Training a sheepdog isn’t always as straightforward as you’d think
Nell’s our latest work in progress. She’s been here for four weeks now, is desperate to work and showing power with sheep, but she’s quite terrified of strangers.
When she first came to us she showed all the usual signs of a very nervous dog, pulling back on her lead and then (if she had no other choice) shooting through a gap as though the very devil were after her. Of course, these actions in themselves can compound the dog’s fear – especially when it shoots through the gap so fast that it swings by its neck as it reaches the end of the lead.
When I first saw her I suspected that poor Nell’s nervousness meant she’d spent a great deal of time being extremely bored. The scabs and lack of fur on the end of her tail (caused by chewing) were testament to that, but after she’d been here for a few hours we noticed an even more worrying habit. Her previous owner hadn’t mentioned Nell’s habit of walking around in anticlockwise circles when she’s bored or stressed.
Fortunately, keeping Nell occupied with regular training on sheep, housing her in a pen alongside other dogs, and taking her out for regular runs with everybody has reduced the circling considerably. At first we couldn’t let Nell run free with the other dogs because she’d run off to the sheep, so when we took all the dogs out for their twice-daily run, we put Nell on a rope and attached it to the branch of a tree so that she could move around without getting tangled or wrapping the rope around the tree trunk. Then we’d play with the dogs close-by, in the hope that Nell would take an interest.
At first Nell just lay down and looked dejected. Sometimes the younger members of the pack would pester her by playing tug with the rope, but Nell showed no interest. After a few days, though, much retrieving of frisbees and balls, and the accompanying excitement shown by the other dogs, attracted Nell’s attention and she started to socialise with them a little. We found that if we attached her to the rope, but left the other end free, Nell stayed around reasonably well. At first she kept her distance and observed but, occasionally, she’d come closer to the others for a while before retiring to a “safe” distance again.
Occasionally we had to retrieve her from the fence between the main part of the field and the paddock where the sheep are. Fortunately, she didn’t jump over the fence so she couldn’t chase the sheep, but she’d run up and down the fence and wouldn’t come back if we called her. It was a bit tiresome but, eventually, she wandered off less frequently and even began to come back when we called her.
At last, we feel we’re making progress. Nell’s much more obedient and will actually come to Gill for attention when they’re in the field or the yard, and will even jump up to her but (possibly because I’m male) she won’t come up to me yet. She clearly wants to though – she comes to within a metre but no touching yet! It’s just a matter of time and patience. The best way to get a nervous dog to come to you is to ignore it, so that’s the stage Nell and I are at just at the moment.
Her sheep work is improving rapidly. At first, Nell was aggressive with the sheep, refused to go clockwise, and used her anticlockwise flanks as a form of distraction by going absurdly wide and refusing to stop. This meant she completely lost control of the sheep on occasions, but regular training has improved her no end. The aggression is all but gone and although she still doesn’t like going clockwise, she will do it. The anticlockwise flanks are becoming more sensible too. Nell’s stopped biting her tail and the scabs have healed. Occasionally she’ll circle when it’s close to the time we take the dogs out, but it’s nothing much, and she’ll stop if we tell her to.
Even though she won’t come to me in the field, I feel there’s mutual trust building between us. Now that she’s no longer on a rope when she goes out into the field with the other dogs, Nell will sometimes wander up to the sheep paddock and have a look at them, but she can be trusted to come back on her own, and usually comes straight away when called. Progress indeed! Soon she’ll make a really good sheepdog – for the right owner.