Nickelsberg's Farm

German Shepherd Herding

Boundary Instinct

Alf von Fafnerhaus (Nicky) – New York 1998



by Ellen Nickelsberg

A good HGH herding dog identifies, selects and works
the natural boundaries of the flock by instinct.

For those readers who have never seen an experienced German Shepherd dog herding sheep in Germany, the concept of a dog picking up and working a boundary to contain the flock by instinct can be a very difficult one to accept.  Videos and photographs do not capture it — the size of the flock and the area covered by the boundaries is just too great to be taken in completely.  One must actually be there, watching, to fully appreciate the boundary work performed by an experienced shepherd dog.  Yet, even watching this work performed, the concept of “boundary instinct” can still be elusive — good boundary work looks too precise and orderly for one not to still think it had been trained.  But, a well-bred shepherd dog DOES perform this work by instinct.  That is not to say a dog cannot be trained to do boundary work — it obviously can be: however, watching a trained dog without instinct work a boundary and watching a dog with instinct work a boundary is like watching me mindlessly whittle a stick and watching Michaelangelo purposefully sculpt the Pieta.

Each year since 1987, I have spent time in the field in Germany with Schäfermeister Manfred Heyne.  During these times, the dogs always worked in open, cultivated fields with clearly visible man-made boundaries, or furrows, between the crops.  Although I always believed that the boundary work I was watching the dogs perform was instinct, a little voice inside me kept whispering “No, it can’t be instinct, it’s too contrived, it must be training.”  The light did not go on in my head until I spent a week in Germany one spring.  I would like to share some of what I learned about the importance of “instinct” in selecting a German Shepherd dog for herding sheep.  However, please keep in mind that any dog with a strong drive/attraction to sheep can be TRAINED to do large flock herding, but if that dog does not have the APPROPRIATE INSTINCTS for sheep herding, it will never develop the behavioral repertoire necessary to become a reliable herding dog that can be trusted to keep the flock contained safely by himself without any commands from the shepherd.  For example, I was with Manfred Heyne during fall lambing when a ewe gave birth in the field.  Manfred was able to take the ewe and the lamb back to the barn in his truck leaving the flock to be tended by only one dog.  I watched this dog tend all four boundaries completely by himself for more than an hour until Manfred came back. There is no doubt in my mind that this dog would have have continued tending those sheep in this field all day ALONE if it had to.

Ewe cleaning her new born lamb in the field – Germany 1991

In the spring, the sheep are brought to pasture in the fields around Schloss Eisenbach — an old medieval castle built on a hill. The fields around it are not cultivated pastures but rather they are open, grassy fields interspersed among

Schloss Eisenbach – Germany 1991

forests, streams and steep rocky hills.  There are no man-made boundaries here other than footpaths for hiking, small dirt roads, an old railroad track and a small bridge or two over the streams.

The flock being led over a bridge – Germany 1991

During the day Manfred moves his flock from place to place to graze in the uneven, grassy fields found around the castle walls.  There are no furrows and no delineated crop fields.  To make things even more challenging for the dog, the spring flock consists of 50%, or more, lambs born between October and March, and the sheep are kept in barns over the winter months so that spring is the first time in the field for most of the lambs.  The lambs were not yet conditioned to follow the shepherd nor to come when called.  These lambs were out for a good time exploring, harassing the adults and just plain acting like elementary school kids at recess. In fact, this flock was referred to as the “kindergarten”.

It was a comical, magical flock — it was spring. The lambs were into everything. The older ones formed rowdy gangs that pestered the ewes with younger lambs until the ewes finally drove them away.  They played, butted heads, frolicked and occasionally lay down in the sun to sleep, much to everyone’s relief.  This was my opportunity to see and to learn the meaning of “boundary instinct”.

Manfrerd was beginning to work a four-year-old female he had on consignment from an East German shepherd.  He wanted to see if she has what he wants in a female for breeding.  The first morning out the dog clearly showed very high drive and energy working the sheep. She also showed a very strong willingness to please the shepherd.  She had the two ingredients absolutely necessary for a good herding dog.  However, the dog lacked the third ingredient, the ingredient that makes a good HGH herding dog a great HGH herding dog — the dog lacked the natural ability (instinct) to use her drive effectively to control and contain the sheep on her own.

Manfred stood the dog by the gate as the sheep were led out of the pen.  Then he had the dog work the man-side boundary of the flock to see what she could do on her own without any commands.  Remember:  the dog is a four-year-old already accustomed to herding sheep in East Germany — she is an experienced HGH herding dog, not a novice.

The dog ran the boundary back and forth with tremendous drive and energy.  Periodically she would rush into the flock and harmlessly grip a sheep for no apparent reason.  However, when sheep strayed over the boundary, she would run right by them as if they were not there, and, she never covered the entire length of the flock.  The sheep quickly learned to ignore her.  After about 15 minutes of charging back and forth on the boundary Manfred called her to him.  The dog was already exhausted. If Manfred had not stopped her, the dog would have burned herself out in no time.

I went over to look at the boundary the dog had made for herself in the fresh grass.  It was not one boundary; it was a four or five foot wide highway.  I remembered the day four years ago when Manfred brought his young nine-month-old dog to the field for the first time to see if he was ready to begin boundary work.  On the young dog’s first day out with the sheep, with no previous experience, in 15 minutes he had formed his boundary — a single track no more than six to eight inches wide covering the entire length of the flock!  On that day four years ago as his young dog moved back and forth along his boundary, I remember Manfred saying proudly “Das ist Instinkt!” Today Manfred said nothing.

Now, after this dog had a few minutes to catch her breath, Manfred sent her to the boundary again.  This time he kept constantly talking to her in a low, slow, calm, soothing voice — quietly directing her and encouraging her as she moved along the boundary: “Brava/good”; “Furche/onto the furrow, brava”; “Das ist so brav”; “Langsam/slowly, brava”. Watching Manfred work the dog was spellbinding.  This dog, the frantic worker just five minutes ago, was suddenly working calmly and smoothly.  The tone of the scene shifted from cacophony to harmony in the blink of an eye. Manfred directed the dog’s every move with the singsong tones of his voice.  He never gave her a chance to make a mistake — if she started to come off the boundary, he would softly and calmly remind her to stay on it.  Manfred never used the word “Pfui/bad” even if the dog did something wrong.  Instead of a verbal correction or negative tone of voice, he would quietly coax her back into the right position or behavior and then PRAISE — always PRAISE.

I was watching Manfred “educate” the dog.  Manfred was channeling her drive and energy into purposeful work to serve his sheep herding needs.  Manfred’s encouraging, calming, directing voice kept him in constant contact with the dog — he never gave her the opportunity to fall into a pattern of errors in performance.  If she came off the boundary, he would immediately encourage her back onto it and PRAISE.  If the dog did not immediately understand what Manfred was directing her to do, he calmly and quietly repeated the commands giving her all the time she needed to figure it out for herself.  This was education.  What I was watching was a dog learning for herself what she is expected to do — with no stress imposed by compulsion training and no risk of the shepherd setting a pattern of avoidance behavior due to misunderstood negative physical or verbal corrections.  The result of this education will be a dog that will be able to work on her own with confidence to the limits of her instincts.

Manfred has the dog work the boundary farther from the flock
so she would not disturb it – Germany 1991

That afternoon Manfred left the dog home and brought his own male, an experienced herding dog, and another four-year-old female of his breeding, to the pasture to herd the sheep.  This female had lived with a local farmer for three years.  Since the farmer had recently sold his sheep, he had no more need for her so he returned her to the shepherd.  She had about the same herding experience as the East German female had, and the shepherd repeated the same test he had done with her that morning.  The sheep were brought to pasture and, while his male dog established and held the far boundaries, the female was free to work the man-side boundary of the flock.

This female worked in marked contrast to the East German female.  Manfred’s female had the same high or higher drive as the East German one had working the boundary, but Manfred’s bitch’s work was purposeful.  Her boundary was straight and narrow and covered the entire length of the flock and she enforced the boundary with confidence and purpose — any sheep that wandered across it were swiftly and effectively punished and put back inside.  She never rushed haphazardly into the flock, and the sheep quickly learned to respect her and her boundary.  Manfred was very pleased.

Purposeful working ability lets Manfred allow his dogs
to work close to the flock – Germany 1991

During the remainder of my visit, Manfred would alternately take both females with him to the field.   The results were always the same. The East German female had to be worked under constant voice command — Manfred had to direct every move she made.  On the other hand, Manfred’s bitch needed virtually no direction from the shepherd — she worked effectively completely on her own.  Manfred’s bitch worked 100% on instinct while the East German bitch did not.

No matter how much education or training the East German bitch would receive, she would always have to be told what to do, when to do it and where to make her boundary.  She could become a good HGH herding dog but only under the constant direction of the shepherd.  On the other hand, Manfred’s bitch showed the instincts to become a better herding dog.   On her own, her work was purposeful and efficient — her instincts gave her drives direction, the shepherd did not need to.

What is “boundary instinct”?  I have seen it expressed in the behavior pattern of some dogs just as I have seen it lacking in others under the same conditions.  There is no doubt in my mind that it exists, but just what is it?  I have asked many questions about “boundary instinct” but it was not until May 1991 when I watched a litter of ten-week-old puppies being tested that I really began to understand.

One morning before feeding the puppies, Manfred set up a 6’x30′ area in the sheep barn and put the puppies in it.  One end of the testing area gave the puppies full view of the sheep in holding pens about 20 feet away.  First, they were tested for sound sensitivity and shyness.  Then Manfred selected an appropriate size ram lamb to put in with the puppies.  Two or three puppies glued themselves to the fence watching the shepherd select and carry over the lamb.  Once the lamb was placed in the pen, all of the puppies showed interest. They chased the lamb up and down the pen — some gripping and some not.  Two sable puppies, a male and a female, and a black and tan female showed the greatest drive in chasing and gripping the lamb.

When Manfred opened the gate to remove two of the puppies he had selected earlier for himself, one of the other females got loose.  She began busily exploring the barn with a great deal of interest and no insecurity.  I liked her.  I thought: “this puppy shows good nerves, interest in strange surroundings, curiosity, independence and to boot she is the prettiest.”  Before she was put back in the pen with the others, I told Manfred I liked her.  He said nothing. He just marked her with a red marker so we could identify her during the remainder of the puppy test on the lamb.

Back in the pen, the three remaining females continued to show attraction to the lamb — chasing and gripping — while the fourth, a coated male, showed no interest at all.  After a few more minutes, the red-marked female continued to chase the lamb with the other two but she stopped trying to grip it.  The red-marked female was only interested in playing with the lamb, not in possessing it.  When the lamb stopped running, the red-marked female gradually lost interest.  While the other two females continued to show interest in the standing lamb by mounting and gripping it, the red-marked female went off to explore the rest of the pen.

The interest in exploring the environment which I had liked in the red-marked female should have been a warning to me as it had been to the shepherd that this puppy could be too easily distracted.  Of the two black and tan puppies left showing interest in the lamb, one showed a markedly higher drive/attraction to the lamb.  I could see the difference.  A week later, after Manfred had returned the other three puppies to the owner, we re-tested our three puppies.  They all showed even greater attraction to the lamb and the same proper gripping.

What does Manfred look for in his puppies that lets him know which puppies have the raw instincts necessary to develop into the behavioral repertoire needed to develop “boundary instinct” and become top-notch herding dogs?

First, Manfred looks for intensity of drive (attraction to the sheep) in the puppy.  Does the puppy maintain an intense interest in the lamb even in extremes — for example, when the lamb either stands still or physically challenges the puppy?  Manfred looks for a puppy showing strong eye contact and an uninhibited drive to continue gripping even when the lamb is fighting and challenging it.

Second, Manfred looks for a puppy that does NOT bark at the lamb.  Barking can be a sign of insecurity and an indication of weak nerves.

Third, Manfred looks for a puppy that is serious — one that really wants to connect with the lamb, to possess the lamb with no ifs, ands or buts.  He looks for a puppy that is so attracted to the lamb that nothing will distract it.

Why does Manfred look for this intense drive, attraction to the lamb and sound nerves in a puppy?  Why is it so important for the puppy not only to grip the lamb but also to grip the lamb in the correct places?  The young puppy can be compared to the pre-verbal child.  How does the mother know what her infant likes, wants and is attracted to?  She knows because he grabs what he is attracted to and tries to stuff it in his mouth.  The young puppy is the same — it grabs and bites the lamb because it is attracted to it.  Grabbing and mouthing behavior by the pre-verbal child is the same expression of attraction as the puppy’s chasing and biting behavior.  The child does not grab and mouth what it is not attracted to and neither does the puppy.  Therefore, the best way to determine the degree of intensity of the puppy’s attraction to sheep is to assess the intensity and sustainability of the puppy’s drive to chase and grip the lamb under controlled conditions.  By controlled conditions I mean with an age-appropriate lamb in a safe place — not by putting a half grown wooly sheep in a large pen with six-week-old puppies to see if they survive the experience.  Special attention must be paid to giving age-appropriate tests only to avoid any unnecessary, negative experience that might permanently damage the natural development of the puppy’s instincts and self-confidence.

As the puppy grows and matures, this attraction to the sheep should remain and hopefully intensify.  However, the expression of attraction to the sheep should change from the chasing and biting behavior of the puppy into the containment and boundary behavior of the adult HGH herding dog.  With the proper raw instincts this change in behavior will develop on its own, by itself, naturally — Manfred does not have to do anything except sit back and wait for it to happen.  Containment and boundary behavior should start to develop sometime after the dog is 9 to 12 months old.  That is why if the dog has the proper drives and raw instincts, the shepherd only needs to wait for the dog to tell him when it is ready to begin its education. The shepherd should not set the time to begin educating the dog in the field — the dog should do that.

What did I learn this spring from watching these puppy tests on the lamb and from watching the dogs work in the field?  First, I learned that a puppy demonstrates at a very early age its basic level of drive and attraction to sheep.  I observed six puppies express varying degrees of drive and attraction to a lamb ranging from low to very high.  In addition, I learned that a puppy demonstrates a predisposition at a very early age as to how it can, does and will use its drive on sheep.  I observed six puppies express their drives differently, ranging from random play and avoidance to purposeful possession of the lamb.  In three separate tests performed over a one-week period, each puppy demonstrated its own level of drive and its own behavioral use of that drive consistently.  The three selected puppies demonstrated from their behavior and their drive that they have the raw genetic instinct most likely to develop over time into the natural behavioral repertoire necessary for herding sheep.

Second, I learned from watching the two bitches worked that the shepherd should not try to force a dog to perform beyond its natural ability.  A top herding dog must be bred it cannot be made by training alone.  When assessing the adult dog’s working ability, the dog should be offered a task; the dog should be watched performing the task under the direction of its own instincts; and then, the dog should be directed by the shepherd further in the task to assess the potential limit of the dog’s natural ability and willingness to perform.  The shepherd should only help, guide and encourage the dog to perform the task to the dog’s maximum ability but he should not force the dog to perform beyond its demonstrated natural willingness and capability to do so.  The reason for this is simple.  In the field the shepherd’s job is to tend his sheep — the shepherd has his own tasks to perform:  if a sheep gets sick, the shepherd has to treat it; if a sheep goes lame, he has to help it; if a ewe gives birth, he has to remove her from the flock; and so on.  While the shepherd is performing his tasks, he cannot always, nor does he want to, pay attention to his dog.  The shepherd must know and trust that his dog is doing its job on its own — he must trust that his dog is containing and controlling the flock within the proper boundaries and that his dog is not disrupting the flock while it grazes.  If a dog performs well under the constant voice control and direction of the shepherd but cannot work the sheep on ts own, then the dog is not much good to the working shepherd.  The shepherd cannot tend to his sheep and give constant direction to his dog at the same time.  All the training and guidance in the world will not create the efficient sense of purpose and reliability in the herding dog that the proper instincts do.  The working shepherd dog must have the proper instincts to give its drive purposeful expression — it must have developed the natural behavioral repertoire necessary for herding sheep on its own.  This is why Manfred pays so much attention to assessing and encouraging the natural ability and instinct in his dogs and why he takes so much care to nurture and protect those instincts during education — if they are damaged by one error of education, by one misguided correction, the dog may no longer be of any use to him.

Bringing the flock home. The dog works only as close to the sheep
as necessary to keep them in order on the road – Germany 1991


Comments are closed.