we are excited to share our sixth post in our new series, The Versatile
Collie. Collies are such versatile dogs,
they excel at many different activities, including herding, which is what they
were originally bred to do. Our guest
blogger is Michael Vorkapich, and he trains his dogs to compete in herding,
agility and many other fun dog sports.
His blog, The Agile Dog Blog, has great information on competing in
different sports with your collie or dog, as well as some beautiful pictures of
collies in action! We are very grateful
to Michael for once again taking the time to write this for us, and for sharing
his experiences and love for this amazing breed.
Collies Can Herd Too
By Michael Vorkapich
Collies are the ideal family dog. They are great with children, eager to please and easy to get along with. If you are reading thisyou probably have a Collie. Most of the Collies I know are doing amazing things in Conformation, Obedience, Rally and more. Recently, at least where I live, there has been a significant rise in the number of Collies training and competing in Agility and Herding.
Skye the Rough Collie
For many years, I have trained my Collies in several dog sports.It all started with a wonderful Smooth Collie named Holly. She was the dog that made me realize that these were more than just pets; they were intelligent, affectionate friends that I could play with. Pretty much anything I asked, she would do without question. We trained long and hard. Every weekend you would find us at an Agility Trial or some other dog event. Holly was very tolerant of my ignorance in most of the things we were doing and made up for many of my mistakes. We competed at several National events and came away with many titles and many ribbons.
It is not surprising then, that I was overjoyed when we got our Rough Collie, Skye. She was smart, eager and willing to do anything I asked, regardless of what it was. We trained in Obedience and Agility, just like Holly before her. Months and months went into our training. However, I knew a lot more this time around. I had been doing this for years and training Skye was so much easier than Holly because I had become a better trainer. Skye learned quickly and was soon ready for competition.
When it came time for our first competition, I confidently entered the Agility ring and stepped to the start line with Skye by my side. I put her in a sit at the start line and walked to the second obstacle. Looking back at Skye, I released her from her sit and we were off! Running through the obstacle course, feeling the rush of running with your dog. Pure joy!
My initial joy quickly turned to concern as I realized that Skye was acting very strangely. Where she would bound gleefully through the course in class, in this competition she was moving slowly and looking rapidly around her at all the people. While she normally completed courses in class and at home with very little communication required, here I had to coax her and encourage her to keep moving. For several obstacles, she just went around and refused to complete them.
Over the next several months, this ring fear became worse and worse. I worked with several trainers, trying to help her get over her fear of competition but it continued to degrade. Classes would go well but competitions would not. In addition, I was nottrying to force the competitions. We only went occasionally to test how our ring confidence training was going. The answer was not well. We stopped competing altogether when she decided that she could not stay in the ring with me and left one time on her own.
So we looked around to see if there was something we (my wife and I) could do to keep this extremely smart and eager Collie still active. We talked about many different dog sports, or just dropping dog sports and doing things like hiking (which we also do). Then it occurred to us that Collies are part of the Herding group. That means they should be good at herding.
Next came our search for a place to take our dog herding. I contacted many places and got surprisingly similar responses from most. When I would ask them about training my Collie to do herding, they would ask “Border Collie?” To which I would reply, “No, I have a Collie without borders”. Many people would not take on a Collie, feeling they were too soft.
Eventually we found an instructor that was willing to work with us. It was a bit of a drive but we made it weekly. We really wanted Skye to have something that she could do regularly that would increase her confidence.
Our first few lessons were amazing! Skye took to sheep as though she had been herding all of her life. She just knew what to do. We would send her out and she would just bring the sheep to us. For the next several years, Skye and I trained regularly and eventually went to some competitions just to see how she would do in an arena setting. The results were also spectacular. She performed in a trial just like in class. We quickly earned our HT, PT (beginning titles in AKC herding) and were on our way.
Eventually we moved back to Agility, where we did much betterthan previously, eventually getting through Excellent before retiring due to age.
You can take your Collie herding too
Shepherds who saw their utility and skill initially bred collies in Scotland. They would breed only those dogs with the best herding instinct and those that were the most biddable. Back in those days, Collies did not look like they do now. The Collie we know and love is the result of selective breeding by show breeders. Modern Collies came from this wonderful herding background and still maintain their herding instinct.
Where we currently take lessons, there are close to a dozen Collies that are also being trained. They range in personality from barely interested in sheep to over-the-top enthusiastic, which is exactly the same kind of mix you will find for other herding breeds.
There are some major differences between Collies and other breeds. For example, the Collie tends to bark much more than a Border Collie. They also tend to be more of an upright herding breed, which means they stand tall instead of crouching in typical Border Collie style. Another difference is that Collies tend to be a little less intense than some other breeds, and less accepting of harsh corrections. These things are not always the case but in general, these are the characteristics of Collies in herding.
If you just want your dog to push some livestock around, you could simply buy a few sheep and let your Collie bring them from the field each day. They will learn this task quickly and easily without much formal training. However, if you actually wish to compete in Herding, you will need to find yourself a good instructor.
Like most dog training, there are no required certifications for instructors. Any person can decide they want to be an instructor and start offering lessons. To find a good instructor, your best bet is to find some herding trials and go watch. Talk to the exhibitors and see who their instructor is. Ask about training methods and see if these align with the way you like to train your dogs. Collies can be sensitive to harsh corrections and many instructors prefer to let your dog loose on sheep and correct them with flapping flags, stock sticks or other such devices. Some instructors prefer to teach to dog what to do and guide them towards the correct choices. This second method is my preferred choice for instructor but they can be hard to find.
Then go watch a lesson or two. See if you can sit in and see how the dogs are being trained. Talk to the instructor in person about your desires and how your dogs will be trained. Ask other students of that instructor about their experiences and, if they are competing, how long it took to get there and what they had to do.
Next come the lessons. Unless you own livestock of your own, you will need to take regular lessons in order to improve your herding skill. Your instructor should help you teach your dog to move the stock in a calm manner, and to move them where you want them. Some instructors work towards specific coursework, which is a limited subset of herding. For example, you could work towards the A course in the AKC which is arena work and a lot of walking sheep along a fence line. You certainly could train just for that but for a more well-rounded dog, you will want to study all aspects of herding.
Some, a very few, Collies are not really interested in herding. They get in the arena and just wander around ignoring the sheep. Most are extremely interested and have a ton of instinct. You will be amazed the first time you bring your dog to a lesson and they become very focused on the sheep. Their instinct kicks in right away and they determinedly bring you the sheep or move them in a circle. Quite often their instinct will override other training and they will ignore you when you ask them for a behavior they know quite well such as a sit or a down.
Your instructor will know when you and your dog are ready for competition. They will help you find a trial and figure out how to register and compete. Typically, they will recommend you enter a trial they are going to. Also, typically, your instructor is going to be competing in only one of the organizations that offer herding and they will be training you to compete in that organization as well. This is pretty typical of all dog sports and instructors.
That’s pretty much what you need to know about herding. I could say many more things. I could tell you about how you need to send your dog on an “outrun” and how you can train for this. Or how to teach your dog to maintain a position behind the sheep. We could talk about the differences between sheep, cattle and duck herding or how to teach your dog directional signals. However, that is what the instructor will be teaching you.
After a few lessons, you will find that you and your dog are eagerly looking forward to the next lesson. Shortly you may find yourself addicted to herding like you never thought you would be. It is glorious to watch Collies doing what they initially were bred for and doing it so well. And all that hair! They just look amazing when they are out there with the sheep. Photo ready every single time.
My biggest piece of advice in all of this is that, unless you are actually running a farm, you should approach herding with the idea that you and your dog are out there to have fun. Competitions and ribbons are great but if you and your dog aren’t enjoying it, then why would you do it? So give it a try and let your dog do what it was bred for.
To find herding trials in your area, you would need to check with one of the sanctioning organizations. The ones I have listed here all accept any herding breed even though they may sound like they are breed specific. It may not be clear from their websites that any breed an join but I have verified that this is the case with ASCA and USBCHA.