In my opinion, there are many criteria that a new herding student should consider when choosing an instructor.
This is not all inclusive, but these factors are very important: Geography, Facilities, Stock, Adult education skills, Knowledge of dogs in general, Knowledge of livestock, Knowledge of herding dogs, Knowledge of managing stock with dogs, Ranch-work experience, Trialing experience, Personality and finally, One's ability to "hear" what the instructor has to say. Sure, breed-specific knowledge is nice, but it is not above any of the criteria I have listed here. That's just my opinion.
Geography: let's face it; in many parts of the country, if you have a choice of instructors within two hour's drive, you are lucky. If so, certainly take the time to go and see the instructor teaching others, working their own dogs, or at least have a nice long chat with them about their training methods. Check out their facilities and their livestock. With gas prices the way they are, location is a critical factor for many who want to get herding instruction. No one wants to "ruin" their dog or their own ambition for the sport by paying a person with whom they do not get good instruction, so it may be worth traveling the extra miles. I have folks drive down from the Chicago-land area to my ranch (300+ miles) because they like training here, even though there are instructors in northern Illinois.
Facilities: If a herding instructor does not have the appropriate pens, arena and field sizes to best suit a dog's level of training, then it can sometimes be better to find a facility that does offer the right environment to work a young dog. It really doesn't matter whether the instructor is an expert in a certain breed if his/her facilities are in disrepair, are not suitable for starting young dogs or will not allow a dog-in-training to expand his horizons by offering a variety of training areas.
Stock: perhaps the most important aspect in herding training is the use of proper livestock for the dog's skill level. Stock that is combative or overly flighty with amateur dogs is not acceptable. Stock that will not yield to a young dog or stock that are not forgiving of a green dog's imperfections can cause a beginner dog to lose confidence in his own abilities as well as his handler. An instructor that only has a handful of sheep that are overly broke may be suitable for the first few lessons, but will not allow the dog a chance to learn how to read livestock appropriately.
Adult Education Skills: regardless of how many years of experience an instructor has with a particular breed of dog, if s/he is lacking in the "instruction" department, it makes for a less than satisfied student, especially for novice handlers. A herding expert can be defined in many ways. It can include how many years a person has been working with stock dogs (but, perhaps who has never set foot on a trial field), or it can be defined by the number of advanced titles a person has accrued (even if she has always only owned a handful of sheep on which she train her dogs). But, for the newbie herding student, a critical criterion ought to be whether or not that person (whether rancher or trialist) can eloquently communicate throughout the learning process.
Knowledge of dogs: there are people who can read a dog and there are people who can't. That knowledge sometimes comes from within (a god-given talent, so to speak), and often comes with years of training and working with dogs (although I know folks who have been working with dogs for decades and still are not that great at reading them). A dog expert can read dogs. I can read a dog's face and, for the most part, tell his intention. I don't care if it's a dachshund or a Great Dane. A dog expert can read stress, concern, fear, confusion in a dog based on its body language and the subtle cues that it presents. S/he can read those cues while a dog is working livestock or learning how to stay in the distraction of a half dozen cats. When it comes to herding, yes, it's important that the instructor understand "herding", but it's really important that s/he KNOWS dogs and can read a dog quickly and can respond appropriately to that dog's signs so as to move the dog's training forward and so as not to negatively impact the dog's learning or worse, destroy his confidence.
Knowledge of herding dogs: yes, it's true that dogs that herd livestock have some unique traits that set them apart from, say, the Retrievers or the Hounds, or the Terriers. A very sound knowledge of those traits is important. Sure, each breed has its own set of traits that seem to define the breed - how boring it would be if there were only one herding breed. But, a really sound understanding of what makes herding dogs tick is sufficient for a herding instructor, in my opinion, so long as the other criteria on this list are met, and especially if these criteria are met better by an instructor that may not own or trial with your specific herding breed.
Knowledge of herding, working with herding dogs, doing ranch work and trailing with herding dogs, and knowledge of livestock: There's nothing like miles and miles of working time with dogs and stock to augment an instructor's understanding of this most complex things we do with our dogs. It also expands the instructor's "tool box" of methods one can try to get a dog over a difficult hump. The five years of experience with herding that the AKC and AHBA have as criteria for judges is really a very minimal number, in my opinion. One can hardly scratch the surface of understanding herding dogs and livestock in that amount of time. Gosh, in five years, one might only have trained and trailed one or two dogs. So, when assessing whether an instructor can offer you the most, I'd always put years of working with the dogs and stock higher than specifically working with a single breed.
Personality: this is really where it is at, in my opinion. You have to get along with your instructor, or very limited learning happens. My very first instructor didn't like my breed of dog and actually would refer to him by derogatory slag terms, rather than his name or his breed. I cried on more than one occasion during or after the lesson. Yet, I paid her money for the abuse. I audited a clinic a year or so ago and watched the instructor speak very unkindly to some of the participants. I saw one woman struggle to hold back tears while he treated her with great indecency, at least as I saw it. Whew! And she was paying him money for the experience. Let's face it. We don't get along with everyone, and everyone doesn't get along with us! No matter how much I wish everyone liked me, some people don't, and won't. They shouldn't come to train with me, regardless of how much experience I have, even if I am the highest authority with their breed of dog. It's better to find an instructor who you respect and who respects you and with whom you can have a healthy working relationship.
Finally, it's is critical that you find an instructor who presents information that you can "hear". I have had a few students that don't seem to hear me. For example, I have told a couple of students that, until they get a really solid stop on their dogs, progress will be impeded. I have a variety of methods to get a dog to stop, as do most instructors. And, I try to offer up all the different options. Yet, the student doesn't seem to respond, no matter how I present the information. So, off she goes to a clinic in the next state over, comes back and I ask, "So, what was the most significant thing you learned?" And, what is the reply? "Oh, he said that I really need to get a stop on my dog!" I just smile. I don't get angry that someone else was finally successful; it actually makes me quite happy, as I can then see the student's future as far more bright. If you don't seem to be "hearing" what the instructor is telling you, there is a communication gap. Perhaps the instructor is just not so great at explaining things. Perhaps, the student just isn't geared to hear the information the way the instructor presents the information. Probably, it is somewhere in between. Regardless, it is a very important component to the over all learning that goes on - far more so than whether the instructor owns your breed of dog.
Breed specific herding knowledge is, of course, a very nice attribute to seek in an instructor. But, frankly, it doesn't weight nearly as importantly, in my opinion, than many other qualities that an individual herding instructor might have to offer new students.
About the author: Tammie Rogers and her husband Robert live on a working sheep ranch in Brownstown, Illinois. Tammie has been training and trialing herding dogs for 17 years, is an AHBA herding judge and offers herding lessons and clinics. Her dogs have earned multiple HIT awards in ASCA, AHBA and AKC trials where she has attained those organizations' advanced titles on several dogs. A biologist by profession, Tammie left a 20 year career in the biomedical field to devote her attention to DarnFar Ranch, a full service Dog Training facility. The Rogers' also host herding trials and clinics at their ranch.
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Page Updated 07/09/2008
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