Sheepdog Training 26 – The magic cord

Photo of trainee sheepdog Ray jumping around in an effort to run after the sheep in the background

Control an over-enthusiastic dog with The Magic Cord!

Sheepdog training relies on your dog seeing you as its leader, so it’s important to give the dog the impression that you are in control of the situation, even when you’re not. Being on a lead can have a psychological as well as a physical effect on dogs.

Once they know they’re on a lead dogs generally act more calmly, as they think it’s useless to struggle. This may not be apparent immediately, but most dogs tend to calm down when on a lead. When you first take it to sheep though, an excited young dog will struggle to get away, making it harder to unclip the lead, and generally causing a fracas.

If the dog manages to escape, it’s another nail in the coffin of your (perceived) authority, because the dog will quickly learn that it’s able to disobey you.

The dog will also learn that when you stoop to release the lead, it’s about to be freed. This causes the dog to become even more excited.

Photo showing a close-up of a sturdy dog lead with conventional attachment.
A regular dog lead can be difficult to release when the dog is struggling, and even if the dog doesn’t struggle, it can tell when the handler is about to release it. We want to be able to release the dog without the dog knowing it’s no longer restrained.

The magic cord

One of the most useful, and important accessories for training a young dog, is a piece of soft cord with a smooth loop at each end (and no knots in it). You’ll keep it in your pocket so that it’s available at any time, and you’ll be using it double, kept fairly short (for best control of the dog). It should be approximately two thirds of the length of a normal dog lead, fairly thick, and preferably soft.

The smooth cord slips effortlessly out of the dog’s collar as the dog moves away

A suitable short length of cord will enable you to release one end, and the dog will not even know you have done it.

A more dignified affair

Sending the dog off is then a much more dignified affair. The cord simply slips through the dog’s collar as it move off. The “magic chord” will go a long way to prove to your dog that it MUST do things your way if it wants to work sheep.
Another benefit of the cord is that it’s small enough to hide in the palm of your hand. A smart dog will learn that if the handler is holding a lead in their hand when it calls the dog back to them, the dog’s fun is about to be stopped. So a dog which is desperate to get to the sheep will be reluctant to come back.

Photo showing the smooth loops at either end of the lambing rope.
The smooth loops make this type of lambing rope suitable for sheepdog training. The loops don’t snag on the dog’s collar when the rope slips through it.

Lambing ropes (available from agricultural suppliers) are ideal – strong, correct length. The most suitable ones for sheepdog training have a smooth loop at each end which is very convenient for holding, and they have no knots, which might get snagged on the dog’s collar.

Photo close-up of a dog with the cord threaded through its collar.
Thread the cord through the dog’s collar so that it can run freely. This allows the handler to release the dog without the dog knowing.

Thread one end through the dog’s collar

One end of the cord should be threaded through the dog’s collar and both ends held in one hand. I find that holding both loops on one finger makes it easier to release the dog smoothly. You then remove the dog’s lead and walk out to the sheep using the cord.

Photo showing the two loops of the cord looped over the handler's finger, while the thumb is positioned ready to push one loop off the finger - and release the dog.
If you loop both ends over one finger, it’s easy to release the cord by using your thumb to slip one loop over the end of your finger.

Once the cord is attached to the dog and firmly held, start to walk out into the field. If the dog can see the sheep the chances are, it will be straining on the cord, desperate to get at the sheep. As the dog’s frantically pulling it’s creating a stressful situation before you start, so tell it to ‘lie down’. If it doesn’t know what ‘lie down’ means, no matter, he’ll have to stop because you’ll pull back firmly but gently on the lead and stop it.

Try to calm the dog down

Continue walking towards the sheep and the dog will no doubt begin pulling again. Simply repeat the procedure, using a harsh voice until the dog obeys you, and then in a progressively softer voice when he’s doing what you ask. If the dog really doesn’t want to know, just walk him back the way you came (away from the sheep). It will be a little tedious but if you persist with this exercise it will dawn on Fido that he’s not actually going to reach the sheep unless he does as he’s told. Eventually, he’ll accept that he’s going to have to do what the idiot on the other end of the lead says, otherwise nobody will get lamb supper tonight.

Dogs can be amazingly quick learners – especially if they’re desperate to get at sheep – so suddenly, you have a more dignified approach.

The advantages of this are enormous. Firstly, the sheep will be more relaxed. Imagine being out for a walk and you see someone walking towards you with a perfectly behaved dog on a lead. You’ll not even give the matter a second thought. But now imagine if that person is struggling to restrain a snarling leaping, tooth-baring dog which is scrabbling to get at you. Even the most canine oriented of us would be a little worried and you can bet any sheep free to do so would have left the vicinity!

The “Magic Cord”is a simple but extremely useful accessory, giving the handler control (and smooth release) of the over enthusiastic dog, very quickly

Get nearer the sheep by approaching calmly

You’re likely to get closer to the sheep if your dog’s walking quietly beside you – even if its head’s down and its gaze is fixed on them like a heat-seeking missile! The closer you can get, the more chance you have of early success. The sheep are likely to stay close together and as your dog has learned to stop or lie down whilst he’s in ‘heat-seeking’ mode, there’s a much greater likleyhood that he’ll stop when you command him to. He’s also far more likely to go around the sheep (rather than through them) if you can get close.

In fact, a great many of the problems associated with training dogs for herding or farm work are caused by the handler not getting close enough to the sheep before sending the dog off to them.

Towing the line!

You can also use a line to control your dog if necessary. Having a similar effect on the dog as the shorter cord, a long line is another very useful tool for dog training. Attach the line – approx 15 ft (4.5 mtr) to the dog’s collar using a swivel hook and when you send him off simply release it. This is a remarkably good halfway point between actually holding a dog on a lead or cord and releasing him completely.

The dog’s aware of the line trailing behind him and (nearly always) moderates its behaviour somewhat. As a last resort really determined dog can normally be stopped if the handler gently treads on the trailing line as it speeds by but there is a possibility of injuring the dog if he’s pulled-up too quickly. To avoid this, we recommend using a strong elastic material between the line and the dog’s collar. Whilst the line can be a great help under some circumstances, we try to train dogs without, if possible.

Don’t worry too much about the stop (for now)

A novice handler is often over-cautious about the behaviour of a keen young dog, preferring to stop the dog at all costs but there is usually no need to worry. Over-training a dog which is hard to stop can lead to the dog losing confidence, which is far worse than the dog not stopping, in my opinion. By carefully watching for the correct moment, young dogs can normally be stopped by command (eventually) and as long as they’re causing the sheep no harm it doesn’t hurt to let them run a little.

Derek Scrimgeour’s Training Methods – Please Note:
Derek Scrimgeour is an outstanding national and international sheepdog handler. His training methods are highly successful and effective but unless he’s changed them recently, different and at times, incompatible with our own.
If Derek’s methods are used simultaneously with ours it may cause confusion for dog and handler.

The trick is to watch carefully for the moment when the dog’s wondering what to do next. It always happens sooner or later as the dog realises there is simply no point in charging round and round the sheep forever. Eventually it will stop and look around. This is your opportunity to give a sharp ‘lie down‘ command. If you’re lucky and have trained the dog to lie down before introducing it to the sheep, there’s a good chance the dog will see this as the easy option

If not, try again when it happens in a few minutes time. When the dog lies down immediately repeat the “lie down” command in a softer voice and keep repeating it – still softer and softer until you’re whispering.

This is a technique discussed in Derek Scrimgeour’s book “Talking Sheepdogs. It’s very effective. The harsh voice commands the dog to do whatever you’re telling it to and the progressively softer voices reassure the dog it’s done the correct thing. Repeating the gentle command also leaves the dog in no doubt that you want it to continue doing what it just did. If the dog gets up again before you tell it to, go back to the sharp command to emphasise that you’re in command, not him.

Again, gradually soften the command when the dog’s doing as you tell it.

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