Fear of sheep or cattle (FAQ)

Photo of a dog jumping out of a sheepdog training pen to get away from the sheep

QUESTION: I’m hoping to train my seven month old dog to work sheep and cattle but when I took him to sheep for the first time, he ran away!

ANSWER: My first reaction to your comment was to ask myself what the dog has been doing while you were going to the sheep, before now? Rather than “throwing the dog in at the deep end”, it’s best to thoroughly bond with the dog early on, and introduce it to stock gradually if you can.

A pup which comes with you while you are feeding or managing sheep or cattle will usually get used to being close to them, and you’ll have a good idea how they’re going to react when the time comes to begin training.

On the other hand though, if the young puppy is allowed to wander freely around the farm, it’s almost inevitable the dog will get close to the stock, and if one or more of them frighten the young dog (which is very likely to happen) then getting it to work, is going to be a lot more difficult.

Keep unsupervised dogs away from stock at all times

The young dog should be kept away from stock at all times when it’s not closely supervised. If it starts chasing the animals, it’s important avoid getting cross with the young dog because this, too, can “teach” the dog you don’t want it to react to farm animals.

If the dog is already frightened of the stock, it’s going to take a lot of patience to persuade it that being around stock is OK. The best mentor the dog could have in this case, is another dog, which confidently works stock. If the youngster is good friends with one of your working dogs, then you might be able to engineer situations where you and the two dogs in question, “happen” to be in the vicinity of the sheep, and you can quietly encourage the working dog to move the sheep around within sight of the youngster. If this isn’t successful at first, don’t despair – it will probably take several goes.

It’s vital you don’t put any pressure on the dog

What is most important is that from now until the dog gets “hooked” on working stock, you don’t put ANY pressure on it at all when it’s near sheep or cattle. If the young dog gets any inkling that you’re trying to force it to be near the stock, it will have the opposite effect to the one you want. Get the dog near by encouragement, not force of any kind.

Leading the dog nearer, or even picking it up and carrying it are definitely not recommended until the dog shows a keen interest in getting to the sheep (in which case, you won’t need to lead or carry it)!

If you don’t have another dog – or if using a trained dog isn’t working, you can try getting some sheep (I wouldn’t recommend trying this with cattle, for safety reasons) into a smallish pen, and then, with the dog nearby, YOU move the sheep around. If you’re able to make some excited sounds (whistling, clapping, laughing etc) without frightening the dog, this will also help.

You should understand that getting the dog to work is all about triggering the dog’s ancient hunting instinct – and a pretty reliable way to do this is to get the sheep to “jump” or move suddenly.

A struggling sheep is highly motivating to a young sheepdog

Another great way to create sudden movements by a sheep and inspire your dog to work is GRAB a sheep – and hold onto its back leg! As the sheep struggles to get away, the excitement and sudden movements rarely fail to motivate a reluctant dog – but BEWARE! The dog is likely to dive in and bite the sheep in the same place that you’re holding it – so it’s quite likely to accidentally BITE YOUR HAND – so be careful, and wear protective clothing!

In my experience, the dog instantly realises it’s caught my hand with its teeth, and lets-go so quickly that there’s no harm done, but you might not be so lucky – so take care!

Holding a sheep by the back leg usually encourages the sheep to struggle, and a struggling sheep is highly motivating for a young dog.

I strongly recommend you watch our Sheepdog Training Tutorials for a lot more help with this, especially the videos called “Starting a non-starter” (parts 1 and 2). They cover this problem in depth, and are available to subscribers who pay as little as £10.00 per month or £100 per year (British Pounds). It’s also very simple to cancel your payments, once you’ve seen enough.

Please let us know if you have any experience with a dog which doesn’t want to work sheep or cattle, and whether you were able to get the reluctant dog to herd livestock.

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