really, really long way. To get a better idea of the tradition of sheepherding, think of this: dogs were domesticated roughly 15,000 years ago (new evidence suggests dogs may have begun their domestication as long as 35,000 years ago, but there is still much debate). Sheep have been domesticated for 10,000 years. And although humans didn’t discover the wool spinning process until about 3,500 B.C., sheep were incredibly important in the lives of our very distant ancestors. They were a source of food and clothing and thus, they were an early form of currency. They’re still a form of currency in many non-western societies.

From the Ancient Egyptian world, this tile piece depicts a dog on leash.

Almost since man had sheep, dogs were there herding them. Ever heard a story set in Ancient Egypt with a biblical shepherd tending his flock right alongside ever faithful Fido? Yep, that’s a depiction of what eventually became your Border Collies, your Australian Shepherds, and, of course, your German Shepherds.

Every breed of herding dog has its own history, and every country has its own mythologies to go along with herding. For brevity’s sake, I will focus on the German Shepherd here.

As most of us know, our German Shepherds are a relatively “new” breed. They first appeared on the scene in Germany in 1899 when Max von Stephanitz, an ex-cavalry captain and former veterinary student purchased a dog that he deemed was the epitome of what a working dog should be. He named the dog Horand von Grafrath and named the breed Deutscher Schaferhund, the German Shepherd Dog, and thus, the history of the German Shepherd began.

After the founding of the German Shepherd Dog, all other sheepherding dogs in Germany began to be called Aldeutsche Schaferhunde or “Old German Shepherd Dogs”. Out with the old and in with the new. The versatile new breed didn’t take long to spread across the continent, making its way across the channel in 1914 and appearing in the United States around the same time.

By 1908, when the first German Shepherd, Queen of Switzerland, was registered in the United States, America had already developed its own culture and mythos of herding. The US conducted its first herding trials in Philadelphia (represent!) in 1880, and it didn’t take long for the German Shepherd to be incorporated into the working scene in the US.

The herding breeds are typically split into two categories, the “eye” dogs (most notably, the Border Collie, the top picture below) and the “upright” dogs (like the German Shepherd, the bottom picture below). However, the GSD is unusual even in comparison with other “upright” dogs in its approach to herding. For example, the GSD nips and bites onto the side of the neck of the sheep instead of the ankles or legs. This, of course, makes some human shepherds nervous, and therein lie some of the problems.

This Border Collie is displaying the "eye" behavior they are so well-known for. Collies and other "eye" dogs use this technique to intimidate sheep.

This GSD is tending the outskirts of the flock. Unlike the Border Collie, the GSD uses his size and strength to his advantage when tending his flock.

Unlike most of the newer dog sports, herding goes way back. People have been herding with their dogs for thousands of years, and even though the German Shepherd Dog is a relatively newer breed, his ancestors are old, his blood is rich, and his instinct runs deep. He is incredibly intelligent, he is bred to make decisions on his own, and he is devastatingly powerful. And while all of these attributes are considered highly valuable in herding, they can also be a danger to the livestock and the human shepherd if the dog isn’t handled appropriately.

For these reasons, it has been traditionally accepted in herding circles that while you might be able to train your German Shepherd Dog to run through a tunnel or leap off a dock or hop on a table and lay down using positive reinforcement, you cannot and should not train your dog to herd using those same methods.

A clicker trained GSD jumping through a hoop during an agility trial.

Well, I have to respectfully disagree.

First of all, if I were to criticize any of the dog sports for anything, I would have to say that I criticize the herders for snobbery and elitism. They have the same attitude that they claim to disdain in the show circuits. They point fingers and accuse the show world of “distorting” and “corrupting” the breed (which I wholeheartedly agree that they did), but then they turn their noses up at anything that may force them to step away from their traditional mentality. Nowhere else have I seen such close-mindedness and hypocrisy than I have seen in just my little time spent in the herding world.

I have talked to herding trainers who laughed in my face when I told them I wanted to train using positive reinforcement methods. I have been told I was a fool and that I was in way over my head. I have also, interestingly, been told that herding dogs should be able to think for themselves and make their own decisions while the trainer nonchalantly backhands the dog across the face for breaking a heeling position.

I have been to at least half a dozen herding facilities so far, and every single one of them have pictured the straight back, working line German Shepherd on their website, but their walls are plastered with pictures of the sloped back, frog dog German Shepherd of the show ring. Blue ribbons hang on every wall, most of them, ironically, not herding ribbons, but conformation ribbons from various Kennel Club shows. So much for those vicious attacks about destroying the breed, but I guess, if you can’t beat them, join them, right?

"Working line" or "Straight back" German Shepherd

Most recently, I was told by a trainer at a herding facility that my five month old German Shepherd puppy, Shelby, “walked funny”, because she doesn’t have “the correct conformation for the breed standard” (the dog depicted above this paragraph is a “working line” or “straight back” German Shepherd, the dog depicted below is a “show quality” or “sloped back” German Sepherd).  I just rolled my eyes and smiled and responded that she wasn’t AKC registered either (that got a collective gasp from the group). “But she’s purebred right?” I nodded, and everyone seemed to take a step back from my dog who had, apparently, just developed leprosy. In the back of my mind, I chuckled and thought, “Well, at least my dog won’t have bone problems, and I’m pretty sure she could run your ‘working’ dogs under the table.”

"Show Quality", "Show Line" or "Sloped Back" German Shepherd

I wasn’t too concerned about what the herding people had to say about Shelby or her conformation or even about how large she was (“She’s five months, I thought she had to be at least seven, don’t tell me this is one of those 120 pound German Shepherds I keep hearing about!”). I could take all the slights because this facility assured me that they taught herding using positive reinforcement. I didn’t have to like anyone; I just had to learn what I needed to learn to compete with Shelby in herding trials. From talking with over a dozen herding trainers and going to at least five different facilities, I knew at this point that I probably wasn’t going to like anyone in these circles, but that was fine. The only “person” that mattered was Shelby.

Herding people remind me a lot of horse people, by the way. Everyone knows everything about everything and you know nothing. And if you don’t have daddy’s or hubby’s platinum Visa in your pocket and a $120,000 pony on the lead rope, then you aren’t going to do well, because there is no way a “stable girl” with her rescued Thoroughbred could out-jump Princess with her champion line Warmblood. Guess what? I proved the horse people wrong, and Shelby and I will prove the herding people wrong too. And we’re going to do it using positive reinforcement.

While I have a bad taste in my mouth for the elitism surrounding the herding scene, I do see the foundation of why they don’t believe that clicker training will work for herding. For one, I don’t think a lot of herding people (and people in general, actually) know what it truly means to clicker train. There are a ton of arguments against positive reinforcement in herding, but I am going to take some of the main ones and try and debunk them:

1. In a long distance situation like herding, the dog will never be able to respond to a click, because they won’t be able to hear it.

True. But no one, not even titled herders, start a six month old puppy herding sheep at 100 yards away. They start small, and that’s when you use the clicker. You start with the basic commands on leash, at a close distance, with minimal distractions. You can teach these the same as you teach basic obedience, and if you can teach that with a clicker, then you can teach this. When you get further along, you begin to phase out the clicker, extend the distances and connect the behaviors. You can do this by connecting the clicks, one at a time. If you are still shaky about a particular behavior, you take it back a step, like with everything else. Or, you could always switch the clicker to a whistle, like dolphin trainers use, which can be heard at a long distance. You can’t physically correct your dog when he has made the mistake at 100 yards away either and with clicker training, at least he is going to have more of a desire to come back after the mistake has been made.

2. Herding is a high drive sport, and high drive sports can be dangerous. You need to be able to control your dog to protect the sheep, and physical corrections are the only way to have complete control over your dog.

True, herding is a high drive sport which can be dangerous to the handler and the livestock. True, you do need to be able to have complete control over your dog. False that the only way to accomplish this is through physical corrections. In some ways, clicker training actually makes more sense for herding than any of the other dog sports. Herding is different from agility and flyball and triebball and rally in that the dog cannot always rely on you to convey information. There are times that the dog must be able to think on his own. He must always check in with you, but he also needs to make small connections as to the “right” behavior and the “wrong” behavior. For example, if you are on the far side of the flock and one of your lambs wanders off and you can’t see it happen, but your dog can, he needs to know that he has to go bring that lamb back without any direction from you. Clicker training is far more effective at teaching the dog to think than physical correction training, as I have discussed before. As to the control issue, I think you will find that a dog is much more willing to work for you when there is a reward at the end instead of a correction. I have found that I have far more “control” over my dogs when I have the carrot in my hand instead of the stick (keep in mind that I have used both).

These German Shepherds are gently pushing a lost lamb back to its mother and its flock.

3. Working dogs are not motivated by food.

I have been hearing this more and more frequently recently, and it honestly shocks me. Really? That’s like saying that just because someone is an Olympic athlete and they enjoy running means that they don’t also enjoy pizza or ice cream. I mean, come on, really? While there are certainly some dogs who are more motivated by food than others, and there are dogs that prefer play over food, saying that “working dogs” as a whole are not motivated by food is ignorant and ridiculous. I don’t need any science or evolutionary theory to back that up either, all I need is to watch my dogs freak out over their special treats. Heck, just watching them drool over dinner is all the proof I need.

4. The herding dog must submit to his handler or he can’t be trusted not to kill the sheep.

This poses a ton of problems for me, most of which I have already addressed in other blogs. But the real problem I have with this theory in relation to herding is this – are these dogs the shepherds or the sheep? If they are the sheep, then it makes some sense that we treat them like prey animals, that is, we terrorize them with poking and prodding and pushing them into line. We put the lead animal in his or her “place” so the rest will follow (for the record, I don’t believe it is necessary to do any of this with prey animals either, but the point is particularly poignant with canines). But I was under the impression that they were the shepherds. Instead of terrorizing them with physical corrections and forcing them to exist constantly beneath you, shouldn’t you be raising them up so that they have the confidence to perform this highly difficult task? How is a dog that is constantly being told to submit supposed to break away from that mentality that has been ingrained in him and assume a position of confidence and leadership great enough to take on an animal that can weigh up to 450 pounds? How is he supposed to be the leader he needs to be to herd his flock when you are constantly telling him he is to be subservient? When on earth did the herding circles make the shepherds into the sheep?

The noble German Shepherd, a leader and protector of his flock, watches over them as the sun sets