How to train a sheepdog

Herding Sheepdog Training - Stock Dog & Farm Dog Training - How to train a Herding Dog to fetch gather & herd sheep on your farm, holding or ranch or for sheepdog trials.

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We strongly recommend the 2xDVD set:

Sheepdog training DVD for beginners Sheepdog training DVD

"First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training"

for any beginner who wants to teach a dog how to gather, fetch and control sheep, and for trainers hoping to go on to higher levels such as sheepdog trials or flock work.

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Border Collie Sheepdog Training

A Beginners' Guide to Training a Border Collie to Herd Sheep.

WARNING! Long Document - First published on the internet February 8th 2003

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TRAINING COURSES
FOR BEGINNERS

Beginners sheepdog training courses by Andy Nickless

Sheepdog Training Courses for Beginners.

We are now offering sheepdog training courses, classes and experience days for beginners, intermediate and advanced handlers.

This is an ideal opportunity for you to get a good indication whether your dog will work sheep.

Courses are tailored to the skill of the participants and will progress at each individual's own pace.
More info

Sheepdogs Reiver and Mossie watch the sheep

Introduction

Struggling on our hands and knees in the base of a hedge one day, it occurred to Gillian and me that there ought to be more information for beginners to sheepdog training and handling. We were vainly attempting to extract some Texel-cross ewes which had taken refuge and were stubbornly refusing to come out and be worked.

The last straw came when, trying to ignore the pain inflicted by countless thorns and using every ounce of our strength, we triumphantly heaved the first ewe into the open field.

Our novice dog, which we'd taken into the hedge to help us remove the sheep but had done nothing thus far, suddenly shot out to drive the sheep back into the hedge!

Having already studied most of the books and videos available at the time, we were well versed with the theory of how to get a dog to lie down behind the sheep or to flank right or left - but none of the instructions we'd encountered mentioned how to get to such an advanced stage from where we were now!

The information currently available on herding and sheepdog training is mostly written by sheep farmers who go to great lengths to instruct us on the tiniest intricacies of training a sheepdog - but they overlook the fact that these days a growing number of sheepdog handlers are part-time smallholders with regular employment outside agriculture altogether. Not being experienced farmers or shepherds, these newcomers simply don't understand what the instructor's talking about.

They need much background information which the top handlers and trainers take for granted. Information which is second nature to the professional shepherd or sheep farmer. What was needed was a source of information on training sheepdogs - written by someone who's experienced the difficulties of sheepdog training as a complete novice.

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Basic Requirements for Sheepdog Training.

Dog Trainer Attributes.

The most important attribute a dog trainer can have is Patience.

The next: Determination.

There are a few basic requirements you'll need to attend to if you wish to train a sheepdog. Apart from the dog, you'll need something for it to work with. Sheep, ducks or cattle are the usual animals to start your dog with.

We recently finished shooting a great new sheepdog training DVD called "First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training" aimed specifically at beginners who want to learn how to train a sheepdog. The (2x) DVD set is different to others because it shows things going wrong (sometimes badly wrong) and then shows you how to put them right. It also spends time explaining how and why sheepdogs herd sheep and there's advice on choosing the best kind of sheep and which to avoid if possible.

If you want to train a border collie to work sheep, you should understand that it's a long term project and put aside any desire for instant gratification and results. Having said that, every dog is an individual and sometimes, a dog's progress can be meteoric.

Maybe most important of all:

A working border collie can be a tough cookie - to train one, you sometimes have to be even tougher!

Before you can properly train your first sheepdog, you should have some knowledge of the way their minds work and be prepared to take the blame for nearly everything that goes wrong because it will, in all probability, be your fault.

It's quite rare for a dog to be deliberately disobedient - more usually, they simply don't understand what we want them to do, so their instinct takes over.

Cookies!

A Working Border Collie Can Be A Tough Cookie!

To train one, sometimes you need to be even tougher!

There may be times when your dog ignores your commands and you would be justified in thinking he's just being disobedient - but the reason he's ignoring you is because he's not sufficiently bonded with you yet. He doesn't respect you sufficiently.

Work on gaining his total respect before anything else. It's up to you to demonstrate that by doing as you say, the job will be more efficient. And pleasurable for all concerned. This can take an awful lot of patience and understanding with some dogs   be quite a quick process with others.

Some time ago, some neighbours stopped to watch a training session and asked me how I could get the dog to work so well and for so long without giving it some praise or reward. I know little of training other breeds but in the case of Border Collie Sheepdogs, the greatest rewards you can give are:

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My first dog Dot is a classic example. Like most working Border Collies, she was desperate to work sheep and responded well to praise. At home, she craved attention - desperate to be held or stroked. After a training session.

Dot would immediately obey the "that'll do" command - and come racing back to me with the most joyful of expressions. In the early stages of Dot's training I encouraged this immediate response by crouching down and stretching my arms wide to welcome her whilst calling "that'll do" enthusiastically.

Quickly I realised she wasn't racing back for the congratulatory hug I had in mind for her! Inches before we made contact, she'd spin around and face the sheep again (completely ignoring me until I gave a command for her to work again).

Dot came racing back enthusiastically because once I'd called her off, it was her best chance of continuing to work the sheep! Dot flew to the USA in December 2003 where she's now working on a cattle ranch.

Dogs need to be corrected during their training but it's important to note that just as we humans hate being bellowed at all the time, so does a dog - and just as we're more likely to be cooperative if we're instructed in a civil tone, so's our canine friend. (I wish I could remember this more often, myself)!

To train a sheepdog from a puppy is a long process and will take you through various stages from euphoria to utter despair. Sometimes, you'll think your dog can read your mind and at others, you'll feel utterly humiliated and think the dog's forgotten everything you taught it. You must be prepared for this (just like us) and remember that the bad times will become fewer if you believe in your dog and yourself. When you hear someone say: "I had to get rid of Fido - just couldn't stop him (doing this, that or the other)". What really happened is that they couldn't work out the reason Fido was behaving the way he was.

If you think carefully about your dog's behaviour, you can normally find a way to correct faults. It'll take time and patience but it can be done. Trials winners are the trainers who are best at this and of course, the clever trainers are the ones who can choose a young dog which is likely to have the least number of problems. I believe that almost any young Border Collie can make a useful sheepdog - in fact to test this theory, I advertised on our website for young Border Collies that people needed to rehome.

Whenever the advert appeared, the telephone didn't stop ringing - and over a year or so, we took on ten of these "rescues". If I remember correctly, I only turned one away from our gate (he bit me while I was talking to his owners).

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The Definition of a Sheepdog.
My definition of when the dog you're training becomes a sheepdog.

Imagine your sheep had escaped ("surely not," I hear you cry - "our sheep NEVER escape") and are roaming your neighbour's fields. Your only dog is the youngster you have at home, just in the early stages of his training. Would you take that dog to help get the sheep back in, or would you call a friend and ask him to bring his dog - leaving the trainee secure in the kennel where he can do no harm? If you'd take the trainee - because you're reasonably confident that between you, you can get the sheep back into your field, then (in my opinion) he's a sheepdog.

I mention that because every one of those "rescues" became a sheepdog that I would take with me to get the sheep back in.

Some were certainly a lot better than others, but I'd have taken any of them to get my sheep in if I had no other dog. Having said that though, some of the ten dogs had big problems (not of their own making) which I had to overcome. If you start off with a young dog which is from good working stock, you're likely to find training a lot easier.

A dog is for life ? ? ?

This may seem a bad point to start discussing the negative side of training a sheepdog but it's worth bearing in mind that dogs are individuals, just as we are, and not all dogs get along with their owners!

Incidentally

I stopped taking the "rescues" in because more often than not, we had problems with them barking. Incessant barking's something I won't tolerate and I don't expect our neighbours to have to endure it either.

Whilst I'm cautiously in favour of the ideal that a pet dog should be for life, certainly in the case of Border Collie sheepdogs, it isn't necessasarily true. I believe that if you really can't seem to make progress with a dog and you've taken expert advice and after genuine patient training over a reasonable period, still can't seem to make any headway, it's probably best to sell it.

Of course, you should be careful who you sell it to - but I've sold dogs which I found difficult to train - and they've usually been better off for it. Some of them have gone on to make excellent sheepdogs and some went on to be much loved (and very happy) pets.

Likewise, I've taken on dogs which others have given up on - and they too, have blossomed as a result. This is because everyone's approach to training is different - and every dog's different. Quite frankly, there can be a personality clash between owner and dog. In an ideal world, we'd stick with our "problem" dog, learn why it's behaving the way it is (or isn't) and apply corrective measures but this isn't an ideal world. We don't all have the time it takes to learn every apect of canine psychology.

Interesting to reflect that some people will change their live-in partner without regret but they'll stick with a dog that's causing them grief, through thick and thin!

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If you do decide to part with your dog, it's extremely important to make certain the prospective buyer knows the dog's faults. Whenever I sell a dog, I try to make certain the buyer knows all the good and ALL the bad points about the animal.

On our sheepdogs for sale page, you'll notice I list the dog's faults so that the prospective buyer's aware of them even before we communicate with each other. This way, the dog gets off to the best possible start - the new owner's pleased with their purchase from day one.

Conceal the faults (quite easy if you're selling to someone less experienced than yourself) and when the dog and owner are out in the field, the new owner feels cheated. This is not condusive to good handler / dog relations and it certainly won't get you any recommendations!

Often, when I demonstrate a dog's bad points I find the buyer isn't bothered - "Oh, don't worry about that! As long as he'll get the sheep in, I'll be happy" is a common response! If the price is fair for the standard of work the dog's capable of, all should be well.

The importance of forming a bond with your dog.

A good dog, which is strongly bonded with the handler, will do almost anything it possibly can for its handler. Its number one priority in life is to please.

To form this bond isn't so difficult if you're kind and consistent whilst leaving your dog in no doubt who's the boss, the bond will form sooner or later. It's a good idea to spend some quality time with your dog each day. Feeding, cleaning out, exercise, playing and grooming should all be done by you (the handler) if it's practical.

Another important task is to take time to WATCH your dog. This is especially effective if you have several dogs. Watch them at play together. Not just when you're out for a walk or in the park - watch them when they're at home, in their pen (if housed together) or just in a yard or your garden.

You'll find out a lot more than you think. Which one's the boss? Who's challenging for top spot? And much about your dog's temperament with other animals. Study your dog at play with others and it will give a valuable insight into the way he'll work sheep.

When dogs play it's a rehearsal for hunting and fighting. Watch carefully and you'll see which dog will dash in and start a "bundle" or which one'll try to 'head' the others (run in front to stop them). It's important to bear this information in mind when your dog's under pressure such as during shedding or penning. If you really know your dog, you'll know how much pressure it can take.

Perhaps most importantly of all, your dog must trust you. It's a sad sight at a sheepdog trial to see a great run and then in his moment of triumph, the handler stoops to pat the dog and the poor thing cowers or dodges out of the way. Unfortunately, it's possible to train a dog with fear - but that doesn't make it right (it's worth mentioning that if a dog cowers or runs away from its handler, it doesn't necessarily mean the guy's been abusing the dog - it may be a legacy from a previous handler or trainer or the dog may be a nervous type).

We believe you'll get better results from a dog which trusts and respects you. This doesn't mean you have to spoil your dog. The more we spoil a dog, the more likely it is to feel insecure. This is because extra attention is lavished on the dog according to our mood - we can't help it, that's the way we are.

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How many times have you allowed a dog to jump-up - and how many times have you (on a different occasion) brushed the dog aside because you don't want it to jump up at that particular time? Now consider it from the dog's point of view - sometimes, you're great fun when it jumps up and at others, quite inexplicably, you reject it - puzzling eh? Of course, if we consistently spoil the dog, he won't work at all! Far better to behave in a temperate way.

Be FIRM, FAIR and CONSISTENT with your dog.

Being consistent is one of the most important factors in successful training but it can go too far. From the dog's point of view, we should feed them at the same time every day, visit them at the same time and take them out training at the same time. They would love this strict pattern of behaviour but is not practical or desirable for us as we want them to be versatile and able to cope with the unexpected. Just as it's unwise to always train the dog on the same sheep in the same field at the same time, so it's worth moving some of the other patterns of the dogs life around in the interests of versatility.

The one pattern which should remain constant is your bond with the dog. The more unshakeable it is, the better the two of you'll get along. So if you must allow your dog to jump up, make sure you don't mind it happening when you're in your best suit   worse still, at the post in the International!

NEVER punish your dog for coming back to you.

Picture a typical scene. You're out walking your dog in the local park and he runs off to play with another dog he's just spotted. You call him back but he's having a great time and ignores you. You call again - this time much louder than before.

Eventually you resort to screaming and the dog finally gives in and comes back to you. This is the most critical time. You're feeling angry, utterly humiliated and revengeful - so you scream at the dog and maybe even beat him. This is a big mistake. Difficult though it may be, if you could bring yourself to give the dog an enthusiastic welcome (and try to make it as genuine as possible) the dog's much more likely to come back sooner next time isn't it?

By punishing the dog when he's just returned to you, all you're doing is confusing the poor creature. From his point of view, he had a good lark with his mate and then when he did what you asked (came back to you) he was severely punished...

What's he supposed to do next time - come back to you and get beaten again?

Getting a good "recall" on your dog.

So what should you do if you're out with your dog somewhere and he won't come back to you? Well, first, you shouldn't really be releasing a dog that you can't trust but let's imagine you thought he'd be OK (after all, he comes to you straight away when you're at home in the garden).

Well, first, only take the dog to fairly small, enclosed spaces that he can't escape from (not onto a road or amongst someone else's sheep for example). Then you should let him go - and if he won't come back when you call him - walk away (and keep walking). He'll soon realise you've gone and come looking for you.

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OK - OK every dog's an individual and there's always the exception to every rule, so let's say the disappearing act above didn't work. The chances are, you gave-in too early, but just supposing you didn't - you spent what seemed like hours trying to catch him and missed your favourite TV programme.

What can we do now? Well, we need to go back to the garden and make absolutely certain the dog's coming back 100% of the time.

Not when he feels like it - I mean straight away, 100%.

Now we put him on a long leash or cord and take him to the enclosed space we talked about.

Still coming back 100%? . . . Lengthen the leash.

Still 100%? . . . Release your end of the long leash.

He'll feel it pulling on his collar as it drags along the ground and he'll think you still hold the other end (and therefore, "absolute power").

Still coming back 100%? . . . Go back to a shorter leash but release your end so the pull on his collar is reduced. If he defaults, go back to the previous stage or even the one before that.

Your dog must always feel it's safe to come to you.

Where possible it should be made worthwhile - preferably use a pleasant tone and a little fuss to show him you're pleased that he's returned.

If the dog doesn't respond to this you can resort to the (strictly temporary) use of titbits to encourage him to come to you. Whenever possible grade the reward according to the response you get - most fuss (or titbit) when the dog obeys instantly - polite acknowledgement if the response is reluctant. If you need to shout at your dog after it's done something wrong, think carefully about it. It's best to correct a dog at the precise time of the offence (or preferably just before) rather than later - but sometimes you have no choice.

When training your dog with sheep, don't call the dog back to you and then shout at it, the dog will think you're shouting at it for coming back, then when the dog continues to do whatever you rebuked it for, you'll repeat the proceedure . . . and soon end up with a thoroughly confused dog.

A dog's mind works an awful lot faster than a human's, so we should bear this in mind when training. A good example of this is gripping (biting the sheep or pulling at their wool). If we see our dog grip, we're inclined to shout at it to stop, but it's really already too late! The dog's mind's moved on and he's considering his next move - which may be perfectly good. Scold him too late and the dog may well think it's this next move you disapprove of.

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Read your dog's mind!

Well, we can't exactly do that but we can get close. This is one of the trickier parts of sheep dog training - you need to read the dog's body language! If you study it, you'll see that when the dog's preparing to grip, his ears go back, his hackles up and his head goes down. Often his tail goes up too (but we'll talk about this some other time). When you see signs that the dog's preparing to grip THIS is the time to shout! You'll be amazed how effective it is if you get the shout in at the precise moment BEFORE the dog grips.

I realise it's not easy to read body language of a dog which is probably travelling at full speed, in what appears to the novice trainer as a whirlwind of sheep and dogs, but it's worth practising as it can make the difference between a poor sheepdog trainer and a good one.

Reading the dog's body language in a training session (or when working) is enormously important. If I'm standing on one side of the sheep, and the sheepdog's standing (or lying) on the opposite side, I can normally tell which way the dog wants to circle the sheep next. Regardless of what I say, he'll probably go that way. In the early stages of training, I may use this to give the dog the correct command for the direction it will travel in, but quite soon, I'll use it to make the dog go the other way, to show the dog it must go the way I want it to, and not the way it wants to. Difficult? Not really, I'll tell you later, how to get the dog to go your way and not his.

If you manage to train your dog to a good enough standard to start entering sheepdog trials, remember, there will be people watching and sooner or later (probably sooner) he'll do something at a trial which makes you want the earth to open up and swallow you. It happens . . . how do we know it happens?

Because it happens to US and we've seen it happen to the greatest dog / handler combinations in the world - so we can be fairly sure it's going to happen to you! The point is, the dog'll come back to you - probably knowing things have gone wrong and not feeling that good about it himself. This is the point when you have to swallow your pride and welcome the dog back. Don't make a fuss and pretend everything is perfect - but you must be glad that the dog has come back to you - just as you'll notice if you watch them - dogs are ALWAYS pleased to see us (unless they know better for some reason).

Control your temper - your dog will sense your mood.

If you find yourself getting angry, you have two simple choices - end the session, or control your temper. There is no point in going on if you're furious with your dog. Nothing confuses a dog more than an angry handler or trainer and sarcasm is a disaster.

99% of the time, if things go wrong it's YOUR fault!

Of all the sheepdog training videos and DVDs I've watched, this is the single most important statement I've gleaned. It was said by Martin Penfold on the Rural Route video "Starting Border Collies on Cattle, Sheep or Ducks" I think Martin actually said 90% of the time, so I hope he'll forgive me for increasing the odds. (I should add here that I approve of most of the methods used in that video, but not Martin's method of teaching the dog to lie down).

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Quite frankly, if your dog's not doing what you want, it's because you're asking him to do things he's not ready to do or he doesn't understand what you want of him. So if you feel your anger building up, give the dog some really easy tasks and make sure your voice is normal or possibly even a little softer and friendlier than usual. If these easy tasks go wrong, don't shout and bawl at the dog, go home and mow the lawn, it'll be more constructive. If things go well however, you can gradually build back up to the level of work you expected before you started getting cross!


We strongly recommend the 2xDVD set:

Sheepdog training DVD for beginners Sheepdog training DVD

"First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training"

for any beginner who wants to teach a dog how to gather, fetch and control sheep, and for trainers hoping to go on to higher levels such as sheepdog trials or flock work.

More DVD info   |   Buy it NOW   |   Back to top!


Whatever problem you're having with your dog, you should be able to cure it.

Think carefully about the problem - why the dog's doing it and how you can change the training routine to correct it. Sometimes the dog will simply be using its own initiative to try to help you. For instance, if he knows the sheep prefer to head for one side of the field every time they're in a certain position (maybe towards cover of some kind) he could well be staying out on that side to head or "balance" them back towards you. Once your dog reaches the stage where you can trust him to work on his own for a few moments, try sending him out to the sheep and then just watch - let the dog do as it likes (within reason) and you may be surprised how well it works without you.

What do sheepdogs actually DO?

What are sheepdogs for? Well, basically, a good sheepdog should do most of the sheep handling and driving work for the shepherd or farmer. I remember watching a very proud owner of a Huntaway trying to convince me that she didn't need a "gathering" sheepdog because the Huntaway would drive the sheep into the far corner of her large field and she would walk across the field, put the dog on a long lead, and dog and woman would then chase the sheep around the field until they went out through the gate, down the drive, into the yard. From there, they were easily driven into the shed.

I resisted the temptation to demonstrate that I could have stood by the shed while my dog went and fetched the sheep from the field, down the lane and into the yard by herself. It'll seem obvious to many, but a sheepdog should move around sheep without disturbing them unduly. He should have the "power" to bring or drive them wherever you want him to without unduly stressing or damaging them in any way. Sheepdog Power is a thing we'll discuss later.

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Getting Started with sheepdogs!

Should you buy a puppy or a partly trained dog? It's a very long road from buying a puppy to taking part in your first trial. This can be daunting for a novice handler but on the other hand, if you buy a puppy, you can be sure it hasn't developed any bad habits. If you buy an older dog, you could be trialling earlier but the settling-in time is unpredictable and the dog may have some bad habits which will prove very difficult to resolve. There's always a reason for someone selling a dog, whether fully or partly trained - but this doesn't have to be a bad thing. A bad dog for one handler can be a trial winner for another. As I mentioned earlier, a change of owner can be of great benefit to a dog - a fresh approach can sometimes bring out its best.

Choosing a Sheepdog Puppy.

Generally, you won't go too far wrong if you follow these guidelines:
Buy from a good source of working stock relevant to the type of work you want to do with the dog. Puppies are SO cheap. You can buy a son or daughter of the Supreme International Champion for a small figure and equally fantastic dogs for slightly less. But don't think that buying the son of the number one sheepdog in the world will give you a winner, it's just a part of the story. Even if this pup is equal to his sire or dam (and breeding doesn't work like that). The rest is up to the trainer and handler - but buying from a good line is the best start.

Ask the handler to put pressure on the dog (work very close to sheep in a corner for instance). If the dog grips (bites) the sheep, it may be wise to leave these particular pups for more experienced handlers although it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have problems. Look at the way the dog works - does it move around the sheep in a confident manner - and does it give the sheep plenty of room as it works around them? Are the sheep terrified of the dog? They shouldn't be - but the dog should have the confidence (and power) to move the sheep freely if commanded to.

When the sheep stop, the dog should keep on coming.

Watch carefully when the sheep stop. . . does the dog stop too? Or does he just keep on coming - gently applying more and more pressure to the sheep as he gets closer? If the dog stops when the sheep stop, he may be weak. If in doubt, ask the handler to show what the dog does when the sheep stop. Sheep will often turn and face the dog - sometimes even running at it. A dog which keeps on coming under these circumstances is extremely powerful.

Come to a clear understanding with the seller that you can bring the pup back and have a full refund within a certain period of time if you don't like it or if it proves to have some sort of fault. But generally, go with your instinct - if you like the look of the pup, it could well be right for you but try to avoid buying the cutest   one which cowers in the corner when it sees a stranger.

Andy's Quick Rant . . .
No: 001

Personally, I feel the British Kennel Club's apparent encouragement of breeders to produce more and more hideously disfigured dogs - German Shepherds that can barely walk, Pekingnese, Boxer, Bulldog etc which can barely breathe properly - and possibly even worse, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels which suffer terrible pain because their skull is too small for their brain, should be investigated by animal welfare groups - and stopped . . . (rant ends.)

The above was originally written in 2004, several years before the BBC Panorama documentary on the same subject. Since the BBC programme, it has been edited to include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel case, as that is particularly horrific.

Update - (11th May 2010).
Affiliates of the Kennel Club have recently appealed to me to remove the above comments because they believe the Kennel Club are taking sufficient steps to improve the health and welfare of dogs registered in their name.

I heartily applaud this but until I actually see improvements, such as Crufts-winning German Shepherds that can walk like normal dogs and Crufts-winning snub nosed breeds that can breathe properly (in other words, until the Kennel Club insist their members allow dogs to be normal healthy animals again, unmolested by the whims of fanciful show fanatics) my words will remain.

Update - 9th August 2010.
I'm told by more than one source that the Midland Border Collie Club have banned their members from taking part in our sheepdog training courses because of the comments I have made above.

If this is true, I'm surprised that a club would attempt to control its members' private lives in such a way, and I'm even more surprised that the members tolerate such control.

I understand that some members (including at least one committee member) have resigned from the club over this issue. I applaud anyone who is prepared to take such steps over something they believe in, and I would like to issue a challenge to the Midland Border Collie Club:

  • If what I have written above is not true, prove it to me and I will remove it and publish an apology here.
  • If what I have written above is true, why don't you urge the Kennel Club do more to protect the health and welfare of dogs?

Kennel Club dogs.

Although there are always exceptions to every rule, Kennel Club dogs will generally have been bred primarily for their looks and almost certainly not for their herding instinct, so if your dog's main activity will be sheep work, steer clear of Kennel Club Dogs. Please read "Andy's Quick Rant . . . No: 001" (right).

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Sheepdog Pedigrees.

Don't believe for a moment that a dog must be "registered" to be any use as a sheepdog. This is complete nonsense and anyone who says it should be ashamed of themselves. There are fantastically good non-registered sheepdogs - some of which would be perfectly capable of winning the top sheepdog trials championships in the world . . . BUT as a beginner, you'll have a better chance of getting good results if you buy good stock. You may save a few pounds if you buy a pup from a farmer down the road but you could be buying trouble. In an ideal world, you'll take the time to watch dogs at trials, talk to the handlers of those that appeal to you, ask about their breeding, how they responded to early training and observe their temperament. Buying an ISDS (International Sheep Dog Society) registered dog does not mean you have a natural winner, it merely means the pup is from proven working sheepdogs.

In reality, you'll probably go to look at the nearest litter the first weekend you decide you'll buy a dog - and almost certainly come back with one, in which case, temperament in the bitch is paramount. But if you're serious about training a herding dog, it's a good idea restrict yourself to registered stock unless you know for a fact that both parents are excellent workers.

Choosing a partly trained sheepdog.

The further training of a partly trained dog isn't really the remit of this writing as it suggests training of a more advanced nature which is covered in several books. However, some 'partly trained' dogs in fact, know very little and are thus at an early enough stage to be covered by this article.

Buying a partly trained dog's a very popular way of shortcutting the long process of getting from puppy to working stage. Many people don't feel able to train a puppy but it should be remembered that you need just as much patience and understanding whichever way you choose. Sometimes it can take months for a young and maybe sensitive dog to settle with a new handler and if you're a complete novice, you can do an awful lot of harm along the way if you don't bear this in mind.

On the other hand, a partly trained dog should be able to go off and gather the sheep for you more or less straight away (depending on the level it's reached).

Once the dog's settled in, you'll be able to advance its training fairly quickly as the more dogs learn, the easier it seems to teach them new moves. A partly or even fully trained dog's ideal for a busy farmer unless the training is a hobby. At the prices trained dogs fetch, there is no question which is the more economic way. A farmer can use his time far more profitably than standing in a field for many hours, trying to get a dog to lie down or do a proper outrun.

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If you decide to opt for the partly trained dog, try to take someone with you who knows the sort of animal that might suit you. Make certain you see the dog working and study its behaviour - particularly when it's close to the handler. Is the dog happy to come off the sheep - and does it rush back to the handler with confidence   does it keep its distance - slightly afraid of its handler? Is the dog smooth and workmanlike   does it rush around and startle the sheep. Bear in mind the details about watching a sire or dam at work before buying a pup (above).

Farmers and triallers both need dogs which know when to be tough and when they must be gentle. If the dog it terrorising the sheep unnecessarily, leave it alone. Equally, the dog must demonstrate command of the sheep - does it approach them with quiet confidence. Watch the dog's tail - does it come up when the dog's working close to the sheep? If so, bear in mind that a rising tail is a reliable sign that the dog's lacking confidence.

Try to decide who the dog's working for. Is he working for the handler   for himself? If the dog stops concentrating on the sheep and starts to sniff around or eat sheep droppings, buy a different one because this behavior demonstrates a lack of concentration or confidence - both matters best dealt with by an experienced trainer.

Listen to the commands and whistles the handler is using on the dog. To make the changeover as smooth as possible, you'll need to replicate these as closely as possible. This can be trickier than you would imagine - sometimes a dog will ignore a whistle command which is made by his normal handler in the usual way but on a different whistle - so don't be surprised if it takes a while for your dog to understand what you're trying to tell it. Having said that, a keen dog will soon adapt to completely new commands if you give it a chance.

Feeding Your Dog.

Your sheepdog will be your friend and your pride and joy - so why go out of your way to feed it on the cheapest food you can find? Equally, don't take it for granted that the most expensive food is the best for your dog. In the UK, dog food which is manufactured for Working Dogs has no tax on it. Most farm feed suppliers will stock several brands of suitable food in large economical bags.

Protein level for sheepdogs.

I wasted most of a trial season with Glen, purely because the food I was feeding had far too much protein (28%). If your dogs regularly work from dawn 'till dusk, they'll need a high protein diet but otherwise, a good level is around 18 - 20% maximum. Glen (normally an easy dog to control) became increasingly erratic and hard to stop and it wasn't until someone asked what protein was in his food that we discovered the cause of the problem. It takes two weeks for a new protein level to take full effect. (The following season, Glen won a Novice Championship)!

Read the label to ascertain which food may best suit your dog. How much food you give your dog will depend on his size, condition and how much work he does. Follow the instructions on the feed bag but watch your dog carefully and if he puts on too much weight (we need our dogs to be really fit) cut back. Many people feed adult dogs once a day but we feed ours twice to break the day up a little more.

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Chappie! (Dog "Medicine")

Tip for Buying a Sheepdog:

Ask the sheepdog seller to demonstrate the whistle commands for you while you call your home or mobile voicemail service. This will allow you to record the whistle (and voice) commands so that you can practice them at home.

(Landline voicemail is usually saved for 30 days - mobile mail sometimes only 7 days).

We feed our dogs on dry food but if they get an upset stomach, we swear by tinned Chappie! It's like a medicine to them - and they love it! In the UK Chappie is cheap and widely available. Don't be tempted by any particular flavours, just get the plain, original tinned Chappie and it will do wonders for your dog's upset stomach. Chappie is low on protein though, so avoid feeding it to puppies for prolonged periods.

Provide clean fresh water for your dog.

It's essential to provide plenty of clean fresh water. Your dog will appall and disgust you by drinking the most revolting and unmentionable fluids but this doesn't mean you should skimp on clean water.

Herding sheepdog housing.

Outside or on your bed? Sheepdogs are amazingly tough creatures, many dogs have virtually no shelter at all - having to find a dry corner somewhere on the farm or maybe having an old steel drum as a shelter from the elements. As long as your Border Collie isn't in a draughty or damp place, you needn't worry too much about him being cold.

Collies will often lie outside in the dead of winter - especially if there's the remotest chance of a trip to the sheep. We used to take our dogs to their training in a small trailer because our field was several miles away. Given the chance, Glen would spend much of the day lying by the wheel of the trailer - sometimes with the snow drifting right over him (very worrying the first time I saw it).

Most handlers would rather give their animals something far better - and some straw or a fleece as added insulation in winter is ideal if the dog wants it but we've discovered over the years that dogs are often happier with no bedding, so we tend to give shavings to dogs which are on concrete and often no bedding to dogs which have a wooden floor to lie on.

Border Collies love to mix - they're pack animals but having started off with the opinion that we want our dogs to have lots of fun, we believe it concentrates a dog's mind if it's kept on its own. It can develop its own characteristics that way and not pick up too many vices from its room-mates.

A live-in dog's a companion and of course is likely to be house trained whilst a dog which lives in a shed outside can have its own space. If a session has ended badly, the dog can get away from you and relax. It's less likely to develop bad habits and possibly more likely to be confident enough to work further away from you. Wet and dirty dogs are not a problem if they live outside - sheepdogs smell! Temperature is a consideration. The dog which lives outside can adjust to the seasonal temperatures rather than being inside by the fire and then having to go outside into the freezing cold to work.

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We strongly recommend the 2xDVD set:

Sheepdog training DVD for beginners Sheepdog training DVD

"First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training"

for any beginner who wants to teach a dog how to gather, fetch and control sheep, and for trainers hoping to go on to higher levels such as sheepdog trials or flock work.

More DVD info   |   Buy it NOW   |   Back to top!


Routine and discipline.

It's important to do all you can to prevent the dog having access to sources of mischief - cars driving past, chickens, cats and other moving objects soon become 'quarry' for a keen young dog but if they're allowed to chase everything that moves, the chances are that sooner or later a passing car or squirrel will spoil a winning run for you when the dog takes his focus off the sheep for a moment to consider chasing or even watching such a distraction.

Normal playing such as with a ball or even digging will do no harm in moderation but it might be best to phase out the opportunities as the dog grows up. A very useful 'toy' is a large bone which will keep the dog occupied for many hours and do wonders for his teeth (and breath) at the same time. Beware of small bones, dogs can choke on bones which become stuck in the throat.

Border Collies and Car Chasing.

If your dog becomes addicted to car chasing, it's fairly easy to cure if he's young but you need to be vigilant. Every time you know there is a car coming, make sure you're near the dog and give him something else to do - even a small treat if you have to. Praise him if he obeys your request to come to you rather than chase the car. Shut the dog away from any access to cars or vehicles when you're not around.

Spend Time With Your Dog.

You would be advised to spend as much time as possible with your dog. The more he knows you, the more he'll bond and the better he'll work for you - for instance if your dog's used to being told to 'stay there' he'll know just what you mean when you finally get him to stop behind his sheep and then say 'stay there'.

Early Training Commands.

The basic commands generally used in sheepdog training are traditional. "Come-bye" tells the dog to move clockwise whilst "Away" means move anticlockwise around the sheep. If you have difficulty remembering which is which, try this . . . 'c' stands for "come-bye" and clockwise - while 'a' stands for "away" which is anti-clockwise! (Unfortunately, there are one or two small areas in the UK where the commands are the opposite way around)!

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"Lie down" means stop but as the dog gets more experienced, it's used in many different ways and can mean anything from stop or pause for a moment - to "don't do that" and much more. Some handlers insist the dog lies down when told to - in which case they normally use "stand" when they just want the dog to stop or slow down. "That'll do" tells the dog work has finished and he must come back to you. Other commands are "walk up" which means move towards the sheep. "Steady" and "Time now" - both meaning slow down or keep going slowly. Who said dogs aren't intelligent? It doesn't matter a hoot to the dog which words we use - we could say "lottery ticket" and as long as we were consistent, the dog would work out what we meant - but if you ever want to sell your dog, it might be difficult to explain to the next handler that he had to say "lottery ticket" if he wanted the dog to move clockwise around the sheep!

How do I train my herding sheepdog?

When you take your sheepdog pup to sheep for the first time, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that he'll behave just as it does at home. It's possible of course, but even if he did, very soon he would gain confidence and turn into a quite different creature altogether. Remember that once the dog's most basic instinct is aroused, it may want to trap the sheep and kill them. By starting the dog on sheep at an early age we can discourage this before it becomes a problem. Either way, it's up to you to stop this happening and to convince the dog that he's better off working for you than to his own agenda.

At first the dog will appear to completely ignore anything you say and any commands you try to give. He's not behaving badly - just following his instinct and as you appear to want to stop him doing what his ancestors have done for centuries he'll ignore you and carry on despite your 'interference'.

A dog which will lie down and then come to you without fail at home will almost inevitably ignore and humiliate you for his first few sessions with sheep. If you rant and rave at it, you'll simply make the job of convincing the dog it would be better off working for you far more difficult because you'll be confusing and frightening him. Better to stay calm and be persistent. It's unwise to have an audience at this early stage because inevitably, things will not go to plan and if you're embarrassed or feel humiliated in any way, it will not be helpful for you or your dog. Bring your friends and family along once you're able to reliably stop the dog!

Your dog will want to do as you say - and he'll hear every word you utter but his instinct will not allow him to obey you. Why should he? Any fool can see the sheep are getting away - just at the moment you're expecting him to lie down and be patted. If he can think, he'll be wondering what on earth you're playing at. But this is not the open plains of Siberia. The sheep will be there tomorrow and the day after.

Gradually the dog will begin to compromise. Whenever he's on your side of the sheep he'll hear growling and gruff commands (which he doesn't like) and he'll know that you're anxious - not pleased with him even though he really wants to please you. But what's this? When he's on the far side of the sheep from you, your voice is soft and friendly - just like it is at home when you're pleased with him. Obviously, you don't know the first thing about catching and killing sheep but OK, maybe he'll do as you say - not actually lie down as requested of course, but it will do no harm to stop for a moment - after all, he's confident he can handle the situation AND keep the peace with you at the same time.

This is the very moment when your dog begins to change into a sheepdog. It's often referred to as 'getting the stop'. From now on, you're on your way to training a sheepdog. Even if you've never done it before, within a few months you could have a dog which the majority of farmers will be envious of. A dog which will cause cars to stop on the road so that is occupants can watch as he confidently drives the sheep across a field. A dog which walkers will stop and watch as you practice penning or shedding before your next trial.

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Continue to encourage good work and discourage faults and your dog will soon realise that there are huge advantages to doing things your way. He'll get much longer sessions (reward in itself) and the work will become more interesting every day - longer outruns and more challenging problems to overcome. Instead of working despite you, he'll now be listening to your every word. You'll be able to whisper commands and they will be obeyed instantly because the dog will know that you're the pack leader and you know best (usually).

Now you'll begin to work as a team. And a very special team it will be indeed because both of you'll understand what the other is thinking. You'll find your dog doing what you were about to tell it to do - because he knows how your mind works and wants nothing more than to please you (and maybe he'll get a sheep for supper one day but somehow it's not so important these days).

Taking your dog to sheep for the first time.

When you take your dog to sheep for the first time, remember he'll only have a very short attention span - sometimes just a few seconds but more usually a few minutes.

If the dog runs around the sheep for a little while and then walks or runs away to do something else (often eating sheep droppings) it's a fairly reliable sign that he's tired or bored. Try to get his attention back on the sheep but don't persist. Better to stop the session for a while - maybe an hour or until the next day.

It's probably safest for novice handlers to teach the dog to lie down before they take it to the sheep. This does not mean that the dog will lie down at this time - it's highly unlikely that it will - but it should respond more quickly to 'lie down' if it know what you mean. Some trainers argue that teaching a dog to lie down before you take it to the sheep can teach it to focus its attention on you rather than the sheep. If I found my dog was more interested in me than the sheep, I'd get another dog.

If you take a novice dog to sheep and simply let him go, he'll respond to them in one of several ways. Some just lie down and stare but more usually, the dog will run towards the sheep and either straight through them or start to circle them. In the case of the dog remaining motionless and staring at the sheep, you'll need to run around them yourself. The movement of the sheep should eventually stir the dog into action.

After a little while, the dog reacts according to the way the sheep and handler move - so by positioning yourself carefully, you can have a great influence on the dog's next movement. By anticipating which way your dog and the sheep will move and giving the appropriate command at the right time, you'll encourage the dog to move in a certain way when you tell it to. What you should be doing is using the position of your body together with commands to help the dog control the sheep.

As a novice, you'll be surprised how your dog moves and even more surprised at the way in which the sheep move. An ideal way to learn how sheep will react to where you put your dog is to drive them yourself. This is only really practical in a fairly confined space but if you're able to practice driving sheep around (alone) you'll gain a wealth of valuable experience to help with dog training and especially handling.

A yard or very small paddock is ideal for the task. Once you have the sheep in it, you simply decide where you want the sheep to go and try to drive them there. Not as easy as it sounds I can assure you!

If you don't have anywhere suitable to practice this, you may be able to help a local farmer when he's moving his sheep. If not, study every sheepdog video you can, taking careful note of the reaction of the sheep to the dog and handler.

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A Supermarket Trolley?

Take my word for it that driving sheep is like pushing a loaded supermarket trolley. The thing seems to have a mind of its own. If you push it straight, it wants to go to one side or the other - likewise the sheep. If your trolley is determined to go to the left, you have to position yourself on its left-hand side and apply pressure diagonally to the right in order to keep it in a straight line. This is precisely what the dog has to do to balance the sheep.

The heavier the load in the trolley, the more determined it is to go the way it wants and the more pressure you have to apply - likewise 'heavy' and 'light' sheep. Heavy sheep try to ignore the dog and go the way they want. Light sheep run away from the dog if it gets anywhere near - so for the heavy sheep, your dog must be strong-willed and able to push them hard but for light sheep he needs to stay well back and apply the lightest of pressure.

The supermarket trolley is also like a bunch of sheep when you want to turn. If you try to twist the trolley in the direction you want to turn, you'll find it almost impossible but if for instance, you want to make a turn to the left, simply move yourself to the right and push - this is much like a dog flanking sheep and then walking up on them. One vital difference between the trolley and sheep is that if we want to stop the trolley, we can pull back on it. Of course, we can't do this with our woolly friends, so let's imagine we can't pull back on the trolley. We now have basically two ways of stopping it - we must either put something in front of it (again, impractical in the middle of a field) or we must run around to the front of the trolley and push it backwards. This is the most natural instinct of any border collie sheepdog (not pushing supermarket trollies) and you don't usually need to train it.

If the dog's going to work sheep, it will very quickly learn that to stop the sheep it must 'head' them. Of course, it won't actually lean on them in the way that we would stop a trolley but it will apply pressure to the sheep by simply getting in front of them. Bizarre though it may sound, you would be wise to familiarise yourself with these points before you even attempt to take your dog to sheep - but remember to return the trolley to the supermarket!

The whole business of introducing the dog to sheep can be altogether more dignified and controllable if you and the dog establish who is in charge and what the proceedure will be before you get there.

Rather than just taking the dog to the field and letting it go, we can introduce much more control by the use of a line. If you're going to use a long lead, make sure you wear gloves to prevent friction burns when you have to stop the dog and bear in mind that, unlikely though it is, there is a small possibity that a trailing cord or lead could snag on something and injure your dog. Don't use a trailing lead or cord unless you're prepared to take this risk.


We strongly recommend the 2xDVD set:

Sheepdog training DVD for beginners Sheepdog training DVD

"First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training"

for any beginner who wants to teach a dog how to gather, fetch and control sheep, and for trainers hoping to go on to higher levels such as sheepdog trials or flock work.

More DVD info   |   Buy it NOW   |   Back to top!


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The Magic Cord!

One of the most useful and important accessories for training a young dog is a piece of cord with a loop at each end. It should be approximately twice the length of a dog lead, fairly thick and preferably soft. Lambing ropes (available from agricultural suppliers) are ideal - strong, correct length, soft - and they have a smooth loop at each end which is very convenient for holding. Thread the cord through the dog's collar and hold both ends in one hand (I find that holding both loops on one finger makes it easier to release the dog smoothly). You then remove the dog's lead and walk out to the sheep using the cord.

Being on a lead has a psychological as well as a physical effect on dogs. Once they know they're on a lead they tend to act more calmly as they think it's useless to struggle. To release a dog from a lead, you have to bend down and unfasten some sort of catch or worse, slip a the lead over the dog' head. An excited young dog will struggle to get away making it harder to release the lead and generally causing a fracas.

The "Magic Cord"

This very simple but extremely useful accessory gives the handler control (and smooth release of the over enthusiastic dog) very quickly.

If the dog manages to escape, it's another nail in the coffin of your authority but by using the cord you can ease your grip on one end and the dog will not even know you have done it. Sending the dog off is then a much more dignified affair and the cord simply slips through the dog's collar as it rushes off. The magic chord will go a long way to prove to your dog that he MUST do things your way if he wants to work sheep. Another benefit of the cord is that it's small enough to hide in the palm of your hand. A young dog which is having great fun soon learns that the sight of a lead can signal the end of the session and will often prove difficult to catch but the cord can remain concealed until you have it attached to the dog's collar again.

Once the cord is attached to the dog and firmly held, start to walk out into the field. If he can see the sheep the chances are, the dog will be straining on the lead, desperate to get at the sheep. The dog will be frantically pulling and creating a stressful situation before you start, so tell him to 'lie down'. If he doesn't know what 'lie down' means, no matter, he'll have to stop because you'll pull back firmly but gently on the lead and stop him.

Continue walking towards the sheep and the dog will no doubt begin pulling again. Simply repeat the procedure, using a harsh voice until the dog obeys you, and then in a progressively softer voice when he's doing what you ask. If the dog really doesn't want to know, just walk him back the way you came (away from the sheep). It will be a little tedious but if you persist with this exercise it will dawn on Fido that he's not actually going to reach the sheep unless he does as he's told - so eventually, he'll accept that he's going to have to do what the idiot on the other end of the lead says, otherwise nobody will get lamb supper tonight.

Dogs can be amazingly quick learners - especially if they're desperate to get at sheep - so suddenly, you have a more dignified approach.

The advantages of this are enormous. Firstly, the sheep will be more relaxed. Imagine being out for a walk and you see someone walking towards you with a perfectly behaved dog on a lead. You'll not even give the matter a second thought. But now imagine if that person is struggling to restrain a snarling leaping, tooth-baring dog which is scrabbling to get at you. Even the most canine oriented of us would be a little worried and you can bet any sheep free to do so would have left the vicinity!

You're likely to get closer to the sheep if your dog's walking quietly beside you - even if his head's down and he's fixing his gaze on them like a heat-seeking missile! The closer you can get, the more chance you have of early success. The sheep are likely to stay close together and as your dog has learned to stop or lie down whilst he's in heat-seeking mode, there's a much greater likleyhood that he'll stop when you command him to. He's also far more likely to go around the sheep (rather than through them) if you can get close. In fact, a great many of the problems associated with training dogs for herding or sheepdog trials are caused by the handler not getting close enough to the sheep before sending the dog off to them.

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You can also use a line to control your dog if necessary. Having a similar effect on the dog as a cord, a long line is another very useful tool for dog training. Attach the line - approx 15 ft (4.5 mtr) to the dog's collar using a swivel hook and when you send him off simply release it. This is a remarkably good halfway point between actually holding a dog on a lead or cord and releasing him completely. The dog's aware of the line trailing behind him and (nearly always) moderates its behaviour somewhat. As a last resort really determined dog can normally be stopped if the handler gently treads on the trailing line as it speeds by but there is a possibility of injuring the dog if he's pulled-up too quickly. Whilst the line can be a great help, in my opinion, it's something best avoided if possible.

A novice handler is often over-cautious about the behaviour of a keen young dog, preferring to stop the dog at all costs but there is usually no need to worry. By carefully watching for the correct moment, young dogs can normally be stopped by command (eventually) and as long as they're causing the sheep no harm it doesn't hurt to let them run a little.

The trick is to watch carefully for the moment when the dog's wondering what to do next. It always happens sooner or later as the dog realises there is simply no point in charging round and round the sheep forever. Eventually it will stop and look around. This is your opportunity to give a sharp 'lie down' command. If you're lucky and have trained the dog to lie down before introducing it to the sheep, there's a good chance the dog will see this as the easiest option. If not, try again when it happens in a few minutes time. When the dog lies down immediately repeat the "lie down" command in a softer voice and keep repeating it - still softer and softer until you're whispering.

Derek Scrimgeour's Training Methods - Please Note:

Derek Scrimgeour is an outstanding national and international sheepdog handler.

Derek's training methods are highly successful and effective but different and at times, incompatible with our own.

If Derek's methods are used simultaneously with ours it may cause confusion for dog and handler.

This is a technique discussed in Derek Scrimgeour's book "Talking Sheepdogs. It's very effective. The harsh voice commands the dog to do whatever you're telling it to and the progressively softer voices reassure the dog it's done the correct thing. Repeating the gentle command also leaves the dog in no doubt that you want it to continue doing what it just did. If the dog gets up again before you tell it to, go back to the sharp command to emphasise that you're in command, not him. Again, gradually soften the command when the dog's doing as you tell it.

The secret of getting a good "stop" is
LET THE DOG GO !

It's vitally important that the dog learns that you're not necessarily stopping its game every time you tell it to lie down so, for a little while, be sure to reward your dog by sending it off again immediately it's stopped. A thousand voices will scream that this paragraph directly contradicts the practice of harsh voice commands followed by repeated softer voice commands. How can you repeat commands in a progressively softening voice if you also have to send the dog away immediately?

In reality you need to do both to begin with and you must decide for yourself which is appropriate at any given time. If you stop your dog and try to put him on a lead because it's taken ages to get him under control and now you're late for an appointment - the chances are, he'll dash away again anyhow. But if you stop your dog and immediately send him off again, he's more likely to stop for you next time. After a few halts and departures, it will be much easier to walk up to the dog and put the cord through his collar and coax him away from the sheep.

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Don't fall into the trap of thinking he'll stop as soon as things start going wrong. There is NO WAY he'll stop in 'mid flight' at this stage of his training - you must wait for him to pause or hesitate and then give a firm, sharp 'LIE-DOWN' but as soon as possible, avoid the harsh voice. Keep it in reserve for urgent situations!

Get as close to the sheep as you can before releasing the lead. Once your dog has run around the sheep for a while, you'll have observed his pattern of behaviour and can decide how to begin training. If the dog's mainly circling the sheep in a fairly calm manner, you're lucky. Simply encourage him to stay on the opposite side of the sheep to you by using really warm and friendly tones in your voice when he's in the right place and by growling or saying sharply 'Ahh-ah-ah' or similar when it comes round to your side. Don't be afraid to let the dog circle the sheep - it will knock the edge off his enthusiasm and energy - normally making the training session more controlled.

What you should avoid is the dog circling in one direction only. Make him go both ways around the sheep to prevent him becoming "handed" - a bad habit which can be hard to stop later on.

Encourage good work - such as giving the sheep room, rather than crowding in on them. When you see the dog's about to change direction, give the appropriate 'come-bye' or 'away' command in a really soft voice. Soon he'll begin to respond and you can occasionally give the command when you see the dog's undecided which way to move - if it goes the way you ask fairly consistently, you're getting control.

If the sheep are really 'flighty', your dog may have difficulty in 'heading' them - that is to say getting to a position in front and stopping them. If this is the case, build a circular pen out of hurdles or fencing. The easiest way to build a circular pen is to buy 25 to 30 sheep hurdles. These can be new from your local agricultural supplier or second hand from a farmer or a farm sale. If you go for the second hand option, make sure you know what you're buying as hurdles are invariably abused on farms and are useless if they don't fit together properly. There's a good deal of information about the use of hurdles on our DVD - First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training.

Build the pen close to the field's boundary fence so that you can open one or two hurdles out to meet the fence. This will make it quite easy to drive the sheep into the enclosure with your untrained dog on a long lead.

If you really can't get the sheep into the pen, leave a little food in a trough inside the enclosure each day. Soon you'll find that they come running when they see you arrive. You now have control! If you walk into the pen with some food, the sheep should follow you in and you can quickly close the gate - even better if a friend will close it for you. 'Sheep nuts' are readily available from agricultural feed merchants. Remember sheep don't like being near dogs so if you're trying to drive sheep into a pen, either have the dog well out of sight (and sound) or have him with you on a lead otherwise, he may be preventing the sheep from going where you want them.

If you have the hurdles opened out against the fence, drive the sheep along the fence and the hurdles will 'scoop' the m into the enclosure (at least that's the theory). If you put your dog on a lead and take him with you, it will make it much easier to drive the sheep into the enclosure and it will also make it much easier for him to understand what is going on when you start asking him to drive the sheep.

This is not a conventional method of teaching a dog basic driving but it works! While you're walking behind the dog, talk to him reassuringly and tell him to 'walk up' (or whatever request you intend to use for driving). As with all sheepdog training though, try not to overdo it as we are more interested in getting the dog to bring the sheep and hold them to you at this stage.

With the sheep in your 'stockade' you can now encourage your dog to circle around the outside as though he's holding the sheep to you. Ideally, you'll be moving around and trying to keep your dog on the opposite side from you and it does not matter whether you're inside or outside and for the time being, you can even stand in the middle of the sheep as long as you can encourage the dog to circle.

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As soon as you feel able, bring the dog into the hurdle ring and encourage him to hold the sheep to you whilst urging him to 'come bye', 'away' and 'stand' or 'lie down'. When you feel you're able to control the situation, try the same proceedure without using the ring. If chaos ensues, you can revert to the hurdles but hopefully, you'll find that your dog's responding better and controlling the sheep. This is a huge milestone. Once you can trust your dog to stop and send him into a flanking movement, he's really making progress.

* Whilst the sheep are in the circular enclosure they will begin to learn that the least stressful place to be is by you. Eventually, they will get this down to a fine art and it will become a nuisance by crowding around your legs. At this stage, your sheep are 'dogged' and you need to change them. Farmers are lucky as they're able to keep sheep of various stages of 'dog' and using the more dogged ones for training pups and the flightier ones for more experienced dogs.

If your dog insists on circling around the sheep - rather than stopping and going back the other way - don't worry, you have made a good start and if you persist with the soft pleased voice when the dog's on the opposite side of the sheep from you - and the growling, or hard voice when he's between you and the sheep, you should win in the end. You can emphasize your requests by walking towards the dog as it moves towards you.

If the dog's coming towards you in a clockwise direction, walk towards it saying 'away' in a gentle encouraging voice. If he ignores this you can bar his way with raised hands and of course there are other ways of discouraging him by shouting or even waving your arms but these would be last resort tactics - best avoided.

If you use the lambing rope, it seems to work very well if you fold it so that It's about 30 cm (1 ft) long and swing it around using just your wrist when you're walking towards the dog and want it to go back the other way - but your dog will know what you like and dislike by the tone of your voice and the way you move so there should be no need for much waving arms and running around. If you use these methods, you should try to phase them out at the earliest opportunity.

Aim to control your dog with your hands in your pockets as soon as possible as he must learn to concentrate on his sheep and obey audible commands rather than be looking at you for signals. It's most important to remember that the less pressure you put on your dog, the better at this very early stage. Far better to persevere with gentle encouragement than to start waving your arms or shouting so if you can stick with the early encouragement (and moving around) stages until they bear fruit, so much the better.

Try to remember, your dog's basic instinct is to stop the sheep. If you position yourself on the opposite side of the sheep from the dog, they should stop between you. If the dog moves towards you, you want to turn it back, so by walking towards it, you're putting yourself in front of the dog as a barrier - and as you're both now on the same side of the sheep they will start to move away - so the dog should turn and go to the front of them again. Once the dog's balancing the sheep to you, you can begin to stop it. This should be in an encouraging voice again - not too much pressure but be firm. We really want the dog to stop. Before you can get the dog to stop, it must feel that the sheep are under control.

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If your dog's charging at the sheep rather than circling, there is still no need to worry. Build the circular pen and put the dog on the outside of it as discussed earlier. If the dog's hard to catch, use the long lead so that you can tread on one end as the dog goes round and round. As you tread on the lead, call 'lie down' or 'stand' fairly hard. When the dog stops, repeat the command in a softer and softer voice. This shows the dog all is well and it's done the right thing (even though you gave it no choice!). It's important to release the dog and "shhhhh" it away again as soon as it's stopped - soon it will realise that 'lie down' or 'stand' does not mean the end of its fun - rather It's merely a pause. Persevere with the circular pen until you feel you're gaining control but aim to dispense with it as soon as possible to make the situation more realistic (and interesting) for all concerned. The same applies to the long string. If the dog's working well in the pen but the sheep are still wild, make the pen larger by using a fence (if you have one) as the one side. A hedge will probably not be suitable as sheep will be inclined to huddle against it rather than moving.

The larger pen will now be 'D' shaped rather than a circle. The larger the circle gets, the straighter the sides are and consequently the less stable the hurdles become so when you make the circle larger you'll need to knock some posts or strong pegs in to support the hurdles. If you don't know how to go about this, It's best to get help from someone who has experience - such as a sheepdog trialler or farmer.

Remember - whatever problem you're having with your dog, you should be able to cure it. Think carefully about the problem - why the dog's doing it and how you can change the training routine to correct it. Sometimes the dog will simply be using its own initiative to try to help you. For instance, if you stop him with the intention of stopping the session, he'll not (necessarily) know this and as you walk towards him he may dash off towards the sheep again. This does not mean he's misbehaving - more likely he's trying to prevent the sheep escaping.

Once your dog becomes more skilled, you'll be amazed how intelligent he is. He'll know from the tone of your voice or whistle whether he should actually lie down, just stop, or even check his pace for a moment - but this will develop gradually. For now, he must lie down when you give the command. Keep commands simple for now and you'll reap the rewards later.

Dog Gripping or Biting the Sheep.

Normally, gripping is a simple matter of the dog pulling at the wool but if not checked, it can become more agressive and dogs can easily pull large sheep to the ground. This is a very bad habit and is to be strongly avoided of course.

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It's best cured whilst the dog's young and before it can cause harm to the sheep. For this reason (and the fact that It's an aggressive act) there is a lot of emotion attached to gripping. Trainers and handlers tend to panic when it happens - often making the problem worse because a dog grips when It's nervous, confused, excited or frightened - so if you chase after it screaming your head off or even worse, I have heard of someone using a horse whip on a dog which was (and still is at the time of writing) a persistent gripper.

My first dog Dot was a gripper. Fortunately, she's small and was young at the time, so she couldn't do any harm but I was so horrified at what she was doing that I eventually telephoned the man I bought her from and asked him to have her back. He said he would, but added that it really wasn't a major problem and that if I was more relaxed about it Dot would stop. The next day, I took Dot to the sheep and when she gripped, I growled at her but immediately gave her a reassuring 'come bye'. She gripped once or twice more in that session and I reacted in a similar way. Within two or three days, Dot had stopped gripping. The man was right. If your dog grips, better even to ignore it and give encouragement than to make a big fuss. The reason for this is that the dog which grips is off-balance mentally at the time, and screaming and shouting will generally only make matters worse.

Watch any trial. Gripping will normally result in disqualification but if you watch closely, it always happens when something goes wrong. A sheep dashing away from the group is a favourite - particularly during penning or shedding when the dog's physically and mentally tired after completing an arduous course.

If your dog has a tendancy to grip, you're probably pushing it too hard. Try to make work easier for the dog. Be more clear and encouraging. Talk to your dog as much as you can. If you're talking in a soft, reassuring voice, he's far less likely to grip. Watch him closely, does he grip at a particular time or after a certain move' If so, try to avoid that move for a while. If you try the laid-back approach and it doesn't work, you must obviously act quickly to stop the dog gripping. If you're a beginner or not sure of yourself, get help immediately. There are plenty of trainers and handlers who will offer you advice or you can go to a sheepdog training clinic.

For a small fee, they have the experience to sort the problem out while the dog's young. If you have an older dog which grips, the problem is more urgent but should be treated in the same way. Most importantly, the dog must not harm the sheep. If you cannot stop your dog gripping and harming the sheep, you must keep him away from them and get help or even sell the dog to someone capable of curing the problem. NEVER sell a dog with a serious grip without telling the buyer.

Sheepdog "Eye".

If the dog's standing or even lying down and staring at the sheep as though it's in a trance, rather than moving, this is called 'using eye'. Eye is a great asset for controlling sheep but too much of it means the dog stops responding to commands. If the dog uses "eye" at this stage, you should be moving the sheep around for it. He cannot "eye the sheep" if they've moved, and will eventually start responding again. If dog and sheep are away from the edges of the field, try walking away. The dog naturally wants to bring the sheep to you, so if you walk away, he will get up and push the sheep towards you.

Whatever problems you encounter, you should believe in yourself and your dog. As long as you're realistic and not kidding yourself that the dog has learned something when it hasn't. Lie down should mean just that - every time. If you let the dog get away with not stopping, you're making problems for yourself. Better to stop teaching anything new until he responds every time.

If you can't stop your dog, It's difficult to progress with its training anyway - so be sure to get this right. Trainers have eyes too - and although we can't move sheep with them, fixing your glare deep into your dog's eyes whilst snapping out a sharp command can often work wonders. Hold up your hands or even point a stick straight towards the dog - eventually, he'll get the message but bear in mind that eye and hand signals are to be used as little as possible.

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Make it clear to him that you're in charge and that the fun will stop if he doesn't do as you say. You may think he doesn't need you for his fun to continue but if he won't stop doing something or other, walk away - even out of the field - and preferably without looking back! Usually the dog will continue for a few moments and then when he realises he's alone he'll come running. I have seen dogs almost panic-stricken when the trainer has walked off. Never leave a dog alone with sheep though!

Teach Your Dog to Drive.

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 proceedure.

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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The Sport of Sheepdog Trials.

The body which controls sheepdog trialling is the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS). Various types of trials take place throughout the UK and internationally. UK trials are as follows:
Nursery
Taking place mostly during the winter months, these trials are intended for dogs which are fairly competent but which need more experience. Nursery trials can be an excellent way of widening a dog's horizons and ironing out any faults which appear during a competition. Dogs which are perfect at home are often disappointing when they sense the occasion of a trial. I should point out that just because the trial is called "Nursery" doesn't necessarily mean the course will be any easier than a Novice or even an Open trial. The outrun is often just as long and the sheep are just as difficult. The competing dogs must be inexperienced to qualify and the rules are normally somewhat relaxed, so that where a handler and dog might be expected (or told by the judge) to retire in a more senior trial, everyone tends to turn a bit of a "blind eye" to semi-disasterous runs in "The Nurseries".

Novice.
Novice trials usually run concurrently with Open trials. If your dog has not won a novice trial you can run in the novice class and stand a better chance of doing well than you will in the open class.

Open.
Open trials which have more than 25 runners are eligible for points which go towards qualifying for the National Trials. By definition, they're open to allcomers and you could find yourself competing with top handlers in these competitions.

National.
Top competitors from each country compete in their own trial to pick a national team which can then compete in the International.

International.
Despite the introduction of the World Trial, the International is still regarded as "the big one"! Every year, the teams from the competing countries get together at a venue in one of the countries to hold the trial with the highest status of regularly run trials. The competition is a team event but the individual winner holds the title of Supreme International Champion. A bone of contention among triallers is that there are so many competitors in the national trials that the organisers restrict them to a single gather - that is to say the dog has to fetch and control a single bunch of sheep. In the International Trial, the dogs have to gather a bunch of sheep and bring them to a point on the field where they then 'look back' for a second bunch which it gathers to the first lot. Theoretically, you could qualify for the National team without having taught your dog to do a vital part of the International course!

World Trial.
This event was first held in 2002 at Bala in North Wales. Bala was the venue for the first sheepdog trial ever to be held in 1873.

What happens at a sheepdog trial and why?

Most trials in the British Isles are run to similar format. The handler and dog stand at a post at one end of the course and sheep are held in a 'release pen' at the other. The course itself can be on anything from a flat field to the side of a mountain.

On a signal to the 'letters out' three or four sheep (more in major competitions) are released and quietly encouraged to move to a peg a few yards away. The idea is that the sheep stay by the peg although nobody has yet found a way of telling them.

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When the handler feels ready, the dog's sent off on its 'outrun' - usually with a gentle Shhhh or softly spoken command. One or two judges are normally in a car or trailer a few yards behind and slightly to one side of the handler at the post. It's their job to watch every run of the day and mark them accordingly.

The dog should run out wide to the left or right (never down the middle) of the course and carry on to a position behind the sheep without disturbing them. It should then lie down or at least pause before moving up to collect or 'lift' the sheep and move them steadily towards the handler on the 'fetch'.

The judges will be looking for straight lines and the dog's general management of its charges. The dog should bring the sheep through the 'fetch gates' which consist of two gates placed a few yards apart approximately halfway between the peg and post. The handler is not allowed to leave the post until later. If he does, he's deemed to have retired from the run.

Once the sheep are through the fetch gates, the dog continues to bring them towards the handler and then behind and around him - left or right will be declared before the competition be gins. They continue around behind the handler and then back to face down the course again until they're heading towards another set of gates - again to left or right depending on the earlier decision.

This stage is called the 'drive'. The sheep should go through these first 'drive gates' and then be turned across the field towards the corresponding gates on the opposite side of the course. This stage is called the 'cross drive'.

Once again, it should be calm and positive with the dog in control of the sheep and as little deviation from a straight line as possible. Once through these last drive gates, the dog turns the sheep back toward the handler and they're brought to a circle in front of the post which is called the 'shedding ring'.

At this point, the handler is allowed to leave his post and walks into the ring to meet the sheep. Shedding consists of a given number of sheep being separated from the bunch and held apart from them until the judge is satisfied the shed has bee n done properly. They're then re-united with the others and the dog brings them to the 'pen' which is a small enclosure with a gate at the one end. The handler has to open the gate and control it with a 1.8 mtr rope. He must not let go of the rope nor must he use the gate to help pen the sheep. Once the sheep are penned, the gate is closed marking the end of the run.

Neither dog nor handler are allowed to touch the sheep at any time. If the dog bites or 'grips' the sheep it's disqualified. If the course is designated a 'right-hand drive' this means the sheep must be brought to the left of the handler at the post and driven away to the right-hand pair of drive gates. If any sheep miss the gates, (the very thought . .) the drive must continue without trying again and once the sheep are in the shedding ring they should not stray out of it until shedding is complete.

As soon as the run is complete (or the handler and dog have retired or run out of time) the sheep must be taken off the course and to the 'exhaust pen' by the dog. On occasions there might be a dog assigned to this duty but It's frowned upon if you just walk off the field, so best assume it's your job until you see another dog obviously doing the work for you.

Trials are run in this way to simulate as closely as possible the sort of work a dog's expected to do on the farm. The 'outrun' is obviously to gather the sheep from the field or side of a mountain. Often several dogs work together on a farm to gather many hundreds of sheep for various operations such as shearing, foot care or sorting lambs to go to market.

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The lift is really a highlight on the dog's working technique. Not too many farmers spend a lot of time worrying if the sheep moved or were disturbed by the dog approaching but it's good practice to encourage the 'lift' to be smooth and orderly. The straighter the dog brings the sheep to the handler, the quicker the job will be done so a straight 'fetch' is essential - besides, farmers love things to be in straight lines - have you ever heard the ribbing a farmer gets from his neighbours if his ploughing has the slightest curve in it'.

The job is neat and tidy if the sheep are taken round behind the handler - nice and close without overshooting the line for the first 'drive gates' and neat turns and straight lines are tops right through to the 'shedding' ring. This is one of the most important operations. The art of sorting sheep in the field. At larger trials, the sheep to be shed off are marked with collars. This is much more realistic as the farmer or shepherd would want to take certain animals away and leave others. Much more difficult of course.

Lastly, we reach the pen. This speaks for itself as you have to get sheep into some sort of enclosure to hold them in one place. To make life a little easier for young dogs, shedding is not normally required at Nursery Trials.

Words and meanings used in sheepdog training.

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for any beginner who wants to teach a dog how to gather, fetch and control sheep, and for trainers hoping to go on to higher levels such as sheepdog trials or flock work.

More DVD info   |   Buy it NOW   |   Back to top!


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