Loose Eye versus Strong Eye

“I Herd All About It!”

By Lynn Leach
Downriver Farm
Australian Cattle Dog Club of Canada – Vice President
CKC Herding Representative
Herding Judge – CKC, AKC & AHBA

“Upright, loose-eyed dog”; that’s how herding people described my dog – EEK – that sounds horrible!  Is it really that bad? 

That was my reaction when I first began training with Brew, my nine-month old Australian Cattle Dog. I attended a herding clinic on beautiful Vancouver Island and the dogs entered were all border collies, except for my travel partner’s and my own. I remember keeping my dog on lead all weekend and watching many of the ‘strong eyed’ dogs, (all border collies) work off lead and progress to the open field within the three days. It was awesome! I was sure that my dog could do that too! I just needed to learn how to teach her.

Well, things didn’t work out the way I had planned with Brew. We did not progress to the larger areas working sheep, but she became a wonderful cow dog. She introduced me to stock dog trials and taught me a whole lot, which enabled me to begin training my next ACD. That next dog, BJ, did make it to open fieldwork and competed successfully on sheep in small field trials, being the only ‘loose-eyed breed’ entered in those particular competitions.

What was the difference between these two dogs? Me. I learned that the ‘upright, loose-eyed’ dog’ isn’t a horrible thing, it is just different from the ‘strong-eyed’ dog and training has to be addressed that way. 

These terms are not good or bad; they are simply descriptions of the dogs working style.  “Upright” refers to the dog’s posture while he is working. “Loose-eyed” describes the dogs that don’t try to make constant eye contact with the stock. Usually, these two terms go hand in hand, as dogs that try to use their eyes to control livestock tend to work with their front shoulders low to the ground. These strong-eye dogs usually work silently and are very intense. The loose-eyed dogs will turn away from the stock, use their body positioning for stock control, have a very ‘upright’ posture while working and sometimes bark, or use their voice. 

Although most people refer to Border Collies and Australian Kelpies as the ‘strong eyed’ breeds, the working style varies greatly within each breed. I have seen many ‘loose-eyed’ border collies that work upright and many dogs in other breeds that use a lot of eye and crouch low when working. Australian Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs are two of the breeds that have been bred through generations to increase the amount of ‘eye’ in the breeder’s lines, or to work upright and loose-eyed. It usually depends on the type of work required by the breeder(s).

The strong-eyed dogs tend to have speed, intensity and a lot of drive – all traits that help them to excel at covering stock in large areas and taking control of the livestock. The International sheep dog trials that are commonly seen on television are designed to show off these points. These strong-eyed dogs have been bred to work in this style. They have also been bred for working temperament, to be biddable working for and with their handler. Many give easily to pressure, reacting quickly to handler’s training techniques. 

In comparison, many of the loose-eyed dogs have been bred to work independently, learning from other dogs on the farm, or through trial and error. These dogs excel working in small pens, stockyards, feed lots and sorting chutes doing ranch or farm chores. They use their presence and/or voice to move a large group from the rear when the stock at the front cannot see them. Many are versatile; they will work cattle in chutes one day and move geese, ducks or sheep the next. The independence they are bred for can make training very frustrating, especially for the beginner handler. They are bred to push into pressure, which means their reactions will differ from the strong-eyed breeds and the training techniques being used. 

Which breed is the best for herding? My answer to that is: what type of herding do you want, or need to do? Can dogs learn to do it all?  I think many dogs can, at some level, but will always have their strong and weak points.  Think of a professional basketball player; could he compete in the National Hockey League just because he is an athlete? Many basketball players could learn to play hockey and may even be able to compete, but most will excel at basketball, having the other sports as just a hobby.

Most resources presently available for training herding dogs approach training from the strong eye perspective. This is why I had such a hard time training my cattle dogs to herd. Although these dogs all need to learn a similar set of skills and put these skills together into one package, the road to get to that finished package is very different, depending on the working style of the dog. When you decide to start training your upright breed, try to find somebody who understands your breed and how to bring out their qualities – but don’t restrict your training to just those people. I have spoken with people who believe that you should try to stick with one trainer to avoid confusion or controversy. I do think they have a point, but I adamantly believe I have learned from every trainer I have worked with. I encourage people to go to as many clinics and clinicians as possible. You know your dog best – take what information you think is going to work for your dog and put the rest in the back of your mind. It may come in handy later with a different dog. 

By going to different clinics, you get the much needed opportunity to work different stock and this will be invaluable when it comes time to enter a trial or help a neighbor with escaped livestock. Trainers also have things that they excel at, just like dogs do. They usually have a few skills that they are very good at teaching their dogs – you can see this if you watch them handling several dogs at a trial. All of their dogs may do very well on one aspect of the course and this is the skill that they will likely teach with the most confidence at their clinics. So, if you learn a new skill from five different trainers, you now have five different skills taught on your dog! 

Good luck with your training, and Happy Herding!!!

For more information about how to train your loose eyed breed, please view our All Breed Herding training videos: Introduction to All Breed Herding and All Breed: Herding the Next Steps.