The European herding breeds can be roughly divided into two factions:
In comparison to continental Europe, Britain is an isolated island with a significant lack of natural predators. British sheep-ranching operations, most particularly in Scotland, involved flocks of rather shy, flighty sheep that often lived for generations spread thinly out over the same, rather inhospitable hillside, only rarely being gathered for shearing and such. The Border Collie is the breed most superbly adapted to working in these conditions. The BC runs very wide in order to gather large groups at one time, stays far out from the stock and creeps up slowly in order not to spook the sheep and make them run (which is undesireable). The BC is superbly responsive to command (Scottish shepherds typically work with whistle commands, as the sound carries well-enough to be heard and obeyed when the dog is as far as a mile off(!)) and the BC has few if any protective instincts (not necessary because of the lack of predators and the sparse population of the districts where sheep were raised). The style in which BCs work is generally referred to as "fetching" or "gathering" because their primary function as herders is to "fetch" the sheep to the shepherd.
The situation in continental Europe was far different. Rather than the far-flung flocks that reigned in Britian, most sheep were raised in small farm operations. In comparison to flighty British sheep, most continental sheep are quite tame ("heavy" in herding parlance) and are readily trained to follow a shepherd about. The sheep were typically kept in a barn at night and taken out to unfenced fields to graze by day. Since the fields used for sheep pasture were often side-by-side with those used for growing crops, the shepherd needed a dog that would patrol the "boundary" of the area, serving as a sort of living fence. Furthermore, predators (both animal and human) were always a threat, so all the continental herding breeds have strongly-developed protective instincts--which is why they are also the breeds most often chosen for police and protection work. This particular working style is variously referred to as boundary, tending or continental.
As with the other countries in continental Europe, agricultural practices in France played a large part in determining how the native herding breeds evolved. The French herding breeds include the Briard, the Beauceron (a short-haired breed closely related to the Briard), the Picardy Shepherd and the Pyrenean Shepherd. Among these breeds, only the Briard is recognized by the American Kennel Club.
The best-known boundary trials are the German HGH (pronounced "haw-gee-haw") trials. A large number of sheep (100 or more) that are conditioned to follow a handler around are used and two dogs are worked at a time. The dog must demonstrate its ability and desire to patrol the "boundaries" of the flock as the handler leads the flock around. A courage test, in the dog must protect his handler and flock from a stranger wielding a stick, is an important part of every HGH trial.
French herding trials also involve boundary-style work but are judged somewhat differently; foremost is the dog's ability to control the stock in a calm, efficient manner. Many breeds of dog, not just the so-called "boundary breeds" compete in these trials, not just the so-called boundary breeds--in fact, the winner of the 1996 French championship trial was a Border Collie. Unfortunately, only professional shepherds are allowed to compete in the French trials, and as more of them are using Border Collies there is now some concern about the declining use of native breeds.
Other kinds of herding trials that are popular are so-called arena trials, which are held in a fenced area and simulate conditions on a small farm. Both the American Kennel Club and the Australian Shepherd Club of America hold arena trials. Finally, there are open-field trials that test the skills required to work sheep in the Scottish Highlands; these usually referred to as ISDS trials (after the International Sheepdog Society in Great Britain, which sanctions them) or more commonly as Border Collie trials after the breed that greatly dominates them.
Then, around ten years ago, there began something of a public backlash against the American Kennel Club. Many people were saying that the AKC only promoted beauty contests (conformation shows) and didn't care about the minds or working history of the dog breeds. And people began to get interested in doing more working activities with their dogs. One result of this movement was that a group called the American Herding Breeds Association was formed in order to hold trials for all breeds, not just Border Collies.
A few years later, the AKC followed in the footsteps of the AHBA and in 1990 began a herding test and trial program of its own.
So at that time, there were quite a number of people in the US that were interested in learning more about their dogs' historical use as herding dogs, but were not necessarily people who had sheep of their own. In addition, many breed clubs wanted to establish that their breeds did still retain their working ability and wanted to encourage people to work their dogs. The Briard Club of America was one of several AKC member clubs to establish a herding program to meet these goals. The BCA offers several herding instinct tests every year (one is usually held in conjunction with the national specialty in August) for the benefit of those who would like their dogs to be exposed to livestock. The BCA confers the title HC (Herding Certified) to dogs who demonstrate appropriate desire to control the stock. The BCA has also published a description of the working style of the breed for the benefit of instinct testers who may not be familiar with Briards.
The growing availability of herding trials open to all breeds, and the number of people who had been to an instinct test and wanted to learn more, created a demand for herding trainers. So people who lived in the country who knew about training herding dogs started offering lessons to people who didn't have their own livestock. Many of those herding with Briards in the United States fall into this class of people, termed "hobby herders"; yet a growing number are acquiring livestock of their own. Briards are now serving as stockdogs on at least a half-dozen US farms, and the number continues to grow.
Generally speaking, American herders have found their Briards to retain a high degree of ability and to be competitive in both arena and boundary-style trials, even against dogs like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Australian Cattle Dogs and Australian Kelpies (the breeds most often used by American farmers). As US handlers continue to increase in skill and number, and as we learn to breed selectively to enhance herding ability, our competitiveness in the trial arena will continue to grow.
Finally, let's not forget how herding appears from the dog's point of view. As a puppy learns about sheep, he will learn about the larger world as well. And a tending dog will certainly have his views on the three R's of tending as well.