How to train a sheepdog to slow down

Training a dog to herd sheep - giving the sheep plenty of space

A dog working too fast and close, disrupts and stresses sheep and shepherd alike

For maximum working efficiency and minimum stress to the sheep, the herding dog should work with a calm authority, keeping a good distance between itself and the sheep, but not so far off that it loses control of them. This topic is covered in our online sheepdog training videos.

Not long ago, we received an email from a sheepdog handler in New Zealand who had bought our ‘First Stepssheepdog training DVD and had managed to get her headstrong dog to outrun and fetch the sheep, but the dog was working at breakneck speed and she wanted some advice on how to slow it down.

My first reaction to a problem like this is that the handler is allowing the dog to work too far away from them too soon. One of the vital rules of sheepdog training is that the further away from you the dog is working, the less control you have over the dog. Remember, the dog is using a primitive hunting instinct. When you train your dog, you’re channelling that instinct into controlled work from the dog, but a trainee dog will usually only respect your control if you’re very close. Dogs hunt quite close together in packs, so a dog that finds itself working a good distance from the rest of the pack (that’s you) feels it’s getting no backup. It will often revert to its hunting instinct, rather than listen to a pack member who’s shouting orders from afar.

Training a sheepdog to slow down
Keeping the dog at the correct distance behind the sheep as you walk backwards is a great way to teach the dog self-control.

The dog needs leadership, and particularly in the early stages of its training, it wants its leader to be working alongside it – or at least close by. While on the subject of leadership, often when the dog’s not doing what we want or expect, we revert to excitedly shouting at the dog – just at the moment when we should be calm and authoritative. It’s hardly surprising the dog doesn’t recognise us as its leader if we shout excitedly.

The dog working too fast is caused by two main factors. 1. The novelty of chasing, particularly something which moves quickly or runs away. 2. The fear of being attacked by the “prey”. Often when hunting, the predator finds itself being attacked by the prey. Sometimes fatally.

The novelty aspect will reduce as the dog becomes more familiar with being close to sheep (or other livestock), so regular, controlled training will help a great deal but unfortunately, the more quickly and unpredictably the dog moves, the more frightened the sheep will be, so they’ll react by making sudden, very fast movements. These result in the dog being still more excited. Somehow, we must break this chain reaction.

If the dog works sensibly close-bye, then the solution is to work the dog calmly, and praise it with a gentle voice when it’s working steadily, but stop it the moment it gets excited. The dog will soon learn that it gets a lot more fun (work) if it remains calm.

Stopping the dog and keeping it in place for a few moments, or even up to about half a minute can also help. It teaches the dog that the fun will still be there, even if it pauses for a while.

Of course, if the dog won’t stop, even close-bye, you need to concentrate on this issue first. Repeatedly flanking the dog a little way around the sheep and stopping it by blocking it, is the way to drum it into the dog that it must stop on command.

Kay driving sheep into a field
A dog which has the confidence to approach the sheep calmly will find it much easier to control them.

Once you can stop the dog fairly reliably on the far side of the sheep (point of balance), the best all-round exercise we know of to improve the dog’s pace, stop and overall control over the sheep is to walk backwards, keeping the dog in place as the sheep follow you (to get away from the dog). When you have a few yards between the dog and the sheep, call the dog up quietly. The instant it begins to rush, stop the dog with a sharp command, then repeat the procedure until the dog follows the sheep at a steady pace. Sometimes the dog will learn this quickly, but other dogs take longer to oblige

The next step is to increase the distance between the dog and the sheep, before you call the dog up. This teaches the dog to control itself and you’ll find that most dogs will learn to moderate their speed.

If at any time the dog reverts to tearing around, go back to the very close work again – walking backwards as the dog brings the sheep up to you calmly. Walking Backwards is covered comprehensively in the Sheepdog Training Tutorial entitled “Backwards is the Way Forward” which can be found in the Pace (Slowing) category.

If the dog has a good stop close-bye, but won’t stop at the end of its outrun, the outrun was too long. Walk closer to the sheep next time and make sure the dog stops properly when commanded (not twenty paces later). Only then, should you begin to increase the outrun distance again (gradually). Improving the dog’s stop is covered in several tutorial videos listed in the “Stopping” category.


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13 responses to “How to train a sheepdog to slow down”

  1. Ingo Weidinger avatar
    Ingo Weidinger

    Hi Andy,

    is there any video regarding this problem/behaviour?


    1. Probably the best tutorial video to start with it “Calm but firm” but equally important is “Backwards is the way forward” Ingo. It won’t happen overnight, but if you work at it, you’ll get there.
      Backwards is the way forward” is probably the single most useful tutorial when it comes to gaining overall control of your dog.

      1. Ingo Weidinger avatar
        Ingo Weidinger

        Perfect, thanks!

  2. Penelope Austin avatar
    Penelope Austin

    Hi Jon. I live in the south of France and have some of your videos.
    I have two border collies, they have both done some turns with sheep. The female, is particularly adept at agility, which she does very well, except she doesn’t stop barking, so wastes time by not concentrating especially on me. She’s a blue merle with good pedigree for sheep herding through the blue merle side (father and grandmother) she doesn’t bark except when getting tired when sheep herding. I took her to Chamonix with a Welsh trainer for 3 days and she was quiet until the last day. Now I’m worried she will start when I resume trialling. Most opinion is she’s excitable. I’ve tried the usual, water spray, various commands to no real effect. I can’t seem to break the cycle. Any advice?

    1. There’s nobody called “Jon” here, Penelope, but assuming you intended your request for advice to be on this website, I’ll do my best.
      First though, I have to say I don’t really understand what’s going on. You have a dog which competes in sheepdog trials, but won’t stop barking? This makes no sense to me.

      A border collie dog which barks when it’s around sheep is barking either with excitement or fear. The dog lacks confidence. In my experience it’s impossible for such a dog to compete at any reasonable level in a sheepdog trial of the type run by the International Sheep Dog Society.

      Please can you clarify the situation? What standard is the dog working at and are the trials you refer to, ones where the dog has to outrun something like 200-500 metres, and bring the sheep to the handler through some “fetch gates” before driving them around the course, through more sets of gates, and then putting the sheep into a pen, or are we talking about some other type of trial that this dog competes in?

      Assuming the dog is not working to this standard, as I said, the barking is a sign that the dog is excited, or lacking confidence. If you’re controlling the dog while it’s around sheep, in my experience as the dog’s work improves and its confidence grows, it will stop barking.

      1. Penelope avatar

        Hi Andy
        Sorry but I put the question in the wrong place and to boot got your name wrong! What a start!

        Her non stop barking is when she’s doing the agility course. I know it’s when she’s not sure of what’s expected of her but it’s becoming a habit, and it’s creeping into her trialling. We’re not at any standard here, it’s a fun run with sheep, a couple of times a month so not a big deal. Just the fetch, putting through a few fences and the penning. The outrun is quite far, it’s a big field…easily 500m or more

        She a vocal dog anyway. So much of this is excitement. It could well be confidence, but most of the time I have to calm her down for her to concentrate if she slips up. She’s a happy go lucky flirty dog, if I could describe her in that way. Highly obedient, but not as intelligent as my male, Bryn who works things out better and learns quickly. Megan looks to me all the time for orders and over anticipates what I might want. Very affectionate. I just wondered if you had any tips for this impossible situation?

        BTW I find your videos very instructive indeed. Although French use english terms, it’s all a bit vague, and Barry Joyce in Chamonix had to do quite a bit of correcting as for instance I was taught to zigzag the dog behind the sheep, which he says the French do, but it’s nonsense.
        Best wishes

        1. Well, this is as good a place as any to put a question about a dog barking while it works, Penelope, but I have to say I’m at something of a loss! If you’re saying that your (barking) dog will outrun half a kilometre and bring the sheep to you in a steady, controlled manner, then it’s the very first time I’ve heard of such a thing. Indeed I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
          Hopefully, someone else will have a more constructive comment to make, but this is truly beyond my experience.
          Meanwhile, if you want to stop the dog barking, you can train it not to. Dogs do things that they get a reward for, so if the dog feels excited about something and won’t stop barking, take it away from the source of its excitement (immediately it disobeys you). When the dog calms down, allow it to continue. Then if it starts to bark again, tell it to stop, and if it disobeys you, immediately take it away from the excitement again. This time for longer than before. The dog will soon get the message – but you have to be firm and consistent.

          Another way is to teach the dog to bark on command. From what you say, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Make sure you give a clear command to bark and a clear command to stop barking. Once the dog learns this, if it’s barking when you don’t want it to, you tell it to stop. If it won’t stop, you take it away from its fun (as above).

          Lastly, I feel I should point out that while sheepdog trials competitors (moving very small groups of sheep) need their dog to stay on the point of balance to bring the sheep in a straight line, this doesn’t apply in the “real world”. For moving larger bunches or flocks of sheep, it’s essential for the dog to flank back and forth behind the flock, otherwise the sheep at either end of the bunch can simply run away. A dog which flanks back and forth will keep the whole bunch together. It’s called “Wearing” – and I mention it at the end of the “Close Work 2 tutorial. (You need to be logged-in for this link to work).

          1. Penelope Austin avatar
            Penelope Austin

            Hi Andy
            Thanks for your reply. Yes she goes two fields away to lift the sheep. Steady and controlled? Hmm not without some guidance from me, to stop a stampede. On her outrun she does no barking, but when the sheep get a bit stroppy that’s when she starts to bark, which of course is absolutely useless as they don’t care.

            Your suggestions gave me an idea, as she responds fanatically to rewards. I have tried the “punishment” method of telling her off etc etc to no effect. So I have started rewarding her on the command “stop barking” ( I had to find a command completely unique) when she does, and the penny seems to have dropped. Significant improvement. As I said she is incredibly obedient, loves direction and routines. There is a regional agility competition this week in our town so no agility tutorials, which is when she barks non stop. Here’s hoping that your good advice will pay off. Thank you.

            I take your point on the large flocks. Wearing on 12 sheep probably isn’t needed, maybe that’s what Barry Joyce meant. My dogs pick up potential stragglers or strayers anyway.

          2. Eeek! My “good advice” won’t pay off because you appear to have taken little notice of it!

            By rewarding it with a treat when it stops barking, you’re teaching your dog to bark when it wants a treat! It’s only a matter of time before the dog realises it’s onto a good thing.

            Far better to teach the dog to bark on command – and to stop barking when you tell it, or take it away from the sheep whenever it barks near them.

  3. Gday mate I have a young pup about 8 to 9 months old he’s kelpy x healer its the first dog I have trained on sheep and its becoming a struggle he has the basics worked out but when it comes to turning a ram that is fighting him he backs off and is intimdated is he to young to be around large sheep at that age or is there away to teach him to bite and turn him?

    1. Hello Jon,
      First, I should point out that we do not specialise in any sheepdogs other than border collies, so any advice I offer is purely my thoughts rather than my experience. Having said that, the question you raise is more to do with any dog’s confidence, rather than breed-specific.
      With all the articles and videos on our website stressing the importance of not allowing the sheep to threaten or frighten a puppy or young dog, I’m amazed you need to ask the question.
      Just as you wouldn’t start a pupil off at school with advanced mathematics, you should train a young dog on a small number of docile sheep – rather than “throw it in at the deep end” with an aggressive ram as you appear to have done.
      Start the dog off steadily and its confidence will build gradually – but not if you destroy any confidence the poor creature has at the outset.

      1. Mary Lockhart avatar
        Mary Lockhart

        I have a very keen bitch, which when is sent to fetch, will and cannot be called back. It is impossible to call her off. I do not know what to do, she is 16 months old,
        Thank you.
        Mary Lockhart

        1. Do you mean when it’s sent to fetch sheep? Without some detail of what’s happening, it’s very difficult to help you Mary, but it sounds as though you need to go back to the beginning and train the dog from scratch.
          Watch all the tutorials in the “Starting” category to get some help with what to do.
          If the dog’s working quite well, but you can’t call it away from the sheep, you need to get yourself between the sheep and the dog. Crouch down (if necessary) and call the dog to you. Unless you get between the dog and the sheep, a trainee dog is unlikely to come back to you.
          If necessary, you can keep the dog going round the sheep until you can wangle them into a pen or a tight corner. Then it’s easy to catch the dog.
          If you can’t get the sheep into some sort of pen, you definitely need to start at the beginning!

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