ANSWER: In a word, gradually!
Good training should progress at a rate the student can cope with. If the student’s finding the work too difficult, the trainer’s pushing too hard.
Just as you wouldn’t expect a trainee driver to go out onto the public highways if they’d only just learned to set a car in motion and steer it, we cannot expect a trainee sheepdog which only has experience of a handful of dogged sheep, to suddenly work a much larger number of flightier sheep.
Having said that, if you have proper control of the dog, such as a good stop, wide flanks, a reasonable outrun, and if you can control the dog at a distance, given the right circumstances, you should be able to use the dog to gather a flock. It’s likely to be a ragged, tedious process though. It’s far better to introduce the dog to flock work gradually, if you can.
Get the basics right first
The more skilled your trainee is at working with the bunch of dogged sheep, the easier the transition to flock work will be, so you need to be sure the dog has good control of the sheep, and you have good control of the dog close at hand, and at a distance from you, before you begin.
A good recall is essential, so that you can call the dog back if things are going wrong!
Any sudden change of circumstances is likely to affect the trainee dog’s confidence – and efficiency
Another important factor is confidence. If the dog is working well with your small bunch of sheep, it should be confident, but the moment you present it with different sheep, larger numbers, unfamiliar ground and so on, the dog’s confidence will evaporate, and its work will suffer.
A very good introduction would be to work the dogged sheep in fields the dog hasn’t worked in before. That will give you an indication of what to expect when you increase the numbers. If the dog copes well, that’s a big step in the right direction. Some dogs cope better than others
As we stress in the sheepdog training tutorials, it’s a good idea to work your dog in as many different locations as possible to broaden its mind. This is absolutely essential for sheepdog trials, because they take place at many different locations, but it’s very good practice for farm dogs, too.
Finally, before you try the dog with your full flock, why not ease the stress by increasing the numbers more slowly? If you do this, you’ll find that the dog will get accustomed to flocks of varying size.
Flock Work Checklist
- Does the dog have a good recall when it’s working sheep?
- Is the dog working well, with wide flanks (in both directions) and a good stop?
- Is the dog doing outruns of at least 100 mtrs (approx 100 yards) and bringing the sheep to you in a controlled manner?
- Is the dog used to working in different fields, with different sheep to the ones it normally trains with?
- Has the dog worked a bunch of sheep larger than the number it normally trains with?
- Can you stop your dog and flank it both ways when it’s working 100 mtrs away from you?
If you can answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you should find the transition to flock work straightforward and quick. If the answer to any of them is ‘no’, the dog needs further training if possible, before facing the challenge of flock work.
So what’s likely to go wrong?
Even if you’ve done all you can in your training area to prepare the dog for flock work, the task is likely to come as quite a surprise to the dog. When faced with strange situations, like unknown ground, vast numbers of sheep and working at long distances from the handler, for instance, the first thing to be affected is the dog’s confidence.
Lack of confidence can result in many things. Aggression, stickiness, flanking absurdly wide, not flanking at all, failing to stop, and failing to obey commands are all typical. But they’re only temporary if you just give the dog a chance to settle in.
How can I help the dog?
The best way to maintain, or restore the dog’s confidence, is to work closely with it. REALLY CLOSE if you possibly can. Having you there, walking alongside (if possible) will reassure the dog that all’s well, and of course, you can gradually increase the working distance as the dog’s confidence grows.