Portia’s training upgrade at Dean Farm

Photo of two sheep challenging the dog, as the rest of the flock move into the yard

Training a sheepdog for working a larger number of sheep

Note: In terms of training, the actual number of sheep discussed in this article, is not as important as the step-up in flock size compared to the dog’s previous experience. Increase flock and field sizes slowly.

A welcome invitation!

Busy schedules have reduced opportunities for our dogs to gather sheep away from home recently. As a result, the chance to get Portia working a larger number of sheep yesterday, was very welcome.

Photo: A trainee sheepdog graduates to flockwork as it brings a flock of sheep towards a farm in the distance
Portia working a larger number of sheep towards the gateway into the orchard

Not everything went to plan, as you’ll learn. Importantly though, the task of sorting lambs for market was completed on time. The occasion proved to be an ideal opportunity to train a sheepdog to herd a larger number of sheep.

Portia dislikes travelling in the car because she’s done so little of it. As I’ve written before though, the best method we know to get a sheepdog accustomed to travelling in a vehicle is to take it to sheep in one. I hoped Portia might jump in the car, but as it’s three weeks since our last trip to Droitwich, I don’t blame her for being reluctant. I lifted her in.

First, get all the sheep together

On arrival at Dean Farm, our first task was to move any sheep which might be in the small orchard adjacent to the drive, through to the main orchard.

Indeed, there was a small bunch of lambs there, but Portia’s unexpected appeared from the back of the car was enough to persuade them to rejoin their parents in the larger orchard.

Portia was very reluctant to get back into the car, so I lifted her in once more. We drove through the gate into the next orchard where there was another bunch of sheep fifty metres or so away. I sent Portia to push them up towards the big field where I expected the main flock to be, and she did a great job, applying just enough pressure to move the sheep without stressing them.

Photo of the sheep in the field after sheepdog Portia brought them back through the gate.
Portia (far right) has just brought most of the flock back through the gate

The main flock had settled themselves on either side of the gateway between the big field and the orchard as though they couldn’t agree which would be the better resting place. When we approached in the car, they all moved into the open field, but once we were through the gateway ourselves, a large number of sheep followed our vehicle as I drove around, looking for any other groups which could not be seen from the gateway.

During the winter, the pregnant ewes are fed daily, and even months later this flock still associated a vehicle in the field, with ‘feeding time’.

A more experienced dog with a good outrun would easily have saved me the trouble of driving around the field to check for sheep, but Portia’s still a trainee sheepdog, and doesn’t yet have the confidence to do big outruns. She’ll get there though.

Increase outrun distances gradually

When you start working a flock or larger bunch of sheep, it’s good idea to start with smaller areas, and then gradually move on to larger pastures. The dog should learn that whatever the size of the field, when you send it off in a farm situation, it must go right around the boundary, and be sure to bring every sheep. If the dog fails it’s usually because you’re sending it too far, too soon.

Photo of sheepdog Portia flanking in the clockwise direction as she's working a larger number of sheep
Portia flanks to the right, of the flock to take the sheep left towards the yard

I say in a farm situation, because it’s different in a sheepdog trial. When a dog does an outrun at a trial the sheep are kept in position and the dog’s route to them should be pear-shaped, rather than running around the boundary. That’s known in trials as a “hedge-runner” and can lose points.

Once I was satisfied we had all the sheep together, I let Portia out of the car, and she began to drive them back down the field towards the orchard, and on to the farm buildings. She did this surprisingly well, until the point where the sheep began to go through the gateway into the orchard.

Out of control

Portia suddenly set off at high speed, ignoring all my commands and efforts to call her back. Clearly she needs more practice at pushing sheep through gateways, and not hooking them back, as she did on this occasion. There was more to it than this though. I was standing still, trying to video her work, and as she was herding the sheep away, the distance between us was increasing until at the critical moment, I was working her too far away from me.

The closer you are to the dog, the more control you have over it.

The sheer quantity of sheep would probably have further contributed to her behaviour. Portia was not used to working such a large number of sheep.

When I stopped filming and moved closer, Portia guided her charges through into the next field like a professional.

Photo of sheep in amongst old machinery and a caravan
Portia sets off to bring back some of the sheep which escaped and mingled with old machines, junk and a caravan.

With the sheep safely in the big orchard, I decided to put the dog in the car to go through the gateway. She’s quite sensible around vehicles in the open field, but farm work’s still very new to her. I didn’t want to take any chances as I drove through the gateway. The dog’s always safer inside the vehicle.

To my surprise and delight, Portia jumped into the car unaided! That’s a very good sign!

When we were back in the old orchard again, Portia brought the sheep down the slope by the old pond and pushed them into the yard. Unfortunately, one of the gates was open! The sheep hurried straight through and onto the farm drive.

Get ahead, get a Portia!

Portia got to the head of the sheep and stopped them escaping. They turned and ran the opposite way, ending up in one of those disused corners where all kinds of old machinery, caravans and junk are parked.

Photo of the sheep coming out of the junk area in a hurry
The sheep are in full retreat as Portia digs them out of their refuge

I would rather they had gone up the drive. The gate by the railway bridge was shut. It would have been simple to bring them back. I know from my experiences with Kay, Carew and other great dogs we’ve had, how difficult it can be to extract sheep from the junk corner without them going in all directions.

The sheep were tightly packed in there, too. So tightly that some were spilling through the gap between the old gate and its heavily leaning post. I feared Portia wouldn’t want to go into such a scary place. Trainee sheepdogs feel vulnerable when they’re closely confined with sheep.

I needn’t have worried though. Portia went around the sheep cleanly and the vast majority didn’t have time to think about escaping. They were back in the yard within seconds. That was impressive.

Photo of two sheep challenging the dog, as the rest of the flock move into the yard
Two sheep (left) defiantly challenge Portia. The image below shows the result.

Working the larger number of sheep into the sorting area of the yard was fairly straightforward but two of the ewes were quite aggressive with Portia. She was worried, so I helped her to complete the work. I need to show her how to be more assertive so the sheep have more respect for her. See our Online Sheepdog Training TutorialSometimes nice is not enough” for information on how to increase your dog’s assertiveness.

It gets worse!

As though the open yard gate had not been enough, as the sheep were pushing into the sorting area they were disappearing! That’s because a door which had not been latched properly, had swung open. Sheep began streaming throughout the buildings! I quickly followed them with Portia as they searched for escape routes, eventually finding themselves outside in an overgrown yard. It reminded me of years gone by when Kay (Portia’s grandmother) struggled to get sheep out of this yard

Photo: The two sheep which challenged Portia have turned their heads towards the yard in submission
The two sheep which were challenging Portia have turned their heads away in submission.

Portia has a very different temperament to Kay. She seems to relish bringing escapees back, particularly if she’s allowed to do it completely on her own. In the heat of the moment it’s difficult to remember not to give her commands when a sheep escapes. But we’ve noticed before that she’s more successful if we keep quiet and let her get on with it. She immediately saw what was required, and plunged into the long grass and nettles in the “away” (anticlockwise) direction.

To my great joy, I saw the sheep turn and quickly come back towards the buildings. Portia was nowhere to be seen though. That suggested there were more sheep somewhere – and sure enough, Portia arrived with one which had jumped out of the yard into the field. She had turned the main body of escapees back and then gone to fetch the last of the missing ones. Portia was definitely relishing flock work!

The escapees return

Photo of another group of escapees being sent back to the yard by Portia
Portia sent these sheep back towards the yard and went to look for another one

To me, a dog which will work on its own initiative is worth two which have to be commanded to do everything. Initiative comes as a price though… The dog needs to make decisions, and sometimes, particularly when they’re inexperienced, dogs can get decisions spectacularly wrong. On such occasions, great patience is required, but it will eventually be rewarded handsomely.

Now we had all the sheep back inside the buildings. But they spread themselves out between the various bays of the indoor cattle yards. With sheep darting into and out of every conceivable vacant space, the situation was reminiscent of a hollywood comedy, but within a few minutes we had the whole flock back in the sorting area, with the door firmly closed.

Photo of Portia keeping the sheep in place while we locate the others
Portia holds the sheep in place while John and Andy locate the others

For Portia, the day was a huge success. There were times when I was very proud of her. Apart from when she was attacked by a stubborn ewe, it seemed the tougher the challenge, the better she coped. If the sheep had run up the drive to the gate, bringing them back would have been a simple matter. Portia proved herself in a difficult situation though. She skilfully brought the sheep out from the corner where old machinery and rubbish gets dumped.

Pushing the boundaries

Boundaries and ‘comfort zones’ will be pushed before a trainee sheepdog is accomplished at working a large number of sheep. Portia was working with well over a hundred ewes and lambs. That’s more than twice the number of sheep she has ever set eyes on before, let alone worked with. Compared to the thirty (30) we have at home in summer – and about 12 in winter – it was a huge challenge for her. Most of the time, she coped easily.

The best dog we’ve had to date for knowing how to cope with any situation was Mel. I’d love to write about the things she did. Sadly, I never had a camera with me at the critical times. Even if I had thought, I don’t think people would believe me. Take my word for it, Border Collie sheepdogs are capable of astonishing feats if they’re encouraged and allowed to work on their own initiative.

A true case of a trainee sheepdog graduates to flockwork - Portia looks at the sorted flock she's just taken back to their field
A tired Portia looks at the sorted flock she’s just returned to their grazing


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