Choosing between a started or partly trained sheepdog.
Buying a partly trained dog's a very popular way of shortcutting the long process of getting from puppy to working stage.
The most difficult stage of training is getting control initially, so when you buy a started dog, the worst has already been done. 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.
Sheepdog auctions are popular in the UK these days, but if you're considering buying a dog at auction, bear in mind the risks involved. To date, we have not heard of an auction which provided for the return of a dog which doesn't meet expectations, so you may be stuck with whatever you buy. Bear in mind also, that a good trainer can make a mediocre dog look excellent to a beginner. If you buy from a reputable trainer, they will give you a period during which you can return the dog if it doesn't suit you - and on The Working Sheepdog website, we offer a thirty day "no-quibble" money-back guarantee with every dog we sell - so proceed with caution.
On the other hand, once it's settled into its new home and bonded with you (a process which can take several weeks, or even months with older dogs) a partly trained dog should be able to gather the sheep for you more or less straight away (depending on the level of training it's reached).
Once the dog's settled in, you'll be able to advance its training fairly quickly. The more dogs learn, the easier it seems to teach them new skills. A partly or even more highly trained dog is ideal for a busy farmer unless training sheepdogs 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, give the sheep more room, or do a proper outrun.
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.
Don't worry too much if the dog's not very controllable when it's further away from the handler. At this stage, it’s natural for the dog to resort to its own agenda when it’s working at a distance and it will improve as the dog's confidence grows.
Do take note though, of how far away from the handler the dog will work efficiently. Until it settles in and bonds with you, it’s unlikely that the dog will work for you at this distance initially - so be patient with a new dog.
Is the dog happy to come away from the sheep when the handler calls it? If it doesn't, further training will be much harder for you until you can reach that stage.
Equally, you don't want the dog to be too keen to come away from the sheep. If it is, it's clearly not enjoying it's work. When it's called away from sheep, the dog should obey, perhaps a little reluctantly, and it should be keen to get back to them.
Does the dog move around the sheep in a smooth and workmanlike manner, or is it bouncing around rather like a dog which is playing? Is the dog too fast for you - does it rush around and startle the sheep?
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, it's going to be hard to train - leave it to an expert.
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 or excited. It may well settle down, but it might be difficult to train in the meantime - perhaps best left to an expert.
Tip for Buying a Sheepdog:
If the dog you're buying is on whistle commands, ask the sheepdog seller to demonstrate them while you record the sounds with your mobile phone. This will enable you to practice at home.
Record whistle commands from some distance away, as the sound level is very high and will distort horribly if you're too close. If possible, do a quick test and listen to it before you start recording the commands properly. If you wrap the recording device in a handkerchief it will help to reduce wind noise.
If you can't record directly to your phone, call your home or mobile voicemail service and record onto that. (In the UK, landline voicemail is usually saved for 30 days - mobile mail sometimes only 7 days).
Try to decide who the dog's working for. Is he working for the handler or for himself? This is important. If the dog is pleasing itself, again, it will be harder to train.
If the dog stops concentrating on the sheep and starts to sniff around or eat sheep droppings, buy a different one because this behaviour 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.
It's worth considering accents too. If the seller has a strong regional accent which is different to yours, the dog won't have a clue what you're trying to tell it at first, but having said that, a keen dog will soon adapt to completely new commands if you give it a chance.
I like a started dog to stop reasonably well behind the sheep, circle and keep them together IN BOTH DIRECTIONS, rather than split them up, and hopefully be capable of a short outrun (say thirty or forty metres or so) without crossing over.
The started dog should be totally focussed on the sheep and enthusiastic in its work but not wildly fast or aggressive (I don't mind the occasional tug at the sheep's wool at this stage but it shouldn't be excessive). When commanded, it should resign itself to coming away from the sheep, but be keen to get back to work. If a dog shows these traits, it should be easy to train on to a higher level.