Sheepdog Training 23 – Traditional Sheepdog Commands

Keep your early commands to a minimum - you can introduce more later.

Fen takes her sheepdog commands seriously - here she's going "Away"

Visit our Sheepdog Terminology page for a comprehensive list of traditional sheepdog commands and the language used by shepherds, sheep farmers and sheepdog trials competitors.

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 but the vast majority of handlers use "come bye" when they want the dog to go clockwise around the sheep.

"Lie down" means stop but as the dog gets more experienced, it's used in many different ways and can mean anything from stop, slow down or pause for a moment - to "don't do that" and much more. Fortunately, sheepdogs are very intelligent and they are perfectly capable of learning what you mean by the situation they face, and the tone of your voice.

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 must say "lottery ticket" if he wanted the dog to move clockwise around the sheep!

In practice, border collies in particular are so intelligent they can quickly sort out what you want. I once bought a young dog which had been trained using "come bye" for anticlockwise. I decided to see whether I could change her back to the more popular way, and it only took two lessons of around fifteen minutes each before she was fluently using her flanking commands the way I wanted - but I recommend you keep the different commands you use to a minimum in the early stages of training, to avoid confusing the young trainee dog.

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2 Replies to “Sheepdog Training 23 – Traditional Sheepdog Commands”

  1. Why does Come-bye mean Clockwise and Away mean Anti-clockwise? i.e. what is the history behind it, please? I know Come-bye is effectively “Come By Me” and Away is “Away to me”… but how did that translate to the clock motions? Cheers

    1. Come-bye“and “Away to me” are simply traditional commands that have been used by shepherds and sheep farmers for many years. As far as I know there’s no particular association involved, in fact in some regions of the UK, the direction of the dog’s travel varies but in the majority of cases “Come-bye” means the dog should travel around the sheep in the clockwise direction (or to the dog’s left).
      I encourage novice trainers to think in terms of a clock face, rather than “left” or “right” because although the direction is the same for the dog, when the dog is on the opposite side of the sheep to the handler, novice handlers often get muddled, because of course, the dog’s left becomes the handler’s right.
      Sheepdog commands don’t have to actually mean anything. A great many farmers and shepherds simply tell their dog to “get out” or “get bye”, and they leave it to the dog to choose which way it wants to go. It’s really only the serious handlers and more especially sheepdog trial competitors who require greater consistency and precision in their dog’s work, who insist on fixed commands having a fixed result.

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