Visit our Sheepdog Terminology page for a fuller list of traditional sheepdog commands and language used by shepherds, sheep farmers and sheepdog trials competitors.
To avoid confusing the trainee dog, keep your early commands to a minimum. You can introduce more, once the dog’s skill improves.
The basic commands generally used in sheepdog training are traditional. “Come-bye” tells the dog to move clockwise whilst “Away” means move anticlockwise around the sheep.
If you have difficulty remembering which is which, try this . . . ‘C’ stands for “come-bye” and clockwise – while ‘A’ stands for “away” which is anti-clockwise! It’s true there are one or two small areas in the UK where 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” means stop but as the dog gets more experienced, it’s used in many different ways and can mean anything from stop, slow down or pause for a moment – to “don’t do that” and much more. Fortunately, sheepdogs are very intelligent and they are perfectly capable of learning what you mean by the situation they face, and the tone of your voice.
Some handlers insist the dog lies down, others don’t
Some handlers and shepherds insist the dog lies down when told to – in which case they normally use “stand” when they just want the dog to stop or slow down. “That’ll do” tells the dog work has finished and he must come back to you. Other commands are “walk up” which means move towards the sheep. “Steady” and “Time now” – both meaning slow down or keep going slowly. Who said dogs aren’t intelligent? It doesn’t matter a hoot to the dog which words we use – we could say “lottery ticket” and as long as we were consistent, the dog would work out what we meant – but if you ever want to sell your dog, it might be difficult to explain to the next handler that he must say “lottery ticket” if he wanted the dog to move clockwise around the sheep!
In practice, border collies in particular 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. I decided to see whether I could change her back to the more popular way, and it only took two lessons of around fifteen minutes each before she was fluently using her flanking commands the way I wanted – but I recommend you keep the different commands you use to a minimum in the early stages of training, to avoid confusing the young trainee dog.
The most important thing to remember when giving a dog commands, is to be clear, and consistent. The dog’s ability to learn your commands is limited only by your ability to remember, and use them consistently.