Two Typical Herding Dog Challenges
Getting a Stop & Going to Sheep
By Denice Rackley
Like all the other things a pup has learned before flock work, lessons usually need to be relearned when introduced to working live sheep.
So don’t get discouraged: I hear all the time the frustrated moan, “He knows that.”
Once a dog’s instincts kick in, little things like not pulling on a leash, coming when called, lying down, etc., are forgotten. I have had titled obedience dogs pulling their owners through the pasture and ignoring “lie down” commands.
You just start at the beginning again, the dogs will remember once their brains are not on “sheep overload.”
Challenge 1: Getting a Stop On Sheep
To help the young dog stop, it works well to release pressure as you are asking.
Taking a step or two back, with hands up, will help a dog understand and relax enough to be comfortable lying down.
Inside a small pen there are very few options open to the dog. One step backward with sheep between you and the dog as you ask will get him to at least stop while standing.
In the round pen you can start with sheep behind you along the fence. Using a step or two to block the dog from the sheep, gives the dog little choice as you’re asking for a “down.”
Once the canine trainee is doing that well, you can ask for a stop behind sheep, in the middle of the pen—remembering to step backward, releasing pressure.
Once you’re sure your dog understands the command “Lie Down” or “Stand,” on sheep, then if the response isn’t right when you’re stepping back while asking, you can correct.
Correction usually involves you applying pressure, stepping forward and changing tone of voice to a deeper, harsher tone.
(Release pressure to ask for a change; apply pressure for a correction.)
Also remember to ask for a stop in places where the sheep will remain standing calmly: It’s not fair to ask the young dog to lie down when it feels the sheep are looking to run away. That will be a losing battle for both of you: The dog will begin to mistrust the handler after its having been put in that position. Once the dog is trained you can expect it to stop anywhere, anytime. But not at the beginning of training.
If a young dog gets up to stop sheep that are trying to leave, I allow that, knowing it was I who fouled up, not the dog. The dog is doing its job, following its instinct to control the stock.
If your sheep are always trying to outrun your young dog, you need to try different stock for use in dog training.
Challenge 2: Going to Sheep
To encourage those dogs that are uncertain about leaving their owner to go to sheep, I find it best to use the movement of sheep to pique their interest.
This is best done in the round pen, so you have some room for everyone to move.
Ignoring the dog, go to the group of sheep. Pat them, make exciting noises: Ssssss! Yeah-yeah! Woo-hoo! Clapping. (Yep, you will feel silly but it works.) The excitement makes them move. It piques the dog’s interest in sheep and what you are doing, so it investigates.
Some dogs need you to call their name in encouraging them. Others do better if you focus on sheep, without any attention on them and no one speaking directly to them, or even looking at them. It’s the movement that kicks in their herding instinct.
The hard part with this type of dog is you may need to allow some “naughtiness” to get the dog keener, so it’ll continue working even when corrected. Dogs lacking confidence may quit working or try to leave when even slightly corrected.
There can be a very fine line—that’s tough for the novice handler to figure out. It may take quite a bit of work on your part to build the dog’s confidence to enable training.
Tone of voice can be very important. Working sensitive dogs, I would rather have a positive five minutes on stock and then quitting while the dog is still wanting to work, than to have 15 minutes where the dog is showing concern.
One may always take the dog for two short work sessions in one day. Shorter sessions are always better, for all dogs.
When you “push it,” you usually end up going backward.
If the dog is going to sheep before we ask it to, give a correction: You can ask for a “lie down” calmly—then more sternly, if needed.
You can use an “Ah!” as the dog begins to head to sheep, pat your leg and ask him to return to you.
You may need to block the dog from sheep, as we’ve discussed before.
Call the dog back to you, wait a bit then ask it to work. You can also walk in and out of the gate multiple times asking the dog to stay with you so it gets the idea that just because it’s in the same place as the sheep, doesn’t mean it’s able to work when it wants.
Your correction needs to suit the dog. Some dogs just need to be reminded to be patient. Some need more than that.
Adding “That’ll Do”
I practice teaching the pup to call off — and to walk calmly. I also put all the lambs in the round pen and walk the pup through the pasture: First on leash, then dragging its leash, then off the leash, teaching it to stay with me and only go to sheep when asked.
The sheep being in the pen prevents the pup from getting to them, keeping the sheep safe and avoiding unwanted chasing.
The only way to have a dog that is trustworthy at calling off of sheep is to practice.
This is also a good place to teach That’ll Do — meaning we are done working; it’s time to leave the sheep.
I prefer to use one-command words — a command that only means one thing. That way there’s no room for “interpretation,” or miscommunication.
The first few lessons on stock are teaching the dog:
• To relax around sheep
• To listen when we speak to it with sheep in the picture
• To show the dog it can control sheep.
It’s about bringing out the dog’s instincts, encouraging when it’s right and correcting when it’s not.
The dog is balancing the sheep to us: Stopping behind the sheep when we stop moving and ask for lie down.
The dog is calling off well, then waiting a few seconds for us to ask it to gather sheep, balancing them to us, working calmly.
Once it’s doing well, we’re ready to move on. I only use these small enclosures until I have the basics. Then we begin to add sheep, moving to a larger area and begin chores.
Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of sheep!.