Flank around sheep both ways (FAQ)

Photo of a sheepdog herding sheep into a paddock

QUESTION: “How can I make my dog go both ways around the sheep? She stops reasonably well, but insists on going anticlockwise all the time”.

WHY THIS HAPPENS: In a similar way to humans, a great many dogs are left or right “handed”, and as with most training issues, it’s all about the dog’s confidence.

It’s perfectly natural for a newly started dog to only want to flank one way around sheep or cattle, and in the case of sheep, the problem is worsened when they crowd together onto the fence.

Once the dog discovers that nothing unpleasant happens to it when it goes one way around things (not just sheep) it will naturally prefer to go that way in future – especially if it thinks there’s any possibility of danger if it goes the opposite way.

Perceived danger

The perceived danger is the result of the dog’s ancient hunting instinct. All dogs are descended from hunting animals, and in herding dogs the hunting instinct is still strong.

That’s good in some ways. Without it, dogs wouldn’t herd sheep in the way that we know it – but it means that the dog’s strong instinct to avoid being trapped close to, or even attacked by its prey, is strong too.

This means that until their confidence builds, most dogs will try to avoid situations such as being between sheep and a nearby hedge or fence, for example, or even worse, in a corner – and thus open to attack. For this reason, we need to make the training as easy as possible for the dog, preferably out in the open, with sheep or stock which easily come away from fences and hedges.

Sheep have instincts, too!

Just as the dog has instincts, sheep and other stock have instincts too. If they didn’t have an instinct to flock or herd together, we wouldn’t be able to control them with dogs. Cattle, sheep and other livestock have the instincts of animals which are often preyed upon! So they naturally try to stick tightly together in flocks or herds, and also, to find ANYWHERE to hide or huddle together tightly (such as corners, or fences) and thus repel the attentions of the predator.

Get off the fence” is a great tutorial to help you understand the problem more fully, while “Why your dog should flank both ways” will demonstrate why it’s important for the dog to circle the sheep or other stock in both directions.

Get the dog flanking both ways

ANSWER 1. If the dog flanks reasonably well in one direction, but is hard to stop, then a good way to get it to flank the way it doesn’t like going (we’ll call it “the other way”) is to work the dog close to a hedge or fence of some kind, and then just as it’s coming round between the sheep and the fence, YOU put yourself in the gap that the dog’s coming through, then block it, and make it go back “the other way”.

It takes a little practice to get the timing right, but it’s well worth the effort. There are examples of this in “Get off the fence“.

ANSWER 2. If the dog flanks reasonably well in one direction only, but stops quite well, then a great way to encourage the dog to flank both ways is what we call “Walking backwards“.

In this exercise, you get the dog to stop on the opposite side of the sheep from yourself, and then you move backwards, encouraging the dog to bring the sheep up behind you AT THE PACE THAT YOU ARE MOVING BACKWARDS.

There’s a strong chance that you might fall over when you’re walking backwards, while concentrating on training your dog – DO NOT DO THIS EXERCISE IF YOU’RE NOT PREPARED, OR ABLE, TO COPE SAFELY WITH FALLING OVER!

Some dogs take to it very quickly, others take longer, but it’s a question of the trainer having the patience and determination to make the dog do as it’s told. The “Backwards is the way forward” tutorial will teach your dog and awful lot about working better, but specifically, as the dog improves, you can start to move around from side to side while moving backwards, and in order to bring the sheep up behind you, the dog will learn to flank both ways. (I’ve never know it fail)!

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