Nickelsberg's Farm

German Shepherd Herding

The Large Flock Herding Dog – Puppy Selection & Foundation Building

Emma von Fafnerhaus at 7 weeks – 1st time with lamb  

Puppy Selection & Foundation Building

by Ellen Nickelsberg

Much has already been written about the herding origins of the German shepherd dog.  The first chapter of vonStephanitz’s book, The German Shepherd In Word & Picture, gives an excellent and complete history of the herding breeds as well as the founding of the Schäferhund Verein (SV) in 1899.  Suffice it to say that the genetic roots of the German shepherd dog go directly back to the blood of the working shepherd dogs in the fields of Germany.  These generic shepherd dogs evolved over the centuries out of hunting, protecting, driving, herding and tending dogs in that order.  Since the founding of the SV, the German shepherd dog has earned well-deserved recognition as the most versatile working dog in the world.  Today, however, its sheep herding roots have been eclipsed by its successes in many other areas of performance.  

VonStephanitz had the foresight back in the early years of the 1900’s to realize that if the German shepherd was to remain a working dog it must broaden its sphere of utility.  The large, prosperous sheep farms of the 1800s and 1900s in Germany were disappearing due to a variety of economic reasons and with them were going the need for large flock herding dogs.  VonStephanitz used his military background to promote the German shepherd dog as a multi-faceted “service” dog before WWI.  The outstanding performance of the German shepherd as sentry, messenger & guard dog during WWI made the breed popular world wide.  As a result, many German shepherd breed clubs were started all over the world under the auspices of the SV.  

I would like to share some of what I have learned from Schäfermeister Manfred Heyne about the German shepherd herding dog — about the old-time, bred-for-herding German shepherd herding dog.  

The German shepherd dog was originally bred by shepherds to control large flocks of over 600 sheep far more than it is today.  Controlling large flocks not only required dogs with appropriate instincts, but it also required dogs with courage and sound nerves.  Such dogs were used where large flocks had to be contained in relatively small grazing areas and kept out of unfenced, neighboring crop fields.  The job of this herding dog consisted primarily of boundary patrol, or flock containment.  Because the shepherd had to pay for any damage done by his sheep, he could not afford the expense of keeping a dog that could not hold a boundary.  

This large flock German shepherd herding dog had to be selected for its strong prey instinct and drive.  High drive is fundamental to maintaining sustained high energy in the dog while working sheep.  How the dog naturally expresses, or is allowed to express, its natural drives while working sheep illustrates the fundamental difference between large flock boundary herding and other kinds of small flock sheep herding practices.  Therefore, it only follows that to select a good, prospective puppy for large flock herding one must fist know how to identify the drives and resultant drive behavior necessary for this kind of herding as well as how to best ascertain the proper character, nerve and temperament of the herding puppy prospect.  

According to Manfred Heyne a top working dog must be bred, it cannot be made by training.  When a litter is whelped, the shepherd should spend as much time as possible with it every day right from the time it was born to familiarize the pups to him and to the tones of his voice.  Puppy testing would begin at about 3 weeks of age with the following being some useful tests:  

1.  From 3-4 weeks, put a pan of food in with the hungry litter.  When the puppies are eating and fully intent on the food, make a sudden loud noise near them but out of their sight.  Do this several times over the course of testing and note those puppies that consistently show no concern over the noise;  

2.  From about 4-6 weeks, stand by the pen and call the puppies to see which ones consistently come to you.  Note those puppies showing the greatest interest and attraction in being with you;  

3.  From 4-7 weeks, every other day put a lamb in with the litter.  Start with a very young lamb and increase the size of the lamb as the puppies grow.  Note those puppies consistently showing only an intense attraction to the lamb — i.e. ones, which approach the lamb with tail wagging and strong eye contact.  Repeat this test every other day for 3 weeks to see if interest is maintained with the same intensity;  

4.  After 7 weeks, put a size-appropriate lamb in with the litter to see which ones consistently grip the lamb in the three places allowed for gripping — the top of the neck, the ribs and just above the hock.  Eliminate those puppies that grip in the wrong places; and,  

5. Between 8 and 12 weeks, individually test each puppy that passed the earlier tests on a larger lamb.  The size of the lamb used for individual testing should depend on the courage and aggressiveness of the puppy — the lamb should provide a significant challenge and a certain amount of stress for the puppy.  Keep in mind the puppy still has milk teeth which cannot get through the thick wool of the larger lamb.  This test is to see if the puppy has the drive, nerve, temperament and courage to deal with and “subdue” a large lamb — preferably a ram lamb.  

However, before anyone gets upset thinking that these tests are abusive to the lambs or to the puppies let me say that the tests I am describing are done with age-appropriate and size-appropriate lambs with thick wool.  To use too large a lamb would be abusive to the puppies and to use too small a lamb would be abusive to the lamb.  Puppies with milk teeth cannot get thru the wool of an age-appropriate and size-appropriate lamb to do any damage to it.  The only way a puppy that age could hurt a lamb would be to intentionally bite at the face and ears or to go for the lower legs which are unprotected by wool — if the puppy presents that behavior it is removed from testing anyway because that behavior is to be selected against in a large flock German shepherd herding dog.  Bear in mind that it is just as predictive of herding potential and far less risky to test for grips, drive and other prey behavior in a puppy than to try to test for these same qualities later in an older dog when an older dog is capable of doing serious damage to sheep.  

Now, what does puppy testing with a lamb reveal about the puppy’s genetic make-up through the grip?  When you begin testing the whole litter together in a pen with a lamb, you can see the different ways each puppy deals with “stress” in what should be an “attractive” situation for the puppy.  The puppies’ behaviors will range anywhere from full avoidance to high-level attraction — first with the eye and then with the mouth — and everywhere in between.  Once the puppies have shown which of them have the drive, temperament and “courage” to further pursue their attraction to the lamb by grabbing(biting) it, you start testing them individually.  

In these tests the whole world of instinct opens up to you and you can observe often times the full range of geneticly driven behavior through the whole litter.  The contrasts in behavior among individuals in the group actually helps make the drive and temperament of each puppy more obvious.  Once you have determined which puppies have the drive and the temperament to be able to “possess” the lamb by gripping it and by holding on, then you are able to test each pup individually to see exactly what grip each puppy has genetically.  This grip will be exactly what the puppy will bring with him to adulthood.  This grip is exactly what the bite will be under stress and pressure when the dog is high in drive — ANY drive.  These puppy tests show which puppies will have more or less hectic(damaging) bites, which will have shallow(damaging) bites, which will have full-mouth(proper) bites and most important which puppies will hold on to the sheep come hell or high water and fight with all their might to hold on — and which won’t.  Over the testing time you will see each puppy fall into a very fixed pattern where the bite and behavior in the bite situation becomes consistent day after day, week after week, and, when given an opportunity to perform the same test at 9 months or a year, EXACTLY the same as what you saw at 8-11 weeks.  Throughout the many weeks of puppy testing, the shepherd should also constantly watch to see how each puppy would relate to him and how each one would respond to the tones of his voice.  The importance of this can be seen later in the discussion of the formal education of the large flock herding dog in the field.  

The best prospective large flock herding puppy I have ever seen tested would immediately jump up on a large ram-lamb because it couldn’t reach the top of the lamb’s neck without standing on its hind legs and with its front feet on the lamb’s back take the lamb by the top of the neck with a full mouth grip.  The lamb would immediately start to buck and toss itself around lifting the puppy off all four feet swinging it around 180 degrees at a time and then it would turn sharply into the puppy which was still gripping the top of the lamb’s neck and sort of get the puppy turned almost upside down while it still held on to the lamb.  At this point you could hear the puppy give a good grrrrrrowl while holding on until it gradually worked its way right side up again. The puppy never let go of its grip.  Finally the lamb just stopped and stood still.  The puppy stood on its hind legs with its front feet again on the lamb’s back and let go of the lamb while still standing over the lamb’s neck.  The puppy had enough confidence to let go of the lamb and enough instinct to stay in control position on the lamb by being ready to grip again if the lamb should try to get away — which it did, and, when it did, the puppy was ready and able to re-grip.  This puppy definitely wanted to possess that lamb.  This puppy demonstrated these things at 10-11 weeks and demonstrated the same intensity and behavior when re-tested at 6 months.  

Puppy test with 11 week old puppy gripping a large ram lamb with a full mouth neck grip.

This method of testing puppies was developed to help accurately select dogs with strong natural prey drives appropriate for sheep herding, self-confidence and the willingness to accept the shepherd as pack leader.  Only those puppies that met this testing criteria 100% were kept for herding — if no puppy tested 100% none would be kept.  Although puppies are assessed from the beginning, one can still only hope for the best because experience shows that the dog’s character, or potential for work, is not fully set before the dog is three years old.  However, by two years of age the dog’s qualities are usually about 75% set.  

One must keep in mind that a working shepherd managing large flocks must be far more demanding of his dog than the hobby herder trying to work relatively few sheep.  A large flock shepherd must know that his dog will maintain its concentration and reliability working sheep for the whole day, every day — not only when the dog is in the shepherd’s view, but also when it is out of the shepherd’s sight.  This intense concentration is possible only in a dog with the highest instinct/drive/attraction to the sheep.  Any dog with some degree of interest in sheep can be trained to herd, but that dog will never have the concentration or reliability to work sheep as the dog with the highest drive and attraction to sheep.  

After selecting a puppy, the next most important thing is the puppy’s “education”.  The cornerstone of education is the acceptance by the dog of the shepherd as pack leader and the dog’s understanding of voice communication.  This is why it is so important to expose puppies from birth to the meanings of the intonations of the human voice.  Puppies must be exposed from birth to the variations and subtleties of the shepherd’s voice — the pleased, cooing voice (brava/good) and the displeased, sharp voice (pfui/bad).  Just like puppies learn the meaning of the mother’s tones of voice, the shepherd’s voice must become the means of praise and correction in the education of the shepherd dog — not the hand or the crook.  If, from the beginning, the shepherd has established himself through trust and confidence as pack leader and has conditioned the dog to understand the meaning of the tones of his voice, there should be no need for physical corrections.  During early exposure to sheep in the field, the dog is restricted on leash — but the leash must only be used with the voice to guide the dog, not to punish it.  The dog is not taken off the leash until it has learned to view the sheep as subordinate members of its pack — to defend and to keep in order — and until the dog understands the meaning of boundaries — that sheep inside the boundaries are in the proper place and that the sheep outside the boundary are to be put back inside.  

During the dog’s first year, all obedience work must be play training and building voice communication.  Early play training should be aimed at building confidence and establishing a bond of trust and respect between the dog and the shepherd:  the dog is praised when it happens to do the right thing; the dog is ignored or calmly restricted, but never punished or corrected, when it happens to do the wrong thing.  The idea being that the dog, because of its desire to please, will eventually correct itself.  No corrections other than voice corrections are made, and the dog must always be given the opportunity to work things out for itself.  Serious education can begin at any age after the dog is one year old.  If the dog has the proper instincts, it can be introduced to sheep at any age and achieve the same results.  Serious education should not begin until the dog shows that it is ready — the timing varies with each dog.  

According to Manfred Heyne there is no place for force training or constant punishing corrections in the education of the shepherd dog.  If the proper social foundation and relationship between the shepherd and the dog has already been established during the first year, there should be no need for harsh corrections.  Force training and harsh physical corrections will only serve to weaken or destroy the dog’s confidence in itself, the dog’s trust in the shepherd, the dog’s willingness to follow its own instincts and the dog’s ultimate ability to work on its own — qualities irreplaceable in the large flock herding dog. This gets back to the basic reasons for instinct testing:  if a dog has the instinct, drive and attraction to the sheep and wants to please the shepherd as pack leader, the instincts only need to be channeled.  Force training cannot create instinct, drive or attraction to sheep, it can only serve to distort or suppress them.  

Sheep herding should not become merely a series of exercises in obedience training.  Sheep herding should be the working together of the shepherd and his dog.  Obedience is the foundation upon which the herding relationship must be built; however, obedience must come totally out of the dog’s respect for the shepherd and not out of its fear of the shepherd.  The obedience required must make sense to the dog in the overall context of the herding job being requested of the dog otherwise the shepherd only sets up an adversarial relationship between himself and his dog.  The dog must be allowed and encouraged to work on its own instincts more than on the commands from the shepherd.  This takes patience and sometimes a little extra time in the beginning.  The stronger the instinct, the better suited the dog will be to working sheep and the less it needs to rely on commands.  

The education of the shepherd dog should be built 100% on the dog’s instincts.  Puppy tests allow the shepherd to select a dog with high drive and a strong prey instinct and they allow him to select a dog with an equally strong willingness to accept him as pack leader.  An equal balance of these drives and instincts is the key to successfully channeling the dog’s total energy into herding sheep.  It is this balance that allows the dog’s natural prey energy to be channeled completely into the service of the shepherd without frustrating or inhibiting that flow of energy by the use of compulsion training.  

This ability of the large flock herding dog to work reliably on its own initiative without commands at a great distance from the shepherd was what caught the eye, the heart and the imagination of vonStephanitz.  The old-time shepherds knew what had to be selected for in the breeding of such a dog.  But, it was the herding work itself that allowed the shepherd to actually know which dogs had the proper genetics to perform the job — and which dogs did not.  Large flock sheep herding is not a specific series of set exercises that the dog must learn to do on command at a specific time in a specific place in a specific way — instead, large flock sheep herding is made up of tasks that the dog must be able to perform independently at various times in various places randomly throughout the day as necessary.  These sheep herding dogs were bred to “solve problems” — they were bred to be able to “get the job done” without having to be told every step to take along the way.  The large flock herding dog’s gift to the GSD was its intelligence, its ability to work independently and reliably WITH the shepherd and its genetic balance of drive, nerve and temperament.  These gifts are what made the GSD the premier working dog in the world at one time.  

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