Puppy Testing for Herding & Prey Drive

By Claire Apple

Claire introducing a 7 week old pup to a duck.

To me, prey drive is different from herding. I’m not going to say there isn’t overlap, or that herding is not at any time prey driven, but they are different.

I test dogs for prey drive on ducks before I let them herd them. There’s a huge difference in the reactions of a prey drive-driven dog and a herding-driven dog. I have to test this first – my ducks ask me to do so! A dog can be prey drive on ducks, herding drive on sheep, or prey drive on chickens, herding drive on ducks. At the moment, this describes Brick, my Sheltie, who is somewhat prey on chickens but herding/guardian on the ducks.

I test all kinds of dogs – typical herding, pack type herders, the occasional prey drive herding type. All kinds of breeds originally bred for all kinds of purposes.

For testing, I have a pen about 25’ x 15’ (perhaps slightly bigger) with all slightly rounded corners. It also has an adjoining pen that is a little tiny dog run, maybe 5’ x 5’ square.

Claire introducing an older pup to a goat.

Before I start the herding drive and prey drive tests, I test the pups one at a time using the Puppy Aptitude Test (PAT) or some variant. I’m working on tailoring the PAT test because it really doesn’t show the subtlety that is there, which makes a big difference to me (Where is the tail during the elevation test? HOW does the puppy come to you during the recall test? Is there eye contact during the reclining test, and does the pup try to make up with you afterward or not?).

After I run through the whole litter, I know more about each pup. I’ll note on the PAT tests if I think a particular pup needs backup when herding or has other specific needs. –Doing the PAT tests first thus lowers the risk of trauma to a sensitive pup and lets me see if they need to start further away from the flock, need a quieter flock or one with more/fewer animals in the flock,, need the handler to talk to them, etc.

I test prey drive separately. A pup that runs down and shakes a towel does not necessarily run down and shake a duck. They are “kicked in” on a different level there. A pup that attempts to head a duck may not attempt to head a towel or ball. Sometimes how difficult it is to get a particular object (be it a ball or a duck) away from the pup is an indication if they are prey on that object. Brick will run away with a chicken, but bring a duck to me, and heaven forbid I’d want to try to get that squirrel away from him – that would be a battle!

If your sheep fall over, a dog in herding drive will stand there and try to get help, but a dog in prey drive may attempt to drag it out of the arena. I do see more prey drive in German Shepherd (GSD) clients and Tervurens so far in their herding work, but there are still many breeds out there I haven’t seen.

This is what I look for in evaluating puppies 6 weeks to 5 months for herding drive:

7 week old Cash caught on pretty quickly and is covering/holding the ducks in a corner.

1) Does pup try to control the movement of the animals? – Does the pup want to stop the animals from running, keep them from getting away and keep them together in an area?

2) Does the pup notice and attempt to fix splits or runaways? – Does the pup see an animal thinking about running and stop it early, or does it notice as the animal leaves the flock, or does it notice once the animal has left the flock and come to rest somewhere else, or does it simply not even know it is missing one? (These are listed in order of what I prefer to see.)

3) Does the pup attempt to regroup if the flock is loosely grouped? – Does the pup go out and around, tightening the group, covering to prevent strays?

4) How well does the pup direct a stray single animal back towards the flock? – Is the pup capable of planning and orienting the livestock back towards the group or is it stuck in a corner and needs help at a distance?

5) Does the pup attempt to bring them to me or to their owner? – I’m looking for elements of (4) here, as well as,desire to involve the handler.

6) Does the pup attempt to grab the animal, and if so, where? – This is as much a value of confidence of the pup and desire, as it is head/heel indication and possible prey indication.

7 week old Darla getting the hang of moving ducks out of the corner and back into the ring.

7) Can the pup get the animals off the fence, or attempt to do so, with and without help? – Again this a confidence issue, but it also a desire to get around the flock even if the flock is up against a solid object. Dean, my Catahoula, and Brick were always good on this. The pup that wants to do so but doesn’t know how to control their energy will run through the flock on the fence in an attempt to get between the flock and the fence – very different from splitting/chasing behavior. Unsure or worried pups will not attempt to get stock off the fence. This can also have to do with distance from the handler. Pups might be able to get stock off the fence if you are 15 feet away but not 25, for example.

I need to see 1 above and I like to see 2 and 3 as well. But 1 is non-negotiable. For a pup I personally would pick, I want to see 1-3 and preferably 4, 5 and 7.

So far I’ve tested Rottweilers, English Shepherds (ES), Collies, Shelties and Border Collies as 6-8 week old litters of 6 or more. The Rotties tended to try to group. The ESs wanted to group them. Sometimes they were very upset by a split but didn’t quite know how to fix it. They were much more likely to do stuff with the ducks when mom asked them to do so and showed them what to do, which is what I would expect to see in an ES. The Collies vary from controlling to chasing/splitting in a small area, but obvious grouping in a larger one. The Border Collies, if they were interested, tended to be very obvious grouping and controlling dogs, fixing splits and covering well. The Shelties were control oriented and varied on fixing splits early on, but later this was not a problem.

Testing a 6 1/2 week old pup on the ducks.

When testing a group of pups for herding drive, I generally start with 3 drakes for the average pup. Drakes don’t vocalize much, are less aggressive to weak or unsure dogs and just don’t get as flustered as the females do. I start with a medium-bodied duck – something that is slow enough for the pups to get around. I have females, more drakes, and chickens handy if I need them. Depending on what I expect, I usually have a large plastic garden rake handy for blocking and directing the pups. At 6 weeks to 5 months, it just makes a nice wall in their path, which they go around, and I can angle it to let them see the ducks up against the fence, making a kind of chute so they move them along the fence, rather than flank back and forth controlling them on the fence without moving them. It also helps them get between the fence and the ducks successfully, for those pups wanting to do so.

I move the ducks to the far end of the pen while the handler brings in the pup to be tested. They set the pup down, give it a minute to realize this is where they’d been before for PAT testing, and let it start to investigate. I slowly move the ducks into the pup’s range, which will vary according to the pup. A confident pup with a large investigation range may already be heading for them, or a confident pup can handle me bringing them right up to them. A worried pup needs a medium distance because they will freak out if the ducks come too close initially, but they won’t go out and investigate the far end of the pen by themselves either.

Once the pup sees them, I stop moving the ducks and wait to see what the pup does. Does it look at them and get drawn to them? Does it wait and look? Does it come right up and start sniffing? Pawing? Does it start moving them right away?

I’m also paying a lot of attention to the stock. They’ll tell you what they think of the dog. Are the ducks moving for the pup? How far away does the pup have to be for them to react to the pup? Do they bolt from the pup or just calmly start moving away? Do they stay grouped on their own, or does it become every duck for himself?

Once the pup starts advancing on the ducks, I’ll help it guide them down the fence line until they start to come off the fence or the pup indicates it would like to take them off the fence. Then I step back and let the pup go around the ducks, if it will. Does the pup go around the ducks to keep them together, or does it run through them, or does it just stop dead in its tracks, lacking either the confidence to work alone or the desire to group them? Will the pup circle the ducks? Is the pup changing directions? If so, how much help does it need to change direction in reaction to me blocking or the stock changing direction, and how far away from the stock does it do this?

This gives you a read on its reactions to you blocking and and on the naturalness of its reaction to the stock changing direction. The farther out the dog is when it changes direction in response to the stock, the earlier it is reading the situation. Is the dog mentally capable of changing directions (yes, there are some that are complete right-handed or left-handed dogs that really can’t change direction during this first exposure)? How agile is the dog? That is, is it physically capable of changing directions? It can also give you a read on intensity of drive combined with independence – does the pup just go up and over the rake or under the rake to get to the ducks? If so, you’ve got a quick-thinking, very intense hard head like Brick on your hands.

Perky moving the ducks.

Let the pup get the ducks over to the fence and down into a corner where you can block him. Pick up a duck and gently chuck it out into the center of the pen. Does the pup notice? Does the flapping and airborne duck worry the pup? Excite it? Does the pup attempt to bring it back, or does the pup get it to the fence and hold it there, needing help to get it back? When you get it back, allow another duck to slip out of the flock behind your legs and down the fence line. Does the pup notice that one? Bring it back? Does the pup get all grippy? If so, where is it gripping? Head/neck? Wing? Tail? Legs? Wings and tails are the most common, although if you have a definite header or heeler, those will show up on neck/head and leg grips. I’ve only had one pup ever go for a leg grip. On a duck – well, he had a challenge! When the pup gets the duck turned towards you and the rest of the flock, does it let go of the duck, either physically or mentally? Or does it ride it right back into the flock? If they ride it back into the flock, you’ll have to work on biddability and respect for your personal space. It can also be an indication of strong desire to control and be intense.

Perky turning the ducks during testing.

At this point, with the average pup, you should have seen what you need to see. When the pup brings the duck back, or is interested in the ducks, pick them up, praise them, give them a little treat, and go for the next pup! Stop them when they are interested, not when they are distracted.

For the shy pups, I might wait until last, and put them with a moderately interested pup (an intense pup will run a scared pup over with the ducks – bad, bad, bad) until it gains some confidence, then test it. For a disinterested pup, I might go grab a chicken or two, and gently throw them into the center of the ring – their additional flappiness and jerkiness can sometimes get that prey drive kicked in. Once the pup is interested, I get the ducks back out and the pup kicks into herding or I might use more ducks – say, 7 instead of 3. This can be a breed difference too – some breeds just don’t register 3 being any problem to bother with, but 12 is something to herd. GSDs, for example, can be like this.

7 week old Falco preferred the lamb over the ducks during testing.

In some cases, I’ll let the whole litter out to start with. Then when they all are somewhat interested, I’ll put the litter up and test individually or I’ll end the test by putting them all out there to work the ducks. This is especially the case with younger pups or pups that aren’t showing me what I need to see individually. It’s pretty funny to see 3 ducks surrounded by puppies, all standing so they can’t get away.

Claire Apple is located outside of Pittsboro, NC on a small farm with her working Shelties, sheep, goats, a cow, plus numerous ducks and chickens. Preferring to work with upright, loose-eyed breeds, she teaches herding, along with conducting clinics and herding instinct tests.