How do you know the right age to train a working farm sheepdog?
The widely accepted right age to train a sheepdog is between six and twelve months. To herd sheep, cattle or other livestock successfully, the dog needs to be able to run faster than the animals it needs to control. It should also be confident enough to stand up to them, when challenged.
In theory, the earlier you begin to teach the dog sheep work, the better. It’s not quite that simple in reality though.
Signs of the correct time to start training
Firstly, the dog must show a keen interest in the stock. This can happen at any time from about eight weeks of age. The likelihood of the dog taking an interest in stock grows until about six months of age. After that time it can still happen, but the probability gradually reduces as the dog gets older. Dogs are creatures of habit. The longer their disinterest in something, the less likely they are to change. (Just like humans)!
Having said that, we have known dogs that had never seen sheep before, suddenly take an interest, and start herding at up to ten years. It’s unusual though.
Young pups are vulnerable
Sheep are not happy about dogs being close to them. The fact that sheep will move away from a dog is what enables us to control them with dogs. We put the dog where we don’t want the sheep to be, and the sheep move away. Sheep are no fools though. If they see an opportunity, they can be seriously aggressive towards the dog. Especially ewes with lambs.
Additionally, the younger the dog is, the slower it can run. This means a young puppy can’t run fast enough to get away from a sheep which is chasing it. Neither will it have the speed to get ahead of sheep which are running away (if the pup’s brave enough to try).
An attack by sheep could damage a puppy’s confidence – possibly for life.
Ideally, our trainee dog will be fast enough to get ahead the sheep and turn them back if they are escaping. It should also be mentally mature enough to cope with the stress of training, and close proximity to livestock.
With all this in mind, you’d be justified in thinking the right age to train a sheepdog is indeed later, rather than sooner, but not necessarily. There’s more!
The biggest problem new trainers have when they teach their first farm dog, is getting the dog under control and obeying their commands. At between six and twelve months, the dog is adolescent. That means it’s young and excitable. Herding dogs are usually so excited (and nervous) when they first go to stock, that they charge around uncontrollably. This frightens the sheep, and they try to run away, but the prospect of sheep running away excites the dog further. It can be very difficult to get such a situation under control (to say the least).
As the dog gets familiar with being around sheep, it will calm down and begin to heed the trainer’s commands, but unfortunately this can take some time. This transition period will be shorter and easier if the sheep are familiar with trainee dogs. They are known as ‘dogged sheep‘.
Dogged sheep know that the best place to be to avoid being harassed by the dog, is close to the trainer. When they are there, the trainer is able to keep the dog away from them. They are also much calmer than what are called ‘flighty sheep‘. Flighty sheep are easily provoked into scattering in all directions! As the dog’s training progresses though, flightier sheep are preferable for training. Their reactions are more like those the dog will experience in real life.
A calm dog and calm sheep
The younger the dog is, the less confidence it will have when confronted with livestock. For this reason, knowing the right time to start training (and how) can make a huge difference. If we can keep the dog fairly calm and relaxed as it gets familiar with sheep, further training is going to be simple.
To train a very young dog, you need a training area which is small enough to prevent the sheep from running away. Sixteen metres (16m or 17yds) diameter is ideal, with four or five docile sheep. As long as you make sure the sheep don’t harm or frighten the pup, you can start “training” early. Very early, in fact.
Starting a puppy on sheep provides an excellent beginning to your sheepdog or cattle dog’s training. It can eliminate that frantic, uncontrollable phase altogether and lower the right age to train your sheepdog. The puppy isn’t going to harm the sheep. The training area keeps the stock close to the dog so that it can be encouraged to go round them, and the trainer will be close, to ensure the pup’s safety.
These early lessons should consolidate the dog’s interest in sheep and show that we’re happy for it to chase them. It’s important to stay very close to the pup so that you can protect it and boost it’s confidence. Sheep are often quite shy of the darting movements of puppies, and this can give the puppy a sense of its power while it’s still small enough to be easy for us to control. The discipline can come later.
Only try this if you are absolutely sure the sheep will not attack or frighten your pup, otherwise it’s confidence could be ruined. Stay close to the pup at all times so you can intervene if there’s a problem.
With one or two lessons each week, the pup will become relaxed around sheep. By the time serious lessons begin, that frantic, uncontrollable phase, will have been avoided. Just be sure the sheep don’t harm or frighten the dog, and give it plenty of encouragement to go round the stock (rather than split them up). Don’t apply much pressure though. Training sessions should be more of a party game than a formal event, until the dog’s confidence builds.
Every time the dog causes the sheep to move away, its confidence will grow, especially if you praise the dog when it happens. If the dog has any difficulty moving the sheep, go and help it, and praise the dog when they move. This will boost its confidence.
Don’t feel you must start your dog really early though. As stated earlier, the commonly accepted age for training a sheepdog is between six and twelve months, but you can start much later than that, particularly if the dog is very well bonded with you and obedient. The strong bond may not be enough to prevent the initial chaos when the dog first goes to sheep, but it will drastically shorten the duration of the chaos!
Older dogs are still perfectly trainable, it just takes a little longer. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!
More about the right age to train a sheepdog.
Our tutorial videos “Starting a Young Puppy“, (1 and 2) show 11-week old Ezra’s first session in the ring. Part two shows his second lesson, at 15 weeks, out in the field.
Ezra begins to learn about keeping the sheep together and he’s enjoying himself, as his confidence grows. His early lessons must be kept short though. A puppy may not seem physically tired, but it will become mentally tired more quickly than an older dog.
Our advice is based on our own experience with many sheepdogs over more than twenty years. As with all sheepdog training advice, we recommend you read this article carefully. Then read other people’s views and go along with whichever you feel is most appropriate and realistic. We’re happy to answer questions if you have any.