It depends on what you want. Suppose you have a pet dog you love to death and want to do more with. Suppose your dog has “shepherd” or “sheepdog” in his name, maybe his breed is among the AKC “Herding Group”. Or maybe your dog is a “shepherd/mix” from the shelter.
If your dog is an AKC “Herding Group” purebred, it’s easy to find training and AKC “herding” trials. ASCA (the Australian Shepherd Club of America) lets more purebreds compete but If you’ve got a crossbred – or don’t know what your dog is, The American Herding Breeds Assn is your best bet.
At any of these events, you’ll meet people as crazy about their dogs as you are. You might earn a ribbon or initials after the dog’s name – if nothing tonier than “HCT” (Herding Capability Tested). These programs aren’t difficult and you and your dog will have a ball.
In fairness, I must warn you against traditional stockdog work and trials. Learning how to handle and train a sheepdog takes years. You’ll put miles on your car and your dog. You’ll be out in the foulest weather. You’ll need to understand not only your dog – no cinch – but sheep, cattle or goats too. Do you really want to be on a first name basis with a three hundred pound Suffolk ram?
All your most shameful mental qualities: your impatience, egotism, vagueness, vanity and inattention will be painfully and publicly obvious. Your dreams, fantasies and love for your dog will count for nothing. You won’t earn titles or championships. Ribbons and prize money will be rare and humiliations commonplace.
Welcome, sucker. If you’ve got this far, you’re probably too hard-headed to accept my most important advice: IF YOU WANT TO WORK A STOCKDOG BUY A TRAINED STOCKDOG. A started sheepdog (can fetch sheep, goes left or right on command and is starting to drive) will run you two grand, a trial winner as much as fifteen, a 9 or ten year old retired trial dog mightn’t cost more than a good home for him. Since you can buy the cutest sheepdog pup for five hundred, why spend the money?
Because in the long run, the high dollar dog is cheaper. Because you need training and THE TRAINED DOG TRAINS YOU.
If you ain’t got the genes, you ain’t got no thing
Any dog can be useful on livestock: I’d lay my Labrador Retriever in a gateway to block sheep. But a few breeds have this powerful genetic urge to work stock. Alas, most dogs from the “Herding Group” are bred for dog shows and aren’t much more useful than my Labrador was Your best genetic bets are Border Collies, Kelpies, English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds – in that order. Shun show dogs and be deaf to breeder guff. If you don’t like the way mama works stock, don’t buy her pup.
You’ll need a plastic stick to extend your reach, a tie chain for your dog while he’s waiting to work, a leash, a collar with your dog’s id, and a 2$ plastic whistle which you won’t be able to blow although your kid will. You won’t need treats, halters, snootloops, clickers, choke, prong or ecollars.
Your Sheepdog Guru
Stockwork often seems counter-intuitive and even with a trained dog nobody learns without a mentor. If you stick with AKC, ASCA and AHBA events, mentors are plentiful. T’were it me, I’d see my mentor’s dogs work before I signed up for his/her instruction.
If you’re determined to learn traditional stockwork, usbcha.com lists every sheep and cattle trial. Thats’ where you’ll find local, traditional trainers. After your pup is six months old, enroll him in your mentor’s sheepdog handler’s clinic.
A BOOMING BUZZING CONFUSION
Your mentor will escort you and Shep into a small ring containing three or four docile sheep. You’ll unclip his lead and all hell will break loose. Shep will go after the sheep, the sheep will split and bolt, the mentor will be saying something as you’re praying that Shep won’t kill some wooly creature. SHEP WON”T LISTEN!!. HE’S ON ANOTHER PLANET!!!
That’s how everybody starts learning. Fun, huh?
Because it’s beautiful and because Shep will think it’s beautiful too. From the start you’ll have glimpses; momentary communication so intense, your and your dog’s mind will be one mind. Because one day you’ll be in difficulties and your dog will rescue you. Because one day last year I sent my Luke for sheep half a mile away, across three ridges; then down a steep backslope and Luke disappeared from sight for one minute, two minutes, three . . . four . . . and reappeared – so far out there he was a dot, but exactly where he needed to be. That tiny black dot was the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen.