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.
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).