Basic Tips for Beginner Stock Dog Handlers

Aussie with 4 sheepFor those who have been bitten by the bug of working stock with their herding dog, it is natural to dip their toes in stock dog trialing. Since few of these people who are trying it out for the first time have much livestock experience this can be an exciting but potentially scary experience. Here are some basic points to know about the stock dog and trial world.

Instinct Testing

Many people start out with an instinct test to see if their companion dog of a herding breed has the instinct to herd. This may be more out of curiosity than any plans of actually working their dogs. These  tests can happen at a sanctioned event, a herding clinic or a trainer’s facility. The tester will be approved at the sanctioning event, but otherwise the instinct test is more of an informal test, frequently offering the owner a chance to see if their pup actually has it or not.

Aussie puppy herding instinct test

Traits of a Good Trial Dog

Not all herding dogs are cut out to be a trial dog. Competitive trialing is very demanding and requires a dog that is compliant but responsive. An outgoing dog that listens to the trainer does well here. The dog should not be too soft or stubborn. If a correction leaves him unsure of himself, cowering or angry, he will not do well in the trial arena. The best dog bounces back from corrections with a sense of humor and seeks out his handler’s attention. A more reserved dog can do well if they have a strong desire to please and are handled well.

Trial Programs

There are now several registries and herding organizations that offer herding trials throughout the country. The main ones are the American Herding Breed Association, American Kennel Club, Australian Shepherd Club of America, Canadian Kennel Club and the United States Border Collie Handlers Association. Within these clubs and organizations there are regional affiliate clubs or groups which offer a variety of classes at different training levels. They also hold trials and seminars. At these trials, all of the dogs will run on the same course under the same scoring and rules. These rules and scoring will vary slightly from one trial to another, depending on which organization is hosting it.

  • AKC – Open to breeds recognized by the AKC and registered in either the Herding Group, Miscellaneous Class or Foundation Stock Service group.
  • ASCA – Open to all Australian Shepherds and ASCA-approved herding breeds.
  • AHBA – Open to all herding breeds and breed mixes.
  • CKC – Offers an all-breed set of courses for CKC registered dogs.
  • USBCHA – Open to all breeds (called an Open Trial).

Tips for Competing Successfully

It is advisable for beginners to be a spectator at several trials before entering one. Maybe volunteer as a time keeper or scribe or work in the back helping to help handle the stock. If possible participate in an informal training trial and have someone video tape it for future reference.

Well-trained trial dogs have many hours of careful training and hard work behind them. Do not rush your dog into competition if he is not ready. This could turn him off completely or he may develop bad habits that are difficult to correct. Keep in mind that working at home in a familiar area with familiar stock that knows your dogs is quite different from working in a different environment on stock that does not know your dog. Expose your dog to as much training as you can in various locations and on different stock before entering in a trial arena. This includes seminars, trainer’s facilities and knowledgeable friend’s homes that also work stock.

English Shepherd with sheep

Learn stock sense so that you are better able to assist and work with your dog as a team. Be aware that certain breeds of livestock are more flighty or difficult to move than others. Know that weather can affect how well the animals work. Learn where the pressure points are and how the livestock will move when pressure is put on from either the handler or the dog. Learn to read the animals by observing their body posture. If their heads are up and they are looking around, they are more prone to bolt or scatter. If their ears and body are relaxed and they are chewing their cud, then they will be easier to handle and less likely to bolt.

Keep in mind that your end goal is to have a dog that will quietly and efficiently move the stock where you direct him, and in as short a time as necessary. While this may not be as flashy as a dog that runs from one point to another and races the livestock through the obstacles, this is the dog that will get the job done with less stress on himself, the stock and the handler.


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