Herding instinct

Amanda Farnsworth trains shepherd dogs—and their people



Amanda Farnsworth stands with two shepherd dogs

Michael Hanlon

Amanda Farnsworth has been training dogs to herd animals for more than fifteen years. “A lot of people start on all-terrain vehicles until they realize you can get one dog, and it’s so much smoother,” she says. “I primarily love herding because it’s so unpredictable,” she says. According to Farnsworth, sheep farms are quite common in Upstate New York. “People don’t just use their wool but their meat and milk as well,” she says. “So it’s an example of someone using every bit of the sheep, and then they’re also used to teach dogs how to herd.” 

The dogs, which have been bred and raised to exploit herding instincts for hundreds of years, can do the work of as many as five people. “When you watch a genetically gifted and trained dog do it, it’s actually kind of boring,” she laughs, “because it’s effortless. There’s no real action; it’s just doing its job. Although it’s much more interesting and exciting to watch a dog rodeo the sheep around, we’re looking for low stress that’s better for the livestock.” 

Despite generations of breeding for a single purpose, every dog herds differently—and the sheep react accordingly. “They’ll be afraid of an all-black dog that’s super big, but something like a border collie is less intimidating,” Farnsworth says. Each dog’s first lesson is an “instinct test,” when Farnsworth puts the dog in a controlled pen of sheep to gauge its reaction. “What I’m looking for is a dog that wants to please its owner and is interested in the sheep. In the beginning that’s usually in the form of prey drive,” she says. And although not every dog is bred for herding, “as long as they have prey drive and want to please their owner, we can work with it.” Farnsworth has trained everything from poodles and bulldogs to Australian and German shepherds. “I instinct tested a German shepherd once, and my sheep were like ‘welp, that’s a wolf’ and bolted!” she laughs. “Like, they jumped the fence. So yeah, they do react differently to each dog.” The way Farnsworth puts it, herding is a complicated and nuanced dance among livestock, a dog, and its handler.  “I don’t just teach students how to train the dog. I teach them how to read livestock as well.”

While working at a doggy daycare, Farnsworth saw a herding demonstration. “I did some various other dog sports, but when I got Aussies, I really wanted to get into herding. I formed a bunch of connections and started to rent sheep where I could, rent cows where I could, and learn from anybody that was willing to teach me.” 

In the early days, Farnsworth didn’t have her own students. “I was just taking in farm dogs, training them, and then sending them back,” she says. “I’d have them for like three months at a time, and then I’d send them home fully trained.” Once she started offering group lessons to people, Farnsworth couldn’t get enough. “It helps everyone learn so much quicker, and it’s like a community for everyone; a lot of my students are friends now because we’ve been through the ups and downs of training together. It’s a nice support system for everybody.” 

Aside from word of mouth, clients typically hear about Farnsworth through her well-crafted photography on Instagram or referrals from other trainers. “I train, like, really naughty dogs,” she says. “Dogs that everyone else have given up on or have been kicked out of multiple trainers. And I’m kind of their last resort to fixing the dog.” And while herding is great behavioral training for aggressive dogs, it’s equally as effective for overly playful, aloof, and even nervous, anxious dogs. “Either way, there is a lot in the way of training that you can do to mold each dog. It’s not a lost cause if your dog for the first couple months is just goofing off. And it’s also not a lost cause if the dog is just losing its mind because it wants to get at the sheep.” 

For nervous dogs, herding gives them a focus that relieves stress and improves confidence. “I have a lot of dogs who come that are really shy and unconfident and some dogs that have noise sensitivity,” Farnsworth says. “I’ve had a few dogs that are incredibly reactive to fireworks, gunshots, and loud noises. And having something that the dog can focus on other than that helps alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety.” 

Farnsworth’s interest in behavior training comes from the same place as herding—its unpredictability and constant motion. “It’s interesting to work through all the dogs’ problems and get the reward of them not having those problems anymore.” 

On top of training for ranch work, Farnsworth competes throughout North America. “I can take show dogs and get them herding titles, or I’ll take farm dogs and get them show titles.” The real-life experience on a farm is her key to winning competitions, she says. “I focus on how to get yourself through real-life situations. So then, once you get to a competition, doing a couple obstacles isn’t hard.” While competitions require precision, agility, and making straight lines, the purpose of farm work is getting stuff done. “Every time you step into the ring, it’s different. It’s never the same. Like, you can set up something that’s similar, but the sheep are going to react different. You’re dealing with moving parts. Whereas with agility you’re working with obstacles, on the farm your obstacles are alive and have minds of their own,” she says. “So having a dog that can do both is—to me—really important.”

To train a well-rounded dog (and prepare for competitions), Farnsworth and her students herd sheep, cows, ducks, pigs, chickens, and turkeys—“Really, anything that will remotely flock together,” she says. A lot of Farnsworth’s students live closer to the city, where they don’t have room for sprawling pastures of sheep or cows. “So they keep chickens to provide their dogs with some sort of stimulus,” she says. 

Training dogs focuses on positivity and ensuring your dog is happy and healthy. “Your dog’s not going to work for you if you’re abusing it. Dogs are good herders because they want to work for you. There has to be a mutual trust and respect for the dog to be willing to work all day for you,” she says. “Even the dog with the most spectacular instinct will not listen to its owner if they aren’t training in a productive way.” 

Obviously, herding sheep is good exercise for a dog—but there are more profound benefits. One of Farnsworth’s dogs developed hip dysplasia, but his muscle tone from herding kept him healthy much longer than, say, a dog that lies on the couch most days. “And they’re just a happier dog because they’re getting to do what they love every single day,” she says. 

And then there’s the mental aspect. Farnsworth says that every dog owner should plan activities where the dog is getting not just physical exercise but mental exercise, too. “Even fifteen minutes a day teaching your dog and testing what you taught them yesterday,” she says, “helps with that boredom factor so they can become mentally tired. A dog needs to learn and use its brain in order to be able to be a calm dog.” 

While herding can be transformative for dogs, the results are hard-earned. “There’s not a high rate of people who stick out herding,” Farnsworth explains. “Because it is so hard, and it takes so long to learn. A lot of people trying it out don’t come back. You have to be committed.” Because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the craft, there are plenty of bad days. “But sometimes when a student has a good day, and their dog finally clicks in after it being so hard for so long, they just cry and cry and cry. Because it is so rewarding.” 

“Plus,” she says, “what’s better than having a dog hang out with you all day when you’re doing a job, you know?”

 

John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, johnmwrites.com.

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