I was a fly on the wall and I heard someone mention that people involved in herding do not have good obedience on their dogs. I can see why they might think that. We have all witnessed the person out working a herding dog with a “lie down, lie down, lie down… lie down” only to see the dog not lie down. Compare that to an obedience competition where you see the dogs almost not make a motion without permission.

Well here is the thing with that. When you are working a herding dog on livestock you can not work with obedience alone. You are working with instincts as well. Your dog must listen to you while under stimulation as well as fitting those commands with their instincts. Working a herding dog with only obedience will give you a mediocre result at best. Work a dog on livestock that is not obedient will leave you with a wreck.

The herding dog handler is always working to blend instinct with obedience while the dog is under stimulation and things are in an ever changing state. If they overdo the obedience and create a blindly obedient dog they will lose the important element of the dog making choices.

The dog is most often the one in the mix. They feel their influence on the stock. In that situation they must feel free to make choices on how to use the commands the handler has or is giving. If the dog does not feel it can make choices it will not respond when the situation begins to change. That blindly obedient dog will be waiting for the next command rather then feeling its stock. Not responding to stock changing will allow the change to happen and all of a sudden the dog and handler are playing catch up.

Sometimes the dog making choices is perceived as disobedience to observers but in reality, if the dog is filling the task given it, it is not disobedience but obedience to the task set. We could go to great lengths on this but for now lets just say that in herding the command sets the task and the fulfilling of the task is being obedient. There will be commands that are used to keep the dog on task and they must be fulfilled as well.

This is not at all saying when working, a herding dog can pick and choose which commands to listen to (you must have a dog that is willing to listen and take direction). It is to say that exactly how the command is executed it dictated by the instinct being used for the task. Sometimes when a handler asks for a lie down they actually need the dog to maintain contact with the stock but to back off. If the dog understands the task an observer may perceive the dog as being disobedient when it may be doing exactly what is needed. The command to lie down may just be the closest command the handler had to explain what they needed.

Now the dog that will not listen and will only rely on its instinct will only be useful when it’s instinct and the task match (we all know how often that happens). The dog that will not be obedient can stay home with the dog that is blindly obedient. Both will have limited use when working livestock. Though the dog that places instinct over command will likely cause more trouble.

There is a saying: “If you feel like a big man, try to work someone else’s dog.” In comparison to this with obedience I would say: “if your feel your dog is obedient, try working it on livestock.” Command under stimulation will sort out the dogs that are truly obedient (I normally refer to this as respectful but that, again, is a topic I can go on about and better left for another days conversation). A good stock dog will always be open to commands and be willing to take them.

Teach your dog to make good choices and you will not have to be so concerned about commands. If your dog is making good choices it will be trying to be obedient. It may not be perfect but it will not be running out of control.

I will take the dog that makes choices over the dog that is blindly obedient. The dog had better be obedient but I do not want to have to command everything. I guess we could say that it is statistics; the more commands I HAVE to give the more likely my dog will be to miss a command. If the dog understands its commands in relation to the task set and is willing to make good choices it will get use to handler speaking being important. If the dog thinks when I say something it is important it is more likely to listen and the result of that is increased obedience.

Don’t sacrifice obedience when working your dog. On the same hand perfection does not define obedience, but correct does. If your dog is trying to fit your commands with its instinct it has a better chance of being correct on the stock. Using commands correctly and allowing the dog to execute those commands will make your stock work far less stressful. I don’t know about in your world, but in mine, less stress = more fun. 

Go out and work your dog, have fun, and remember don’t say anything you are not willing to back up.

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