Judging Herding Capability Tests

Conducting and judging herding capability tests

Education is an important aspect of tests.

Throughout the test, the tester should communicate with the participants and observers about tests in general, about what is occurring during the particular test, and about herding behaviors and training in general. A demonstration or demonstrations should be provided to give participants and observers an idea as to what is expected.

The tester has to be flexible in administering a test, but should also conduct the test in a reasonably standardized format.

The owner or owner’s agent should bring the dog into the enclosure on lead. The tester will ask the owner some brief questions regarding the dog’s background and the owner’s experience, and whether this test is for the dog’s first or second leg.

It is strongly recommended that the dog have prior supervised experience before coming to a formal test. The dog must have had training to stop on command (sit, down or stand) and recall reliably with distractions.

For both first- and second-leg tests, the passing dog should show good, sustained interest of such a nature that the dog appears to be ready to begin preliminary training. Strong desire and a well-adjusted, willing attitude should be demonstrated. The overall impression should be that the dog has the potential to be a useful, practical working dog. Constructive herding activity, not chasing, should be evidenced. Whether or not to pass borderline cases must be a judgment call by the tester. As a general rule, such dogs should not be passed at that time. It should be kept in mind that retesting on another day is available and recommended. Many dogs which at their first exposures to stock may be overexcited and hard to control, or which may lack interest or be unsure of themselves, will go on to become good herders with more experience and training.

After each dog’s individual performance, the tester should comment on the dog’s performance for the benefit of the owner and the spectators.

First-leg tests:

For first-leg tests, the tester remains in the arena and guides the approach to the stock. When the tester and the owner are both in the enclosure, they should be in close proximity to one another in order to provide the dog and stock with a single reference point.
The tester’s active and/or advisory participation is important at all times. Initially, the tester may do most of the handling of the dog, or may closely guide the owner in some amount of handling. With inexperienced owners, the tester may handle the dog throughout a first-leg test. More experienced owners should do a larger part or all of the handling. Throughout the test, the tester provides education regarding herding in general and with regard to preparation for the second leg.

The tester should be aware of the point toward which the stock want to move, and take that into account in the handling of the test. The stock should be well settled, preferably away from the fence and not in a corner.

The tester may carry a 5- to 8-ft. bamboo pole or light PVC pipe to be used as an aid in guiding the movements of the dog or when necessary to block the dog from coming too close to the stock. The pole should be flexible, with the ends wrapped with tape or otherwise padded for safety; poles with a feed bag or a soft plastic bottle (with or without pebbles inside) fastened to the end are also acceptable. Wooden staffs or poles, if used, should be used with particular care due to their inflexibility. While the dog is working smoothly the pole is held discreetly out of the way, and may be set down entirely if not needed or if a dog is inhibited by its presence. It should not be overused nor used inappropriately, and should not be used to give a strong physical correction to the dog except in an emergency in order to protect the stock (if this becomes necessary, the dog is to be removed immediately).
Initially the dog is walked on lead around the stock, keeping to the outside and along the fence with the stock being encouraged to stay in the middle. At some point before the lead is dropped or removed the dog should demonstrate a simple stop (down, sit or stand) and recall; this may be done with the dog close at hand. The dog should not be allowed to strain against the line nor should it be guided extensively by the line or given heavy physical corrections with it. As soon as the dog appears to have settled, the line may be dropped or removed. The dog may pass with line dragging, but not with the line held throughout the test.

When the line is dropped or removed, the dog should not simply be left to its own devices while the handler stands by. The handler (tester, or owner under the guidance of the tester) must be actively participating at all times to help develop good working habits. The handler must move about the field, giving ground to the stock, creating a place for the dog to move the stock.

There may be some basic, simple training activities by the tester, because part of good herding ability is the ability to learn and take directions. Such basic training at tests should be general in nature. It must be kept in mind that the dog is to be allowed to reveal its natural tendencies and should not be forced into a particular behavior corresponding to a preconceived idea of “breed style.” Commands should be kept to a minimum in order to determine the dog’s natural manner of working. It is to be expected that there will be some differences as well as some over-lap in style between breeds and between individuals. Many acceptable variations in style occur in herding dogs, which should be accommodated.

Ideally, the dog will quickly show strong interest, attempting to keep the stock grouped and trying to control the movement of the stock relative to the position of the handler. It will show boldness and self-confidence without excessive aggression, naturally keeping a good distance from the stock rather than repeatedly rushing in too close. In practice there will be many individual variations, including less-than-ideal reactions often reflective of the dog’s inexperience.

For the most part the stock should be encouraged to stay out in the open, giving more room for maneuver, although there may be some cases where the tester may keep the stock along the fence for a brief time for a particular purpose. Should the stock start to hug the fence, the dog’s handler (the tester, or the owner at the direction of the tester) may need to quickly and gently take the dog by the collar and lead it between the stock and the fence, moving the stock well out into the open before releasing the dog (if the dog is released too soon, the stock may immediately run back to the fence).

The formal test session should be concluded when the dog fulfills the requirements for passing, whether the dog takes only a few minutes or the full ten. Some dogs will show little interest during the first few minutes, then interest begins to build until it becomes definite and sustained. With dogs that show interest immediately, the test should continue for approximately 3 to 5 minutes to be sure interest is sustained, without unnecessarily extending the time.

At all times, dogs are to be handled with consideration and care.

In all circumstances, safety takes precedence. A dog which appears to be too aggressive to be put into direct contact with the stock, and/or will not perform a simple stop or recall with the line on, may not be let off the line and will not pass. Tests usually run smoothly, with little likelihood of an incident that would endanger the stock. A potentially risky situation can arise quickly, however, and the tester and any person at hand must be prepared to intervene to protect stock, dog or people. Owners are to be apprised of this beforehand. Only in an emergency, if necessary for the safety of the stock or the people involved, may a strong physical correction be given to the dog or an object be thrown at the dog. The dog then must be removed immediately, the occurrence discussed, and the owner given advice as to how to proceed with the dog’s preparation for training.

Second-leg tests:

The dog is to be handled by the owner or owner’s agent.  The tester will remain just inside or just outside the arena, ready to assist if necessary.  The tester may give verbal assistance, and a brief direct intervention to clarify a suggestion is acceptable.

 The stock are set out well off the fence. The dog, on lead, is positioned by the handler as desired. The dog is put into an initial stay and the lead is removed; the handler may change position while the dog remains in place, or send the dog from his or her side after a brief pause.  At the handler’s signal, the dog collects the stock.  The stock are moved across the arena as indicated above. There will be simple straight movements and changes of direction.  At some point, most likely at the conclusion of the test, the dog should demonstrate a stop (sit, down or stand) and a recall. The handler may take a position between the dog and stock for the recall, but may not simply grab the dog as it passes by on its way to the stock.

The dog may be directed by the handler’s positioning, verbal command, or both.  Absolute precision in obedience is not required and some repetition of commands is acceptable, but if the dog is unresponsive and out of control, it cannot pass the second leg and should be removed from the arena for lack of progress.  Harsh verbal commands, threatening gestures toward the dog, and physical corrections are not allowed, except in an emergency as outlined above.  The handler may take the dog very briefly by the collar at the direction of the tester, if necessary (for instance, to help the dog take stock out of a corner), but otherwise the handler may not touch the dog.

The movement of the stock should be fairly controlled.  Haphazard running back and forth in the arena will not acceptable for passing.  The dog should not circle the stock excessively.  If necessary, the tester may ask for additional traversing of the arena or additional turns, keeping standards for passing consistent for all entrants.

Completing the Test Forms:

The sections on the test form are primarily descriptive in nature.  The first five sections are entirely description and not considered to vary in desirability.  The remaining sections include both acceptable variations and behaviors that vary in desirability in greater or lesser degree.  The section indicating “Controlled Movement; Stop; Recall” is used with second-leg tests only.

The lines are to be checked where applicable.  In some cases it may result that more than one line is checked in a particular subsection, or that no line is checked.  The comments lines are very important, as not all eventualities can be accommodated in a standard form.

The sections are for the most part fairly self-explanatory, but some general definitions follow to aid in standardization:


Gathering: the dog attempts to head off or circle the stock and move it toward the handler.

Driving: The dog stays between the handler and the stock, keeping the stock grouped but deliberately attempting to push it away from the handler.  Dogs of breeds traditionally thought of or used as “drivers” may often in fact show gathering instinct.  Some behaviors seen in inexperienced dogs should not be mistaken for driving: an insecure dog that wants to stay near the handler and may run back and forth between the owner and the stock, pushing the stock away; a dog so strongly desiring to head off the stock that, when the stock turns, repeatedly cuts across between the stock and the handler in order to get to the heads as quickly as it can; a dog that is simply chasing.

Some dogs may show tendencies to both gather and drive in varying degrees.  If gathering and driving are about equal, then the two first lines can both be marked.

No clear preference: some dogs, often through inexperience, seem to show no style preference or switch randomly back and forth between gathering and driving, or simply go after the stock from any position.  As the test continues, the dog may begin to show a more definite style.  Some dogs will need more exposure for a more definite style preference to take hold.  A dog that shows both gathering and driving tendencies may pass, but a dog will not pass if it shows no discernible inclination to control the group and its movement, and just runs at the stock or chases with no real attempt at herding.

Behaviors often seen in inexperienced dogs which are in fact due to lack of herding experience should not be mistaken for a herding “style” — for instance, a dog which holds stock against a fence is simply showing inexperience in dealing with the situation, it is not demonstrating some other “style” of stock-handling.


Runs wide — the dog consistently exhibits a tendency to keep some distance from the stock while moving around it, showing strong interest.  This should be distinguished, however, from a dog which is running wide because of avoidance behavior or lack of interest in the stock.

runs moderately wide — the dog is neither notably wide nor very close. The dog may start close but is easily encouraged to move wider.  Some dogs swing in close, then swing out wider.  A more detailed description can be given on the lines for additional comments.

Runs close — the dog consistently moves close; while such a dog’s approach can be widened, it will require more training to effect this.

In many cases the dog’s distance from the stock may depend on the nature of the stock and the situation, with the dog placing itself closer or further back as appropriate.


 Loose — a dog which has good concentration on the stock but does not use a concentrated gaze or intense focus in controlling the stock. Loose eye should not be confused with lack of attention to stock. Loose-eyed workers are in control of their stock and keep track of the overall picture. A fairly upright body posture is usually displayed.

Medium — some extent of concentrated gaze but fairly free in movement, body posture usually fairly upright.

Strong — very intense concentrated gaze or focus with a stalking, pausing approach, usually with a lowered body stance.


The side-to-side movement the dog makes to keep the stock together as it moves the stock forward. A larger group of animals, or animals which keep wanting to split, may increase the dog’s tendency to wear. A dog may wear in wide arcs or in shorter arcs. Some dogs wear constantly, others in response to particular situations.  A dog which shows no wearing will often allow splits in the group.


 Works silently — may give an occasional bark in excitement or for another reason, but essentially is quiet.

Force barks — fairly quiet but will readily bark in an attempt to move stubborn stock.

Some barking — sustained barking — In some cases the dog simply has a natural tendency to bark a lot.  Some smaller dogs will use their voices to help make their presence known.  When working large groups of animals, some dogs will bark in order to have an effect on the animals which can’t see the dog.  Dogs with a natural barking style, called “huntaways,” are used to force sheep from hiding places in rough pastures; huntaways should be so noted, and will generally also be very loose-eyed, strong dogs.  Often, barking may be due to excitement, frustration at uncooperative stock, or lack of confidence, in which case barking will lessen with experience.  The comments lines should be used to note the nature of the barking.


Readily adjusts — the dog adapts to the situation quickly and turns its attention to the stock.  Such a dog may pause a moment to size up the situation, but shows no sign of nervousness.  The dog may show some brief moments of distraction, particularly at first, but the dog’s interest quickly and steadily builds to the point where the interest is definite and sustained.

A little distraction — easily distracted — a dog may have definite interest in the stock but be diverted by a scent on the ground or by something happening outside the ring.  In some cases the dog still may be passed provided that the incidents are brief and the dog readily returns its attention to the stock.  On the other hand, if the dog is continually distracted by other things, it is not demonstrating the consistent, sustained attention that would be necessary for preliminary training to begin, and it should not be passed.  Further exposure and testing should be recommended because dogs which are easily distracted often progress to strong, sustained attention with more experience.  In a second-leg test, the dog should be expected to be less inclined to distraction and any incidents should be momentary if the dog is to pass.

Apprehensive of situation — in some cases a dog which initially shows some reserve or timidity may still pass if its confidence level readily increases.  As with the easily distracted dog, further exposure and testing often increases the dog’s confidence level.  The dog which, despite encouragement, shows continuing fear of the stock or situation should not pass.


Sustained interest — the dog definitely and consistently keeps its attention on the stock, although there may be some glancing about or very brief periods of distraction.

Keen interest — this is self-explanatory and should be used to indicate those dogs that are especially keen.

Some interest — the dog evidences interest in the stock, but to a lesser extent or more intermittently; because the extent of the interest will be variable, these dogs may be borderline cases and careful thought will need to be given whether or not to pass them.  Some dogs, particularly young dogs, may show strong interest for a minute or two, then lose interest entirely.  If the interest reawakens the dog may be passed, provided the interest is then sustained, but if not, the dog should not be passed at that time.

No interest — self-explanatory.


Sufficient for stock — shows power suitable for stock.  If the stock proves stubborn, the dog attempts to continue working but may show some hesitation, often due to inexperience.

Forceful, appropriate for stock — the dog approaches the stock boldly and confidently.  The dog may occasionally attempt to nip sheep or paw ducks, but not to the extent that it constitutes a threat to the stock.  It will be apparent that the dog is very interested in the stock and desires to control its movement, but it does not intend to harm the stock. Even if excited, the dog will accept the tester’s guidance to encourage it to temper its actions toward the stock.  The type of stock (different kinds, different individuals within a kind) will require different degrees of force.  The dog should show enough force to control the stock, without being rough.

Excessive force — the approach is very strong, with the dog lunging at the stock and sometimes attempting to grip.  The dog shows little or no tendency to tailor its actions to suit the type or behavior of the stock.  Such a dog may still be passed only if it responds to the tester’s intervention to get it to behave in a more self-controlled manner.

Lacks power to move stock — the dog shows interest in the stock and will circle it or follow it if it moves, but if the stock does not move, the dog stands and watches it or looks to the handler.  Ideally, the dog will respond to encouragement and gain self-confidence with experience.  In some cases the stock may simply be too stubborn or uncooperative for an otherwise adequately powerful but inexperienced dog, and this should be noted.  A dog which continually backs away from or runs away from the stock should not pass.

It should be noted that both the dog which shows excessive force and the dog which shows lack of power may develop the ability to handle stock appropriately with more exposure and guidance.


 Some dogs quickly show willingness to accept training, although their actions may be of an unrefined nature.  They may need to be shown several times, but soon adopt the desired behavior.  Other dogs simply persist in their behavior, despite attempts at guidance, or appear to take little notice of attempts at guidance, or may even stop working and sulk in response to attempts at guidance.  Some dogs may be inhibited by attempts at guidance.  Extra care may be needed in the handling of an especially sensitive dog.

Grouping of stock:

Ideally the dog moves to keep stock grouped if some animals attempt to break away.  Some dogs may make attempts to regroup in some instances and not others, and some may make little or no attempt to regroup.  There are dogs which deliberately single out an individual repeatedly, while others may chase one individual or the whole group with no attempt to control the direction or composition of the group. Some dogs may run in response to stock movement, but then begin running for running’s sake and lose contact with the stock. Too little effort to control the movement of the stock may indicate chasing rather than herding.

Balancing stock with handler:

This section concerns balance in the sense of the dog’s movements in directing the stock in relation to the handler’s position (balance in the broad sense includes the dog’s distance relative to the stock’s “flight zone,” encompassing the positioning used in directing and controlling the stock).  Some dogs clearly change direction in response to the movement of the handler in order to keep the stock in a position relative to the handler’s position.  This is clearest in gathering dogs where, if the dog is circling the stock and the handler moves around the stock to meet it, the dog will change direction to keep its position opposite the handler; if the handler is moving or giving ground in a particular direction and alters the direction, the dog will move to one side or the other to cause the stock to change direction.  A driving dog, while taking stock away from the handler, will be aware of the handler’s direction of travel and adjust its own position to cause the stock to move in that direction.  Some dogs, while moving the stock and keeping it grouped, do not take the handler’s position into consideration, while some may simply circle the stock repeatedly in one direction, or hold the stock against a fence.

Second leg:

The dog must receive a “good” or “fair” designation on all of the following elements of the second-leg test in order to pass.

Controlled movement:

 The dog should approach and take control of the stock calmly.  In moving the stock, the dog should pace itself to the stock, maintaining an appropriate distance, using sufficient but not excessive force.  It should move the stock in the path as directed by the handler, neither rushing the stock nor allowing it to balk.  The handler should use as few commands as possible, allowing the dog to demonstrate its natural abilities.  However, a dog may still be given a passing designation (“Good” or “Fair”) despite a little rushing, incidences of balkiness, some repetition of commands, a minor split, etc., some circling of the stock, etc., depending on the extent of these occurrences.  A dog will not be given a passing designation which repeatedly splits the stock, ignores commands or requires continual commands, continually circles the stock throughout the course, backs down at the slightest resistance by the stock to the extent it is unable to move the stock after several minutes.  If the stock break away and the dog readily recovers them, it may still be given a passing designation, but if the stock escape entirely and cannot be recovered and put back on course in a reasonably efficient manner, or if the dog loses control repeatedly, or if the stock happens to move back and forth across the arena but the dog is only partially in control of them, the dog will be given an “Insufficient” or “Not Accomplished” designation.


      The dog may be stopped as necessary during the run.  A final stop is required at the end of the run. The stop may be a down, sit or stand.  When stopped, the dog should respond to a single command and hold position until released.  A dog which creeps a little may still be given a passing designation, although creeping is not desirable.  Excessive creeping or simply breaking the command and running into the stock will result in an “Insufficient” or “Not Accomplished” designation.  If a dog starts to break, but a second command causes the dog to stop and remain in place until released, the dog still may be given a passing designation.  The need for repeated, strong commands, or continued lack of response to commands, will result in an “Insufficient” or “Not Accomplished” designation.


 After the second return to the set-out point, the stock are settled and the dog is stopped.  The dog is then recalled by the handler.  The dog should come readily.  A little repetition of command is acceptable, but refusal to come, or need for repeated, strong commands, or the handler simply grabbing the dog as it goes by, will result in the section being marked “Insufficient” or “Not Accomplished.”  


The comments section is particularly important. Strong points and areas needing improvement with regard to the dog’s performance and the handler’s handling should be noted, suggestions given, and notations made of the difficulty or cooperativeness of the stock – anything that has a bearing on the dog’s performance and the understanding of what transpired during the run.  Overall comments are to be made in addition to comments under the different sections.   

Stock evaluation:

      The behavior of the stock should be noted to provide background regarding the dog’s behavior, because the nature of the stock can have a strong bearing on the dog’s reactions, especially the less experienced dog.  With regard to uncooperative stock, it should be indicated whether the stock were still controllable, or not only uncooperative but of such a nature as to be uncontrollable.  Uncooperative stock may be either difficult to move (heavy or stubborn) or too easily moved (spooky or light).