Obedience Training in Sheepdogs

A good sheepdog can prove a valuable asset to the flock owner, but thorough training is needed if the dog’s inherited desire to work sheep is to be turned into a useful service. This article, reprinted with acknowledgments to the “New Zealand Farmer” is the first of three dealing with elementary sheepdog training for the novice owner.

The first piece of advice to be given to the novice dog-trainer is: don’t bother with a second-rater. Get the best pup you can buy, and if possible get one of a breed you know so that you will know of any little peculiarities of work and temperament that are likely to appear. It is possible to make a useful dog of any pup that will run, but it takes more trouble to train a stupid pup to a very ordinary standard of usefulness than to make a champion of a good one.

From Infancy

Training should begin while the pup is quite young, though of course he should not be started on sheep until he gives unmistakable signs that he is ready. The command is the main part of training and should be instilled into the pup from his infancy. This can best be done by making him your constant companion and gradually getting him into the habit of prompt obedience.

Go very slowly at first and never attempt too much while he is young. A dog, especially a young dog, is very like a little child, and a good sheep-dog is about equal in intelligence to a child of three.

So treat your pup as you would treat a child. Gain his confidence and trust. Study his temperament and treat him accordingly. Like a child, he will be inclined to regard kindness as a weakness, but if you do not treat him kindly you will never get his full confidence. This appears to set you a difficult problem, but it is not as difficult as it appears. By treating him with constant kindness and always insisting on prompt obedience you will get him well under control without losing his confidence.

Consistency is absolutely necessary. Do not let the pup get away with some little act of disobedience one day and punish him for it the next.

The command is largely a matter of habit, and it is only by the consistency that the right habits can be formed. Of course, if you want to save yourself a bit of trouble, you can quickly get your pup under command with the stick, though with the very intelligent and rather temperamental Border Collie you run the risk of completely ruining him.

“Stick command” fails because it cannot be relied upon and is apt to break down at the most critical moments. This is because it is what may be called a negative command. The dog is only restrained from defiance of orders by fear, and his will is in opposition to the man’s will all the time.

The great secret of good command is to have your dog working with you, and not against you. Therefore, let all your orders be positive. Always, as far as is possible, say “do” not “don’t”.

Now we will pass on to consider the actual training of your pup.

Let us suppose he is about eight or ten months old. He has been well reared and is full of life and as keen as mustard to start work. He regards you as his god and is most anxious to carry out your wishes. As you have never given him an order that you could not enforce, he has not realized that he is able to disobey you.

Be sure, before starting the pup on sheep, that you can stop him instantly whenever you want to. In most cases, this can best be taught with the check-cord. Attach about 30 yards of strong fishing line to the collar and let the pup get used to dragging it about.

Then by occasionally giving your stopping whistle and stopping him with the cord, you will soon have him taught to stop instantly, whatever he is doing. Teach him to stand where you stop him until you call on him to move.

Another method is to teach him to sit down. Sound the “stop” whistle and press him down with your hand. After he has been working for a little time he will probably stop going down and will stand at the whistle. The weakness of this method is that if your dog is of the clapping sort he will go down whenever he is stopped, and will never get out of this objectionable habit.

Teaching to Stop

To let your pup run on sheep before he has been taught to stop is the height of folly. Consider for a moment what so often happens. The pup has been persuaded to start and has headed his sheep. Full of excitement, he is rushing them about. Suddenly, he hears a loud whistle, then another, and another, then loud and furious shouts.

He hasn’t the faintest idea of the meaning of all this noise, but it raises his excitement to fever point, and he rushes the sheep about more wildly than ever.

At this stage, his stupid owner seizes him, whistles loudly in his ear and unmercifully thrashes him. A moment’s thought will show that the result of this silly but quite usual performance must be bad. The dog is not taught that the “stop” whistle means “stop.”

He has learned by sad experience that it means: “I am going to give you a hiding.” He will stop, but only from fright, and when he is feeling fit and fresh he will often be out of control. In effect, he is never told to stop but only threatened. A positive, definite command is unlikely under these conditions.

The First Run

A mob of fairly quiet sheep in a position where they can come to no harm will give you an opportunity for your pup’s first run. Don’t start him unless you are quite sure that he can head them. Have your pupil following at your heel, and when his attention is on the sheep, make a quick move towards them and hiss him on. Ten to one he will go. (A pup will generally start more readily for a hiss than a whistle.)

Having got your pup started, let him go. Do not attempt to check him. The main thing at this stage is to get him to start and to head his sheep. If he heads his sheep and then starts to come back to you, run out to meet him and chase him back. When he gets to the head of the mob he will probably stop. Let him stand for a few moments to collect his thoughts and take in the situation, then go up to him and pat him and impress on him that he has done something clever.

If he does not stop of his own accord let him work the sheep about for a few minutes, then seize the opportunity when he is on the balance of the mob and undecided what to do, and sound your “stop” whistle. He will stop instantly.

Encouragement Needed

Stop the dog at first when he is naturally inclined to stop. There are sound reasons for this. In the first place conflict and discouragement are avoided. Encouragement is what your pup most needs in his first run.

A more important fact is that you are taking the first step to teach him that prompt and cheerful obedience which is so necessary. If you are to have a dog under real command you must gain control, of his will. By giving him commands to which his will consents you will quickly form in him the habit of accepting willingly any orders you may give him even if his instinct is opposed to them. You have your dog working with you, not against you.

A further article will deal with the case of the pup which is hard to get started.

See: The Best Training for Sheepdogs (Part 2)


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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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