by Lynn Leach
When can I start teaching my pup to herd? Can I enter this clinic - my pup is five months old? I know she isn't ready, but is there something I can start working on?
These are all very good questions I hear repeatedly. I also hear many incredibly varied answers.
Herding involves the canine hunt instinct and requires a pack leader - the handler. This relationship is where it all starts and you can begin working on this with a pup of any age. Work on teaching your dog how to learn and to enjoy learning. Teach her how wonderful it is to work with a partner and that good things happen when she tries to please you. Teach her to try different techniques until she gets it right. Teach her to use her instincts, her mind and her training to her advantage. Teach her that it's ok to be curious and how to safely face her fears. I work on all of these things with young dogs. These lessons can help you create a great relationship with your pup. It will be a relationship that will last for years and establish a good partnership for later training.
As far as stock experience there are many things that you need to consider when answering these questions. The two variables that I think are most important are physical and mental maturity. Let's look at the physical first. Depending on your breed, your dog's bones will not be fully developed until two or three years of age.
Your pup must develop muscle mass. She must become toned and physically fit.
Herding dogs are moving constantly, turning quickly and at times getting in harm's way. If your dog incurs an injury at a young age, before she is fully developed, it may cause a permanent disability that can affect her working ability for life. Injuries can occur by twisting quickly or by physical contact. Having said that, accidents can happen in play as well - we can't go overboard in protecting our young dogs - but asking them to work and train like an adult is certainly something that I would avoid.
Mentally, some dogs mature much sooner than others. Before beginning serious stock dog training your pup should be mentally ready to think of livestock as work and to work with you as her partner.
One bit of advice I often hear is "as long as you keep it light and let your pup have fun...". Good point, she can gain experience learning how stock moves, develop her stock-sense and build confidence in her abilities. But, I immediately think of two problems that can happen here.
First, imagine going out to do something that you enjoy, over and over, being allowed to do it the way that you want to. After weeks or months of this, suddenly things change and there are all kinds of rules to follow. Your reaction - "this used to be fun, what happened? I don't think I like it this way - I quit!" This is what I see happen to many dogs after their owner/handler decides that their pup is old enough and it's time to begin serious training.
Second, as your pup's confidence continues to grow, she will experiment more, trying to take control of the stock with authority. Lack of experience sometimes leads to serious mistakes, meaning your pup may put herself in the wrong place and be challenged or hurt. An adult may be able to use this as a lesson and continue learning, whereas a young pup may have a much harder time getting over a bad incident.
Taking all of this information into consideration my answer to the first question is usually as follows: if you take a pup to livestock - don't overwork her and watch for signs of fatigue. Work her on well broke, non-confrontational stock which are accustomed to being worked by a dog(s) that works in your breed's herding style. Make sure there are rules included in the stock sessions. You can ask her to lie down, or sit while working. The addition of some simple rules will ease the transition from giving your pup stock experience, to training the skills required to work as a team.
To the second question I almost always answer yes. Clinics are usually designed to teach the handlers lots, and give the dog a little experience. The people who are standing around watching do the learning. Most clinics have a variety of dogs in different stages of training and working through different problems. In one day, a handler can receive a vast amount of knowledge, experience and demonstrations. You may not want to take your five-month-old puppy to the clinic, but you can almost always gain something by attending the clinic yourself. At the very minimum, you will learn whether you will want to later take instruction from that clinician.
And for the last question, begin working on your relationship. Teach your pup basic manners. Before coming to livestock, I like to make sure that my dogs obey me with commands such as sit, down, stay, a recall and I want them to walk on a loose leash.
I hope this gives you some good ideas while planning your herding training...
Good luck, and Happy Herding!
Two Cattle Dog pups gaining confidence on ducks.
Two Cattle Dog pups gaining confidence on sheep.