Is your dog ready to handle a flock of sheep?
Once your dog can control a small number of sheep reasonably well in the training field, it’s natural to start thinking about working a flock of sheep. After all, that’s what the dog’s for, isn’t it!
To us humans, flock work seems like a natural activity for the dog so we don’t see the change, from training ground to farm, as being a problem. In reality, it can be a huge step for a trainee dog – almost as big a step as when the dog first went to sheep.
Dogs are very much creatures of habit, that’s why we’re able to train them. We begin by making training as simple as possible and, as the dog makes progress, we make the tasks increasingly more difficult.
If you’ve watched our early tutorials (we recommend it) you’ll understand that our trainee dog is hunting, and when it goes to sheep (or cattle) for the first time, excitement, adrenaline and fear can often affect the dog – causing it to be very difficult to control at first.
That’s because the dog’s suddenly confronted with a situation it’s not familiar with. It feels excited, confused and frightened – all at the same time. Then later, as the dog gets more used to being around sheep and having guidance from it’s handler, it’s confidence builds, and we have much more control over it – especially when we’re working a handful of docile sheep, and we’re never far away from the dog.
The dog’s feeling comfortable – confident and working nicely because everything, including the sheep and the training is familiar to it – and the handler’s always there to help out when required.
That all changes when you move into a practical farm environment. To the dog, there are suddenly vast numbers of (possibly) strange sheep on (possibly) unfamiliar ground – and suddenly, it’s expected to gather them from a distance away
Faced with the shock of all this, many dogs simply ignore the far-off cries of their handler, and do what comes naturally to them – charge through the sheep, creating chaos. Then, to cap it all, the handler gets angry and starts shouting, making the whole situation worse!
But YOU’RE not going to do that, are you? I hope not.
Of course, just as with starting a dog on sheep, there will be plenty of things that can go wrong, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of success and reduce the stress.
Here’s our Flock Work Checklist!
1. Is the dog working well, with wide flanks (in both directions) and a good stop?
Obviously, the better the dog’s working before you try to work it on a flock, the better your chances of success. You should expect the dog’s work to deteriorate when it first works a flock – but this should be temporary. Be patient but firm with the dog, and it’ll soon be working normally again.
2. Is the dog doing outruns of at least 100 metres (that’s 110 yards) and bringing the sheep to you in a steady, controlled manner?
Good outruns are essential when working a flock. The farther you can send the dog – and still control it – the better, but the dog must be working confidently – not looking back at you, or even coming back to you. That’s a sign of a dog which isn’t confident about the distance you’re sending it. But if you build the distance gradually, the dog’s outrun will soon improve.
3. Can you stop your dog and flank it both ways when it’s working 100 metres away from you?
A flock of sheep will often split into two or more groups to get away from a dog, so it’s essential to be able to flank the dog right around the sheep in both directions, to keep them together. Watch the Inside Flanks (or Circling) tutorials to find out how to do this.
4. Has the dog worked a bunch of sheep larger than the number it normally trains with?
Suddenly being confronted with far more sheep than it’s ever seen before can be a huge shock for a trainee dog, so get yours used to working more, by building the numbers gradually.
5. Is the dog used to working in unfamiliar fields, with different sheep to the ones it normally trains with?
Once they have good control of the sheep at home, we encourage all trainers to work their dogs in different locations, and on different sheep. It broadens the dog’s mind and it’ll cope far better with new situations.
6. Does the dog have a good recall when it’s working sheep?
There will be plenty of times when the dog isn’t responding to your commands, and the best thing to do at these times is call the dog back to you – usually to move closer, and send the dog off again. So a good recall, even when the dog’s going around sheep at the time, is very useful.
If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, you should find the transition to flock work straightforward and quick. If the answer to any of them is “no” the dog needs further training if possible, before facing the challenge of flock work.
If you’re a farmer, and you need to get your sheep in for treatment of some kind, you might have to introduce your dog to flock work before it’s ready… Sometimes you have no choice – but there are things you can do to really help the dog, if you give the matter some thought.
The closer you are to your trainee dog, the more control you have over it, so it makes sense to be close to the dog during its basic training. But what about when your dog’s involved with flock work? Surely it has to work much further away from you!
Well, it will do eventually, but as with all sheepdog training, we can make it much easier for the dog if instead of standing by the gate and sending the dog from there, we get much closer to the sheep before we send it off. You can walk, or even use a vehicle of some sort – but if you do that, be very careful. If the dog’s excited or confused, it might behave unexpectedly – and you don’t want to run over it.
The best way to introduce a trainee dog to flock work is gradually!
Good training should progress at a rate the student can cope with. If the student (in this case, the dog) is finding the work too difficult, the trainer’s pushing too hard.
When you train your dog, you should always try to push it just that little bit more, to improve the dog’s work, but not so hard that the dog gets confused and it’s work begins to suffer.
Just as you wouldn”t expect a trainee driver to go out onto the public highways if they”d only just learned to set a car in motion and steer it, we can’t expect a trainee sheepdog which only has experience of a handful of dogged sheep, to suddenly work a much larger number of flightier sheep.
- Get the dog working well, with wide flanks (in both directions) and a good stop.
- Get the dog doing outruns of at least a hundred metres and bringing the sheep to you at a steady pace.
- Get the dog stopping and flanking both ways when it’s working a hundred metres or more from you.
- Get the dog used to working bigger bunches of sheep than those it normally trains with.
- Get the dog used to working on unfamiliar ground – with sheep it’s not used to.
- Make certain the dog has a good recall when it’s a long distance from you.
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