Herding Instinct Tests take many forms, and can be very useful or utterly meaningless! Their true value lies in deciding what you actually want to learn about your dog’s herding potential, and evaluating what characteristics your dog displays with livestock.
‘Passing’ a Herding Instinct Test is actually not very useful in the ‘real world’ of herding, although of course human nature is such that people like to have Certificates and Awards! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that of course, so long as you remember the limitations of such a Test.
You may be a Breeder who wants to discover if the inherited herding instinct is still alive and well in your lines. Or you may want to see if your dog is suitable for training as a hobby or pastime, perhaps going to a trainer every fortnight. Alternatively you may want to see if your dog may be suitable for regular, practical ‘work’ in a farm or small holding situation.
The ethics of how livestock are treated in these Tests seems to vary hugely. This series of Articles is about herding sheep. All of the 4 Trainers I have used over the past 3 years in the UK are horrified when they see You Tube video footage of many Instinct Tests which allow what is really ‘sheep worrying’ in a small pen by a dog. Sheep do not ‘sign up’ for being bitten by dogs, and whilst occasional ‘flossing’ of teeth on fleeces can be tolerated, wanton gripping of legs or faces should never have its place in an Instinct Test.
Pictured is a 4 month old Tilly being ‘introduced’ to sheep in a round pen, the plastic rake is to protect the sheep, not Tilly!
Testing should evaluate how the dog works, his or her drives, styles, strengths and weaknesses. The sheep (which should be ‘dog broke’ and therefore likely to stick fairly close to the handler) are usually put in a round pen, and the dog introduced on a long line initially. A plastic rake can be useful to protect the sheep and ‘block’ any tendencies for the dog to bite. (As a handler it is an advantage to be fairly agile, and read the thought of biting in your dog’s brain before it actually occurs!)
Dependant on the dog’s attitude the long line may be removed, and the dog encouraged to move to and among the sheep, as the evaluator judges the dog’s actions.
I think the responses of my two eldest dogs, Loki (Starvon off the Cuff for Bowkol) and Megan (Castleavery Gold Gaiety for Bowkol) to their Instinct Tests illustrate some interesting points.
They attended a Day for ACD’s/ Heelers, the Evaluator was Suzanne Nevada from Alaska. At the time I was just pleased they both passed, and it was only years later when, having worked both dogs, that I fully appreciated the subtleties and wisdom of her evaluation.
Firstly Megan, - she was a year old when tested, happy to let Suzanne take her on a line in the pen. He certificate says ‘definitely happy driving, she loved to ‘heel’, very nice girl with tons of potential, needs more exposure to livestock to help her confidence, she can do well.’ What Megan refused to do was ‘head’ the sheep, (i.e. move them away when they were ‘head to head’, facing her). At one point Suzanne put a sheep on its back to see if she would approach it – Megan squatted down to do a pee in alarm!
To this day Megan is a dedicated heeler, who refuses to head stock, if sheep stamp at her Megan turns her back on them! So although she passed her Test, the true value was just that insight - she would be fabulous driving cows out to pasture every day (like grandma Ossika in Sweden!), but her heeling instinct takes her too close to sheep, splitting them up, and if sheep challenge her she just refuses to do ‘confrontation’.
As for Loki, well I knew he had a big instinct. Aged 3 months old, I witnessed him trot up to 3 horses in a field (much to my embarrassment) and steadily move them up the field. Loki lacked confidence in some social situations as a youngster, but put him in a situation where actually he could get killed and he appeared fearless!
But when Suzanne took him in the pen on the line, Loki,(then 3 years old) totally switched off. All he could think about was ‘OMG who is this stranger on the end of this lead and where is ‘mum’?’! No response to sheep at all…… Suzanne was wise to him and invited me into the pen, but still no response. So we took a chance and let Loki off the line.
Unleashed and free to react, Loki was transformed! He passed his ‘test’ with flying colours – ‘willing to head, heel, gather, drive, very good overall interest in stock, lovely boy who turned onto stock very well, used ‘force bark’ appropriately, excellent potential’.
Loki has developed into a very honest ‘chore’ dog that ‘gets the job done’. But to this day if he goes to a new venue where there are spectators watching, where there are distractions with other dogs present or where he is in a confined space, he finds it difficult to give of his best and gets distracted. He is not a ‘performance dog’; he is a ‘workman’!
So the value of their Instinct Test was actually not whether they passed or failed, but what it told me about their styles and drives.
Many factors may cause a Vallhund not to switch on to sheep in a test. Examples are obedience training, if the dog feeling intimidated by other dogs or people watching, lack of movement by the stock, too small a pen so that the dog is unable to keep a distance from the sheep. Experience from a Herding day in the UK in 2012 was that Vallhunds that were more attentive to its owner or ’velcro’ like, were less likely to be interested. My own feeling is that if a dog has sufficient ‘drive’, and you test the dog’s responses wisely, an Instinct will shine through no matter what! Dogs that need a lot of exposure before they switch on are I think, unlikely to be really useful workers in farm situations, although I’m sure may do well in All Breeds Trials.
So does the fact that a Vallhund has passed an Instinct Test mean that it will make a good worker? No is the answer! There are so many other factors – whether the dog has a biddable attitude, whether they bounce back from correction or lose interest, whether they are suited to your own energy levels, what sort of work you want them to do etc. Will they work independently and use their own initiative? Or do they stop half way through an outrun to check with you they are doing the right thing!
Our third Vallhund, Tilly (Starvon Valkyrja Mist for Bowkol) has no Instinct Test Certificate and has never been formally ‘tested’. When she was 12 weeks old I took her out with Loki who at the time was working 70 Texal and Rouge Ewes in a big field. I shall write more of Tilly in next month’s article on what I personally look for when choosing a Vallhund puppy for working. But in the meantime, I think her demeanour in the photo below says it all: ‘Bring it on, Sheep!’