QUESTION: Why do some sheep run away as the dog approaches, while others stand their ground?
ANSWER: There are many reasons for sheep to run away from dogs but, primarily, sheep instinctively see dogs as predators.
Dogs are descended from wolves and, let’s be honest, there’s an awful lot of sheep worrying these days to demonstrate that the instinct is still valid.
When they herd livestock dogs are using a hunting instinct that’s been ‘diluted’ by selective breeding, to produce a dog we can train to work sheep, but not harm them.
Over time, sheep that are regularly worked with dogs become more confident and usually move quietly and calmly, especially if the dog is calm and its movements are predictable to the sheep. We describe these sheep as “dogged“.
Sheep that have had little or no exposure to dogs are likely to panic when they see one, so this confidence factor alone accounts for a huge variation in the behaviour of sheep in the presence of a dog.
Breeds of sheep
Sheep breeds vary enormously too. There are “light” or “heavy” breeds – with heavy meaning the sheep can be difficult for a dog to move, whereas some sheep are so light that they simply scatter in the presence of a predator. These light sheep (often small, wiry upland or mountain breeds) can be extremely difficult to move efficiently with a dog, whereas some of the heavy breeds (usually large, lowland breeds) will stand their ground and challenge the dog – even stamping and head-butting and sometimes injuring the dog.
Obviously, there are breeds that fall between these parameters, and something quite light, which has a good flocking instinct, is best for training. Their flocking instinct will keep the sheep nicely together but, being easy to move, they are unlikely to stand and threaten a trainee dog that lacks confidence.
The dog’s confidence
Confidence is paramount in a sheepdog. A good trainer will build the dog’s confidence as much as possible during the early stages of training. Removing any potential source of fear, such as aggressive sheep, is a good start.
If sheep are unsure they will often err on the side of caution, and run from an approaching dog rather than discover – too late – that it’s aggressive. This can work to the dog’s advantage, building its confidence, but sheep that are running away (fleeing prey) can excite a young dog and make it difficult to control. This is why it’s extremely important that the dog should develop a wide outrun, and approach the sheep steadily, but confidently.
Once the dog is really confident it will have a “presence” that sheep can detect very quickly.
This “presence” is best illustrated if you watch a sheepdog trial – not from the usual place, where the competitors and spectators are, but from the letting-out (top) end of the course.
This is my favourite place to watch a sheepdog trial because it teaches you so much about dogs. I mentioned earlier that sheepdogs use their hunting instinct when they work sheep, and I’m sure you’re aware that dogs (like their ancestors, wolves) are pack animals.
In sheepdogs the pack instinct is very strong, but a consequence of domestication is that most sheepdog handlers will have only two or three dogs. This tends to suppress the pack instinct somewhat, but it’s still very much there. It’s important that the dog bonds properly with you, and regards you as the pack leader.
I mentioned in a previous blog – How to teach a sheepdog to slow down – that sheepdog trainers have far more control over a trainee dog working close at hand, than they have over one that’s working at a distance. This is because, in the absence of other pack members, the dog sees the handler as the rest of the pack. When it finds itself a long way from the handler the dog feels it’s getting no backup from the pack and allows its natural hunting instinct to take over, ignoring shouts from afar.
At sheepdog trials, some dogs demonstrate great power and confidence on the outrun. These dogs are not worried by working at considerable distances from the handler. The sheep will often read this immediately, and are submissive to the dog because they know it’s “The Boss”.
Other dogs become visibly less confident, the further they move from the handler (or pack leader). Their ears drop and their body language demonstrates that they are not happy. Often they’ll look back at the handler (a classic sign of lacking confidence) and some will even stop on their outrun (for which they lose a significant number of points). Confident sheep detect any lack of confidence in an approaching dog, and will often be far more troublesome throughout the entire run than they would have been for a more confident dog, but sheep that are lacking confidence will often take flight when any dog approaches them.
Fear of puppies
Another good example of how sheep interpret a dog, is their reaction to puppies. Sheep that are confident with a trained dog can be apparently panic-stricken when confronted with a small puppy.
This seems to be because the puppy is unpredictable, and moves erratically. It probably shows no fear, and can suddenly dart in any direction.
I’ll add a word of caution here. Unless you can read what’s happening, have very easy-going sheep and are absolutely certain you can intervene instantly, if needed, it can be disastrous to take a young puppy to sheep. The sheep may well panic, but they have two ways of reacting to panic. This choice is commonly referred to as “fight or flight”.
‘Fight or flight’
Flight obviously means run away, but the fight option will make the sheep huddle together and defend themselves, attacking the puppy and frightening it. It’s a harsh lesson from which the pup’s confidence may never recover.
The fight or flight situation is also seen when sheep are confronted by an older, untrained dog. If the dog charges at the sheep they will usually try to run away.
However, if the dog is clearly too fast for them they will often head for a corner, or available undergrowth, where they can “close ranks” and defend themselves. This can also happen if the dog simply chases the sheep into a corner and holds them there.
Sheep will become difficult to move and aggressive even with a trained dog, if the dog insists on working too close to them. Instead of encouraging the dog to get closer to sheep that refuse to move, it will pay dividends if the handler keeps the dog well back and waits patiently for the sheep to wander away.
Sheep don’t like dogs
Sheep strongly dislike dogs and, even if apparently grazing nonchalantly, will eventually move away from a stationary dog.
A ewe with a young lamb is probably the most difficult sheep of all to move, so it’s wise to avoid this situation with a trainee dog if at all possible.
In conclusion, although there are many possible reasons for sheep taking flight when a dog approaches, the most likely is that the dog is approaching too fast or too close, but a common alternative is that the sheep are “flighty” – either because they are not used to being worked by dogs, or they are one of the lighter breeds with a flighty temperament.
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