Starting the Non-Starter

The collie in the middle doesn't want to work

Training a dog which doesn’t want to work. Is there anything you can do to spark the dog’s interest? The short answer is “Yes!”

Understanding the possible reasons why the dog won’t work is the start to finding the cure. Most non-starters, that is to say dog’s which don’t want to work stock, can become useful working dogs.

It’s disappointing to find that your carefully selected border collie is an apparent “non-starter”. But that your dog is reluctant to work sheep or cattle doesn’t mean you can’t create an interest. As always with dog training, if you understand what’s happening, and why, there’s a good chance of putting things right.

Starting a Non-Starter” begins with a look at how the hunting instinct gives us a herding dog. It goes on to explain that instinct could be the reason why some dogs are reluctant to work sheep.

On the other hand, by safely simulating a hunting situation it’s possible to trigger the instinct, and so spark the dog’s interest in working. Once that’s achieved you’re on your way to a useful sheepdog. Simple, isn’t it?

Training a dog which doesn't want to work. Mab is a good example of a young border collie who had been reluctant to work sheep
Although Mab was reluctant to work sheep until she was a year old, she became an excellent sheepdog

As with most problems in sheepdog training, it is the owner or handler of the dog who has probably caused the dog to not want to work. Starting a Non-Starter will not only help with training a dog which doesn’t want to work, but it will also explain how you can take steps to avoid the situation arising in the first place.

Once you’re aware of how border collies learn you’ll see how, despite your best intentions, what they learn isn’t always what you thought you were teaching them!

How do sheep dogs learn?

Sheepdogs and farm dogs take things literally, and that’s both an advantage and disadvantage when it comes to training. Watch Starting a Non-Starter if you have a new puppy and want to prepare it for sheep work. The online tutorial “Sheepdog Selection and Preparation” will also help you to avoid the situation arising in the first place. (The  First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training DVD also includes the Sheepdog Selection and Preparation chapter.)

Picture showing the two DVDs and the case for volume four

If you are training a dog which doesn’t want to work, the two-part “Starting a Non-Starter” is THE place to start; look for it in the Confidence category. Follow this by watching “Starting a Reluctant Dog“, where we see Maisie overcoming her initial inhibitions to begin to work fluently around the sheep.

If you prefer (or need) to watch on DVD you’ll find “Starting a Non-Starter” on Volume 4 of our DVD tutorial collections. Volume 4 also includes tutorials about stopping the dog, more help with a dog who grips, further instalments in the “Bronwen and Scylla” series, and much more.


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2 responses to “Starting the Non-Starter”

  1. Scott L. avatar
    Scott L.

    Hello Andy and Gill,
    I’m in a bit of a standstill with one of my young dogs and I can’t seem to figure out how to fix the problem. I’m training two young bitches out of the same litter. They are now going on almost 2 yrs. old. One will work and outrun fine, however the other will do a beautiful outrun maybe two times, balance stock after the outrun, but if I set up for one more…she quits working, runs to the gate, and refuses to come back to work. I have tried all avenues of interest for her, and my sheep are quite light (Cheviot) when it comes to type. She will quit as though she is done for the day. Then if I work her the next day, she works fine for 2 or 3 outruns, then the same thing. I have tried giving her some time off, with no improvement. I have increased her training time with no improvement as well. Her health is excellent, so there is no physical problems. I just can’t figure it out. I have tried all that my trialing friends and mentors have suggested, but with no improvement. I don’t ask her to do more than she can handle, so I don’t think it is too much pressure or challenge for her. Any suggestions would be very much appreciated! Thanks Scott L.

    1. First, my apologies for not replying sooner, Scott. When I get a tricky question, I sometimes think about it for a day or so, but this one has completely slipped my mind.
      Two from the same litter is rarely a good idea. We don’t sell two pups to one home unless we’re convinced the owners know how to cope with litter-mates.
      They tend to “bond” with each other rather than with the handler unless you make a point of giving them a lot of one-on-one time – and it’s not a good idea to house litter-mates together. I’d hazard a guess that this lies at the heart of your problem. If the dogs spend most of their time together, one of them will be dominant over the other – and I’d guess the passive one is the one we’re talking about here (but that is just a guess).
      I suggest you give the dog different tasks after each outrun rather than just sending it off again. Try putting the sheep into a yard or enclosure, then getting them out again, and if the sheep run off, send her to gather them.
      It sounds to me as though the dog is bored. I’ve heard of similar behaviour with dogs that will retrieve a ball. After bringing it back a couple of times, they ignore it if you throw it again, as though the dog’s thinking, “I’ve brought it back twice for you, if you want it back again, go and get it yourself”.
      Flightier” sheep might be an answer. If the sheep run about, or are tricky to control, that can keep the dog’s interest far better than very placid sheep.
      It would be great to hear from you again whether you have resolved the situation or not – and apologies once more for the delay in replying.

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