What traits does a veterinary surgeon look for in a sheepdog?

I first met Dr Viola Hebler back in 2015 and the European Nursery Championship. I was attracted to her dog’s way of working and got to see him run again in the final there.

Viola works as a veterinary surgeon yet finds time to train her dogs to compete at continental and world-class competition.

In this interview Viola explains how she got started with working sheepdogs, the traits she looks for in a dog, where she gets her dogs from and the type of training facilities she uses.


The Churchmount interview series is in part sponsored by Away With Dogs, a Sheepdog Trial YouTube series.

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Paddy Fanning: Recently, I was fortunate enough to meet a German handler called Dr. Viola Hebeler. Viola describes herself as a hobby handler. I’m not sure if this is really true, though, because, you know, she’s been qualified for nearly every world trial she’s been in, she’s been in a lot of continental finals with various different dogs. And she was a reserve content champion one year. So, you know, quite an accomplished handler. In this interview, she talks a little bit about her philosophy or her, I suppose, her training philosophy, and the type of dog that she looks for. I was amused, I asked her a little bit about her training facilities there and see what she had. And so it’s, it’s quite an achievement, what she’s able to do with the simple training facilities that she has at hand. But here you can listen to her as she explains it now, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Paddy Fanning: So Viola, you’ve worked with sheepdogs for a very long time. And you live in Germany. How did you come to get started with sheepdogs?

Dr Viola Hebeler: That was that was by utter chance. I was breeding sheep before. And a friend of me gave me a little border collie bitch. And I got her from a shepherd, and she was very shy. And I didn’t have a clue. But when she saw my sheep, it was a different dog. And so in 1990 it was, we found that the ABCD the German Sheepdog Society, and I’ve been at it ever since.

Paddy Fanning: Very good. We’re here at the European Nursing Championship in Holland and the first time I ever met you is back in 2015. And you’re in the final that year with Gizmo and I wasn’t here in 2016 but you’re in the final again. Gizmo for me, he’s a very attractive sort of a dog but I love his style of working but a friend of mine said to me earlier today he said The thing I like about Viola is, yes, she has her dog under control, but she still lets her dog think and work and that kind of thing. He said that, you know, she likes him. She lets him have some other control. And is that true to say?

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yes, that’s very true. And sometimes it backfires on me with Gizmo I’ve been really lucky. It’s a partnership. He does part of the deal, but that’s what I’ve done with more with all of my dogs, to be to be honest, I think I’m very old fashioned. I like old fashioned type of dogs. I like what they Scottish called a line dog, a dog that would just lean out to balance and think for themselves. And to be honest, I think we should have a lot more competitions where the silent outrun lift and fetch because you get you get a pretty good picture of what’s in the dog.

Paddy Fanning: I don’t see a dog on fetcher drive. And he’s hanging off there on the heavy side. And that’s what it’s all about Gizmo, and that, like in your early days, so you’re over and over here in Germany. Who did you look to who influenced you? Or maybe maybe you went to somebody for help. I don’t know like, how did you get?

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yeah, I got started I looked at Claus Berner and then Anna Kluger, but I really got started when I had a clinic with Thomas Longton. And then Simon Moss has been a huge influence because in Germany, it was a very mechanical training. We had the dogs flanking around a person. And so what will happen they’d be wide at the person and cut in and especially a very keen dog with a lot of balance. They will rush to get there and when I learned the British way, the old fashioned balanced training that totally changed my view, and I love that. My dog,s my second dog Parco, some people will remember him he was a hard stop but a very good dog brought me in the continental final twice and he was he hated that mechanical training. And with a balance his flanks all of a sudden were good and I learned then it’s give and take. And for me, I always in my training, I have passages where I keep my mouth shot and I try to keep these passages as long as possible. Obviously, I won’t tolerate it if the dog makes a total mess but they should learn to do their part of the job and to me that’s beautiful.

Paddy Fanning: Does that mean, just so I understand properly. Does that mean, if you’re training a young dog, and perhaps you’re driving or something, and the dog is doing it correctly, that you stay quiet then as long as possible until you need to correct or interfere.

Dr Viola Hebeler: That will be it. Obviously I do the legwork. And what I do is I try to teach them to treat sheep properly and I do a lot of balance work or I start in the round pen, and they shall learn it’s not about me or where I stand but in relation to the sheep, they should learn to keep off the sheep and treat the sheep properly and then with me, I would always only keep the dog best capable of holding a line. I’d hate to have to be telling them all the time and they need to go where it hurts. Or I say so. That’s the that’s the heavy side they need to want to go out to the heavy side or if there is a strong ewe, they need to go for her and cover her and that’s something I would be very uncompromising in the dogs I have. So maybe that goes hand in hand because if you have those dogs, they’d be easy drivers.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah, for me, those, well, those things are very important to me. And, you know, I make no bones about it, I’m the lesser hander. And so in the pen or somewhere like that, I need a dog thats helping me to seen it before I see it or on the pitch that maybe all I have to do is check them and the dog will do the balance for me. I see other handlers and they can do it for the dog, but I can’t I need him to help. So that’s probably why I was attracted to Gizmo and that’s though, and then I like what you say about dog have his head a little bit when he’s correct. So the balance was, it’s a little bit like rewarding. I mean, he knows I’m doing this as how to do it. This is correct.

Dr Viola Hebeler: And it totally helps you in the big courses. You run the final course and they have to take really, really long drive or long fetches and it’s far more stressing for the dogs if they have to listen for commands all the time. Whereas if they if they used to driving 100 meters on their own. Well, that doesn’t mean you don’t correct the line, but I think it’s easier for the dog if they’re used to just doing it.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah. Sometimes I see a handler and I think I wish a mist would blow in or a fog and we see how good the training is then you know when you can’t see the dog and you can’t help them and so for times like that I think the way you trainers that’s how I like to do it.

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yeah, but to be honest, I need a dog in a class like Gizmo or Gizmo’s father to bring me up there because they are far better handlers than me out there. And, and I, I don’t actually know how they train at home because on the trial field, we tend not to take chances. So the dogs are blown far more maybe than they would be at home. So I don’t want to I don’t want to judge other people. But I can see that there are tremendous handlers out there, and they’re better than me and timing is better and they work professionally with sheep, as I’m an amateur and I can only hold my own if I have a dog that helps me. And so that’s what I look out for.

Paddy Fanning: Back in 2015 when I came here was my first time ever see a European Nursery Championship. And the one thing I was shocked at is the quality of all the dogs. I was thinking, how can these just be nursery dogs under three years old, like they just look so good. And I was wondering, Viola like, because we have been places to train I have big numbers of sheep, I’ve access to big numbers, you have access to everything anybody could need. But what’s it like for you or like I see some of the Swedish and Norwegians and I presume they’re under snow for a lot of the year. And like what kind of conditions do you have to train a sheepdog like this break them out to where you want?

Dr Viola Hebeler: That’s, that’s one of the very sore points with me, I have only one field and that’s a two hectare field and two mini fields. But I trained everything on these two hectares and I have just 20 years plus no sheep training. And so I have to set up situations. I’m so envious of all you guys have real work for the dogs and the big spaces. And that’s one thing I look very much for in my lines. I need dogs with scope. I need dogs that that’ll just gone on the outrun because I can’t train it. I have to really drive far to get somewhere. And and yeah, sometimes it’s boring. I have to admit that.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah, yeah. This year when I came to the European Nursery Trial, and I ran my dog on the first field, I got, I got, we have an Irish word for it, I got a good codding. The sheep fooled me. I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know how to manage them. But surely then for you, it must be the same like, well, it’s not the same because I saw you in Ireland this year. And you came over and one weekend. On a Saturday you won and the next day, I don’t know we joined second or third or something. I think how can she come on here and do that? So how do you make allowances for the different sheep? Because there were two trials in two different places. I think one might have been suffolk sheep and I can’t remember the other was some kind of Wild Sheep. I can’t remember what they were.

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yeah, well, you must not forget I’ve been around ages. So in the end, I got the hang of your sheep a bit. Yes. And I had a decent dog that helps obviously, but know that some continental sheep breeds I can’t work out for the life of me the little squad will forever be we’re together in that will be a mystery to me. And but we have followers actually. No, I, yes. I got better at reading sheep, I guess. And having a fairly trained dog helps, obviously.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah. And you can quality for nearly every word trial. I know you won a day this year in Holland. Serge, said something to me. He said to me that he does 90% of his training in one or two hectares. And now you said, Well, that’s all you’ve got. So I’m starting to think that you know, maybe I should forget about all my big places for a little while and, and get back down and train properly maybe. But for somebody like me, you know who’s trying to improve on like, I need to improve my handling and probably need to be a little bit tougher on the dog too but it any advice that you you know, you give to people like me or anything that I don’t know, anything that you feel is very important or sometimes you see a fellow like me and you say if only he did this, he could improve there.

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yeah, I think it’s a very difficult mix, you need the discipline, you need the obedience, you need the perfection, you school that but the other thing which is at least as important is keeping the dog keen, the dog happy. So let them be a dog. And if you have work situations, that’s easy, because he just turned the dog sour. So that’s From that, for me is difficult. Luckily, I haven’t yet soured a dog but I know that it happened to people if you over school and so that’s why I try to make letting them work a bit on their own or just paces maybe but they improve. And then I set up work situations and you want the dog keen and happy and they need to go out willing to really run their socks off. And so you have to balance that and if you only school, you can destroy a dog.

Paddy Fanning: Yes, yes, I’ve seen that too. Viola, we were talking yesterday and I was having a good laugh at you know, saying, you know, all these dogs that sell and skip them which are smooth coats. And you mentioned Thomas Longton. I always think of Thomas Longton and old fashioned dog, but like there’s you with your hairy Gizmo dog. What do you have to say about these little squeaky dogs? These old fashioned collies?

Dr Viola Hebeler: You got that right. So you won’t catch me saying anything bad about the smooth color prick in a latest fashion. They probably beat my dogs whenever they meet them. But no, I’m actually into old fashioned collies, the ones I described and somehow or other most of them seem to be rough haired or it’s maybe it’s just chance because we tend to keep draw, I tend to keep to my lines. And so we’re both stuck with the same type maybe. And we’ll see he had as has had good dogs all over the place.

Paddy Fanning: But at the same time, hairy dogs have to be performing like I know you’ve been in half a dozen Continentals. Where do your dogs come from? Do you breed them yourself or do you buy them or where do you get them?

Dr Viola Hebeler: My first dogs I bought half broken usually. Some were three years on untrained and unregistered. Everyone thought I was crazy. It took me three years to get him out internationally. But then he went to two continental finals and once reserve finalist and he bred terrifically and even though he only had 24 pups, many were national champions. So anyway, what I live on is stock pups. Yes, I’m a dog person. I love dogs and if my dogs make a decent bitch I might take a stock pup. So I’ve got two dog lines. And then if I breed myself, I combine them back and then see what happens.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah. You mentioned to me yesterday that you’ve bred your first litter in 10 years. I thought that was incredible. And yet you have your own dogs. And so that’s how they come. Is it like from stud pups?

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yes mostly from stud pups. But yeah, I’ve Yeah, that’s my, that’s my fourth litter now, and I’m in it since 1990. So no, I don’t breed a lot,

Paddy Fanning: Yeah you’re not much of a breeder, but you’ve good results with the few that you have.

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yeah, I managed to scrape along, but yeah, stud pups would be it.

Paddy Fanning: But I just want to talk about health, and DNA and all this kind of thing, because I hear lots of people talking about it. And this is what you should do, and that’s what you should do. But when I know that, like your a doctor, Viola Hebelar. And I know that you’re pretty keen on genetics, and you’d be able to explain it to me without the drama. You know, it’s a lovely factual opinion I expect to get from you when you talk to me a little bit about DNA in another interview.

Dr Viola Hebeler: Yes, of course, I’d be more than happy to do that, because I think it’s really important. And I’m really glad that you did the first interview and asked me about myself because I’m not some crazy hysterical health freak. I’m totally dedicated to the working Border Collie. And the good working Border Collie. And working ability to me is the most important, but unfortunately, we tend to face problems, genetic problems. And we need to look into that and, we need to see it. Do we have a problem? What size is the problem? Do we need to do something don’t we need to do something? But I’m certainly not a person that’s going out and just looking for the healthy happy Border Collie but not not capable of working anymore. That’s not my point of view. But yeah, I’m going to bore you with that.

Paddy Fanning: Yeah, in the next interview, I look forward to it Viola. And listen, thanks very much for talking to me this evening. And it’s been lovely to meet you again this year. Thanks Viola.