That’ll do, puppy: Widget takes the herding instinct test

A week or two after I got Widget, it seemed to click on in her little puppy brain that she was, in fact, a baby herding dog.  The results of this were threefold:  1) She started getting very bossy about motion (me, the other dogs, random strangers on the street), 2) when we would take walks, she developed a delightful new habit of waiting for my feet to start moving and then pouncing on them and biting on them with her sharp little puppy teeth, and 3) when she wanted everyone to be together, she would do these little baby outruns and bark obnoxiously to try to get us to move.   Luckily, thanks to my first dog, Lucy, I had a sense that something was going on with her beyond general puppy brattiness.  Lucy, who I always describe as my North American Muppet Dog and who is registered as an Airedale mix (hey, anybody’s guess), looks nothing like a herding dog, and so it never occurred to me to attribute her ridiculous sensitivity to moving things and general pushiness to herding instincts.  What made me finally get it was the day at our old dog park where she spent the whole afternoon moving the cows that grazed in the pasture next door up and down the fence line. It was only then that I was like, “Oh. OH! Wait, really? Huh!”; after that, I started doing some herding training with her and all was well(ish.)

So when Widget started getting all herdy with me, I knew what I was looking at, and I eagerly called up a local trainer to see if I could get her herding instinct tested. And it turned out I could! But not until she was six months old.  So I spent several weeks metaphorically tapping my feet as the puppy got more and more interested in All Things Moving. I circled her official half birthday on my calendar, ticked off the days, and the minute June 30th came, I called up the trainer again and scheduled Widge for her instinct test.  She was officially tested the following Saturday, and you guys, it was awesome.

But before I brag about my puppy, let me try to make this post a tiny bit useful and explain what the herding instinct test actually IS.  In the broadest terms, the point of a herding instinct test is to see if a) a dog is interested in livestock in the first place, b) to separate dogs who want to herd from dogs who just want to chase sheep around and c) to gauge the herdy dogs’ innate talents for balance, distance and pressure and to get a sense of how they instinctively want to herd (do they give the stock the spooky eye, common in border collies? Do they get in front of the handler and attempt to drive the stock forward or do they pull back and collect the stock? Are they barkers or nippers?) If you decide you’d like to take your dog to an instinct test, no matter where you go, this will be the core of what you do.

Beyond that, it gets a little more specific. Like many dog sports, there are a whole bunch of certifying organizations that administer trials and instinct tests; in the US, the big ones are the AKC, AHBA (the American Herding Breed Association), ASCA (the Australian Shepherd breed club) and USBCHA (the US Border Collie Handlers Association) [note, herding people: let me know if I've forgotten something. This is new stuff for me!]  The rules for the instinct test are a little different based on which organization is administering the test.  The AKC for example, only allows specific breeds to test and does not allow mixed breeds (even mixes of herding breeds) or dogs with any kind of physical irregularity (oh AKC, you keep giving me more and more reasons to hate you.) Their test (*note: PDF) requires the dog to be on a 6-15 foot long line and requires that the dog demonstrate a stop, sit, down and recall while in the pen with the livestock prior to engaging with the animals; beyond that, they just have to show “sustained” interest in the stock. The other organizations tend to be a good bit looser with their eligibility requirements, but also, they tend to be a little more specific about what ‘sustained interest’ in stock means.

As both Lucy and Widget are shelter mutts, all of my experience has been with AHBA; AHBA restricts the official herding instinct test to certain breeds of dogs and their mixes, though they allow any dog to compete for titles (and the list of who’s eligible to take the instinct test is broader than you’d expect: it includes poodles, Dobes, Rotties and several terrier breeds). ASCA does the same (I have no experience with USBCHA, and their website is not forthcoming). Unlike the AKC, AHBA has no obedience requirements for the first part of their two-part instinct test, though they do recommend that dogs who take the test have some good foundational recalls and a down-at-a-distance; especially for young dogs who’ve never met stock before, it’s nice to have a little bit of control before you go in, just to help ensure nobody gets kicked or eaten. The first part of the test primarily gauges how the dog moves with the stock and makes a strong distinction between dogs who are actually trying to herd and dogs who are chasing or playing with the stock (the former passes, the latter does not). Following a brief “Hey dog, these are sheep!” introduction period, the dog also needs to attempt to work the stock for between 6-8 minutes. In the second part of the test, dogs are asked to move the stock in a particular direction or along an assigned course. They begin on a long line and must demonstrate a drop and recall before the line is removed; this helps gauge whether or not they are able to keep their brains in their heads around livestock. The dog needs to test for two different judges and pass both tests to officially be awarded their instinct title.

In practice, here’s what the test looked like for us when Widget and I showed up at our tester’s beautiful ranch this weekend. What Widget knew prior to taking the test was….not much. As part of my slightly manic attempt to socialize her during her first few weeks home, I’d introduced her to horses and cows; however, we were going to be testing on sheep, and she’d never met sheep. Strike one! As far as obedience-style stuff, in the week before the test, I spent a lot of time imagining her tearing around the arena attempting to swallow the sheep whole, and to make myself feel better, I started working on her distance downs. We also worked on the moving down, which I figured she’ll need for Rally anyway, and I tried to fade my hand signal and get her responding to only a verbal. When we worked on things alone together in a nice boring environment, this went very well; I got her doing downs about 15 feet away from me, she thought the moving down was awesome, and I got the hand signal pretty well faded. However, add in simple distractions like a bird landing on the feeder or–gasp!–my other dogs barking from inside the house and a lot of our work went out the window. This did not, shall we say, inspire much confidence that she would be able to keep her head together in the presence of Exciting! Sheepies! Strike two! She also had nothing like a stop, which is to say an immediate stand-stay at a distance in the presence of lots of running sheep; this is a really hard skill to teach, and all I’d managed to really solidify with Widget were the outlines of a down-stay and a cued stand. Strike three! Needless to say, my heart was thumping pretty hard as I drove up to the gate of the ranch as I mentally calculated how many sheep my bad baby cattlejack could eat before I went broke.

When we got inside, we met the tester, who chatted with me for a while about the kinds of herding I wanted to do with Widget. Once he’d reassured himself that my interest was purely recreational and I didn’t have any sheep at home that desperately needed herding, he got down on the floor and interacted with Widget a little bit (“that is a weird mix!” and “she’s a cute little shit, though, ain’t she?”) Widget mercifully managed not to pull out her favorite greeting maneuver (peeing all over the new person) and after they’d hung out a little bit, the trainer removed her fancy new harness (which he deemed silly), clipped a lightweight long line (maybe 10-12 feet) to her collar and walked her into a medium-sized round pen which contained three mellow, dog-savvy sheep. For the first 30 seconds or so, Widget was mostly like, “Yay, sheep poop!”; from the outside of the pen, I said, apologetically, “If she doesn’t have anything, it’s no big deal.” Right as I was saying that, however, Widget spotted the sheep at the edge of the pen, and then, like a miracle, for the next few minutes, my goofy little maniac of a puppy turned into a calm, focused, attentive Real Dog. The first thing she did upon seeing the sheep was to do a long, looping circle that put her behind the sheep, at which point she attempted to drive them forward a little bit. She stayed at least a few feet from the sheep at all times, which the tester later told me was a very nice respectful distance; she did not bark, she did not attempt to bite anyone. I’m so used to seeing the border collie crouch ‘n stare that I actually am not sure what she did to get the sheep to move; the sheep, nevertheless, moved. As they pulled ahead, Widget did another big looping run out in the other direction, caught up to the sheep and again, from about four feet away, managed to stop the running sheep and move them back to the part of the pen where they’d started. As she was doing this, the tester was simultaneously moving around to see her work and talking to me about what she was doing. “You see the way she’s moving along with the sheep; that right there is balance.” “She’s not spooking them, but she’s making sure they go where she wants them to be, see that?” “Oh, and that right there, where she took off in the same direction as them, that’s just inexperience talking. Oh, see, there she goes, she corrected it. Goooooood girl.”

After a few minutes of this, he dropped her long line and interjected himself between her and the sheep. He spoke very softly to her, so softly that I couldn’t hear what he said, and Widget immediately dropped into a down. Then he put the point of his stick on the ground and verrrrry subtlety turned his shoulder in to block the space; Widget quickly pulled off in the opposite direction of the stick, ran around the pen to where the sheep were, picked them up and brought them up to the point of the stick. And then, either by chance or by a cue from the trainer, one of the sheep peeled off from the group and took off into the middle of the pen. At that point, Widget–who acted like she knew exactly what she was doing, no big deal–pivoted around, circled out around the runaway sheep and moved her back to the rest of the flock. The tester turned to me and said, “Welp, if you want to know whether she’s got instinct….I guess there’s your answer.” At that point, he said, “That’ll do” to her, and Widget immediately left the sheep and went off to lay in the shade and eat more sheep poop. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed it.

I was pretty blown away by this whole thing. I really need to stress how little of it had to do with my own training; besides the whole…sheep thing, we’d never gotten a distance down that quick and that good, our work with “run out to the left” and “run out to the right” had been hurried, sloppy and had depended a lot on my new Manners Minder, and she definitely, to my knowledge, did not know what “that’ll do” means. Widget’s a six month old puppy; she spends a lot of the day biting things and stealing my shoes, she is (real talk!) not even reliably house trained yet, and I have certainly never seen that level of immediate and precise responsiveness from her. But put her in a pen with some sheep and a guy who knows how to very subtly use pressure and a whole other dog emerges. I have three mixed breed dogs and consequently don’t spend much time thinking about what any of them are ‘supposed’ to do or be like.  Because of that, I generally underplay the power of basic, conditioned-for-centuries instinct, so when I see it in full-blown action like I did at the herding test, it kind of blows my mind.

After Widget’s first go-round with the sheep, we gave her a good long breather while we talked about what he had seen in the test. After that, he asked if I’d like to have her go out again so she could practice moving on his cue. I said Yes Of Course and asked if I might be able to take a picture of the two of them working. He grimaced like I’d asked to steal his soul, let me take one lousy picture (where she’s actually hanging back away from the action) and then had me come in the pen with them to practice my own movement vis a vis the sheep. So there is basically no photographic evidence of this amazingness, to my deep sadness.

I’m going to go back next Saturday and try to get a repeat performance for another judge, and after that, the tester–who’s also an instructor–is going to teach me how I can get her moving in some specific directions (required for Phase II of the AHBA test); hopefully after that, Baby Cattlejack will bag her first title. Beyond that, I am not sure. The responsible part of me wants to wait until she’s a year old: less psychologically impressionable, joints more fully developed. The less responsible part of me, the part that wants to Herd All The Things, wants to start lessons like yesterday (“Hey, it’s just running around on dirt! She does that all the time anyway!”). So we’ll see. For now, I am basking in the knowledge that my puppy is OBVIOUSLY some kind of a sheep savant and trying to read up on as much about herding as I can, just so I know I can hold up my end of the bargain. I loved herding when I did it with Lucy and am loving it even more with Widget, so I’m really excited about this fun new pursuit.  Even more important, though, is that I know that my baby puppy had a great time.

Here’s my one bad picture–I promise to get some better ones next week! What is happening here is that Widget has just lined up the sheep and is hanging back making sure they don’t go anywhere. The trainer is going in front of the sheep to see if he can get Widget to come around behind them and drive them forward (which she did, right after I snapped the shot).
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ETA: This post went up later than I thought, so have some more pictures from Day Two of herding!

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She’s cutting in too close here–see how that one sheep is breaking off from the group? It’s just lack of experience talking.
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But here at least she’s able to correct herself and go out to pick up the errant sheep.
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Itty bitty drive
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And here she is attempting to climb into the sheep’s water bucket to cool off, but failing, as she is extremely short. I just put this picture up to embarrass her.
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