Obedience Training in Sheepdogs (2)

This article, the second of a series reprinted from the “New Zealand Farmer,” offers some tips on handling a dog that is hard to start and gives much sound advice on the early training which is the basis for a sound performance in later years.

There are three reasons why any young dog may be unwilling to start. First, he may not be ready. In this case, all you can do is to give him time. Many good dogs are late starters. Some very good dogs have been as much as two years old before they would work. These late starters often require very little breaking in.

In the second place, the pup may have been checked when he first wanted to work, so that he has got the idea that it is wrong for him to run on sheep, and thirdly it may be just shyness.

One of the strongest instincts in a heading dog is to prevent sheep from escaping. By making use of this instinct you can be almost certain of getting your pup started. Get 20 or 30 quiet sheep against a fence. Go among them and break three or four out of the mob. The pup will hate to see them getting away, and will turn them back.

After he has done this a few times, drive all the sheep away, and while they are moving start the pup in the way I described in my last article. This plan seldom fails, but if it does, you can try running him with another dog.

Nearly all good dog men condemn this practice, and for very good reasons, which need not be given here. However, as a last resource, it is worth trying.

It is not suggested that you start your pup with another dog to head sheep at any distance, or that you allow him to bolt whenever you start the other dog. If he does this, put him on the check-cord again.

What is suggested is that you let him get used to walking behind the mob with a steady old dog when you are driving sheep. After he has been doing this for a little while, get in front of the sheep and let the dogs pull them after you.

A little practice at this will give the pup confidence, and he will go to the head of the mob when asked. Very soon he will go alone.

Having got the pup to start with confidence, you will find many opportunities of giving him little jobs of work and of developing his abilities as he does them.

We now go on to the most critical stage of training.

Your young dog is now running out freely and only wants work and judicious handling to develop his capabilities to the full. He may become a champion, just an ordinary dog, or a useless cur. This depends on the pup’s inborn instincts and on the way you treat him.

Give him only short, easy runs at first. If there is any fear of his making a mess, don’t start him; send another dog. Take advantage of the lie of the land, fences, patches of scrub, etc., to make sure that he will get round to the head of the mob. Do not run him where a fence or a gully will incline him to run straight at his sheep and perhaps fail to head them.

It is most important to teach him to take a good cast and run out freely and fast, so don’t start him except where he is likely to go to the head of the sheep without any stopping and recasting.

For the present avoid stopping him when running out. It will be time enough later to teach him to steer. If he starts in the wrong direction he will have to be stopped, of course. It is better, in that case, to call him back to your heel and start again, provided he is bold enough and keen enough not to be discouraged.

A nervous, shy dog may refuse to go again after two or three false starts. Study his temperament and use your judgment.

Whatever you do, try to avoid his getting the habit of stopping for directions when running out. If he stops of his own accord do not whistle him on. Take no notice. Just wait. Have patience. Wait half an hour if necessary.

In the end, he will probably cast out a bit wider and head the sheep without any more stopping. If he comes back to you, give him a shorter run next time. The distance can be increased by degrees.

The First Run

Your dog’s first run out on the open hillside will show you what sort of training will be necessary. If he sweeps round to the head of his sheep with ample clearance and stops on the point of balance all is well, and he will only need a little work to form the habit of making a good head.

A very strong-eyed dog is quite likely to set the sheep before heading or to stop before he is right around them. Both setting and short heading are bad faults. So it is worthwhile to go to considerable trouble in order to cure them.

First, try always sending the dog around the tail of the mob. If the sheep are facing to the left and are likely to move in that direction, send him to the right. His instinct to prevent sheep from escaping will lead him to run right round to the head of the mob.

Another plan which often has a good effect is to send him right round the sheep and call him back. You will need to choose just the right distance for this. If you are too close to the sheep he will not set, and if you are too far away you may not be able to make him go round them and come back on the other side. Short runs on moving sheep will probably do more than anything else to overcome the trouble.

Instead of setting or short heading the sheep, your dog may sweep right round and overrun his head. This is not such a bad fault, and can easily be prevented. If he is always stopped when he reaches the right position on the balance of the mob, he will soon lose the inclination to go any further.

For the present do not send him for sheep standing just below the top of a hill. He will be almost sure to gallop along the ridge and badly overrun them. As he will probably be out of sight, you will have completely lost control of the situation.

A good heading dog will always head his sheep with sufficient clearance to avoid disturbing them, and a close running head is one of the worst faults that any dog can commit. Sheeps treated in this way become hard to handle, and in the rough or scrubby country, some may be lost.

If the pup shows a tendency to close heading, get to work at once to correct it. Give him short runs only and make sure that he runs out wide enough to leave ample space when he heads. Insist on his stopping while well clear of the sheep, and do not let him come on to them until ordered.

Later in his training, when he has thoroughly learned to head without stopping, you may stop him and teach him to “kees out” and “come in” in response to the whistle. In teaching him this, try to do it with as little stopping as possible.

You will have to stop him at first, of course, but as soon as he has learned the meaning of your whistles, try to get him to obey your directions while traveling at full speed.

These may seem a great many instructions for teaching your dog a very simple job, but it really is worthwhile to take some trouble with this part of his training. Almost any free-running young dog can be taught to make a good head. If other sections of a pup’s work are good, there is no need to get rid of him on account of faulty heading. He can be taught.


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Hannah Elizabeth is an English animal behavior author, having written for several online publications. With a degree in Animal Behaviour and over a decade of practical animal husbandry experience, Hannah's articles cover everything from pet care to wildlife conservation. When she isn't creating content for blog posts, Hannah enjoys long walks with her Rottweiler cross Senna, reading fantasy novels and breeding aquarium shrimp.

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