Why do some sheep run away from dogs and others don’t? (FAQ)

Photo of a group of sheep in the late evening sun with a sheepdog in the background

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.

‘Dogged sheep’

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

This trainee sheepdog is keeping well back, making sheep control much easier
This trainee sheepdog is keeping well back, making sheep control much easier for all concerned

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.

Sheepdog trials

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.

Working distance

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.

A brave sheepdog puppy facing up to sheep
Notice how the sheep are challenging this puppy

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.

The facing sheep is stamping it's foot as a warning to the dog
This sheep is stamping it’s foot as a warning to the dog.

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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6 responses to “Why do some sheep run away from dogs and others don’t? (FAQ)”

  1. Steven Thompson avatar
    Steven Thompson

    Firstly I found your tutorials and blog posts very useful and helpful. I have been working and training dogs for a number of years I currently have a 6 year old bitch and her 2 year old daughter. The younger bitch has been coming on very well over recent months and I have been really pleased with her pace and felt she had a strong eye.
    However, recently and seemingly without any explanation she has started to take her eye off the sheep and look back at me whilst working. I know it is the classic sign of lack of confidence but I really dont know how to get her to stop doing it, as in every aspect of her work she demonstrates a good eye and will drive and flank with confidence. She is actually more likely to look back at me when in close. I dont command her and break eye contact when she looks back, but I have been doing this for a few weeks now and progress has been limited, sometimes I think she is getting worse! I still feel she has many positive attributes and am determined to keep working at it. I know there is no miracle cure but any experience or advcie you might have would be great.

    Many Thanks

    1. Hello Steven,
      Thanks for your question. From your description, I’m not quite sure about what your dog’s doing. I realise she’s looking at you when she’s working, but you say “looking back at me”. Does this mean she does it when she’s driving? If it is, and she’s new to driving, then it’s perfectly natural and will more than likely stop as she gains confidence.
      If she’s doing it when she’s holding the sheep to you (in other words looking over the sheep at you) then it’s far more unusual, and not a good sign, because she should be concentrating on the sheep (particularly in case one or more try to escape).
      Funnily enough, a good way to stop the dog looking at you over the sheep, is to teach the dog to drive! After all, if the dog’s (confidently) pushing the sheep away, it can’t really be looking at you, can it? It can take a long time to train this looking back out of a dog though, so be patient.
      If I’ve missed the point, please clarify what the problem is and I might be able to help further, but meanwhile, avoiding eye contact as much as possible is a good idea, and try to keep the dog moving too – it’s harder for the dog to watch you if it’s moving.

    2. Jamie Robertson avatar
      Jamie Robertson

      Hi Steven,
      Hope Andy wont mind me adding, what I do with a dog that is looks back for no reason is teach them what I call the look command. For me the (look command) has nothing to do with look back as I don’t use this command when I want a look back. I teach my dogs from word go to look at the sheep it’s simple to do, every time you go to sheep ask your dog to look when it’s eyes stop of them give it praise. When you are doing your driving work if the dog looks back to you say (look) and when it cast it eyes back praise it. It will take a bit of time but a very handy tool to have, also be aware always as I’m sure you are the dog will look at you when your close if you have been using to much body pressure or if it’s worried. Good luck

      1. Hello Jamie,
        Thanks for your comment. I’m sure using a command to get the dog to look at the sheep would work, but it’s not actually addressing the cause of the dog looking at the handler. The cause is a lack of confidence, so that needs building up really – but a good idea.

  2. I think you explained the question very well on Facebook Tessa, but I don’t understand what it is about my answers that’s not clear.
    I explained that a strong dog has a ‘presence’ which the sheep recognise, and they react accordingly. Sometimes they over-react and that seems to be the case with your dog, but without seeing the dog at work, I can’t really help you any further.
    I’ve taken part in plenty of trials where the sheep are not used to dogs, and they run as soon as the dog sets off, but usually their reaction is similar for most of the dogs on the day.
    I don’t recall a case where the sheep were calm for most of the dogs, but panicked for no apparent reason when they saw one particular well trained dog approach them wide and steadily.
    Maybe someone else has some input on this.

  3. tessarogers21@yahoo.co.uk avatar

    I am obviously not explaining my question well , so better forget it , I am talking about a fully trained dog running trials , which a lot of people liked . One lad saw him at home and said ‘ thats a good dog the sheep are afraid of him ‘ I said that is why I am selling him ! and as a farm dog he sold for good money .On the trial field He showed no aggression , gave the sheep plenty of room , approached them quietly and yet he made them nervous . I am not the worlds greatest triallist admittedly but I have successfully trained a large number of dogs . Several of the trial men have said it happens but they do not know why , must be something in the dogs eye that alarms sheep , I was merely trying to start a discussion on the subject because it is interesting , to me at any rate

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