Nickelsberg's Farm

German Shepherd Herding

Genetics Is Everything


Alf von Fafnerhaus (Nicky) 1998



by Ellen Nickelsberg

There are two drives the German shepherd herding dog must have not only to succeed in practical, everyday sheep herding work which demands independent performance, but also to excel in HGH herding competitions. They are (1) “total attraction to the sheep“; and (2) “genetic obedience“.  These drives are genetic, can be selectively bred for and are expressions of the prey instinct.  The higher and more balanced these drives are, the higher the level of performance the skilled shepherd can bring out in the dog without compulsion training.  [NOTE:  By compulsion training I mean: to compel a dog to do something it does not want to do either because it is not in him to do it or because it is not yet ready to do it.]

“Total attraction to the sheep” is a specific and focused aspect of the prey instinct.  It is an intense, almost obsessive, form of the prey drive which is expressed by behaviors to possess and control sheep to the exclusion of all other prey objects.  An example of a dog with this high drive is one which, when in the presence of sheep, does not care about anyone or anything except “counting the sheep” and one which literally “laughs” with pure pleasure while working the sheep.  Expressions of this drive can be seen when observing the behavior of the selectively bred herding dog patrolling the boundary of a graze.  For example, the dog:  (1) moves energetically along the boundary; (2) is totally focused on the sheep in the graze — never taking its eyes off of them even when reversing direction; (3) literally has a “laughing” expression on its face; and, (4) carries its tail high while working.  “Total attraction to the sheep” is the fuel that keeps the dog working tirelessly all day — the higher this drive, the higher the octane.

“Genetic obedience” is connected to the pack drive which is the social aspect of the prey instinct.  It is expressed as a strong willingness to be with and to cooperate with the shepherd — to accept direction from the shepherd.  “Genetic obedience” is the braking and steering mechanism the experienced shepherd uses to “direct” the high drive and natural behaviors the dog brings to herding out of the prey instinct.  A dog with “genetic obedience” only needs to be shown by the shepherd what the job to be done is and, once he understands, does the job willingly, reliably and, above all, independently — this is “education”.  A dog with this drive not only wants to work, but it wants to work in cooperation with the shepherd.  Trainers with a “master/slave” mentality toward the dog are an affront to the genetic make up of this kind of dog.  On the other hand, a dog lacking in “genetic obedience” needs to be commanded by the shepherd and often, in the beginning, compelled to obediently perform the same tasks whether it wants to, or not — this is “training”.  Both of these dogs will be able to herd sheep, but there will be a significant difference in their performances.  For example, the dog with “genetic obedience” whose instincts are “directed” will learn to work reliably and independently in cooperation with the shepherd; while the dog lacking in “genetic obedience” which is trained to work on and obey commands will learn to remain reliant on the shepherd.

It is up to the shepherd to decide which kind of dog he is most comfortable working with.  If the shepherd does not feel comfortable “directing” the dog’s instincts because he only knows how to control a dog with obedience commands, then he should not work with a dog bred to have “genetic obedience”.  According to Manfred Heyne: “dogs with high drive attraction to work sheep and “genetic obedience” are jewels.  They do not need commands, nor do they respond well to commands.  They only need to be “directed” to bring out the best in them.  Commands to such a dog create an adversarial relationship between the dog and the shepherd, whereas “directing” the dog’s instincts and drives creates a cooperative relationship in which the dog works better with the shepherd and at a much higher level.”

My interest in herding is the German shepherd dog.  What excites me is watching the selectively bred, basic instincts of the dog come alive around sheep.  What challenges me is learning to “direct” that instinctual prey behavior through “genetic obedience” into the appropriate sheep herding skills necessary to serve the shepherd without losing the power and energy of those instincts in the process.

We all know what training a dog is.  It is teaching a dog a word or a signal that tells the dog to do something.  There is a dictionary full of commands used by trainers to tell the dog what to do.  Because there is a training command for every step a dog takes in herding, and, because harsh compulsion methods are sometimes used by herding trainers to make the dog obey a command even before the dog fully understands the task, training can, and usually does, effectively shut down any flashes of independent work a dog might show right from the beginning — especially in a dog with strong “genetic obedience”.

At the moment I am receiving my herding education from Nicky.  Several years ago I took Nicky to Germany for six months and watched him learn to work proudly and independently under the direction of a master. Let me try to explain from my own experiences at that time, and since then, what I have learned about working with the dog’s instincts.

I bred Nicky and so had the ability to familiarize myself from the very beginning with each of the puppies in his litter.  By the time they were 8 weeks old I knew the personalities and behavioral characteristics of each one.  I selected Nicky as the most promising pup in the litter, and, luckily Nicky chose me.  Choosing me was the first sign that Nicky had inherited the seeds of that strong drive Manfred calls genetic obedience.  These seeds would be carefully nurtured to develop into “genetic obedience” as Nicky matured.  For the first nine months to a year all I did with Nicky was develop a trusting relationship and let him learn what pleased and displeased me from the tones of my voice.  The only commands I taught him during this time were “Come” and “Stay”.  That was all I did prior to introducing Nicky to sheep in the field.

Nicky was 20 months old when I took him to Germany to start his basic herding education.  I was only able to stay with him for the first 3 or 4 weeks to get the “feel” of starting a dog myself.  The first thing we did was to introduce Nicky to the boundary after the sheep had already been brought to the graze.  Nicky was taught in no uncertain terms, preferably by tone of voice but physically if necessary, that he is not permitted to go over the boundary into the graze for any reason.  Nicky was taught this by being kept on lead until he demonstrated consistently that he had learned to respect the boundary and that if he did go inside, as often happens starting a high drive dog, he would respond immediately to a stern “Pfui!” from the shepherd by getting right back out again.  Once Nicky had demonstrated all of these things on lead, he was taken off lead on the boundary and allowed to work free.  Rule #1:  the dog must earn each increase in freedom and responsibility given to it.

The boundary is where Nicky would learn to use his instincts, control his drive, develop his confidence, work independently and hone his herding skills all by himself with nothing more than occasional “direction” (tone of voice and/or crook signal) from the shepherd.  There would be no shouting of commands to make him do anything.  If Nicky wanted to sit on the boundary and do nothing all day, that was OK.  In fact that was exactly what Nicky did for the first 2½ days after being set free on the boundary. /span>

As soon as Nicky had been set free on the boundary, he had to be corrected one time only in no uncertain terms for using that freedom to run in, grip a sheep, refuse to let go and refuse to come out when called.  That correction was Nicky’s wake-up call that there were definite rules to this game and that he had better learn them or he would lose his freedom to work.  The decision was Nicky’s.  Did Nicky want to work enough to obey Rule #1 so he could be free to learn?

The strict orders given to me after correcting Nicky and placing him back on the boundary were:  to stand on the boundary; to keep my eyes only on the sheep; and, to totally ignore the dog.  This was a real hands-on lesson in patience for me.  For 2½ days neither Nicky nor I moved on that boundary while Manfred sat in his car reading to make sure neither Nicky nor I would break the rules.  Looking back on it now it was comical, but then it was excruciating for me.  Only Nikko, Nicky’s father, worked by himself while Nicky contemplated the game and I played statue on the boundary.

The first day Nicky sat on the boundary with his back to the world ignoring me, Manfred, Nikko and the sheep — literally just staring out into space.  The morning of the second day:  Nicky still sat on the boundary but now he had turned slightly so that he could watch Nikko work out of the corner of his eye.  The afternoon of the second day:  Nicky sat on the boundary facing in watching everything.  The morning of the third day:  Nicky stood on the boundary watching Nikko.  The afternoon of the third day:  after about ½ hour of watching Nikko and the sheep, Nicky just started working — he just started moving back and forth along the boundary with total focus on the sheep.  During the whole 2½ days, not a word was spoken nor signal given — Nicky had learned whatever he learned all by himself.

From the moment Nicky had earned his freedom on the boundary by figuring out the rules and deciding to work, his drive and confidence increased steadily.  Although at first he was only allowed to work one side of the graze, the same boundary that the shepherd was on, Nicky’s drive and power increased along with his intensity and focus on the sheep.  As his drive and focus increased, so did my anxiety level.  After all, there I was, standing on the boundary watching my dog’s prey instincts come alive with increasingly higher drive and all I had to control him with were the words “Come”, “Stay”, “Pfui” and “Brav”.  I clearly remember muttering to myself “Please, God, let there really be such a thing as “genetic obedience” and PLEASE, God, let Nicky have it!”

As Nicky’s drive and power on the boundary grew, I was becoming increasingly anxious about the possibility of losing control of the dog.  So, I learned Rule #2 Stand on the border facing the sheep with your back to the dog; keep still; keep quiet; and, above all, do not say anything to correct the dog until you see exactly what the dog’s intentions are.  Something like an occasional pounce into and back out of the graze to startle the sheep is acceptable — it is fun for the dog and allows the dog to get a feel for how to use his power.  Beginning education must not become Marine Corp boot camp – it should be fun and the dog must be allowed to test his power and influence on the sheep as long as he does not run into the graze to chase and grip.

“Stand on the boundary & ignore the dog” – Germany 1991

Once the dog has shown that it wants to work, the boundaries of the graze become the classroom for the whole first year of education.  The dog is allowed to do anything it wants to as long as it does not run into the graze to chase and grip sheep — inside the graze the dog knows that the shepherd will enforce Rule #1.  The dog, now, must learn for itself that outside the graze his job is to set clear boundaries for the sheep and that he must enforce those boundaries.  The sheep are allowed to do anything that they want to inside the boundaries — but outside the boundaries the dog learns that his job is to enforce the boundary rule on the sheep.

The pack order has been set:  (1)shepherd; (2) dog; (3)sheep — and the physical order has been set:  (1)sheep inside the boundaries; (2)dog outside the boundaries.  The shepherd’s task should only have to be:  (1) to make sure that the order is maintained; (2) to watch the dog learn herding skills for itself by testing the effect its behaviors on the boundaries have on the sheep inside the graze; and, (3) to support the dog when necessary if the sheep challenge it before it is experienced enough to deal with the challenge.  No commands.  No noise.  No training.  No confusion.  The dog must respect the shepherd.  The sheep must respect the dog and trust the shepherd.

Every behavior, instinct and skill necessary for herding is in the selectively bred dog from birth.  During the first year, all education is done with two commands on the boundaries.  That is all that is needed to “direct” the dog’s drive and instinctual behavior.  NO commands are used to make the dog perform any task.  The dog must WANT to perform.  If he does not want to work, his education is finished and he is retired.  All the shepherd has to do is let the dog develop this behavior on his own on the boundary with as little interference as possible.  The dog is left alone on the boundary with the shepherd there only to make sure it does not get into trouble.  In this way, instead of being nagged to death by training commands the dog learns for himself through trial and error how his behavior influences the sheep.  Then after a year of building confidence and honing newly discovered herding skills on the boundary, the dog does not need to be told what to do to move the sheep, the shepherd only needs to show the dog where to move them — the dog does not need to be told how to stop the forward movement of the flock, the shepherd only needs to tell the dog when and where.

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