There are many people who are very adamant that an English Shepherd should be strictly a heeling dog and should never go to an animal's head. However, in her book, Mari Taggart says that a portion of English Shepherds do gather. Most of my dogs have been gatherers, and I frankly prefer them. Actually I think that it mainly depends on the type of stock the dog works as to which is better. On rough, wild range stock I am sure a strictly heeling dog would be more effective and also safer for the dog. A gathering dog in such a situation would be in much greater danger of being gored or trampled. Where there is plenty of room to run, a hard heeling dog would force such stock to rely on the animal's natural herding instinct for protection.
However, my dogs worked only very tame and gentle stock, mostly goats, dairy cows, and some beef cows. The animals generally were accustomed to dogs and to being moved by them. In such situations I maintain that a gathering dog is much easier on the stock. Such a dog can block the animal's movement and direct it into the proper path without any excitement. Old Kelly would stand and watch cows and calves going through a gate. Let a calf try to turn and run down the fence before going through the gate, and Kelly would head him back to the gate with no fuss at all, whereas a heeler would have had it running farther away with Mamma racing the other side of the fence. Granted, after an experience or two with a heeler, the calf would learn not to miss the gate, but I still think that a good gatherer and header works best. All of my dogs except Gordie and his son Dusty were gatherers. Gordie and Dusty always heeled, and they would not face an animal head-on – they would simply move aside from a charging animal and go to his heels.The other dogs would meet an animal head-on if it needed to be turned. I remember once when I was trying to turn back a young bull that was trying to escape, I was whipping him in the face with a rope when Sagan got there. The bull was headed south when Sagan leaped up and grabbed his nose. A split second later when Sagan let go, the bull was on his knees facing north. All the dogs except Gordie and Dusty would heel or head an animal depending on what was needed. They would circle and gather stock and move it to me. If an animal was headed away from me, they headed it and turned it around. All except Stacy would gather them without any nipping so long as the cows moved for them. The cows would stand and wait for me to send a dog for them and would move as soon as the dog was around them, and the dog would simply trail along behind them without any biting or nipping. Stacy seemed to feel that if she had to go after them she deserved a nip, and she would get it even if the cow moved away from her. During Stacy's short reign my cows learned to meet me at the gate so Stacy would not have to come for them.
Old Kipling never heeled if the cow would move for him, but he would if she tried to ignore him. And any time that a cow kicked at him, he heeled her. Once in a while one of the cows would kick at him and then run, for she knew from experience what would happen. Kipling would go for the cow and chase her as far as he had to in order to give her a retaliatory nip, and then he would stop.
Kelly had one trait that none of her pups inherited. She would go through all the motions of heeling a cow just above the hoof, but instead of nipping, she would give a sharp bark. This was usually all that was needed to start a cow moving. If they ignored her bark, she had plenty of grit to go back and give a nip. Cows quickly learned that it was not good for them to ignore Kelly's bark. That one bark at the heels was the only sound she ever made when she was working stock. And all of those dogs also learned to heel any cow I wanted them to; all I had to do was to call the dog's name and point to the animal I wanted them to heel.
You asked about how close the dogs worked and the use of the eye. My dogs usually worked fairly close, but as I said they were working tame stock that was familiar with the dogs, and the dogs with the stock. The dogs seemed to know instinctively how close to get in order to get results. If they did not want to excite them, they knew how far to keep away or how close to get in order to stir them up. Generally they would be considered loose-eyed, but they still knew how to use the eye. Cows with young calves are notorious for being excitable and fighty and difficult for a dog to handle. Yet old Kipling and Sagan especially were masters with handling them. They could go quite close to a cow with a calf without prodding them the cow into a fight simply by ambling along with averted eyes as though they were totally oblivious of the cow's presence. The cow would alert but stand and watch while the dog passed by. When the dog was in position and wanted action, then he would focus his eyes on the cow. Old Sagan was bosom buddies with one of my old pet dairy cows. He would approach her crouching and wagging his tail and initiate a game with her butting at him and chasing him while he played "catch me if you can." Yet all I had to do was say "bring her here," and everything would change. Sagan would stop crouching and wagging and became very businesslike, and old Polly would stop fighting at him and become quite obedient to the dog.
I play two games with my pups that I think help in training a herding dog. All my good working dogs were avid ball retrievers who would rather retrieve a ball than eat. Retrieving gives the dog the idea of working with you and of bringing something to you. Most young pups will chase a ball or a knotted sock rolled on the floor. If it is rolled into a closet or a narrow hall where there is nowhere else to go except back toward you, most quickly catch on to retrieving it. After he is hooked on retrieving, you can teach hand signals by pretending to throw the ball and when he races off in that direction, reward him by throwing the ball ahead of him. It does not take a pup long to figure out that your hand motion gives him advanced notice of where the ball is going, and this easily transfers to working stock. I also end the game with the command "that's enough" as I put the ball away, so the pup learns what that means.
Another game is to tie a ball, sock, plastic bottle or anything that interests the pup on a string tied to a slender pole such as a fishing pole. Bird hunters use such an arrangement with a bird wing to encourage pups to sight point. I simply play a game of catch-it-if-you-can, and of course to maintain enthusiasm, the pup must catch it at times. When he catches it, you can either encourage him to bring it to you if he will, or let him chew it until he lets go, and then continue with the game. After he is really enthusiastic about the game, you can enforce some obedience such as down, hand signal, etc. If he does not obey, the lure can simply be lifted out of his reach until he quiets down and complies. The pup soon learns to cooperate and obey. Many of the training books advocate starting pups on a long rope for control, but I have never seen any need of it. My pups had already learned basic obedience commands and to obey during times of excitement so I never had a problem keeping control.
My pups usually got their start teasing the goats. Of course they were tagging along with me quite a bit and seeing stock, but they must be protected until they are big enough. Sagan was very interested at an early age and got to a cow who kicked him. He was very slow to take up heeling cows when he got older. Usually by four or five months the pups would be agile enough to tease the goats with a game of catch me if you can. It is always interesting to see them discover that while the goats have the advantage when approached head-on, the pup has the advantage at the heels. When they realize this, you will see them begin circling trying to get to the heels.
The one exception to this was Kelly. When she was about four months old, she began tagging along with her sire, Sagan, when he was sent to bring up the cows. Within a few weeks she took over and began watching for a chance to go get them before Sagan was sent. From then on, Kelly simply took over and was very jealous of letting anyone else do anything with the stock. Her first litter of pups was only a couple hours old when I went to the barn that morning. I left her and took the other dogs, but she got to the barn before I did. My mother said Kelly tore around the house so when she saw that she was left that Mother decided it was less stress for her to go to the barn than for her to worry so. That is one reason her pups had so little training as stock dogs. Kelly just kept the stock in line so that no one else had any chance to work.
Some people use their dogs to drive horses. I never do. When I was a kid, one of my dogs joined the neighbor's dog in chasing their mule. The mule kicked Lad in the head and knocked him unconscious for several hours. I have also read advice against it because of the danger to a rider should the dog heel a horse that was being ridden.
More pups get themselves into trouble chasing and worrying chickens and other poultry, and the stronger the working instinct, the worse they are. So often the farmer punishes the pup to stop it from becoming a chicken killer and then wonders why he cannot get the pup to go after other livestock. The poor pup probably thinks he is being set up for more punishment. Pups should be controlled to prevent damage to animals, but they should never be discouraged from showing an interest in other animals. After they have learned to work stock, they lose interest in lesser animals.
If they are going to be asked to work various types of stock, they should be started on the easier types and then progress to the more difficult ones so that they will not be too rough on the weaker types.
I found that mine had no trouble adjusting the amount of force to the situation. A neighbor of mine bought two small unweaned kids that cried piteously for their mama. Sagan heard them and was very concerned. He tried and tried to persuade me to follow him and let him lead me to help them, and I could not make him understand that they were not his responsibility. A week or two later the kids got out of their pen and disappeared. The neighbor searched and could not find them. I could not believe that they would have gone far on their own and walked down there to help them search. Near their pen was a large patch of almost impenetrable briers, brambles and vines. As soon as I came near it, Sagan began to air scent and then started wiggling his way into the tangled mess. I was afraid then that something had killed the kids and dragged them in there and Sagan was scenting the blood. As I have done so often, I underestimated my dog. I followed him as fast as I could make my way. In the middle of the mess I found two healthy little kids instinctively hiding and trying to rebuff the attention of an enthusiastic Sagan who was wiggling with delight and friendliness and industriously trying to lick their faces. Remember that this was the same Sagan who grabbed a rushing bull by the nose and brought him to his knees.
I had a woman call me from Texas who wanted me to tell her how to turn her English Shepherd pup on to working stock. It seems that she had bought the pup at three or four months of age and had kept it in a pen most of the time until it was seven or eight months old. She decided that it should be old enough to begin working, so she took it to a pen with some calves and expected it to immediately begin heeling the calves. It seems that she also had Australian Shepherds and Catahoula Leopard Cowdogs. A couple of them had worked cattle, but most of them had been failures that she had disposed of. I tried to give her some advice, but I am afraid it fell on deaf ears. She wanted to say that there were so few dogs with the herding instinct.
I am afraid that there are many farmers, who like that woman expect the herding instinct to be so strong that the dog will work stock at each and every opportunity. And I suppose there are such dogs. I know one farmer in my area who had Border Collies to round up his sheep, but he had to keep them in a pen all the time except when he wanted them to work. If they got out of the pen, they went in search of the stock to work, and the first that they found was herded into a fence corner and held there until someone found the dogs. I don't think many English Shepherds are like that. My own dogs, who would have worked for me until they dropped, would have looked at a stranger as if they were crazy if they had tried to get the dogs to work for them. I think we need to stress the importance of building a good master-dog relationship with a stock dog, and not expect it to be a herding machine as many people expect their hunting dog to hunt whenever they have a chance.
John Holmes, in his book, The Farmer's Dog, has the following paragraph: "There are several other types of Collie quite distinct form the Border Collie in that they are 'loose-eyed' workers. Most of these are natives of Scotland and include the old-fashioned Scotch Collie from which the modern show Collie is descended. Now practically extinct, I have clear recollections of several of these dogs in my youth and believe that, in my early efforts to walk, I was assisted by one. They were all easygoing, level-headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there was nothing better to do. Personally I think it is a great pity that this type has been practically exterminated by the increasing popularity of 'strong-eyed' dogs. For all-round farm work they were often far more use than the classically bred dog." (Holmes, John. The Farmer's Dog. London: Popular Dogs Publishing Company, 1976, p. 55)
Being an Englishman, Holmes, of course, is not familiar with the English Shepherd, since the breed is unknown there, but doesn't he give quite a good description of the English Shepherd?
I believe that it is Mari Taggart in her book Sheepdog Training: An All Breed Approach, who says of the English Shepherd, "Like an old Chevy truck – not very flashy, but very dependable."