Learn the traditional commands for sheepdog training. Words such as come-bye, away and lie down, are essential to control and guide your farm dog.
The Basic Traditional Sheepdog Commands
These commands have evolved over many years and are widely used by shepherds and sheep farmers throughout the world today.
- “AWAY” (Away-to-me)
- “LIE-DOWN” (or Stand).
There is no real requirement to use traditional commands for sheepdog training though. It’s really up to individual trainers. If you work two or more dogs at the same time, the dogs should be trained with different commands. T The dog’s don’t mind what the words are. But if you use your own words, rather than Come-bye, Away and Lie down, make them easily distinguishable. More advanced commands appear below.
Before you begin teaching commands
The most important thing to remember when using basic or more advanced commands for sheepdog training, is to be clear, and also consistent. The dog’s ability to learn your commands is limited only by your ability to remember and use them consistently.
Avoid confusing the dog
Learn the three basic commands thoroughly. If you give the dog a wrong command, how can it learn to work properly? Additionally, keep the number of words used to control your dog to a minimum at first. You can introduce more varied directions as the dog’s skill increases.
Avoid confusing yourself!
To avoid confusing yourself, drop the idea of sending the dog left or right. Left and right work when the dog is by your side, or between you and the sheep. Not when it’s facing you from the opposite side of the sheep though. The commands to send the dog to your left and right are then the opposite way around! In this case, instructing the dog to go left, would send it to your right!
To make things easier for yourself. Think of the sheep as a clock face (the traditional kind, with hands that point to the hours and minutes). Then if you think of the direction the dog travels as clockwise or anti-clockwise, knowing the required direction of travel will be easy.
Send the dog AROUND the sheep:
As can be seen in the images above, the original command “Come-bye” tells the dog to move clockwise. “Away” means move in the anticlockwise direction around the sheep.
If you have difficulty remembering which is which, try this . . . ‘C’ stands for both “Come-bye” and clockwise – while ‘A’ stands for “Away” which is also anti-clockwise! Unfortunately, in some districts of the UK, the commands are the opposite way around! But the vast majority of handlers use “Come bye” when they want the dog to go clockwise around the sheep.
“Lie down” – “Stand” or “Stop”
The traditional commands “Lie down” – “Stand” – “Stop” all mean STOP, but you should use only one, for best results. As the dog gets more experienced, your chosen “stop command” can be far more versatile than just stopping the dog. Rather than having several different words to control your farm dog for various speeds (Steady, Take Time) like gears in a car, many handlers prefer the dog to regulate its speed according to the urgency in the handler’s voice.
Surprisingly quickly, the dog will learn that a sharp command means the handler wants it to stop immediately, but when the command is soft it should just check its speed to allow the sheep or cattle to go further ahead. The tone or severity of the command can be used to indicate anything from stop, slow down or pause for a moment. They can even mean “don’t do that” and much more. Fortunately, sheepdogs are very intelligent. If you are consistent they will learn what you mean by the situation they face, and the tone of your voice.
We have three in-depth Stopping The Dog tutorial videos, which will help you to stop your dog without damaging its confidence.
Some handlers insist the dog lies down, others don’t
Some handlers and shepherds insist the dog lies down on the ground when told to “Lie down“. In this case they normally use “Stand” when they just want the dog to stop or slow down, and “Lie down” if they want the dog to lie on the ground.
When I began training sheepdogs over twenty years ago, I preferred the dog to lie on the floor, but later I thought it might have more confidence if it remained standing. These days, I don’t think it makes much difference, so although I use the command “Lie down“, as long as the dog stops, I’m happy if it lies down!
Begin training with three basic commands
“COME-BYE” – “AWAY” and “LIE-DOWN” are the three basic commands we recommend trainers restrict their command vocabulary to when they begin to teach their dog to work sheep or other livestock. Three commands are less likely to confuse the dog, and are easy to remember.
This is a recall command which is widely used on farms whether the dog is working stock or not. The dog must stop what it’s doing and return directly to the handler. “That’ll do”, can also be of enormous help when training a dog to drive. As the dog veers off-line because it desperately wants to fetch the stock back to you, it’s effectively getting farther and farther away from you. In this situation, dog is far more likely to obey the ‘That’ll Do’ command than a flanking command to bring it back towards you. For this reason, we use ‘That’ll do’ as a sort of ‘cheat card’ to bring the dog closer, and therefore into a driving position behind the stock. We have three online Driving tutorials to show you more about teaching a dog to drive stock.
Other traditional commands for sheepdog training
“Walk up” – “Get up” or “Walk on”
As the dog’s skill increases, you may want to introduce these commands to encourage the dog to move towards the sheep. They can be used gently to build the dog’s confidence. Never use them harshly. If the dog is hesitating, it’s lacking confidence, so reassurance is required.
“Steady” or “Take time”
Both mean slow down or keep going slowly. Who said dogs aren’t intelligent? Some trainers prefer to have a separate command to slow the dog down rather than use a softer version of the Stop command. We prefer the latter. Our dogs quickly learn they should stop quickly if the command is hard, and to reduce their speed when the command is softer. Whichever order you use, the dog should slow down and put more distance between itself and the stock. An excellent sheepdog training tutorial for this is Backwards Is The Way Forward.
“Get back” or “Get out”
Instruct the dog to go further back from the stock. Often used when the dog comes in too close, such as when you are sorting sheep in a pen. Although it’s not wise to introduce too many commands during the early stages of the dog’s training, Get back can be extremely useful if taught as soon as the dog has basic control of its stock.
Tells the dog to look around. There are some more sheep to gather. Regarded by many as advanced, this under-rated command is extremely useful for teaching a trainee dog to go back and collect some animals it’s left behind. It’s important to use this command fairly early in sheepdog training, to send the dog back for any sheep it may have failed to bring. It teaches the dog that it must always bring ALL the sheep – not just a few of them. When the dog looks around, and spots the sheep, the handler gives a command to send the dog to collect them. The dog will soon learn that it’s easier to bring all the sheep or cattle at the first attempt, rather than have to go back a second time. The “Look Back” is a feature of Double Gather sheepdog trials.
“In here!” (advanced)
Used when sorting or separating sheep (shedding) from a group. When a large enough space has been created between the sheep your want to separate and the flock, the command “in here” signals to the dog that it should move into that space, to keep the animals apart from each other. The dog will learn to keep control of the required animals, preventing them from re-joining the others. Watch our Shedding tutorial video to learn more.
“There!” (not recommended)
Some handlers use “There!” to tell the dog it has completed the required flanking manoeuvre, and should turn squarely back towards the stock. To avoid confusing the dog (and possibly the handler too) with too many commands, we prefer to use the ‘Lie down‘ command. When a dog’s going round the sheep and you stop it, the dog’s natural reaction is to then turn towards the sheep, so using the command “there” has no real benefit.
Non-traditional sheepdog commands
It doesn’t matter a hoot to the dog which words we use to control it. We could say “Lottery ticket” and as long as we were consistent, the dog would work out what we meant. If you ever want to sell your dog however, it might be difficult to explain to the next handler that they must say “lottery ticket” to get the dog to move clockwise around the sheep!
Words to control your farm dog
In practice, border collies are so intelligent they can quickly sort out what you want. I once bought a young dog which had been trained using “come bye” for anticlockwise. It took two fifteen minute lessons before she was fluently using her flanking commands the way I wanted. I recommend you keep the basic sheepdog training commands you use to a minimum in the early stages of training, to avoid confusing the young trainee dog.
Whether you use traditional commands for your sheepdog training or not, the most important thing to remember when giving a dog its orders, is to be clear, and consistent. The dog cannot possibly learn the commands properly if you get them wrong, yourself. If you confuse one command with another, you will blame the dog for obeying you!
One of my favourites is “Stay there!” It means just what it says!