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Nickelsberg's Farm

German Shepherd Herding

The Large Flock Herding Dog – The Working Relationship

Ellen & Alf von Fafnerhaus (Nicky)

The Working Relationship

by Ellen Nickelsberg

Large flock sheep herding as still practiced in Germany is something little seen and probably even less understood in this country.  In Germany where private, open land is expensive and scarce, shepherds with large flocks often take their sheep wherever they can find grazing space. Sometimes they graze fields of stubble after the farm crops have been harvested; sometimes they graze strips of grass between existing crop fields; sometimes they graze in wide open fields and meadows on State-owned lands or private estates.

In order to graze large flocks of sheep on specifically designated areas where there is no fencing, the shepherd uses herding dogs — including German shepherd dogs.  These herding dogs are expected to keep the large flocks in order on the road when moving from place to place, and, they are expected to keep the flocks contained within designated boundaries and out of valuable crop fields while they graze during the day.

In Germany, boundary work is the primary task of the large flock herding dog.  Because the sheep must be strictly contained within designated boundaries, the shepherd usually works with two dogs which constantly move back and forth diligently patrolling throughout the day.  These dogs are expected to work independently without disrupting the sheep in the graze.  To develop dogs like this — dogs that work reliably, diligently and independently, yet willingly obey the shepherd’s commands — one must establish a special working relationship — a working relationship very unlike the relationship often seen in the obedience trial ring or in other command/control sports — a working relationship based 100% on mutual respect.

It has been my observation that the idea of a “working relationship” to many large flock hobby herders and their trainers is based primarily on experience with obedience training and trialing.  Simply stated, obedience training for obedience trialing usually consists of either negative reinforcement (compulsion), positive reinforcement (food/ball reward) or some combination of the two.  In these situations the dog learns to perform on command either to avoid punishment or to earn a reward, but in neither case does the dog have to respect the handler nor does the obedience command have to make any working sense to the dog.  This is fine when you want a dog that works reliably only on command and only under strictly controlled conditions for a limited time.  These training methods are not meant to produce a working relationship in which the dog learns to work intelligently — one in which the dog learns to use its brain to choose behavior options to perform a task that might come up suddenly and unexpectedly.  Nor are these training methods meant to teach the dog to work independently — to be able to properly perform that unexpected task on its own initiative without having to be told to do so.

The working relationship in large flock sheep herding should be a partnership — a partnership in which both the shepherd and the dog work together out of mutual trust and respect toward a common goal to complete a common task in cooperation with each other as a team.  This requires respect for the leader and obedience to the rules clearly set forth by the leader.  That is the basic foundation of all teamwork.  Without a leader, without clear rules and without respect for the leader there is no team — there is no coordination of effort — there is no purpose — there is no harmony.  Above all, obedience must come out of the dog’s respect for the shepherd and not out of its fear of the shepherd.  This respect must be established from the very beginning before the shepherd even begins to work with the dog on sheep.

There are two important concepts that need to be understood by the shepherd in order to develop a good working relationship with his dog:  (1) the “rule of the boundary”; and (2) the “pack order”.  Everything else necessary to successfully practice large flock boundary herding, especially “obedience”, develops naturally out of these two simple concepts.

The “rule of the boundary” is the basic rule of large flock boundary herding.  It is simple — the boundary is to be respected.  It means that the dog is to remain outside the boundaries designated by the shepherd whether the flock is in the field grazing or on the road moving from one place to another, and, the sheep are to be kept inside those boundaries.  The shepherd must see to it that the boundaries are clearly defined and that these simple rules are enforced fairly and consistently.  When understood and respected, the beauty of this basic boundary rule is that by its simplicity it allows maximum freedom for all.  The sheep are free to do whatever they want inside the boundaries; the dog is free to do whatever it wants to outside, or on, the boundaries; and, the shepherd is free from having to shout commands to his dog which only disrupts the sheep.

The “pack order” is the social hierarchy for herding and consists of the shepherd, the dog and the sheep.  These three entities form the whole working unit — better known to the dog as “the pack”.  In “pack” terms, the shepherd is the leader; the dog is second in command with the authority to act on behalf of the shepherd at all times according to the rules of the boundary; and the sheep are the subordinate members of the “pack” to be protected, contained, controlled and disciplined if necessary by the dog.  This “pack” unit must be held together by a circle of mutual trust and respect.

Man and dog have very similar social structures and behaviors.  So similar in fact that over the years long term studies of canine pack behavior have been undertken both here and in Germany to help shed light on human social behavior.  Primitive man lived and hunted in social units called clans or tribes — wolves lived and hunted in social units called packs.  Within both clan and pack there was a strictly enforced social hierarchy from the leader down to the lowest in rank.  The success and survival of the clan and the pack depended on how effectively the leader was able to command respect from his subordinates and thereby to maintain the social order necessary for cooperative efforts like hunting large game or herding large flocks.  Over the millennia as hunter became herder, the “hunt to kill” behavior evolved gradually into the “herd to keep” behavior in both the shepherd and the shepherd dog.  Man and dog discovered each other through their common need to cooperate in certain tasks and they learned to communicate with each other through their common language of social hierarchical behavior.

So what can we learn from this?  First, we learn that dogs instinctively want to be #1 in rank, or as close to #1 as possible — especially confident dogs with courage and sound nerves.  Second, we learn that dogs instinctively want to cooperate — if that were not the case, they would not live and work in packs.  It is this innate ability in the dog to cooperate that Manfred Heyne calls “genetic obedience“.  However, until the rank order in the pack is clearly defined and settled, dogs close to each other in rank will not always cooperate with each other — they may continue to compete until the rank order is settled.  It is the same in the man/dog relationship.  If the rank order is not clear to the dog across the board and if the shepherd is not respected as #1 at all times and in all situations, then the dog may not exhibit that genetic obedience and may not reliably obey or cooperate with the shepherd at all times.  The dog will instead keep looking for that “hole” to break through to assert its own dominance — this is where the dog gets accused of being “opportunist” and where the shepherd complains about his lack of control over the dog.  This lack of control over the dog by the shepherd merely reflects the dog’s lack of respect for the shepherd.

In summary — large flock sheep herding requires a dog physically and mentally capable of working in cooperation with the shepherd to control hundreds of sheep sometimes at great distances.  The large flock herding dog must be willing and able to make decisions independently while working far away from the shepherd and yet be willing to obey commands when given.  What makes the dog obey those rules when out of reach or out of sight of the shepherd?  What keeps the dog diligently focused on its job?  What prevents the dog from enjoying itself by running into the graze and chasing or biting the sheep while out of sight or out of reach of the shepherd?  The answer is: RESPECT.

The respect I am referring to is not respect born out of strong-arm tactics, fear, pain, compulsion or coercion.  Nor is it the feigned respect born out of sweet-talking, coddling, bribery or other meaningless manipulations.  Obedience out of fear or manipulation does not come out of respect and, therefore, is only reliable when the dog is within sight or reach of the shepherd.  The respect I am referring to is earned respect.  It is the respect born out of clearly defined boundaries, trust and fair dealing by the shepherd which results in an attitude in the dog called a “willingness-to-cooperate”.  Obedience out of the attitude of cooperation is obedience that the shepherd can count on whether the dog is in sight or out of sight or whether the dog is within reach or out of reach.  In addition, obedience out of respect carries over into the total man-dog relationship — it does not only occur in the working relationship.

It is the same respect most of us have felt at one time or another for that special teacher.  The respect we had for that teacher who inspired us to learn, who brought out the best that was in us, who let us enjoy our accomplishments while learning and, most important, the one who participated along with us every step of the way in the learning process.  Yet it was that same teacher who set clear boundaries for us as to what was acceptable and what was not acceptable behavior during our learning process.  It was that same teacher who swiftly, consistently and effectively enforced boundaries until we learned to respect them on our own.  Those of us who refused to obey the boundaries of behavior set forth by our teacher never made it to higher levels of learning that came only with the freedom to experiment independently within those rules.  The same is true in the education of the large flock herding dog.  The dog that is unwilling to accept, obey or understand the rules of the boundary will NEVER become a reliable large flock herding dog because it will never earn the respect necessary from the shepherd to be given the freedom to work independently.  Likewise, the shepherd who is unable to develop obedience out of respect in his dog will NEVER have a reliable large flock herding dog.  Such a shepherd never gives the dog the freedom it needs to learn to cooperate or to learn to work independently.  Such a shepherd will always have an adversarial relationship with his dog as opposed to a real working relationship founded on cooperation.

Respect like so many other team qualities must be viewed as a two-way street.  Not only must the dog learn to trust and respect the shepherd, but also the shepherd must learn to trust and respect the dog in order to form a working relationship.  The shepherd should set an example by taking care that he does not demand anything of his dogs that he does not demand of himself.  That is the shepherd’s respect for the dog that also earns the shepherd respect from the dog.  Think of how you feel about trainers who expect you to do what they say but who do not do it themselves.  Do you respect them?  I don’t.

Thanks to Schäfermeister Manfred Heyne, his patience and his help, I have done and learned all of these things totally out of love and appreciation for the real German shepherd large flock herding dog.  To preserve these genetics I knew it was not enough to just write and hope that someone else would come along and do the job.  I had to have sheep and real full-time work for my dogs in order to be able to select dogs with the proper genetics for breeding.

We bought our farm in 1996.  I came here with 30 ewes, 25 lambs and 1 outstanding German shepherd herding dog, Nicky, who through his sire, Nikko von der Stammherde Ramholz HGH, inherited the blood and genetics of Manfred Heyne’s herding champions.  Our farm is an old, long-neglected dairy farm consisting of half hay fields and half over-grown pastures interspersed over 130 hilly acres.  In four years I have grown my flock internally from 30 ewes plus 25 lambs to 120 ewes plus 140 lambs in 1999.  I have reclaimed nearly all of our neglected, unfenced pastures by rotationally grazing the sheep with my dogs.  The improvement of our land has been so noticeable that neighbors in the area who thought I was crazy grazing sheep with dogs at first are now calling me and asking me to graze my sheep with my dogs on their own over-grown fields and pastures.  I have a seemingly endless supply of new land to graze and every spring I have basically a “new” flock to condition — anyone who has ever tried to herd 300+ sheep half of which are new lambs knows exactly what I am talking about.  Every season there is a new challenge.  My dogs and I get smarter and wiser every year facing these challenges  and I look forward to every coming year with heightened anticipation.

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