Sheepdog Training 30 – Teaching the dog to drive sheep

Photo of Kay the Border Collie driving a small group of sheep into a field

How to teach your herding dog to drive sheep away.

Since writing this post, our sheepdog training methods have changed. In the case of driving, quite drastically. For the latest information on our much more efficient training methods, why not subscribe to our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorial Videos (membership required).

As soon as time allows we’ll update the post, but meanwhile, rest assured that none of the information in this article is incorrect, it’s simply that with our new methods, it takes us a lot less time to teach dogs to drive than we could previously.

So much rubbish is talked about teaching a dog to drive. Some trainers think it’s the most difficult thing to train a sheepdog to do – but it needn’t be. If you mindlessly train a dog to go to the far side of the sheep, lie down and then get up and bring the sheep to you. And you continue training this one movement until it’s absolutely perfect and indelibly fixed in the dog’s mind, you’re asking for trouble when it comes to asking the poor dog to drive the sheep away from you.

But Border Collies are incredibly intelligent dogs and they can learn several things at once. They can even learn that we don’t necessarily mean the same thing when we say the same words in different situations. For instance, if you train your dog to ‘come bye’ when you want it to outrun to its left, it will obey you every time and you can shorten the command to just ‘come’ with the same result – but if you train the dog to ‘come’ to you when you’re away from sheep, the dog will know the difference every time. Likewise, if you teach your dog short outruns and gathers, and then teach it to drive the sheep away, not only will it be very easy to teach, but dog, sheep and handler will not get mind-knumbingly bored with the training sessions. As soon as your dog’s fairly competent at going around the sheep and bringing them to you, it’s time to start teaching it to drive.

The rudiments of driving can be taught in one training session if you’re lucky. Once the dog has brought the sheep to you, command him to flank around them and stop him when he’s close to you. At this point, most sheep will begin to walk away. Look at the dog and ask him to ‘walk up’ (or whatever command you want to use for driving).

Of course, if you haven’t given the dog any hint of what ‘walk up’ means, he won’t have a clue what you mean but he’ll know you want him to do something so he’ll probably opt to flank the sheep in a direction away from you. Be ready for this and try to stop him instantly but not too sharply – you’re not telling him off because he couldn’t really be expected to know what you mean. Call him back to where he was and try again several times. If the dog walks towards the sheep at all – rather than flanking, praise him quietly and stop him. Hopefully, the sheep will walk forwards a little and you can repeat the procedure.

With practice, he should realise that the warm praise he gets when he walks straight towards the sheep mean he’s doing the right thing. If this has not worked after a few minutes, put the dog on the cord and walk behind the sheep quietly giving the ‘walk up’ request. Don’t worry if the sheep leg-it away from you – just keep walking towards them – wherever they go, repeating the ‘walk up’ request. If the dog appears to be getting the idea, release one end of the cord and continue as though nothing had happened.

If neither of these methods work, ‘plan C’ is to put the dog on the long cord and walk behind the sheep while they’re close to a hedge or fence. This way, the dog can’t flank away from you and he’ll not want to flank towards you, so he’s more likely to walk straight behind the sheep. You may prefer to use this method first but why bother if the dog will pick it up without bits of string and fences?

Once the dog’s walking behind the sheep with a little confidence (It’s quite amusing to watch them at first as they’re sure they’re doing something wrong) you can begin to give flanking requests – very gently and with plenty of reassurance as you’ll now have told the dog to do the opposite of what you have been teaching it (and what it naturally wants to do) and then telling it to combine both operations (confusing).

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