January 31, 2010

This is not herding.

This is not herding. This is not herding. THIS IS NOT HERDING. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times.

It's prey drive. Say it with me: PREY DRIVE. Your dog is not herding.

But he's a "herding breed," you say?

Stop. Please.

Prey drive is what makes your dog nip at your elbow when you start running, if he doesn't know any better.

Also: there is no excuse for his not knowing better.

Ever notice how actual working-bred border collies — reactive dogs with the prey drive of a dozen hungry leopards — manage to run around an agility course without chasing and nipping at their handlers? Ever been to an actual sheepdog trial, and noticed how real stockdogs never "herd" spectators or stray children? That's because chasing people and nipping at them isn't herding.

So when I see something like this, I could beat my head on rocks. Dear jogger: your handsome Catahoula is not mouthing your elbow because he's a "herding breed." He's mouthing your elbow because he has no manners. Don't make excuses for his rude behavior. If you spend a little time training him, you'll both enjoy those jogging sessions a lot more.

[Have I made a distinction between prey drive and "herding" before? Why yes, in the very first post on this blog! I started this entire blogging endeavor just to rant about how much it grates to hear someone who has never worked livestock with a stockdog announce that Scout is "herding the kids" because Scout is a Sheltie and not a Cocker Spaniel and Shelties are "herding dogs" and oh please God make it stop before my head asplodes. Here is a reprint of that first post.]


I know a number of keen, athletic dogs that love to crouch, stalk and circle. In fact, if they were border collies you’d say that they were stylish workers, with a fair amount of eye and good balance on their “stock” — but they’re not border collies. They’re not even “herding” dogs. They’re pit bulls, and the behavior they’re displaying is prey drive.

I’ve been told that most animal behavior texts don’t discuss drives, and when they do, the terminology is ambiguous. The consensus seems to be that the term is antiquated, though dog trainers discuss drives all the time: play drive, fetch drive, food drive, defense drive, fight drive. [Check out Schutzhund Obedience: Training in Drive at Dogwise.com.] Animal behaviorist Roger Abrantes writes that it is important to “distinguish between instinct and drive,” though, and I’m happy to give it a shot.

Drive means one of several varieties of “compulsive energy,” such as aggression, sex or self-preservation. Instinct is the inherent capacity to perform a complete behavior sequence: in this case the gathering of stock over vast areas of land and the conscientious management of that stock, in great or small numbers, in relation to a shepherd who may be close at hand or out of sight and miles away. This particular behavior sequence and its variations are instinctive in that they cannot be taught, only enhanced through experience, much as the ability to swim is acquired by young otters and flight perfected by young hawks. Prey drive, to use Mark Derr's definition, is “aggression that expresses itself as boldness and assertiveness in seeking and capturing objects.”

In his book The Sheepdog, Its Work and Training Tim Longton writes of his border collie Nell, who was suckling two-week-old pups and had been left home on a busy day. The shepherd and his helpers were endeavoring to move an unruly mob of lambs:

“[Nell] heard us trying to drive this lot along a rough bank where felled woodland and a landslide added to the hazards. I could hear her crying to be let out; a few minutes later she appeared, having gained the window. Two young lambs dashed uphill. Nell set off after them. She was fighting a losing battle, as the lambs split, and as soon as she had one on its way the other galloped madly in the other direction. I did not command her but, appreciating the position, Nell pushed one lamb in front of her and nosed it right in among the rest of the lambs. Then she returned for the other, which by now had escaped into a 200-acre field with 400 sheep in it. We continued our slow journey, and when we reached the far end there was Nell with a lamb pinned at the back of a gate. It was the lamb we wanted.”

That’s herding instinct. (Nell was English Shepherd’s Champion in 1951.) "It cannot be stressed too strongly," writes Longton, "that if you want a work dog both parents should be work dogs." Border collies bred to a working standard — that is, bred solely to work livestock — are the finest stockdogs on earth.

But when your sheltie, Belgian shepherd, beagle or Jack Russell runs happy, yappy laps around the neighbor’s grandkids, chases water from the garden hose until he’s soaked, nips at the hands and heels of your squealing six-year-old, runs furiously after every car, cat and bicycle he sees, or shows what passes for balance on dog-broke sheep in a round pen, that’s not herding instinct — it’s prey drive.

Prey drive is evident to some degree in most healthy dogs. Chihuahuas can exhibit prey drive. Poodles can display it. The only difference between their behavior and your neighbor’s sheltie’s behavior is that when poodles and chihuahuas get excited and chase children and nip fingers and heels, no one smiles and says, “Look! Bit-Bit is herding!"

The great majority of dogs in the American Kennel Club’s ironically named Herding Group would ignore livestock completely if it weren’t for prey drive. With sufficient prey drive, though, a responsive dog of practically any breed could win an AKC herding title. I’ve seen a determined pair of Lhasa apsos compete successfully in an arena trial, and years ago Diane Jessup’s pit bull Dread won high score on ducks at an ASCA [Australian Shepherd Club of America] competition — he pushed the ducks around the course with his nose. Not real herding, Ms. Jessup has said, just a good dog obliging his handler. (Dread was also titled on sheep.)

The American Kennel Club has always limited its herding contests to dogs in the AKC Herding Group: a face-saving conceit that perpetuates the myth of “herding breeds” with unique talents beyond the ken of pit bulls and Lhasa apsos. Perhaps this really was the case one hundred fifty years ago — before the onset of dog shows and breeding to a conformation standard — but with one or two notable exceptions, today’s “herding breeds" no longer have any working instincts that set them apart from Labrador retrievers or Dalmatians. In fact, during a major show circuit a few years ago, the most impressive “herding” dog at the popular “herding instinct test” was a friend’s golden retriever.

Herding, of course, has its evolutionary roots in prey drive. But prey drive itself — chasing, circling, crouching, stalking — is no reflection of herding background, instinct, ability, or potential. If it were, I’d be running my pit bulls in the USBCHA Finals.

I love dogs with high prey drive; they are easy to motivate and a joy to train. But when prey drive is dismissed, excused or poorly managed, it can place children and others at risk of a dog bite or attack. Ask my neighbor: Art spent time in the hospital after he was chased and pulled from his bike by a German shorthaired pointer. Dogs with high prey drive need appropriate exercise, good training and careful management — recommendations that apply to all dogs, but particularly to the ones that are more than two degrees north of stuffed.

When someone with a conformation-bred dog says, “Oh, look — Scout is herding the kids!” the truth is that Scout is only doing what any energetic dachshund, golden retriever or cocker spaniel would do under the same circumstances. It’s prey drive. It isn’t by any means unique to the so-called “herding breeds,” and it certainly isn’t “herding.”


Related posts:
How to create a working stockdog
Great read: The Dog Wars by Donald McCaig
On titles and codes of ethics [or, "How can you tell if a dog is worth breeding if he doesn't have a title?" Answer: Watch him work.]
Zamora Hills [and some dog show]
The soft bigotry of low expectations suits the BCSA just fine
Inside animal minds


Smart Dogs said...

[stands and applauds]

Luisa said...


On a related note, I'm glad to see that the video "Hagrid the Herder" is still up on YouTube: check out the lovely pibble ;~)

Heather Houlahan said...

You mean that Canadian herding instructor who kept encouraging my young ES to bite her mortified wethers while bouncing around a tiny pen* was full of shit when she bragged about the beagle that she passed on its "herding instinct test" and that would have easily won a title if it hadn't up and died?

Say it ain't so.

I have a sort of inversion of this one. A SAR instructor at a water search seminar who held forth at length on "herding breeds'" alleged predilection for over-reliance on their eyes, including a freeze at the bow of the boat she called "stopping the cow." Which GSDs, Malinois, etc. did because they were herding breeds, natch.

But Labradors, golden retrievers, spaniels that did the exact same thing were invisible. They weren't "stopping the cow" because they weren't "herding breeds." So they couldn't be overly reliant on their eyes. Because they didn't "stop the cow."

'Course, this was the same instructor who lectured me about what was wrong with my reward system before seeing my dog work. Because it had to be flawed, as my dog's work ethic was poor, because I used such a flawed reward system, therefore my dog's work ethic was poor.

*Thanks for that experience. It helped so much with my dairy goats, especially working them in the barn.

Luisa said...

"But Labradors, golden retrievers, spaniels that did the exact same thing were invisible."

A behaviorist once told a member of the Border Collie Boards that the member's dog chased cars because they've "broken away from the herd."

What would that behaviorist tell the owner of a terrier that chased cars?

Katie said...

Just watch those crouchy, stalky pit bulls lest you get told they have "predatory aggression" and need to be killed! Oy, yes. *eyeroll*

Anyway, excellent post! I quite agree. It makes me nuts when people remark on how Steve wants to herd the other dogs in class. Um, no. He doesn't. Not even the Bedlington who looks like a sheep. He wants to chase them because he's a prey-driven little punk whose self-control is still not up to par yet. But we're getting closer!

Bill Fosher said...

Cars are driven by rodents.

Luisa said...

We have a winner ;~)

Anonymous said...

Not that I disagree with your point, but I'd rather call the jogger's dog's behavior pushy or bratty or rude. People - the kind of people who would call that herding - are likely to think of "prey drive" as some natural, noble dog instinct to celebrate, rather than recognizing nipping and snout pokes as bad behavior that needs to stop.

Anonymous said...

I loved the link to Hagrid - it reminded me of the day a dear friend let me put one of my Leonbergers out on her sheep. Zorro had a lot of prey drive but he was a well-behaved, middle-aged gentleman who would take directional cues at a distance.

Following my directions the Z-man drove a couple dozen sheep out of a large round pen and through a long chute. When the sheep spread out in the pasture beyond the chute one ewe lagged behind the rest of the herd. Zorro singled the ewe out, caught her - and promptly mounted her. With a HUGE grin on his face.

If I had not called him off, we could have created a new hyperallergenic cross breed...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree. Herding comes from the hunting behaviour chain, so it is "prey" drive as well. The only difference is that in the working sheep dogs, the latter parts of the hunting sequence have been "bred out" and some of the middle links of the chain have been emphasized through selective breeding. IOW, the grab bite and kill bite parts have been reduced in intensity (to nearly 0) and the eye and stalk behaviour has been increased in intensity. Different parts of this behaviour chain (that exists in all dogs) have been selected for in different breeds. Ever watch a pointer freeze in stalk mode on a bird (or sometimes a toad, leaf or laser pointer light)?
If you've ever seen a border collie from cattle lines work cattle, it looks little different than a ACD or a Catahoula working cattle. The grab bite is perfectly acceptable, even necessary. That doesn't mean it is acceptable to practice it on people. I know of quite a few BCs (albeit mostly from cattle lines) that chase and bite their owners in agility. It is difficult to extinguish because it IS instinct-based (so self-rewarding), but it can be done.

Anonymous said...

Behavior chains, shmehavior chains.

When it's directed at people it's obnoxious (and potentially dangerous) behavior. Not herding.

Luisa said...

@Anonymous: I suspect there may be more to breeding good stockdogs than eliminating the bite and tinkering a bit with the chasing thing.

In fact, the grab/bite/kill part is alive and well in many sheepdogs -- I know of a top West Coast sire of working border collies that was a lamb-killer. There's a reason sheepdogs aren't allowed to run loose when they're not working.

I worked cattle with my first border collie. I have seen border collies from "sheep lines" and "cattle lines" [the same lines, in many cases] work cattle. I've also seen ACDs work cattle. Different as chalk and cheese. I've never seen Catahoulas work. Aren't they used to bay up cattle?

And what is this "grab bite" of which you speak? How is it different from a grip?

For the record, I've seen terriers, poodles, cocker spaniels, pit bulls and mutts chase and nip/mouth their owners when excited. It has nothing to do with "herding." It's just bad manners.

Viatecio said...

I know I'm a latecomer to this parade, but I do have to comment on something else in the article (which is a total trainwreck in and of itself, but let's not go there any more than we need to) :

I'm told that "The most common problem is overheating, she said. “You’re going to see the dog’s tongue hanging out, and it will be round at the bottom” if the animal is getting too hot, Ms. Anderson said."

I can't even think of a snarky sarcastic comment to reply to that little quip.