New Tutorial: Sheep – Essential Facts for Beginners

The title image for our sheepdog training tutorial. Showing seven sheep in a line near a hedge.

Understanding sheep and their behaviour makes training your dog far easier

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the release of our double DVD set "First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training", we're busy updating it in anticipation of releasing a second, even more comprehensive version in the near future.

A useful spinoff of this is that as each "First Steps" chapter is somewhere near completion, we can add it to our Sheepdog Training Tutorials Library so that our full members can benefit from the advice.

First steps in border collie sheepdog training dvd

Full members will know that we've already uploaded "Sheepdog Selection and Preparation" and "The Sheepdog Whistle" and now we're pleased to be able to tell you the chapter "Sheep - Essential Facts for Beginners" is available in the Tutorials Library.

As the title suggests, Sheep - Essential Facts for Beginners is packed with useful information which is not often available to those training a sheepdog for the first time.

As well as showing what sort of sheep are best for training, and which to definitely avoid, there's advice on the legal side of sheep keeping, and how you might find a training ground if you don't already have one.

There's advice on the behaviour of sheep, too - it's extremely useful to know when sheep are likely to stay in a neat bunch and when they're probably going to make a run for it at high speed!

Whether you already have sheep but perhaps don't understand why they behave the way they do, or you're thinking about training a dog and simply wondering how to go about it, you'll find some essential information in this "new" video tutorial.

Watch the video below for more information on our sheepdog training tutorials.

Pippin – Super Little Sheepdog and Super Mum!

Smooth coated border collie Pippin's doing really well in her new home.

Great things come in small packages!

"Hi Andy. Just to let you know the dogs have settled in lovely. Pippin is already working groups of 300 ewes like she has been doing it for years. Thanks again. Brilliant dogs."

Smooth coated border collie puppy Phiz
Phiz very much takes after her mother Pippin.

This was the text message I received a few days ago from Pippin's new owner. It's always a great relief when we get a message like this, because some dogs take longer to settle into a new home than others and of course, not all dogs suit their new owners.

From the day we collected her as a somewhat nervous eight week old puppy, we've been very fond of Pippin. Gradually her confidence grew and although still remarkably small for a border collie, she showed signs of being a courageous dog. When she began working, the sheep showed her great respect.

Happily, Pippin produced and reared a (small) litter of lovely pups before she moved to her new home, and now these too are proving remarkably like their mum in terms of their courage-to-weight ratio.

Smooth coated border collie puppy Boz
If you can tell which is Boz and which is Phiz from the front, you're doing well! (Mew and Maddie in the background).

Phiz very much takes after her mother. At around twelve weeks, she's only showing a very casual interest in sheep at the moment, but we're optimistic that she'll be fine.

She absolutely adores playing with toys, particularly bouncing balls, so she's going to be just fine here.

Little Boz is a great chap, too. He shows a little more interest in the sheep than his sister Phiz, and every bit as much courage. Sadly we won't be able to keep him in the long term, but I'd like to get him at least partly trained before he goes to a new home.

The Sheepdog Whistle. Tune-in With Our Training Tutorials!

How to teach your herding dog to work on whistle commands

Watch the "Sheepdog Whistle" tutorials to get your dog moving

There are some common misconceptions about whistles and sheepdogs. The first, and very common, is that you must have a shepherd's whistle to train and work a sheepdog - you don't. If you have only a few sheep, and a relatively small area in which to keep and work them, you might never need to use a whistle at all.

Cover image of our sheepdog whistle tutorial, showing a typical whistle, and the title

Dogs' hearing is far better than ours, and although your dog might appear not to hear you on occasions (mentioning no names - KAY) unless you're working over 150 metres away, or shouting into a strong wind, the chances are that your dog's perfectly aware of your commands.

An important part of basic training is to use a soft voice to tell the dog you're pleased when it's working well, and a sharper voice to let the dog know you're not pleased when it's working badly. It's extremely difficult to express how you feel, by blowing a whistle!

Secondly, less common but still surprisingly frequent, is the belief that, in some spooky way, a collie is "wired" to understand and obey a whistle without any training. I can only imagine that this was born out of watching "One Man and His Dog" on TV. Of course the huge majority of sheepdog triallers, even at Nursery level, use a whistle, but the whistle commands have to be taught just as do any other commands in any other discipline.

Thirdly, that it's a challenge to blow a sheepdog whistle, but it's not challenging, exactly, any more than playing the trumpet is challenging. Blowing a sheepdog whistle simply involves learning a technique and then practising - far away from your dogs and your loved ones.

The final, fourth, misconception is that teaching whistle commands to your dog is difficult, but there's no reason why teaching whistle commands should be any more difficult than teaching voice commands.

Andy prepares to work sheepdog Bronwen on whistle commands

For anyone who's contemplating using a sheepdog whistle, and doesn't know where to start, or who's hoping to train whistle commands to their dog, we have two tutorials in the Online Training Tutorials library that will be a huge help. In "The Sheepdog Whistle" Andy demonstrates a tried and tested technique to get you blowing your whistle in minutes.

Once you can make a sound, any sound, you'll find you quickly improve and can begin to invent your own whistle commands (or copy someone else's, of course). This tutorial's had lots of positive feedback from people who've finally discovered the key to their whistle - sometimes after years of trying and failing.

"Teach Your Dog Whistle Commands" shows you that it'll be harder to learn to blow your whistle than to teach the commands to your dog. Andy explains two methods of teaching the commands so you can pick whichever seems more natural to you. "Teach Your Dog Whistle Commands" has been greatly revised since it first appeared in the online tutorials library. It now includes a training session where Andy teaches Bronwen to work on whistle commands.

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Fifteen years ago these two changed our lives

Close-up photo of two very smiley sheepdogs Glen and Dot, in the back seat of a car.

Little did we know what was around the corner!

This photo of Dot and Glen in the boot of Gill's car, after a January training session, brought memories flooding back to us. Once Dot (left) and later Glen came along, our sheepdog training took on a much more serious and informed nature.

Four Border Collie Sheepdogs in a snow covered yard
(Left to right) Dot, Reiver, Mossie and Hattie

Gill and I had been living here at Kings Green Farm for a shade over a year. Dot had come into our lives at our previous home, and was an excellent farm dog, but as I was finding it hard to train her for sheepdog trials we bought Glen. He'd been successful in East of England nursery trials and we felt he'd help us to move things along in competitions.

He certainly did that. After a fairly lengthy settling-in period - he was four when we bought him, and older dogs take much longer to settle in with their new owners than puppies or young dogs do - Glen was quite successful in both novice and open trials.

He also proved that shortcuts in sheepdog training are of limited use. To get the best out of a sheepdog you really do need to understand dogs and how (and why) they work. You also need to know a surprising amount about sheep behaviour, and how they react to dogs. I wasn't aware of any it at the time, while Glen's experience and good nature were hiding my incompetence as a sheepdog handler.

Close up photo of a rough coated border collie sheepdog working very close to some sheep
Glen was very stylish! This photo appeared on our training DVD First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training.

Glen had a completely different nature to Dot. He was very steady and reserved, while Dot's approach could be fast and aggressive. Studying the two of them led me to realise that, although the basic principles are the same when you train a sheepdog, to get the very best out of your dog you need to understand your dog's nature. Every dog is different.

Once I understood this I learned to assess each dog's strong and weak points, and train them accordingly. A dog like Glen needed a gentle approach and lots of encouragement to increase his confidence, whereas Dot would interpret a polite, gentle word from me as license to carry on at top speed! I found that if I was firm though, she respected it. My ideas worked time and time again with other dogs, and they obviously work for others too because, quite soon, I gave up my work as a commercial photographer to concentrate on our growing pack of dogs and running the website.

Gill noticed that I had something to offer novice trainers, and encouraged me to make a DVD about training sheepdogs. First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training was born!

After I'd spent a year or two of running the website, while juggling with increasing DVD sales, training our own dogs, and holding regular training courses, Gill left her full-time job as editor of an industrial magazine, to work with the dogs too. Not long after we began uploading tutorial videos to the internet so that people could watch them online. The tutorials have proved to be popular too, so Gill and I have been able to work together ever since!

What a huge change Dot and Glen brought about!

Sometimes I Really Miss Carew!

Sheepdog Carew standing on a tree stump - looking wonderful!

Since Carew left here, Kay's hearing has deteriorated badly, and occasionally we're stuck for a skilled dog

It's hard to believe that it's nearly two years since Carew left here and to be honest, there have been a few occasions when I've wished she was still here. One such occasion was only a week or so ago.

Our landlord John needed to move some very lively sheep from a field where one of the boundaries was a steep-sided brook with a dense wood on the other side. John warned me that the sheep were likely to "take fright" and disappear into the depths of the wood when they saw the dog, so I was keen to make sure they didn't.

sheepdog bringing about fifteen sheep towards the camera
Quietly in control as always! Carew brings a small bunch of sheep

Since Carew left here, my natural first choice for any difficult work like this has been Kay, but Kay's hearing has deteriorated so much recently that she works purely on instinct. I can only give her commands when she's very close. I've had limited success with hand signals, but of course, they depend on the dog looking towards you, and when Kay's concentrating hard, she's not looking at me, she's looking at the sheep!

Once Kay's more than thirty metres away from me, I can shout for all I'm worth but she can't hear me, so for this tricky work, I decided to take the young Odo with me instead. Poor Odo has been 'sold' twice, but he was returned to us on both occasions. The first time was when his owner couldn't get him to jump into the car (can you believe it?). We actually used Odo to make a training tutorial about it, to show others what to do if they get the same problem. The second time he came back to us was (I think) because the farmer's other dogs didn't like him. Either way, I was happy to buy Odo back. We're very fond of him, and he has great potential, but he lacks experience of "proper" farm work.

Sheepdog Kay awaits her next command
Kay would have been my first choice but I no longer have any control over her when she's more than a few yards away

We've got other dog's coming along nicely of course. Another of Kay's daughters, Maddie, shows great promise. She has a lovely pace, stops well (most of the time) and she's got plenty of confidence to push stubborn sheep. For this job though, I thought Maddie's lack of experience and her somewhat over-enthusiastic approach might be a problem. The same goes for Pippin, Mew and Jago. All are showing great potential, but lacking experience.

Much as my instinct was telling me Kay would be the safer choice, I felt I couldn't risk using her because although she has a fabulous outrun (just what was needed on this occasion) if things went even slightly wrong, I'd have no control over her at all. If Kay knows where you want the sheep to be, such as when she's working at home, she's unbeatable, but on new ground, she sometimes misunderstands what I want and I struggle to direct her.

Photo of Maddie lying in the grass looking very confident and pleased with life!
Maddie will be a natural first choice when she's a little more experienced

It also occurred to me that if Kay went chasing off into that wood and couldn't hear me, it could literally take hours to find her again!

My next choice would have been Jet, but she was heavily "in season" at the time and sometimes hormones can affect the work of female sheepdogs. If Jet's anything like her mother Kay (when Kay was younger) this could adversely affect her work.

These sheep needed a gentle, controlled touch. Carew would have been "in her element" with them, but she's not here.

Next choice was Odo, but it was risky because he'd only been back here for a few days, and he'd never worked in this field before, or with these particular sheep. What's more, I had only worked Odo for a very few minutes since he came back to us. It was a gamble, but I decided to go for it because Odo had been such a good worker before he left here.

It was a bad decision. Odo hadn't had time to re-settle with us.

Odo controlling sheep near some trees
Odo's sheep control is excellent.

When we reached the field, the sheep were in the worst possible place, right next to the brook at the bottom of the field. Odo has a pretty good outrun, so I guessed that would go reasonably well, but I wasn't sure I could stop him at that distance. If you can't stop the dog at the end of it's outrun, you should shorten the outrun to a suitable distance and if the dog stops well, gradually increase the distance. The closer you are to the dog, the more control you have over it - but that's when the dog's in training. This was farm work, and it was skilled farm work which Odo wasn't ready for. Although I could have walked down the field to get closer before I sent him off, the sheep were already looking uneasy. Our approach might provoke them to pop over the brook and into the wood.

Jet's a smooth coated prick-eared border collie sheepdog
With hindsight, I should have used Jet after all. I'm sure she'd have been fine!

I decided to trust Odo's outrun, and sure enough, he went out beautifully wide, but he was excited and clearly going too fast. Because the sheep were tight against the boundary, once he reached the brook on his outrun, he had to follow it. This meant he was coming straight at the sheep, and worse, I couldn't slow him down. He brought most of the sheep away from the brook and into the field well, but on occasions like this, most is not good enough. Two of the sheep dived over the brook and into the wood, and thick with undergrowth as it was, I couldn't get Odo to go in after them. Sadly, John and I made the decision to abandon the task and let the sheep settle for a few days.

I'll use Jet next time. She's got a good outrun, and I'm pretty certain she'd have gathered all of those sheep cleanly. I worked her the next day and her hormones weren't affecting her work at all. Poor Odo did his best but he was too excited. He went too fast, and too straight. He needs more work so that when he goes out it's not such a novelty.

Too Many Puppies in One Bed!

Photo of ten or more puppies crowded into a bed. Nearly all of the pups are looking towards the camera and looking bright and cheerful!

Lots of memories, but was it really six years ago today?

We couldn't resist showing you this photo of a whole bunch of puppies crowded into one bed! There are lots of fond memories here for us - and it's a lovely picture too!

  • Audrey - "Calm But Firm"
  • Dulcie - "Get off the Fence"
  • Gloria - "Educating Gloria"
  • Rita - "Give the Sheep Space"

The pair at the front left are Dulcie (tricolour) and Gloria, who both showed great potential as sheepdogs, then there's a pup with its tongue out who's name escapes me, and Audrey, the red and white one on the right. Dulcie, Gloria, Audrey and Rita (behind Dulcie and Gloria) all feature heavily in our sheepdog training tutorials.

Most of the pups went on to be sheepdogs or agility dogs.

New Tutorial: Starting a Non-Starter!

Photo of a border collie clambering through a fence to get away from the sheep in the background

A TWO-PART tutorial on how you can tempt your dog to start working sheep or cattle when it really doesn't want to!

Can anything be done if your collie isn't interested?
The short answer is "Yes!" and understanding the possible reasons why the dog won't work is a huge help to finding the cure.

It's very disappointing to find that your dog doesn't seem to want to work sheep or cattle, but it doesn't necessarily mean you won't be able to change its mind. As with most aspects of training dogs to work stock, if you understand what's happening and why, there's a much better chance of putting things right.

Photo of Slawek with Kay who didn't want to work sheep but then went on to win a sheepdog trial
Slawek's Kay wasn't at all interested in working sheep but went on to win a sheepdog trial within a year!

Our latest tutorial, Starting a Non-Starter, looks at how the hunting instinct gives us a working dog, and how that very instinct may be the reason why some dogs would rather not get involved.

On the other hand, by simulating a hunting situation we can trigger the instinct and, once that's done, you're on your way to a useful sheepdog. Simple, isn't it?

Starting a Non-Starter will not only help you get your non-starter started, it will also help you avoid the situation arising in the first place. Once you're aware of how collies learn you'll see how, despite your best intentions, what they learn isn't always what you thought you were teaching.

Collies take things literally, and that's both an advantage and disadvantage when it comes to training.

If your young dog doesn't want to work, the two-part Starting a Non-Starter is the place to start.

Follow this by watching Starting a Reluctant Dog, where we see Maisie overcoming her initial inhibitions to begin to work fluently around the sheep. Calm but Firm demonstrates the next step, working with a sensitive dog in the open field - not always as straightforward as you might hope.