by Rhonda Toren
I really had no intentions of seriously herding. After all, it involves livestock (which I do not own) and a bit of farmland (which I do not have) and some training time (which always seems to be in short supply). I was on track to do agility and a little obedience. Ziva, however, entered our household in late summer 2007 with her own agenda.
My local Sheltie club had been toying with the idea of becoming sanctioned for AKC herding trials for several years, and decided to jump in and do an "A" match in the summer of 2008. Ziva was entered ("Let's see if she likes sheep!") as a filler to make the numbers needed. It was readily apparent from her delighted reaction to the sheep that we were about to embark upon a new sport.
Shelties are in the AKC herding group, but seem to arrive on this earth with varying degrees of herding instinct. Herding instinct seems to run in families, but is not limited to inheritance. I should have known that Ziva would love the idea of herding, since she had a keen interest in anything that moved in our wooded backyard, the trees beyond, even the sky (deer, squirrels, falling leaves, jets flying overhead).
I made it my business to find the best way to get started with her training. The first thing I learned is that you need a good instructor, one who is familiar with Shelties and their style of herding. There were a number of folks in the area with advanced herding titles and they were more than willing to share information. Attending and volunteering to work at herding events allowed me to see and talk to exhibitors and judges and see a number of dogs work and get an idea of what to expect.
A good way to start is to find a local formal Instinct Test. Those seem to be few and far between in my area, but a great alternative is to find that good instructor and set up a lesson. Make sure that the experience is positive, supervised, with nice stock and a happy ending. It may take a few times for your dog to "turn on," so don't be disappointed if you don't get an over-the-top reaction the first time. Try again later! Keep in mind that a dog that has had extensive training in another venue (for example: obedience, agility) may be very focused on the handler, not the sheep.
As in any sport, there is a learning curve for the handler. The sheep know what they're supposed to do, the dog has a pretty good idea, too. It's my job to orchestrate the whole thing. When the training is more frequent, the results are easier to see. However, even once or twice a month will give you and your Sheltie more experience as a team and you'll see progress.
There are several venues that offer titling test and trial programs. (The American Kennel Club, the American Herding Breed Association, the Australian Shepherd Club of America just to name a few.) You may need to do a little research in your area to see who offers competitive herding events. The test levels are pass/fail, and certainly attainable with a moderate amount of training with a dog with a bit of instinct. My successes at the test level with Shelties (just to share the range of dog life experiences) have included our 13-year-old rescue McKay (heavily obedience and agility trained), my husband's (very handler focused) agility boy Connor, Ziva (who had little formal obedience or agility training prior to herding) and most recently, Ziva's brother Geraldo (a CH/MACH looking for a little versatility in his life).
I am thoroughly enjoying the journey that Ziva has set us on, watching her enthusiasm and natural ability. Even when she sends sheep in 5 different directions just for her own good time, she has the good grace to look pleased when she brings them all back to me. We'll call that a good day's work.
Rhonda Toren resides in Columbia, Maryland with her husband Rip. She has two grown children and three shelties. A busy rescue named McKay, who needed something to do, entered their lives almost 14 years ago and they found themselves hooked on dog sports. The Torens are all active participants in performance venues, conformation and/or rescue and are members of the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Greater Baltimore. Rhonda owns Clantyre Show Secretary Services, and is an AKC Licensed Agility Trial Secretary, and also does a little quilting as the dog show schedule allows.
Many thanks to Susan Rhoades of Keepstone Farm for her guidance and support on our herding journey! Photos are provided by Jim Poor (Jim Poor Photography) and Rachael Toren (Clantyre Shetland Sheepdogs)