The first thing to remember when considering working ability in English Shepherds is that the dog is just one variable in a complex situation. Dogs work in partnership with a human; the relationship between a person and their dog is critical to the success of the dog -- and the qualities that create a solid relationship will vary from one person to the next. For example, some people work best with dogs that are soft and biddable; others want a dog with more grit and determination. Biddability and grit are both important working traits, and both qualities should be present in an English Shepherd, but the balance may vary depending on personal preferences of the breeder.
In addition to working with people, English Shepherds work in diverse environments: the livestock being handled vary from farm to ranch to homestead; the climate and terrain vary as well, ranging from lush, hot, and humid to rugged and dry.
With all the variables to be considered, and using accomplishment of particular JOBS as the measure of success, it is clear that what makes a good WORKING English Shepherd is going to vary somewhat depending on who you talk to and the conditions within which they operate. That is to say, breeders have not all selected for precisely the same qualities. There are themes to look for, but careful attention to the variations on those themes is important as well.
The English Shepherd breed standard states, "the unique ability to handle all types of livestock and a variety of tasks is the defining feature of this breed." The versatility that characterizes English Shepherds stems, in my opinion, from two qualities: intelligence and a strong orientation to their owner. Some people refer to this orientation as "pack drive"; however labeled, it is this tendency to form a strong alliance, and a desire to work in partnership with a "leader", that enables English Shepherds to adapt so readily to a variety of demands.
English Shepherds are thinking dogs; intelligence and problem-solving take precedence over pure "instinct" in shaping English Shepherd working behavior. This is a subtle but important difference to consider when comparing English Shepherds to many other herding breeds. Over the past several decades, some of those other breeds have been increasingly defined by hard-wired, stereotyped behaviors, in particular "strong eye". English Shepherds are not an "eye" breed. Their approach to livestock is upright and free-moving; with experience, they adjust the degree of pressure applied to fit the situation and maintain a relaxed attitude, stepping in when needed but not necessarily attempting to control every step along the way.
The genetic difference between "eye" and non-eye herding breeds has several practical implications when it comes to training a dog for work. English Shepherds watch what you do, process what they see, and learn by example. Set a good example! English Shepherds see the Big Picture when working, so understanding the GOAL of the job is key to eliciting their support. Emphasis on drills and mechanical repetition of skills -- unattached to a clear job -- is unlikely to be an effective approach to training an English Shepherd and may result in a loss of motivation as the dog starts to question YOUR intelligence for subjecting it to pointless exercises.
English Shepherds need to be allowed to learn through experience (you can't teach experience!) and to work out situations with a reasonable degree of freedom (you may find your dog's solution to a problem better than your own!). For some excellent advice on training, and food for thought, read Ray Hunt's philosophy -- yes, he trains horses not dogs, but 99% of what he teaches is relevant regardless of species!
It is essential to consider an English Shepherd your working partner not just a "tool" to be applied in particular situations. Develop a solid relationship with your English Shepherd, establish trust and clear communication, maintain an open mind about possibilities, and what your dog can do will amaze you.
In addition to the qualities mentioned above, English Shepherds are (or should be):
It would be fair to ask at this point if this list details working traits or character traits... since it is my opinion that character is inseparable from working ability, understanding breed character is essential to understanding their working traits.
In addition to the complex character described above, English Shepherds should have an instinctive ability to both gather and drive livestock; many are natural low heelers, most are willing to work the front or the rear as needed to get a job done. English Shepherds do not generally cast as wide as Border Collies, however with experience most learn to rate well and are able to adjust the amount of pressure they apply to move stock calmly and quietly. In addition, English Shepherds often have an ability to settle their stock by adopting a relaxed attitude (as opposed to the hard eyed stare typical of some other breeds). This enables them to work closely without upsetting their stock. English Shepherds should have enough natural confidence and power to move stubborn livestock, while at the same time possessing a kindness that keeps them from being overly rough with fragile animals.
Whether any particular dog possesses the working ability and character that define the breed will depend on the quality of its breeding and, to some extent, the luck of the draw: no breeder can control all the variables that go into a breeding. A responsible breeder should be able to detail the working characteristics of the parents of the litter; they should be mature adults who have been subjected to sufficiently challenging work to truly test their ability. Simply living on a farm ("farm bred") is not enough! A responsible breeder should also spend time evaluating each litter, and follow up on their progress over time. While they can not guarantee every pup will work out as hoped, they should be able to offer guidance and support to ensure that each pup reaches its full potential.
Photos: Mary & Honey (top), Kim Consol's Bailey (middle of page)