How to Train a Border Collie for Herding Trials in Rural Settings?

Border Collies, with their intense gaze, high energy, and intelligent minds, are known for their extraordinary herding abilities. They are particularly adept at controlling and managing flock movements, an instinct that has been honed over centuries for work on farms and in rural settings. If you’re considering training your Border Collie to participate in herding trials, it’s essential to understand the various stages of training and the best practices to follow. This article will guide you on how to effectively train your Border Collie for herding trials in rural settings, using commands, training exercises, and the right approach to enhancing their natural herding instincts.

Understanding the Border Collie’s Herding Instinct

The first step in training your Border Collie for herding trials is to understand their innate herding instinct. This instinct is deeply embedded in the breed’s DNA, making them one of the most popular choices for livestock work on farms.

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Border Collies are bred for their ability to move and control sheep and other livestock. Their instinct is so strong that even a young pup will demonstrate herding behavior, such as circling and stalking. They use their gaze, known as ‘the eye,’ to control livestock, coupled with their agility and speed.

The initial stages of training must focus on harnessing and directing this instinct. It’s crucial not to suppress it as it’s the key to your dog’s potential success in herding trials. However, it’s equally essential to teach them to respond to your commands, so their instincts don’t lead them astray.

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Basic Training and Commands

Before introducing your Border Collie to sheep or any other livestock, they need to have a strong command of obedience training. This will form the foundation of their herding skills and ensure that they respond to your instructions.

Your Border Collie should be able to understand and follow basic commands such as ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘come’, ‘down’, and ‘leave it’. These commands will be invaluable when you start working with sheep. For instance, if your dog is chasing the sheep too aggressively, a firm ‘leave it’ command can halt them in their tracks.

You should also introduce commands that are specific to herding. Some commonly used herding commands include ‘away’ or ‘go bye’ to direct the dog to move counterclockwise around the sheep, and ‘come-bye’ or ‘way to me’ to move clockwise. ‘Stand’ tells the dog to stop, but remain standing and attentive, while ‘look back’ directs the dog to stop and look behind for more sheep.

Starting with Sheep

Once your Border Collie has mastered obedience training and understands basic herding commands, it’s time to introduce them to sheep. Start with a small, docile group of sheep and a large, fenced area for the initial training sessions.

Always start training sessions with a leash, progressively transitioning to off-leash training as your dog grows more confident and responsive to your instructions. You may also consider using a long line initially for more control.

The key is to let your dog’s instincts kick in, but guide and control their movements using your commands. If they start to get overly aggressive or excited, use your commands to calm them down and refocus their attention.

Herding Training Exercises

There are several exercises you can incorporate into your training regime to hone your Border Collie’s herding skills. One of the most basic exercises is to practice the ‘outrun’. This is where the dog runs in a wide arc to approach the sheep from the opposite side and bring them towards you.

Another exercise is the ‘lift’, where the dog approaches the sheep calmly and gently starts to move them. ‘The fetch’ involves the dog bringing the sheep directly to you, while ‘the drive’ is where the dog pushes the sheep away from you.

These exercises should be practiced repeatedly until your dog can perform them flawlessly on command. Remember, patience and consistency are key in developing your Border Collie’s skills.

Preparing for Herding Trials

Once your Border Collie is comfortable working with sheep and can smoothly execute herding exercises on command, you can start preparing them for herding trials. These trials often involve tasks such as penning (getting the sheep into a pen), shedding (separating specific sheep from the flock), and fetching (bringing the sheep to the handler).

Practice these tasks during your training sessions and gradually increase the level of difficulty. For instance, start by penning in a large pen before moving to smaller pens. Similarly, start shedding with only one sheep before moving onto multiple.

Remember, the goal of herding trials is not only about getting the job done but also about how it’s done. Judges will be looking for smooth, controlled movements and efficient work. So, ensure your dog understands that aggressive or overly excited behavior is not conducive to good herding.

Preparing a Border Collie for herding trials involves a mix of harnessing their innate instincts, teaching them to obey commands, and giving them ample practice with real sheep. Remember that every dog learns at its own pace, so patience and consistency are key. Follow these guidelines, and over time, you’ll have a dog that’s not only a skilled herder but also a potential champion in herding trials.

Advanced Training and Tactics for Border Collies

As you progress with training your Border Collie, there will be a need to incorporate more advanced strategies. This will not only improve the dog’s performance but also prepare it even more for the rigors of herding trials.

It is important to remember that Border Collies are intelligent and highly trainable. They thrive on challenges and can quickly learn complex behaviors. This is why advanced tactics should be a significant part of their training regime. For instance, you can introduce concepts like flanking, where the dog learns to move around the sheep in a circular pattern, either clockwise or counterclockwise.

Another important tactic is the ‘look back’ command. This command is used in herding trials to indicate to the dog that there may be more sheep behind it that it needs to fetch. It’s an essential skill that requires the dog to break its focus from the sheep it’s currently herding and check for more sheep.

One notable advanced tactic is the ‘shedding’ practice. This is when the Border Collie separates one or more sheep from the flock. It requires a high level of training and precision, as the dog must be able to isolate and move specific sheep as directed by the handler.

It is also crucial to remember that not all herding trials are the same. Some trials may require the dog to move the sheep over a specific course or through a series of obstacles. Consequently, training should also involve preparing the Border Collie for these types of scenarios.


Training a Border Collie for herding trials is no small task. It requires a good understanding of the breed’s natural instincts, combined with the right training techniques and a considerable amount of patience. However, with the right approach and a commitment to consistency, it is entirely possible to train your Border Collie to be an effective and successful herding dog.

Remember, Border Collies are one of the most intelligent and trainable breeds out there. Their abilities are not limited to just herding trials. With the right training and care, your Border Collie can excel in various roles, from a farm progress helper to a dynamic participant in husker harvest days.

Ultimately, training a dog for herding trials is about more than just winning competitions. It’s about harnessing the dog’s natural instincts, giving it a purpose, and creating a strong bond between you and your pet. It’s about celebrating the unique abilities of the Border Collie breed and being part of a tradition that dates back centuries. So, whether you’re training your dog for a local herding trial or preparing them for the big stage, remember to enjoy the process and cherish the incredible journey you and your Border Collie are embarking on.

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