Nickelsberg's Farm

German Shepherd Herding

Herding With Nicky

What Nicky Knows

I have been asked to write about my experiences focusing on the genetics and independent working ability of my GSDs — my sheep herding line of GSDs.  Everything I learned about GSD large-flock boundary herding I learned from Schäfermeister Manfred Heyne whom I met back in 1987.  Everything I learned about teamwork in GSD large-flock boundary herding I learned from my dog, Nicky, Alf von Fafnerhaus, who gave me my hands-on education in the field.  I taught Nicky nothing about sheep herding, while he taught me everything about it!  Looking back, I was what Nicky might have called a “difficult student”.  But Nicky was a patient, forgiving and persistent teacher.  I’d like to think he at least felt some satisfaction with me as his student from this effort.

Nicky is out of Manfred Heyne’s line of GSD herding champions that go back on the old herding blood to the beginning of the breed. One herding line that Manfred’s dogs descended from was described in its time as being known for producing intelligent working dogs with an almost uncanny ability to think like a human being.  The dogs coming down over this line, some have said, didn’t need to be told what to do — you just had to point and they would go do it.  Years and generations later this description fits my Nicky to a “T”, and according to Manfred all of his SV National Herding Champions from whom Nicky descended had this same distinction.

Over the years while the GSD increased in popularity as a show and service dog, the influence of Schäfermeisters in the SV hierarchy diminished from little to none.  As a result of the changes he saw in the GSD under the SV system over the years, Manfred Heyne who took great pride in the working ability of his dogs and who selected them for intelligence, diligence and initiative came up with a saying that goes something like this:  “The more advanced the educational degrees of the people running the SV breed association, the lower the level of intelligence in the dogs they produce.”  Interesting correlation.  But be that as it may, I have often wondered whether dogs grade humans on the intelligence scale as well?  This thought leads me to a little story.

City Kids

Nicky by himself will keep our 300+ sheep where I leave them to graze for as long as I am gone.  I just have to designate the boundaries and he will keep the sheep there on his own without me having to tell him what to do or how to do it.  One summer my husband had three 17-18 year old boys from his baseball team up to the farm to work for a few days — born and raised city boys from Brooklyn.  The last day they were here I decided to give them a feel for sheep herding.  I asked them to stay and watch Nicky work while I went to town. When I came back about an hour later, there was Nicky with a BIG grin on his face sitting on the hillside boundary watching the sheep exactly where I had left the flock just like I would be doing if he were me.  As I was wondering where the boys were and what had been going on while I was away, two of the boys came huffing and puffing and dripping sweat running up the hill along the boundary — the third boy was nowhere in sight.  I asked the two boys what was going on.  They said that they were patrolling the boundaries while the third boy was down at the barn getting water for Nicky.  Just then the third boy came huffing and puffing up from the barn carrying a big pail of water which he deposited right next to Nicky who was sitting there looking like the Pope surveying his flock.  As I looked at Nicky with this big grin on his face, I could have sworn he winked at me.  These boys seemed so proud and filled with such feeling of accomplishment that it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.  Little did they suspect that in less than one hour while I was gone, Nicky had turned the tables on them.  Nicky had assumed the role of shepherd and taught these kids to herd sheep as he had been taught years ago.  The sheep were where I had left them, but Nicky had reversed roles.  He had taught the boys how to do his job exactly the same way I had taught him years before.

Since that time when Nicky trained those kids from Brooklyn to do boundary work, I have often wondered what Nicky thought about while he sat there on the hillside during his brief reign as shepherd.  Did Nicky wonder about humans the way I wondered about dogs while watching them work?  Was Nicky trying to figure out whether humans think?  Or whether humans are capable of problem solving, independent thinking or making judgement calls?  If he was, I’ll never know for sure — he hasn’t told me in so many words.

Some of you may be wondering what made me so sure I knew how Nicky taught those boys to herd.  Well, I knew because I watched him teach his son, Gunthie, and his daughter, Freude, when they first started. I learned all this by watching Nicky.

Starting a Dog

I saw what Nicky knew — that when you bring a young starting dog to the boundary of a large flock for the first time there is a certain feeling of insecurity.  The dog’s insides tell it what it ought to do but the dog’s head says “Hey, man, that’s a lotta BIG sheep there! Whoa!”  I also learned that this “window of insecurity”, or this “window of opportunity” as I prefer to call it, could slam shut pretty fast, depending on the dog.  But until it does, that window offers the shepherd an excellent opportunity to set the foundation for the cooperative working relationship that Manfred had told me about — Manfred may have told me about it, but Nicky actually taught me about it.

The first day on the flock Freude, Nicky’s one-year-old daughter, was drawn to work the boundary immediately upon being introduced to it — she was also very responsive to my voice.  A shepherd’s dream come true I thought.  When I was first learning to be a shepherd, I was all tied up in my own insecurities — like how to keep the dog from eating the sheep without looking like an hysterical woman.  It never dawned on me that the young starting dog might actually be experiencing those same feelings of insecurity when in the presence of hundreds of creatures more than twice its size — feelings of insecurity like being eaten by the sheep instead of the other way around.  A wise shepherd and an experienced teacher see this as an opportunity to support the student during this window of insecurity.  By the shepherd being there to give the dog support during times of insecurity instead of nagging and correcting, the dog learns to see the shepherd as a partner instead of as an obstacle or as an adversary.  So later, when the dog’s insecurity fades, instead of that growing confidence turning into hubris, instead of the dog turning a deaf ear to the shepherd and the shepherd’s leadership the dog will already have learned to look to him for direction and approval which, when given, leads to greater confidence and a greater sense of cooperation.  I think of this as an upward “spiral of cooperation” — one that leads to higher and higher levels of performance.

I let Freude free on the boundary and ignored her as Manfred taught me to do.  The sheep knew a new dog when they saw one and took every opportunity to keep Freude off balance.  The flock was strung out for several hundred yards along the road so Freude had a long boundary to work.  The first thing she did was just to watch Nicky for a while as he patrolled back and forth along the boundary. When she had figured out the rules of the game Freude began to move out along the side of the sheep along the boundary.  I stood watching out of the corner of my eye.  It was then that I noticed Nicky.  He had stopped working the boundary, now he was standing aside letting Freude take his place and do all the work.  Nicky had shown Freude what to do.  Now it was up to her to do it — just like he must have done with the boys from Brooklyn.  It was amazing to me to see Freude’s confidence grow with each pass back and forth along the sheep.  She was feeling power as her presence affected the sheep she passed.  Nicky was watching her closely but remained in the background.  Then, a ewe decided it was time to go back to the barn and she wasn’t going to pay any attention to Freude standing in her way.  Freude didn’t know what to do and the ewe knew it.  But so did Nicky.  Freude stood her ground as the ewe approached to leave the graze, but it was clear that the ewe was not going to turn back for Freude.  Just before Freude would have ended up backing down, the cavalry in the form of Nicky appeared over the ridge and charged down to punish that ewe appropriately right in front of Freude and the rest of the flock.  Freude had just received her first lesson on how to handle a situation like that in the future.  From then on, she did.  Again and again, every time Freude ran into a new situation that she was not confident or experienced enough to handle, Nicky would watch, wait to see if she could figure out what to do on her own and, if she could not, Nicky would step in, support her, then retreat back to the sidelines.  This was exactly how Manfred had explained his training method to me years before.  I can only guess that one of Nicky’s great, great, great grandfathers must have taught Manfred too.  At first I thought this was just my imagination.  But other herding friends of mine, including a herding judge, were there watching and they saw it too — without my having mentioned it.

The following year I started Gunthie, Freude’s brother, on the boundary.  Nicky took over his education the same way.  Gunthie is a stronger dog on the sheep than Freude and Nicky’s approach was different.  Gunthie was more observant of Nicky’s power over the sheep from a leadership point of view.  Gunthie wanted to emulate that power.  I guess it’s a “male” thing to do.  As a result, Nicky’s help to Gunthie started off supportive as with Freude, but soon began to be a helpful “balancing act” when Gunthie ceased to need support.  It would take too much space to describe the “balancing” that Nicky did.  Suffice it to say that it was basically the same thing he did when I caused the mess I am about to describe below.  Nicky would see the mess coming from Gunthie’s lack of experience and Nicky would immediately go to counter the mistake by holding the flock in the graze on the opposite boundary if Gunthie pressed too hard on his side.  Gunthie learned from his mistakes and from seeing what Nicky did to counter-balance them.  In fact Gunthie was more relaxed when he knew Nicky was on the other side to balance him.  Nicky was working in co-operation with Gunthie by counter-balancing the mistakes so Gunthie could learn.  This approach is very different from the way humans “punish” or “correct” a mistake.  The end result is also VERY different.


Let me say up front that “intelligence” in a dog can be a two-edged sword, especially when it is coupled with a dog’s sense of pride and self-respect.  If this kind of dog is treated like a slave in a rigid command-control relationship, the dog will either shut down or work grudgingly with a bad attitude.  An attitude in which the dog seems to say “OK, I’ll do what you tell me to do but not ONE thing more!  So, Mr. Shepherdman, be on your toes and make sure you not only tell me everything to do but that you also tell me exactly how to do it, or, I won’t do it otherwise.”  On the other hand, when this kind of dog is given respect and responsibility on the job it will work all day diligently and reliably even without the shepherd there.  I have seen this done many times by Nicky and later by his two sons, Willy and Luki, so I know it is true.

I can not tell you how many times during my own elementary school education in the field I, the pupil, would tell Nicky, the teacher, where to go and what to do to execute a task moving sheep.  I won’t tell you how many times my directions were wrong.  When they were wrong, Professor Nick would give me “the look” — the look that said: “You are wrong and if I do what you want there will be a mess!”  I’d see “the look” and still insist that Nicky follow orders.  Knowing after all that experience is the best teacher, Professor Nick would get that far-away look in his eyes and in a most detached manner do exactly what I asked — no more, no less. Then, there would inevitably come the mess.  At which time a smile would impishly appear on Professor Nick’s face as he watched the look of horror grow on mine.  After letting me twist in the wind at the end of my rope just long enough to prove his point, Professor Nick would prance over to where he knew he should have been to begin with and he would do the job the way he knew it should have been done in the first place.  Then, when the job was properly done his way good old Nick would cast me a sweet, loving look — if he could have winked, he would have done that too, I think.

With every lesson he taught me like that I learned to let Nicky “balance” my mistakes  recalling the words of our Schäfermeister:  “Dogs with high drive and attraction to work sheep are jewels — they do not need commands and they do not respond well to commands.  These dogs 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 and at a much higher level.”


Training this kind of dog should only be to bring out what is already in the dog.  In fact I often go whole days without saying anything to my experienced dogs when they work.  These experienced dogs only need to do the job once under my “direction” (stand, stay, go that way, walk in, go out — all directional commands) and after that they do it on their own — everything!  I only add direction if necessary or when it is a new task.  For example, the following is a post I sent to friends one summer describing what Nicky does to earn his keep.  For years I had been leaving Nicky alone with the flock while I worked on fields or fences in other parts of the farm because I had to.  But back then I would never have left him for more than an hour or two at a time without checking on him.  Now I have NO problem leaving him for the whole day from morning ‘til evening keeping charge of his 300+ sheep when I am not only out of sight but also out of hearing.  I often do this several times a week usually in the fall when farm work has to be done and I have no one else to help me do it.  Here’s the post:

“Yesterday at 11am I put 325 sheep in a large 5-10 acre graze with only Nicky there to keep them where I wanted them to eat while I bush hogged (i.e. mowing down bushes and small trees with a cutting attachment behind a tractor) two overgrown pastures nearby.  My fields are very rocky so I had to watch carefully where I was going.  I paid little attention to the sheep or to the dog — glancing over only once in a great while to see that the sheep were still in the same field.  I bush hogged until 7pm going back to the house 1/2 mile over a hill only one time to refuel the tractor and to get some lunch.  Nicky stayed with the flock on his own while I was gone.  At about 6:30pm the flock crowded to the corner of the field to go back to the barn for the night.  Nicky held them in the graze even though his alarm clock and the sheep’s alarm clock said, “It’s time to go home.”  It was time to go home since I always feed and settle everyone in before 7pm each night.  I tried an experiment.  I stopped the tractor and from the next field some distance away I said “OK, Nick”.  Nicky stepped aside and the flock slowly moved out past the dog and up through the next field toward their nighttime fold.  I resumed bush hogging again at the bottom of the hill where I could glance up occasionally while mowing and watched the sheep being kept in line by the dog move slowly through 3 fields, including 3 corners, on their way up over the hill and out of sight to their night time enclosure.  I watched Nicky keep the whole flock in order in a long line — sometimes leading the flock as I would do to keep them from moving ahead too fast and sometimes along the sides to keep them in a column and to keep any laggards moving.  Nicky did everything as if I was there leading the flock myself!  I was still finishing up the field for another 1/2 hour after they went out of sight over the hill.  I finished my work and drove up to the enclosure.  The gate was closed.  Nicky was with the sheep keeping them grazing in front of it away from my enticing, unfenced garden nearby.  When I got to the gate, Nicky all but said with his look “It’s about time you got here!!”  Nicky had tended our flock for over 8 hours alone!  I couldn’t have given him a command over the noise of the bush hog, nor could I have corrected him even if I had wanted to.”

It was not unusual for me to leave Nicky far out of sight and out of hearing with the sheep for entire days during the autumn.  I’d even go to town some days.  In all the hours and all the days and weeks and months that Nicky tended the sheep by himself I never had a single accident, bite, cut, or anything happen to the sheep under his watch — and, he kept them exactly where I had left them all the while.  This dog has high prey drive, taking his share of sheep down when he started learning to modify his grip.  This drive behavior was transformed with time and experience, with trust and respect, and by the dog’s genetic sense of purpose into what I just described above.  Back in 1990 I saw my Nicky’s grandfather, Luki, left alone with his flock for over an hour while the shepherd took a ewe and new-born lamb back to the barn in his van.  Those stories about herding dogs tending flocks alone described by von Stephanitz were as true 100 years ago as they are today.  I know because I have seen it myself not only with Nicky but with his sons.

In addition to his boundary work, Nicky is also able to go pick up a handful of sheep and bring them to me from the other side of our large cow barn with only the command of “Go bring them here” — obviously I can’t see through buildings to direct him.  He fetches, gathers and drives any number of sheep from less that 5 to more than 450 at a time.  He is also able to serve as my helper in tight areas when I have to worm or vaccinate the flock.  Sometimes I even forget he is there.  He keeps the sheep moving down a long wide-at-the-mouth and narrow-at-the-end chute of some length.  I am alone at the narrow end doing the worming or vaccinating and Nicky is at the other end or along the sides both inside and outside the chute wherever needed keeping the sheep moving to me. I don’t have to tell the dog anything.  He knows what I am doing having learned it after the first time we did it together and he knows where he has to go, what he has to do and how he has to do it to get the job done without a mess.  If I had to shout out commands to the dog, the sheep would get nervous and uncooperative and the dog would lose his concentration.  I used to get a couple of high school boys to help me with worming before Nicky showed me he could do the job far, far, far better, faster and more efficiently.  Today, my dear, old Freude does exactly the same thing — but now we are two old ladies still helping each other along.


I suppose any discussion of GSDs should include a story about some aspect of protection or protectiveness.  Nicky had some bite-work experience when he was young during a few months of Schutzhund training before we moved to the farm.  Nicky had no problem doing formal Schutzhund protection.  I only stopped Schutzhund training when sheep, farming and herding took my full time and attention.

Nicky is the friendliest of dogs.  He often shows his acceptance of visitors by leaning up against their leg indicating his permission to be petted. But it is always Nicky who initiates the contact; he never responds to a stranger’s attempt to initiate familiarity.  Nicky has a nice way of letting you know he is his own man, so to speak.  To be sure, friendliness and protectiveness are not mutually exclusive with Nicky as the following incident shows.

Our farm borders a neighbour’s farm.  This neighbour, John, often helps me when I need a bulldozer for something.  John and Nicky are “friends”.  By that I mean that Nicky has John totally won over by his leg leaning, “pet me” routine.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that dogs don’t know the power of flattery.  One day John was finishing some work for me and asked if he could take the dozer back the short way over my fields instead of the longer way by road.  I said “OK”.  Meanwhile, Nicky and I left to take the flock down to a graze next to John’s place.  To get there we had to go through an opening in an old stonewall.  The sheep went into the graze and Nicky took up patrolling the boundaries.  While the sheep grazed I decided to pick up and clear loose rock and stones from the opening in the wall. While I was doing this, I heard John coming with the dozer.  He would have to go through the opening I was clearing to get home.  I had my back to the dozer.  As it approached, Nicky appeared from somewhere else on the boundary and stood about ten feet from me in the path of the on-coming dozer. Nicky stood tall and erect with his side to the dozer, which in herding dog language means “Stop!”  I kept picking up stones, and the dozer kept coming.  When the dozer got about thirty feet or so from Nicky, he turned slowly to face it.  The dozer kept coming.  Nicky, very slowly, very deliberately, tail held high, ears pricked forward, started walking at an angle from the center of the path in front toward the open side of the dozer, all the while staring right at John sitting in the driver’s seat.  The dozer kept coming.  Nicky was about 4-5 feet from the driver’s opening coiled tight like a spring still staring John in the eye when John stopped the dozer.  When the dozer stopped and the engine was turned off, Nicky relaxed his posture and came over to me wagging his tail.  When John got down from the dozer, Nicky went over to him also wagging his tail.  John was looking at Nicky and me in amazement.  All John could say was You know, that dog was just about ready to jump in on me!” I thought the same thing too, but didn’t say anything until John did.  Nicky was fully prepared to stop that dozer from running me over even if he had to attack his “friend”.  But even more amazing than that to me was the fact that Nicky knew the man was making the dozer run and that the man was what had to be stopped to stop the dozer.

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