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 has the dog been doing before now, when you were attending to the sheep? It’s best to introduce your dog to stock gradually, if at all possible.

Rather than “throwing the dog in at the deep end” it’s best to thoroughly bond with the dog early on, and spend time with it. A pup that comes with you when you’re feeding or checking sheep or cattle will get used to being around them. It will also give you an idea as to how they’ll react when the time comes to start training.

On the other hand, if a young puppy is allowed to wander freely and unsupervised around the farm, it’s almost inevitable the dog will get close to the sheep or cattle. If this results in the pup having a fright (which is likely to happen) or, worse, an injury then getting the dog to work later will be a lot more difficult.

Keep unsupervised dogs away from stock at all times

Unless closely supervised a young dog should be kept away from stock at all times. If you find it chasing stock it’s important that you don’t get cross with the young dog, and certainly don’t punish it. Punishing the dog can “teach” the dog you don’t want it to react to farm animals at all.

If the dog is already frightened of the stock, it will need patience to persuade it that being around stock is OK. In this case, the best mentor the dog could have is another dog that demonstrates confident work. 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. You should quietly encourage the confident 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 attempts.

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 quickly lets go so there’s no harm done. 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 “Starting a non-starter” (parts 1 and 2) videos. 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.

We’re always interested in comments from our subscribers. Please let us know if you have any experience with a dog that didn’t want to work sheep or cattle, and whether you were able to get the reluctant dog to herd livestock.


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