I went to a place called Fido’s Farm with my Aussie named Conner: https://fidosfarm.com. We went for an “instinct test”. I had no idea what to expect since I know absolutely nothing about herding.
The instructor did a wonderful job of explaining what she was going to do with Conner and what to expect. She introduced the “flag” to him and explained to me how its used. Her timing was impeccable. She showed him the flag and when he did his typical Conner “yeah, so?”, she jiggled it. He took a step back and she took the flag away with a “gooood dog”. Lovely!
We went into the round pen and she had me hold Conner on leash. She walked over to the sheep and had the sheep follow her. I’ve never seen Conner so over the top for something (he’s a laid back guy). Then she told me to drop his leash. I was expecting him to crash into the sheep, send them flying, and then chase them around gripping their butts, but I dropped the leash and stepped back.
He went flying towards the sheep and then veered off to the right and began circling and barking. The instructor walked the sheep from one side of the pen to the other with Conner circling the entire time. I was AMAZED! I actually teared up for a minute. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She used the flag to get him to circle in the other direction. When one of the sheep ran away from the flock, Conner took off! It was like I could see a thought balloon over his head that said, “not on my watch you furry critter”! With zero training, my Aussie knew how to apply just enough pressure to bring a rogue sheep back to the flock appropriately. Again, I’m totally stunned. He opened his mouth near the sheep’s neck, but never bit down at all. This dog had never been trained to herd, he just knew how to do it instinctively.
All too often, we underestimate the power of genetics on a dog’s behavior. This can be a tricky subject because breed characteristics can lead to breed biases. Not all Aussies have herding instinct; it depends on their breeding lines, but the herding tendencies are prevalent. Not all pit bulls are dog aggressive, but that characteristic is certainly prevalent in that breed. Sadly, some of these characteristics don’t manifest themselves until a dog hits a certain age and by then, the owners are attached to the dog. Most often, we don’t know a dog’s genetic lineage. Sometimes we know a dog’s lineage, but we don’t know about the behavior issues or health issues inherited from the parents and passed onto the offspring. We often can’t keep track of a dog’s siblings to know whether what we’re seeing in a dog’s behavior is being influenced by genetics. So we do the responsible thing when working with client dogs, we take breed into consideration, but also look at the “whole” dog. We evaluate the dog’s living environment, critical developmental periods and learning/reinforcement histories.