Sheepdog Training 23 – What happens when you start?

Photo of Andy Nickless training a young sheepdog, called Smudge White

What happens when you start sheepdog training?

When you first take your sheepdog pup to sheep, it’s unlikely to behave as it does at home. It might of course, but even if it does, it will gain confidence and turn into a quite different creature altogether. Remember that once the dog’s most basic instinct is aroused, it may want to trap the sheep and kill them. By starting the dog on sheep at an early age we can discourage this aggression before it becomes a problem. By training the dog, we can convince it to work for us, rather than on its own agenda.

At first the dog will appear to completely ignore anything you say and any commands you try to give. This is not bad behaviour. The dog’s simply following its instinct. To the dog, you’re trying to stop it doing what its ancestors have done for centuries. So it will ignore you, and carry on despite your ‘interference’.

Sudden change of character

A dog which will lie down and then come to you without fail at home will almost inevitably ignore and humiliate you for its first few sessions with sheep. It’s what happens when you start sheepdog training. The dog’s excitement is likely to render it uncontrollable at first. Don’t get cross with the dog for this. Being angry will make training far more difficult because it confuses and frightens the dog. Better to stay calm and be persistent. It’s unwise to have an audience at this early stage. No matter how good a trainer you are, things won’t always go to plan when you train a sheepdog. There are more than enough things to think about, without being embarrassed. Bring your friends and family along once you can reliably stop the dog!

Your dog will want to do as you say. It will hear every word you utter but its instinct will not allow it to obey you. To the dog, any fool can see the sheep are escaping, while you’re expecting it to lie down! If dogs can think, it’ll be wondering what on earth you’re playing at. But this is not the open plains of Siberia. The sheep will be there tomorrow and the day after. Gradually the dog will learn this, and it’s excitement will reduce.

Photo of Andy Nickless training sheepdog Isla on a small bunch of sheep


Gradually the dog will begin to understand the message you’re trying to put over. Whenever it’s on your side of the sheep it’ll hear growling and gruff commands. It’ll realise that you’re anxious – not pleased, even though he really wants to please you. But what’s this? When he’s on the far side of the sheep from you, your voice is soft and friendly! Just like it is at home when you’re pleased with him. That’s nice! Obviously, you don’t know the first thing about catching and killing sheep, but doing as you say feels more comfortable. Being praised is very nice. It will do no harm to stop for a moment. The dog will feel confident it can handle the situation AND keep the peace with you at the same time.

A defining moment in your dog’s training

This when your dog begins to change into a sheepdog. It’s often referred to as ‘getting the stop’. From now on, you’re well on your way to training a sheepdog. Even if you’ve never trained a dog before, soon you’ll have a dog which many farmers would be envious of. A dog which will cause cars to stop on the road, for its occupants to admire its work. One which walkers will stop and watch as you practice penning or shedding before your next sheepdog trial.

Continue to encourage good work and discourage faults. Your dog will soon realise that there are huge advantages to doing things your way. It will get much longer sessions (reward in itself). The work will become more interesting every day – longer outruns and more challenging problems to overcome. Instead of working despite you, he’ll now be listening to your every word. You’ll be able to whisper commands and they’ll be obeyed instantly. The dog will know that you’re the pack leader and you know best (usually).

Begin working as a team

Now you’ll begin to work as a team. And a very special team it will be indeed, because both of you’ll understand what the other is thinking. You’ll find your dog doing what you were about to tell it to do. It’s learning how your mind works, and wants nothing more than to please you. (And maybe he’ll get a sheep for supper one day, but somehow it’s not so important these days). It’s what happens when you start sheepdog training

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One response to “Sheepdog Training 23 – What happens when you start?”

  1. Susan Lejonhud avatar
    Susan Lejonhud

    I am not new to dogs or obedience training, but I am new to this sport and to Border Collies. This site is so very helpful and makes common sense. Thank you so much! I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge. I need to learn myself before I can teach the dog, and it’s so helpful to learn what to teach my pup at home before we go to the trainers. Again, thank you!

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