Evaluating Instinct

Sarah E. Price

Instinct: An innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in response to certain stimuli, from the Latin instinctus for impulse

Venturing into any new activity or sport can be daunting, and the foray into herding can be especially overwhelming. Unlike most canine sports, you have to determine if your dog has some level of instinctual herding capability before you can actually start learning to herd! A herding instinct evaluation is this first step. There is also a certificate issued to AKC registered dogs if they pass a formal test under a herding judge (Herding Instinct Test or HIT–not a title). You can see what an AKC judge is assessing in a HIT here. However, a trial is probably not the best place to expose your dog to livestock for the first time.

While Beaucerons are notoriously biddable and eager to work, there are some things that cannot be taught. The innate genetic desire to herd is one of those things. Although we partake in this traditional job as a sport today, generations of Beaucerons were selected and bred because of their behaviors toward livestock. It is hardwired into their genetics, in some more deeply buried than others, but some level of instinct is present. Training a herding dog is simply bringing those instincts out (principally the search, stalk, chase of prey drive) and molding it to perform desired tasks.

Erika Stevens observes Oath working with Shelly. Although not his first time on stock, it had been a while since his last lesson but his natural instincts were perfectly visible.

Although it sounds relatively straight forward, there are several key aspects to an instinct evaluation. A herding instructor is looking to see if the dog has some sustained interest in the stock, if their drive is appropriate, and if they are biddable to working with a handler to gather or fetch stock. For a potential trainer to assess a new herding prospect, they are going to set up the dog to have a positive and successful first outing around stock. This means that they are going to be in a small, controlled environment, with tame, dog-broke stock who are used to the general type of dog (hopefully). For a puppy especially, there should be no negative experiences during their first exposure. This means no corrections, no getting stepped on, or charged at, by stock, or squished against a fence. Also, no corrections from the owner for what can be perceived as “bad” behavior.

A trainer assesses multiple facets of the dog’s outing. Is the dog is trying to control how the stock moves, does it want to stop them, keep them together? Further, does the dog move around a loosely grouped set of sheep to prevent runaways? Does the dog “see” all the stock, and if a naughty sheep splits off does the pup see them, does it attempt to bring it back to the group? Does the puppy want to bring them to the trainer/owner/handler? Can the dog get the stock off a fence line or out of a corner, on their own or with some handler support? Will the dog change directions easily (believe it or not, dogs have a preferred direction, or ‘handedness’ like humans), and how far off the stock is it seeing and making these adjustments? All of these questions are being answered during an evaluation of a herding dog’s instinct.

Most herding training sessions are not very long, and the initial evaluation will not last long at all. You will likely have a short session on stock, followed by a period of rest, and possibly a second session. The length of time and number of sessions will depend on the age and response of the dog being tested.

Watching a herding instinct evaluation is probably one of my favorite parts of attending training. I had the pleasure of watching several Beaucerons on stock for the first time at the facility where I train. These were different dogs of different ages and from different lines. You will notice in the videos below that both puppies begin quite differently, but the endings are similar.

This puppy is obviously confident around sheep from the beginning. Notice the trainer drops the leash shortly into the session. One of the nice things you can see in the video is how she kicks herself out and around the sheep, particularly when one goes astray. You can also see that she takes the direction of the trainer well, obeying the pressure to change direction or move out. Toward the end you can see that she is feeling the balance between the trainer, sheep, and herself. Notice how she is taken off the field, being brought around to get another feel of moving the sheep, and then walked out still wanting more.

This second puppy was not quite as sure of herself, and her leash stays in hand during the first video to provide her guidance and support. She is definitely interested just not as confident to start.

A few sheep are removed from the field, and the session resumes in the second video. She is more confident but still wants to check in to make sure she is doing good.

This puppy was put up for about 45 minutes and then brought back out to work again. In the third video you can see how much more confident she is on her second run and how she is starting to connect her movements and actions to what the sheep are doing. She is just as reluctant as the first puppy to come off the field at the end of her session.

Unsolicited Advice

Thank you to the ABC members for sharing sassy side eye (Clockwise from top left): Lily (Jasmine Sanders); Omen (Regina Erhart Fasold); Jackal and Uolie (Kara and Bubba Staroski); Selleck (Stephanie Smith); Moulin (Crystal Bomer); Atlas (Lauren Trathen); Mystic and Phawkes (Robin Gowen); Mesa (Syndi Keats).

Deva Wilson

Deva Wilson is an agility instructor that has been involved in dog sports her whole life, at the age of 12 she was competing at a national level. She is now 22 and successfully runs her own training business while training and competing with her own dogs. ABC Member Stacy Crivello sat down with her to procure this issue’s Unsolicited Advice.

Deva Wilson and Vader

What should someone who is just starting out in agility, or a first-time Beauceron owner wanting to do agility, look for in an instructor?

Look for an instructor that has experience with a wide variety of breeds. An instructor should be willing to adapt and modify their program to the needs of the individual dog that’s in front of them. Positive re-enforcement is used most of the time but with intelligent high intensity breeds like Beaucerons negative marker words can be very useful.

What is the most challenging aspect of the breed, relative to other breeds, that you have experienced during training agility?

A dog that doesn’t like repetition can be a challenge, as with most training, agility does involve a lot of repetition. So, you do have to be creative at times to keep some dogs engaged when learning certain skills. They are, of course, a herding breed which tend to be mouthy and can be triggered by motion. Agility is all about motion so it’s important to make sure that puppies and young dogs understand how to control themselves because a lot of motion is involved and you don’t want bad habits to develop in the ring.

They are a large quick breed which can also be a challenge as timing is very important in the sport of agility so sometimes as a handler you have to improvise during a run so always make sure you have plan A, B, and C.

What has surprised you about the breed, good and/or bad?

They are a lot like training my Border Collies, just bigger. They are high drive and very smart, therefore they pick up on things quickly so you want to make sure they are always rewarded for the correct things at the correct time as they can imprint a behavior, correct or incorrect, after only a session or two. Which is another reason why finding a good instructor is so important.

Any other thoughts or advice for doing agility with a Beauceron?

Make sure that you have clear consistent contact criteria from the beginning as it makes the job easier on the dog. A contact, for those that have never done agility, are the yellow areas at the bottom of the dog walk, A-frame, and teeter. Learning proper jump mechanics is very important along with making sure that if you start with a puppy that you remember their growth plates don’t close until usually around 12-18 months old so they should not be put on obstacles right away. There is a lot of flat work and foundational skills that are involved in agility and those can be started immediately with a puppy, but not the actual obstacles themselves.

Odor Dialogue: Learning to Listen Through Scentwork

Syndi Keats and Sarah Price


Odor indication as a sport is relatively new, although dogs have been “finding” things for us– drugs, bombs, contraband, animals, and lost people–for a long time. AKC scentwork (est. 2017) and the National Association of Canine Scentwork (NACSW) (est. 2009) are the two primary bodies that organize and trial for the sport, although UKC does as well as several other smaller venues. Like most canine sports, this means that there are slightly different rules, regulations, and requirements for trialing, although the basic concepts and training are similar. There seems to be quite a bit of interest in the Beauceron community in scentwork so we (Syndi Keats [Mesa] and Sarah Price [Rose]) are going to try and explain some of the ins-and-outs for newcomers.

Nosework, regardless of application or venue, is the act of teaching a dog to find specific odor(s) and teaching yourself to listen to, and trust, your dog when they tell you they have found it. It is one of the only dog sports where the handler is not in complete control and you are completely reliant upon the relationship you have built-in training to “win.” You do not know where the hide is located in a trial, and at the more advanced levels you do not even know how many hides there are, you are blind and completely reliant upon your dog’s nose.

I (Syndi) decided to get into canine nosework/scentwork after watching how much fun Mesa had with “find it” games. Luckily, my puppy class instructor decided to do an introduction to nosework class where she hid food in boxes and had the dogs search. Mesa loved it and I was hooked. Surprisingly, in Reno (Nevada), there are at least two places that teach nosework. I found an instructor that I really like who has weekly classes in and around the city, so the searches vary from week to week. To date, Mesa has achieved her AKC SWN, SIA, SEA SCA (more on these abbreviations in a bit and here), and NACSW ORT.

Mesa indicating a hide during training at a pet store (interior).

Rose is trained to do IGP tracking but tracking trials in the lower Southeast are few and far in between, and on the rare occasion one pops up it usually fills within a day. I (Sarah) decided to give scentwork a try and found it to be a much easier activity to train and trial for. No matter the weather, setting, time of day, or conditions you can train scentwork. This is particularly appealing when you live somewhere that the weather turns on a dime or things like fire ants eat your tracking treats! Unfortunately, there are no classes or trainers near me, so we are self-taught. I rely on YouTube videos, online webinars and courses, and trials to learn. Rose has earned her AKC SNI, SNE, and SCN titles to date.

Getting Started

Nosework is a great activity to do whether you plan to trial or not. I (Sarah) do it with all three dogs in our house, and the 12-year-old Dachshund loves it as much as the two Beaucerons. You should decide if you want to trial or not, and then determine what venues offer trials in a radius you are willing to travel. This will also help you find a potential trainer in your area. NACSW has a list of certified instructors searchable by location. You should ask what type of trialing the instructor has done and make sure it fits with your goals. Syndi keeps tabs on AKC and NACSW trials within 250 miles of home. NACSW is not an option for me (Sarah) and neither is UKC, so AKC trialing is our venue and I generally try to stay within five hours of home for trials.

Whether you go to a class, do an online course, or just start playing around, teaching nosework is somewhat the same regardless of venue. You are pairing specific odors with a reward—toy or food—whatever works best for your dog. Dogs naturally use their noses and like to “hunt,” so we are teaching them to hunt something specific and to tell us when they find the strongest source. In a trial, you are relying on your dog’s ability to find those odors’ sources and to trust that your dog is telling you the truth. 

To get started, you will need at least the Birch odor, but make sure to buy the oils that are used by the trialing organization of your choice. You will need small containers (scent vessels) to hold the odor (e.g., straws, metal tins with holes, empty chapstick tubes, metal tubes, etc.); these vessels are the things that will hold the odor to make a “hide.” You can buy odor kits that provide the essentials, and beyond, for training. Good sources for obtaining nosework supplies include K9 Nosework Source, The K9 Nose, and Paws 4 Fun. Both of us have ordered from all three sites and found them to be good sources. You will also need containers, and for the NACSW ORT or AKC Novice level these are a specific size and type of cardboard boxes, as well as everyday items.

There are so many ways to pair odor with behavior, and the internet or a trainer can provide great examples. Some methods start with searching for treats, some with an odor wall or box, you might have to do a little research to figure out what is feasible and fits with your current training methods. I (Sarah) started by placing the vessel (containing a scented q-tip) in a bowl and when Rose showed interest I marked with a “yes” and rewarded. Then we moved to a Tupperware container with holes poked in the lid. Only after she understood that the smell was the goal in order to earn a treat or her ball did I start to hide the odor, starting with very easy hides and working up to more complex hides. Probably one of the most under-emphasized parts of training nosework is to reward, reward, reward. Pay a few more treats (plus a few more for good measure), tug a little longer, throw the ball one more time.

Once your dog understands the game, you can start to practice in novel environments, run blind hides (primarily to test your ability to read your dog if you do not have a trained final response), and really start to generalize the search to any setting, place, time of day, adding multiple hides, and distractions. Syndi said that she generally practices one day a week at home in addition to her class. She sets up containers and buried hides in her driveway and uses her house and other dog-friendly locations to set up interior and exterior searches. She generally runs two to five searches during a training session. I (Sarah) work Rose every other day for short sessions—about 3 to 5 hides. Once we began training for Advanced I started setting a hide on the way to work in the morning and then on the way home we stop and train. Or, placing a hide when I left work or home and then searching the next day. This allows me to age hides for much longer as well as work in novel places. I corral friends who do SAR to set hides (if you are going to run blind hides, make sure they understand the rules and how to set hides for whatever you are training) for me so we can practice blind in new settings. I rarely train at home anymore, which is unfortunate as it was one of the more pleasant things about nosework in the beginning.

Your job as the handler is to watch your dog and understand the body language she is giving you when she finds odor. Tells vary by dog, but it could be a stare, paw, sit, lie down, look at the handler, but their body language will change when they get into an odor cone and certainly will change when they have found the source. You can teach a TFR, there are pros and cons to it, and it is something that you will probably need to determine for your specific dog (These articles provide some information on TFRs: https://scentsabilitiesnw.com/blog/the-art-of-timing-the-verbal-mark-in-nosework/http://k9noseworkblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/alert-final-response.html). In the upper levels of UKC, the dog’s alert must be listed on both entry forms and at the trial.

Syndi trained for about six months before entering her first AKC trial at the novice level and then got her ORT with NACSW a few months later. She says that entering her NW1 trial before finishing the AKC novice title was a mistake, that it was more difficult than she expected, and she feels better prepared for NW1 now that she has trialed in AKC advanced. Sarah entered Rose in her first AKC trial two months after starting training, and her second trial a month later to complete the novice titles and will hopefully get into a trial with advanced runs at some point in 2020. Beyond the introduction and novice levels, scentwork training becomes ever more complex and requires more of both the dog and handler. 

General Rules and Titles

As previously mentioned, there are two main organizations to trial in, NACSW and AKC. Syndi provides some of the ins and outs of NACSW and in comparison with AKC since she has trialed in both. Both venues utilize the same set of odors, birch, anise, clove, and in AKC cypress is used at the highest level. AKC also has a handler discrimination element that is separate from the others where your dog finds an item that is scented with your smell. Each venue has elements, in AKC they are interior, exterior, container, and buried; in NACSW they are interior, exterior, container, and vehicles. Getting into trials can be difficult. NACSW trials tend to fill quickly. Entries are based on a lottery system which is generally only open for 48 hours. Depending on the location of an AKC trial, they can run up to 250 entries per day and most are first received. I (Sarah) have noticed that some of the larger clubs in the Southeast are starting to do random drawings for entries which means you may or may not get into a trial.

AKC Scentwork

The first level of AKC is Novice, and you can trial in any or all of the four elements across the level. You need three qualifying runs in each element to earn a title.  In AKC there is no pretrial so when you are ready to trial you just jump in. AKC scentwork is divided into Novice, Advanced, Excellent, and Master; beyond Master, there is the Detective level. The four elements of each level are interiors, exteriors, containers, and buried (hides are in sand-filled boxes in Novice, in containers of water in Advanced, and water and/or sand in Excellent). There is no vehicle search in AKC, although vehicles can be part of an exterior search.

For example, Rose has SCN, SEN, and SIN titles, which simply translates to Scentwork (Container, Exterior, and Interior) Novice. She earned her exterior title at one trial and her container title at another and the interior runs were spread out over two trials. Once you have three Qs in all four elements at the same level you earn an encompassing title for the level. Mesa has all four elements at the Novice level, so she has her SWN (Scentwork Novice) title. In AKC you can trial within each element at your own pace. You do not have to complete each element at a level before moving to the next level. So, you could have completed novice interiors and begin trialing advanced interiors while you are still trialing novice buried. Mesa has her advanced titles in containers, interiors and, exteriors so she also has SCA, SIA, and SEA, and when she finishes the buried element, she will earn the SWA. That being said, in AKC to be eligible for High in Trial (if offered) you must compete and Q in all four elements at the same level at a trial.

As you move up the levels in both organizations the search areas not only become more complex, but the dog and handler are expected to be much more precise in their alerts. This ratchets up the difficulty as well. Search areas become larger and more complex with inaccessible hides, distractions (objects, sounds, food, toys), and an unknown number of hides. I (Syndi) would say that in terms of difficulty the NW1 = AKC Advanced, NW2 = AKC Excellent, and NW3 = AKC Master.


NACSW first requires a dog to pass an ORT, Odor Recognition Test, before being allowed to trial. This is a pretrial of sorts where the dog has to recognize and alert on all three odors. Each odor is hidden in a box (“containers”) and run separately from one another. It used to be that as long as the dog passed birch she could compete at the NW1 level. This changed in 2020 when a dog must pass all three odors to compete at any level although she does not have to pass them all in one test. 

The first NACSW competition level is NW1 which requires four searches over the course of a trial: interiors (in a room of some sort), exteriors (outside in a defined space), containers (boxes for NW1) and vehicles (the exterior of cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc.). In order to get the title all elements much be passed in a single trial. Any of the three odors may be used in a NW1 trial as of January 2020.

NW2 is similar in that all elements must be passed in one trial in order to title, but the search areas are bigger and there may be up to three hides per area but no blank areas. The handler will know how many hides there are in the trial area. NW3 does have a provision for carrying Qs over to another trial. You can get a title by passing all four elements in one trial or having 2 qualifying legs at two trials. 

In NW3 there are up to three hides per search area and there may be blank areas. The handler does not know how many hides there are. Above NW3 you enter into the rarified air of the Elite and Summit divisions. NACSW also has Element Specialty trials where there are multiple searches for just one element (interiors for example). Any Qs in these trials carry over from one trial to the next. They go from L1-3 and increase in difficulty like the NW trials. 


As in any sport, the saying train how you trial also applies to scentwork. A trainer can provide a lot of information prior to your first trial so you have a good idea of what to expect. Fenzi offers some good seminars on trial preparation. Read the appropriate rule book and read it again for good measure! I (Sarah) took a lot of notes prior to my first trial, particularly the faults and DQ/NQs. I did not have the advantage of being able to attend a trial to spectate so I had no idea what it would be like but at least I had a good grasp on the rules. Obviously if you can watch a trial that is ideal, or at least talk to some folks who have trialed. 

In AKC, judges are required to have a pre-trial meeting where they tell you what order the elements will be run in, if there are multiple trials if they will run concurrently or be split into morning and afternoon. Then, for each element at each level each judge must do a walk through of their search area. The judge will indicate the start line, boundaries of the search area, and items that are “in play” or not (e.g., walls, furniture, etc. that may lie along the boundary of the search), the time limit for the search, and ask if anyone has any questions. There should be a “warm-up box” for the appropriate level available for dogs to be shown, usually in the crating area or near the trial secretary. I (Sarah) personally do not use the warm-up box.

Final Thoughts

Scentwork is a super fun game or sport, depending on your level of commitment, to learn with your Beauceron. Once you teach the basics of the game, there are no limits to what you can train them to find. It may seem simple on the outside, however nosework is not simple. You are inside the dog’s world as much as that is possible. You are, for all intents and purposes, blind and relying on their incredible sense of smell to lead you to success, as a team. To be a successful team you must have trust, which is built through practice. You as the handler must have an ability to understand your dog, which is built through practice. Being free as a handler to spend so much time observing your dog will lead you to a deeper understanding your dog and their behavior, even outside of nosework. 

If you are interested in learning more about scentwork feel free to contact Syndi Keats (or message her at Sanda Kat on Facebook) or Lori Youngs (message on Facebook or email) who have both volunteered as virtual mentors!

Unsolicited Advice: Herding and Beaucerons

Thank you to the ABC members for sharing sassy side eye (Clockwise from top left): Lily (Jasmine Sanders); Omen (Regina Erhart Fasold); Jackal and Uolie (Kara and Bubba Staroski); Selleck (Stephanie Smith); Moulin (Crystal Bomer); Atlas (Lauren Trathen); Mystic and Phawkes (Robin Gowen); Mesa (Syndi Keats).

We all know it can be difficult to find a trainer who understands the breed, or is at least experienced enough to think outside the box. We would like to feature trainers from various sports to provide some unsolicited advice. If you have a trainer that you love and just “gets” your Beauceron, and would like to contribute, let the newsletter know!

Shelly Spotswood

Shelly Spotswood began her career in dog training doing Schutzhund with her GSDs; she even put a BH on her first Border Collie! She moved to Border Collies and Australian Shepherds, competing and excelling in herding, agility, tracking, obedience, and rally. She was the first person to obtain all five ASCA championships and has several WTCH titles on multiple dogs. At WonderDog Farms she trains a menagerie of “off-breeds” in herding, including Belgian Tervurens, Belgian Lakenois, Berger Picards, German Shepherds, Corgis, Rottweilers, a Swedish Vallhund, Bearded Collies…and Beaucerons!

What should someone who is a first time herder, and/or Beauceron owner, look for in a herding instructor?

I would recommend someone with a gentle hand, not because this is a soft breed but they do better when guided rather than brow beating them–less “old school.” I would also say that a trainer who is willing to work with them starting at a young age will give you the best foundation. Assessing if the trainer is not afraid of large bodied black dogs is also key.

What is the most challenging aspect of the breed, relative to other breeds, that you have experienced?

Their natural desire to tend is for me personally something I have to keep in the forefront when working them as well as their physical presence. In general terms, you have to remember that trainers, judges, and most stock have no experience with big scary black dogs and that can be challenging–particularly in trials.

What has surprised you about the breed, good and bad?

The most surprising thing is the amount of natural talent they exhibit. I found that very surprising both when you first brought Rose out and even more so with Drax, and with Yvette’s girl as puppies. I have no doubt that if tending style herding was available they would be absolute rock stars, and Drax has gobs of natural herding talent and will go far if you stick with it.

Ha, well their ability to think on their own is entertaining and frustrating all at once. As an experienced handler I find it to be a fun challenge, whereas someone who is just starting out might find it to be too much.

Any other thoughts or advice?

Start them young, appropriately for their growth and maturity and keep it fun. That goes for any kind of training with young dogs. Don’t let them have bad experiences on stock. Start in a smaller pen and with tamer sheep than you think you need to. I wish more people with Beaucerons would get into herding as I think it could open a lot of eyes to the potential of off breeds [meaning, trainers might not be so reluctant to take on off breeds] and it really is wonderful to watch them work.