How to get a dog to take an interest in sheep
A very common problem is getting a dog to take an interest in sheep. Only yesterday, we had an email from someone in Norway who has an eighteen month old dog from excellent working lines, which will chase birds but isn’t interested in working sheep.
Without seeing the dog’s reaction to sheep (if any) it’s difficult to be precise, and this isn’t a precise art anyway. The very nature of dogs means that many will react in different ways, but my (edited) reply is below:
The advice below is my opinion. There are no hard and fast rules when training any dog. Common sense should prevail at all times.
It is up to the trainer to pay strict attention to the safety of all involved, including themselves, onlookers, dogs and sheep.
It’s a pity this dog will not work sheep at 18 months of age, but if it’s interested in chasing birds, I think the “hunting” instinct is there – but the dog lacks confidence. I do not believe in “Weak” dogs – only dogs which lack confidence and need help to build it up.
With a lot of patience, and some understanding of how to get a reluctant dog to work sheep, it may be possible to get this dog interested – but the older the dog gets, the harder it will be – and the longer it’s likely to take.
You mentioned the possibility of breeding a new puppy from the dog. I feel sure the pups it produces will be fine, but it’s likely that the puppy you keep will be reared in very similar circumstances to its mother. In this case, its experience is likely to be the same so it could of course, not want to work either. Such a lot depends on the upbringing of the puppy.
Many things can contribute to a dog’s not wanting to work. I don’t pretend to know all or even most of them, but in my experience, allowing the puppy to wander around (unsupervised) in the presence of sheep – giving the sheep the opportunity to threaten, or attack the puppy – is one of the most common ones.
Pups are extremely impressionable and should be kept well away from sheep unless closely supervised. They should be introduced to docile (non-aggressive) sheep that will not do anything to harm the puppy’s confidence. The introduction should, if possible, be an exciting chase for the puppy – so “flighty” sheep are ideal. However, once cornered, these sheep are likely to threaten the dog – so great care should be taken to ensure help is ALWAYS at hand.
To encourage the older dog to work, I recommend putting a few docile sheep into a fairly small pen, and taking the dog in there (on a lead if necessary). Moving the sheep around (yourself) while giving the dog as much encouragement as possible (dogs barking, people clapping hands, shouting encouragement and generally causing excitement) may work.
If this fails to get a reaction from a dog I’m trying to get interested, I will grab a sheep and drag it away from the others; this seems to signal to the dog that the pack leader has “gone in for a kill” and often the dog will join in. TAKE GREAT CARE if you do this (wear thick gloves). I have been accidentally bitten on the hand by a trainee dog once or twice over the years, though never seriously. Dragging a sheep away can really spark the dog’s instinct but, if the dog joins in and bites the wool of the sheep, whatever you do, do NOT shout at the dog. At this stage, only ENCOURAGE it. You can improve discipline once the dog is “hooked” on working sheep.
If these methods fail to work after one or two attempts, don’t assume the dog will never work; the more often you take it to the sheep in this way, the more it will become familiar with the encounter. As long as you keep creating lots of noise (which doesn’t frighten or worry the dog) and excitement, and making the sheep move (preferably suddenly), you may still get a result. Sudden darting movements by the sheep often “spark” the hunting instinct.
Another factor that can play a major part in causing dogs not to work is discouraging the dog (albeit unconsciously). Lead-walking a puppy around a field of sheep to “familiarise” it with them is a huge mistake. If the puppy wants to get closer to the sheep, and the handler is holding it back, the puppy can get the impression that it SHOULDN’T work. Far better to release the dog and encourage it to chase (use a confined area, so that the situation is under control) and whatever happens, DON’T scold or show ANY disapproval of the dog’s actions at this early stage – only give encouragement.
If a pup or young dog runs away to the sheep, and the owner is annoyed with the dog when it’s caught, the dog will recognise the anger and assume it’s not allowed to chase sheep. These are just a couple of examples.
As an example of how varied dogs’ reactions to sheep can be, many years ago we had a pup who would go into the field to lie down among the sheep! When he was old enough to start training, he didn’t really want to “push” them – he clearly regarded them as his friends! He would do an outrun to gather the sheep, but if they preferred to stay where they were, he would just look at me apologetically.
WELFARE OF SHEEP:
In giving the advice above, I am assuming that the dog is not attacking the sheep. A small amount of wool pulling can be acceptable in the earliest stages of training, but care must be taken to correct the dog once it shows signs of wanting to work. At this stage it will be able to cope with the pressure of correction. Further information can be obtained by subscribing to our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorials.