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June 29, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I drove Clover out to Valdemar Farm for her herding instinct test with our herding instructor Cathy Balliu. You can see the video highlights (and bloopers) below, but let’s just say Clover did much more harassing than herding. Here is a recap of what we looked for, what we saw, and what comes next.

Herding Instinct Test Basics

Essentially, when you first put a herding dog “on stock” as the lingo goes, you’re looking for them to “turn on” to livestock — meaning the dogs instincts flip on and the dog finds being near the animals VERY reinforcing. That love of the work is important.

Typically, a dog goes into a small round pen with just a few animals. Often, the dog wears a long line so that it’s easier to grab her if she’s behaving badly. (You’ll see Clover did NOT wear a long line. I had one with me. Our trainer didn’t think it was necessary.)

You’ll also notice that Clover worked with goats NOT sheep. That’s because our instructor feels goats are safer for her, for new dogs, and for new handlers like me. Goats are less flighty and less likely to take out your knees.

border collie herding instinct test photo, dog blog champion of my heart, copyright roxanne hawn

What We Looked For …

Dogs who show good herding instincts often throw certain behaviors:

  • Drop their heads and approach the livestock with a crouched body. (Lilly, our original canine heroine, never did that. She displayed a very upright style.)
  • Strive to keep the group of animals together and to move them as one, including rounding up any strays.
  • Naturally circle the animals to keep them together, showing some sense of how close the dog can get or how far away the dog needs to be to keep the livestock from spooking.
  • Balance to the herding handler, meaning if the person is at 12 o’clock, the dog automatically moves to the 6 o’clock position.

We took Clover into the round pet 3 times over about 90 minutes with long rest breaks in between. Our expectation was that each time we’d see something a little different (calmer, more control, etc.)

What We Saw …

Clover showed us some VERY typical young dog behaviors — chasing, barking, not much control:

  • Clover did drop her head a little on first approach, but she never really crouched or stalked the goats. She never used the “border collie eye” to control their movements.
  • Clover thought it was much more fun to harass an individual goat and chase it around, like a game.
  • In her third time in the round pen, Clover did start to show some understanding of circling the goats, and her distance was decent as you can see in the photo below. (Lilly, on the other hand, had a so-called “up-the-butt” style. She never did learn to back off. She did, however, get through the chasing and barking stage much faster.)
  • Clover didn’t show much sense of balance yet.

border collie herding instinct test photo, dog blog champion of my heart, copyright roxanne hawn

What Comes Next …

We’ll go back for another lesson in July.

It’s going to take more time in the round pen with goats before we’ll know if Clover likes herding enough to continue. Right now, she doesn’t LOVE it enough to take corrections in stride. (In this situation, a “correction” means hollering HEY! at her and flapping either a hat or flag on a pole at her when she is being disruptive.)

Oh, Clover LOVED being around the goats. She just didn’t like being told the rules and would sometimes disengage from the work and/or go lie down in the shade since we wouldn’t let her do what she wanted to do. It’s a real balance between NOT letting her practice bad behaviors but also NOT discouraging her so much that she gives up.

Cathy had me come into the pen to see if my presence helped Clover be calmer / braver.

That’s why it’s important for the dogs to LOVE the work because that DRIVE motivates them through anything that comes up.

Honestly, if Clover likes herding, great. If not, that’s totally fine too. I just want her to be happy, so we’ll try again and see if she starts to settle down, show more control, and start learning the rules.

best dog blog champion of my heart, roxanne hawn, clover lee hawn

Video Highlights and  Bloopers …


Bonus News … 

The truth is that Clover’s herding instinct test didn’t go particularly well. She isn’t an instant Rock Start at it, and that’s OK. Honestly, I was simply THRILLED that she was on the farm with several other dogs of both sexes (many of them are intact), and she LOVED it:

  • She loved the farm.
  • She loved the people.
  • She loved the other dogs.

After 9 years of being on constant guard with Lilly when we were in public, it’s a really lovely experience to have Clover graciously meeting new people and engaging with new dogs.

border collie herding instinct test photo, dog blog champion of my heart, copyright roxanne hawn

I don’t know if it was all the running around, being around other intact dogs, or simply that it finally got warm here, but just a few days after her herding instinct test, Clover went into heat, which (as you may recall), we’ve been waiting for … for medical reasons. So, we’ve been on Lock Down ever since.

It’s going fine, but we’ll both be glad when it’s over.

Typically, it’s a 21-day thing. We very much hope it ends in time for Clover to start taking her foundation agility classes in July. (We’ve been on a waiting list to get into a class since January.)


About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. It was a lot of fun to watch in real time–glad I was there to see. I think Clover does have talent, and will be better when you take her back in a month. I really enjoyed seeing how Cathy works, and watching you and Clover learn more each time you both went into the pen. The third time showed that she may be motivated!

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