Herding Instinct

What is a Herding Instinct Test?

When a trainer takes a herding dog to livestock for the first time, they assess the dog’s natural herding instinct. This helps dog trainers decide if the dog has the potential to learn the skills that are required for the type of stock work they are interested in doing. This trainer is giving the dog a herding instinct test.

In the world of dog hobbyists, there are many pet owners who have bought a dog that belongs to a herding breed. Many of these owners would like to find out whether “herding” is something that they and their dogs can do. These people would also begin with a herding instinct test. 

The instinct test may provide the dog owner with a certificate of instinct, or may just help the trainer decide if it is a good time to begin formal training with the dog. In any case, the tester will be looking for similar criteria:

  1. interest (dog’s sustained interest in controlling livestock movement);
  2. trainability (dog’s willingness to take direction from the handler); and
  3. stock sense (dog’s ability to read the stock).

If the dog shows the potential for all of these criteria, the tester will then try to determine a short term training plan by assessing their instinctive herding style, learned work ethics and biddability.

What does the instinct test’s outcome mean?

There are many things that may affect the outcome of a herding instinct test. The most common are the dog’s life experiences and the dog’s age. If you are going to take your dog to an instinct test, it is important to understand that it is just a test, and the outcome may not be an accurate picture of what you have in a dog. If a dog shows instinct, there is a very good chance that you will be able to do some herding training with that dog. However, if a dog does not show instinct, it does not mean that the dog does not have any instinct. There are many things that may affect the test that day, for example:

  1. Each dog matures differently, and often we will not see sustained interest until the dog is mature.
  2. If a dog has been taught not to chase (rabbits, cats, horses, etc), then they may not think that they are allowed to work the livestock when we ask them to. 
  3. New surroundings and travel can intimidate the dogs and cause stress. On a second visit, when the surroundings are slightly familiar, the reaction to livestock may be quite different.
  4. Dogs normally do not like working for multiple handlers. Having the tester in the arena may be confusing and scary for them.
  5. There may be physical limitations on a dog that the handler may not recognize on the day of testing.
  6. Something may have happened in the dog’s history that he relates to the livestock (ie. kicked while walking through a barn)

What to expect during an instinct test:

Testers will take some time to describe what is going to happen. Tests are usually held in a smaller arena or round pen, using livestock that are accustomed to being worked by dogs. Ideally, the livestock should be non-confrontational, and not too flighty or skittish. Most testers will take the dogs into the arena on their leash. This helps to create a trusting relationship between the tester and the dog, and allows the tester to assess the dog’s initial response to the livestock. By asking for some obedience at the beginning, the dog will begin to realize that there is a pack leader, and that being around livestock is a kind of work; not play.  If the dog is responding well, the tester will remove the leash, and get into a position to create success for the dog.

Herding comes from the canine hunting instinct. In the wild, there is always a pack leader. This pack leader is the dog that will make the kill and has earned the right to eat before the rest of the pack. But it is the lower members of the pack that will do the hunt and bring in the prey. This is why so many beginner dogs will automatically bring the stock to the handler; they think that the handler is the pack leader. This is another reason why doing obedience at the beginning is very important. 

If the dog is worried or showing little interest, there are many things that the tester may do to help the dog along. The addition of a trained dog may put the beginner at ease, or create some excitement. Downriver’s first training DVD “An Introduction to All Breed Herding”, reveals several methods of how to bring out that hidden instinct.

What to bring to your instinct test?

  1. 4’ to 8’ leash (not a flex lead)
  2. Flat collar
  3. Appropriate weather gear (rain gear, sun screen, warm clothes)
  4. Footwear – you may be running on uneven ground that may be very muddy and will probably have manure.
  5. Shelter and water for your dog

Be prepared to put your dog away while you are waiting your turn. If you have your dog out watching for any length of time, he will likely get excited or nervous. This will affect the outcome of your test. It is also a good idea to put your dog away for a brief time after his test. This will allow him to think about what he has done.


  1. When you arrive at the testing area, keep your dog contained unless you have been given permission and know that there is an off-leash area.
  2. At all farms, if a gate is closed, always close it again after you use it.
  3. Find out how the organizer would like dog feces taken care of. Many farms do not want baggies left, but use other forms of waste control management. If there is a pooper scooper and bucket, do not put baggies into it.

How to prepare for your dog’s herding instinct test:

There are no pre-requisites for an instinct test; however, it is very helpful if your dog knows a few obedience commands. If the dog will lie down on command, we will be able to stop him and get his attention if he gets excited around the stock. A recall is also pretty important. Many dogs seem to forget their obedience commands if they get too excited around the stock, but they soon remember and will listen. 

To learn more about instinct tests, when Downriver Farms is holding instinct tests or why Lynn Leach is testing dogs, please contact us today!