A Quick Guide to Herding Dog Sports

A Quick Guide to Herding Dog Sports

Herding dog sports are a growing activity in the United States. What started as a few dedicated people playing with their dogs has grown into a sport that hundreds of thousands of people participate in each year. Herding dog sports are accessible to most breeds of dogs and don't require a great deal of time or expense, compared to other competitive dog activities such as agility or obedience. However, there are certain breeds of herding dogs that will naturally perform better due to their genetic aptitude. There are several different types of herding events, but in general, they are all based on the work that herding dogs have historically done on farms.


Herding dog sports can be divided into two categories: stock dog trials and competitive herding tests. Stockdog trials test a dog's basic instinctual ability to nudge or herd livestock away from the handler.  Competitive herding tests put more emphasis on the dog's ability to have directional control in a specified pattern in response to the handler. All events in stock dog trials are done off-leash, while in competitive herding events, the dogs are usually leashed.


Some of the more popular herding sports for herding dogs include:


  • Herding - Herding dogs gather and move livestock from one location to another, such as sheep to a new paddock. 
  • Driving - Herding dogs move livestock by controlled and directed barking. 
  • Penning - Herding dogs work in confined areas with stubborn animals, such as cows in a loading pen or sheep in a pen at the sale barn
  • Sheepdog trial - Herding dogs move sheep or other livestock through a course that simulates the actual work of herding.
  • Treibball - Herding dogs move a herd of ball-shaped objects into a goal by barking at and bumping the balls. 


Herding Sport Basics

All herding dog sports are based on the actual work that herding dogs do in the field. The challenge is for the handler to direct his or her dog in performing these tasks without physically moving livestock or handling livestock directly.


Basic Herding Dog Sport Commands


  • Come-bye or just bye - go to the left of the stock, or clockwise around them.
  • Away to me, or just away or way - go to the right of the stock, or counterclockwise around them.
  • Stand - stop, although when said gently may also mean just to slow down.
  • Wait, (lie) down or sit or stay - stop, but remain with that contact on the stock...don't take it off by leaving.
  • Steady or take time - slow down.
  • Cast - gather the stock into a group. Good working dogs will cast over a large area. This is not a command but an attribute.
  • Find - search for stock. A good dog will hold the stock until the shepherd arrives. Some will bark when the stock has been located.
  • Get out or back - move away from the stock. Used when the dog is working too close to the stock, potentially causing the stock stress. Occasionally used as a reprimand.
  • Keep away or keep - Used by some handlers as a direction and a distance from the sheep.
  • Hold - keep stock where they are.
  • Bark or speak up - bark at stock. Useful when more force is needed, and usually not essential for working cattle and sheep.
  • Look back - return for a missed animal. Also used after a shed is completed and rejoined the flock or packet of sheep.
  • In here or here - go through a gap in the flock. Used when separating stock.
  • Walk up, walk on or just walk - move in closer to the stock.
  • That'll do - stop working and return to handler.


Driving Sport Basics

Herding dogs that participate in driving sports often do not handle livestock directly. Instead, they move livestock between handlers or into a pen after the stock has been gathered. The dog must remain under control and close to the handler as it drives livestock.


Most herding dogs enjoy participating in driving sports as well as all the other sports because the handler gives them direction and tells them what to do next. The dogs are still working in the same way that makes them feel confident and entertained, but instead of moving or herding stock, they are using their bark to drive livestock.


Driving competition is held in three separate classes: novice, open, and utility. In each class, there can be up to seven dogs per handler team. Spectators often find this exciting because there are several dogs with different temperaments and behaviors working together to advance the stock.


The rules of most dog sports are established by a governing body, but in most cases, they are also governed by local clubs that have their own set of guidelines. Novice levels allow newer handlers and dogs to gain experience before competing at the highest levels. At most trials, novice and open dogs will be on an equal playing field with only a few minor differences in rules.


The utility class is often the most challenging for both dog and handler because of the broad scope of work required: moving stock out of and around obstacles while maintaining control and stopping stock from returning to or crossing over the obstacle. While most working dogs participate in multiple types of herding sports, some are not eligible for utility classes due to their temperament or size.


Penning Sport Basics

Penning involves a dog and handler team that directs and contains livestock within a pen. There are two types of competitive penning: standard and pick-up. At the standard level, the handler drives livestock toward an entrance to a fenced enclosure, where they enter of their own accord. The dog stays with the stock throughout entry so the judge can score its performance independently from the handlers.


On the other hand, in pick-up penning, the dog has to collect or gather livestock out of a field and drive them toward an opening of a fenced enclosure, where they enter on their own accord. The dog must remain with the stock throughout entry so it can be independently scored by the judge.


While either standard or pick-up penning can be done with any herding breed, some dogs will excel at one and not the other depending on their natural talent. A few herding breeds are most commonly used in each type of penning based on size, strength, trainability, speed, athleticism, and temperament.


It's important to remember that the vast majority of herding breeds enjoy working stock and that many will surprise you with their ability to improve or learn new skills. Regardless of breed, if your dog possesses drive and determination, it likely has what it takes to become a gifted herder.


Sheepdog Trial Sport Basics

There are two types of sheepdog trials: gathering herding style (border collie style) and traditional herding style. 


In gathering trials, dogs and handlers work the stock independently. Stock is typically limited to ewes that move into a handling area or pen of their own accord without any pushing or prodding from the handler.


An example of traditional herding sports might be an individual who has a few sheep in a large paddock and no fencing surrounding them. The competitor moves through a course with the stock and directs them using herding commands without any interference from another handler.


Sheepdog Trial Field Layout

The layout of trial fields varies widely. However, there are certain elements that each field shares. These include:


  • The dog must leave the handler and fetch sheep that are some distance away
  • The dog must take control of the sheep and bring them to the handler
  • It is against the dog's instinct to drive the sheep away from the handler so an away drive is a good test and should be included
  • The dog and handler should be able to combine to move the sheep into a confined space, typically a pen but in some trials, they are asked to load them onto a vehicle.
  • The dog must separate the group into two groups in a controlled way in accordance with the instructions from the judge. This may involve some sheep being marked and the dog and handler working together to separate them from the rest or some variation of that. This is known as shedding and is almost always required to be done in a ring marked out on the ground.
  • Singling is another test in which the dog and handler combine to separate one sheep from the group.
  • Most trials include a cross drive where the dog is required to move the sheep in a controlled way in a straight line from one side of the field to the other in front of the handler but some distance away from them.
  • While the scoring system is quite intricate, the most important aspect the judges watch is the behavior of the sheep, not the dog or the handler. The best trials are those where the dog takes control of the sheep and moves them in an unconfused, uniform way. If the flock ends up running around in chaos, the dog will lose points.


Treibball Sport Basics

Treibball is a dog sport that utilizes the techniques of positive reinforcement training combined with the herding instinct to teach dogs how to push or move soccer balls into a goal. Originating in Germany, this sport has recently gained popularity in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The word "treibball" is German for "driving ball".


Although any dog may participate in Treibball, herding breeds are commonly used due to their acute awareness of "flock" dynamics and the tendency to perform repetitive movements. The game is played with 8 balls that are 45-75cm in diameter, with the goal being to push or move the ball into a goal area (approximately the size of a standard soccer goal). The game is played with multiple balls to increase difficulty.


The handler is required to keep a certain distance from the dog at all times, communicating only with verbal, hand, or whistle signals. If the dog correctly rolls all of the balls into the designated area within 15 minutes. Scoring is based on the level of success with cooperation and direction. 

Become close with your Dog

Daniel Barrett’s emotionally intelligent approach to dog training has created a large following of dog owners who feel that their relationship with their dog has transformed substantially.

Become close with your Dog

Daniel Barrett’s emotionally intelligent approach to dog training has created a large following of dog owners who feel that their relationship with their dog has transformed substantially.

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