Highland Herding

This is a collection of Ann Witte’s “Highland Herding” articles for the Bagpipes.

“Mama Mia!”

Managing new mothers with lambs can be a rude shock the first time a dog who is used to working adults has to deal with moving them. The ewe will be inclined to respond to the dog in a “normal” way for a split second, but then her maternal instinct to protect her new babies will kick in and she will do anything to keep the babies safe. She knows that the lambs cannot run at any real speed, and that they only know how to follow her every so slowly.

Meanwhile, our inexperienced stockdog expects the sheep to trot along at some usual speed and will be thoroughly confused when nothing about this scenario is “normal” at all! To top it all off, the new Mom will turn into a fiercely protective “bear” and will turn on and attack the poor dog if he is too close or pushing too hard. This is a rude shock to our stockdog! How we manage the situation will have a great long-term influence on how our Beardie perceives sheep behavior in general and his job in particular.


Sometimes the hardest thing to get through to our dogs is the idea of sitting quietly at the Handler’s Post while watching sheep being brought out on the field. Where we know it is usually a necessary step in a Trial situation, the Beardie will want to immediately go to “help” the stock handler! Even at the Advanced levels, when the dog breaks its “stay” at the Post, he will almost always blast up the field; and, if so inclined, revert to “chase mode” This will definitely ruin the run. You certainly cannot hold the poor sheep responsible for running in fear when this happens.

To help the dog to understand the idea of waiting, there are some simple exercises you can do. First, when possible, take the dog out amongst a flock of sheep where he is to be your companion as you pull weeds or pick up trash (or pretend to do so), but he does not actually do any stockwork. He will learn to relax around the sheep and to wait to be told to work rather than assuming that the combination of you and sheep in one place means “GO”.

If you cannot do the above but can have someone help you, then practice having sheep moved by another dog / handler team as you and your Beardie wait at any spot on the same field.. Sometimes, you will command your dog to do a short flank or some other exercise; but twice as often, you will simply call the dog off and leave the field without allowing him any stockwork at all.

Remember that true anticipation and acting on assumptions come with too much routine training. If, every time you and Beardie go to a Handler’s Post, he is sent to get sheep; then he will become habituated to the idea and will be far more likely to break at the Post.

“The Chores Of Trials”

Occasionally one wants to Trial a Beardie that will do chores just fine, then the dog shuts down when the owner wants to do some Trial training. The underlying problem is almost always the pressure felt by the dog when involved in the learning rather than the doing. From this dog’s point of view, he can do the work you need him for so why should he now be subject to some artificial management by his person?

Since we cannot explain the value of Trials to us, thus the need for command words and all the additional cooperative efforts intrinsic to a Trial; we have to approach this dog’s learning from another angle – his angle. Although we perceive Trials as being “just a version of chores”, this kind of dog does not have the same view nor will he be able to learn to run in Trials with the usual training techniques.

Assess what chores the dog actually can do with sheep well and how you as his “handler” communicate what you want done. Next, assess how you act when training or running in a Trial. If you are honest with yourself, it is the human half of the equation that changes! Remember that the very greatest difference between chores and Trials is simple – if an error occurs while doing chores, you can either re-do the chore or adjust to the situation by changing your actions; whereas in a Trial, with the limitations of the rules there, you will NQ out of hand if you try to make these changes to get the job done.

Go back to combining all “training” (communication) with real chores. Choose conversational words which you attach to certain behaviors – such as “get behind” to do just that – and incorporate these words in “practices” when you do an obstacle or 2 and then do more “real chores”. Once the dog is able to share the idea that some freestanding chute is worth doing, as long as you keep the pressure tuned out, he will do fine.

“Silence Can Be Golden”

Sometimes the very hardest part of a Trial run is NOT commanding the dog. With training and experience, a good Beardie will be able to correct any ovine errors on his own, and any attempt by the handler can actually create more problems than they solve. What is then important is that you pre-test your dog before such a circumstance occurs during a trial.

We never want to set the dog up to fail, even if the thought is tempting so one can apply discipline. We also don’t really want to “course train” our dogs, although the intelligent herders will learn the courses on their own. But, if we wish to “proof” the dog for trustworthiness, we must do a touch of both!

The most common problem encountered will be accomplishing a clean OLF, especially in larger or open fields. Beardies’ outruns are quite visible to sheep because of their style and beautiful coats, so often the sheep will try to escape altogether If our dog has been good at executing the elements of recovery from this scattering, then one should test his ability and judgment when the occasion arises.. Be silent as he collects the sheep and starts them on the fetch. If he begins to circle the sheep way out there, stop him and go back to practicing a cleaner gather. If you have done his training right, and you see he is working to collect and fetch the sheep to you, a wide grin and thrill of pride is permitted – just done silently!

“Slow And Steady?”

Often the hardest lesson will be getting the enthusiastic Beardie to drop from Warp Speed to Impulse Power 🙂 Beardies usually think that “speed” is their middle name when it comes to herding, yet it is that very speed which loses the control of the sheep. Beardies need to actually be taught the word “SLOW” and what that means. Whether the speed originates from some fear of the sheep. or just the sheer joy of a flat-out run; herding is usually best managed with deliberate finesse, which means SLOWLY.

Teaching a “Stop” and using the stop can help some, but constantly stopping the dog will most often lead to an even faster state of movement once released and can have the opposite effect from that which is desired – moving slowly. But, the concept of and word “SLOW” can be taught just as any other commands, through careful guidance of the idea of moving slowly.

Go back to your easygoing walkabouts with heavy sheep; be sure to watch the sheep for cues as to where your dog is and what she is doing; how fast she is moving. Remember to NOT get eye contact with her even when you are glancing to see where she is Now. if the sheep begin to surge ahead at all, spin around with both hands up – palms toward the dog – and say SLOW! Say the command word slowly as well as with a lowered voice. Immediately turn and begin walking forward while saying “Walk Up SLOW” (or “Steady SLOW”). Repeat as necessary. The idea is to literally startle her into a slower pace, without removing her control of the sheep or completely “taking the sheep away”.

Most Beardies very quickly get the idea that the reduced speed is a better way to herd. As you progress with training, use of the “SLOW” command should be done judiciously and as infrequently as possible – this command should become more of an occasional reminder than an every time command.

“Over The Rainbow?”

Really, how does one stop the most common problem of green dogs – overflanking? Since sometimes even a half-step can be too much, the mad circles and swings of the beginner herder need to be eliminated without having to “fight” the dog. From the Beardie’s perspective, he is just trying to keep the sheep in a tight group (as he should); but then his speed causes the sheep to panic and run, he runs faster, and everything gets out of control too quickly.

Our youngster – regardless of actual age – needs to be guided to understand his basic role in herding as well as the normal propensity of sheep to flock together. His job is to push sheep on a line of travel, regardless of the direction the sheep are to take. He needs to see how his position affects the direction the sheep go.

We use a system we call “take the sheep away”; as the proper push position is in the half-circle behind the line of travel, every time the dog passes an imaginary line towards the front of the sheep, the handler will stop silently – then step forward as the dog passes to go behind the line of travel. We don’t speak to the dog when it is out of position as this gives value to being in front or overflanking. On a clockface, the imaginary line runs from 9 to 3; the dog should stay / wear in an area from about 8 to 6 to 4 and back. What usually happens, once the handler has the rhythm of stop and go is that the dog will turn itself back when it nears the 9 or 3 o’clock points; then the whole group can continue forward.

This does need very tame sheep that will stay with the handler. If a long whip, stick or crook is to be used, it should be used only to block and can be swung overhead from side to side to make the imaginary “no pass” line more visual for the dog. Simply extending the arms, palm backwards, will serve the same purpose for most Beardies.

Above all, do NOT chase the dog, follow the sheep if they curve offline, or fight with the dog at all – keep your focus on the sheep as they will “tell” you where your dog is. When the dog is in the proper position behind the line of travel, say “walk up” or “steady” or whatever command you plan to use when the dog is to begin that forward push. Be patient! Some dogs “get it” faster than others, but if you persist in guiding the Beardie to remain in the correct places, training will suddenly become much easier for all.