FAQ – Calling the dog away from stock

QUESTION: How can I call my dog away when he’s working in the ring or in a yard?

ANSWER: It’s natural for the trainee dog to want to keep working. Being confined in a training ring or yard creates a lot of stress for the dog but, of course, it must come away when you want it to.

Typically the dog fears the session will be over once it returns to you and, particularly in the earliest stages of training, it ignores your recall command. It’s important to convince the dog that the lesson isn’t necessarily over if it comes back to you.

In the early stages of training, if you call the dog to you when it’s on the opposite side of the sheep it’s very unlikely to obey you. I would go as far as to say that if it does come back, its commitment to working sheep is a little questionable (at that time).

Photo of Andy's dog Carew on the other side of a small bunch of sheep.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to call a trainee dog away from the sheep from this position.

It’s pointless even attempting to call the dog towards you unless it’s on the same side of the sheep as you – and you are positioned between the dog and the sheep.

Crouch down between the dog and the sheep, and call it to you in a calm, friendly voice

The dog is far more likely to come to you if coming to you means the dog is getting closer to the sheep. If you position yourself between the dog and the sheep, coming to you is natural for the dog. Crouching down makes you look smaller, and less intimidating to the dog.

This dog is far more likely to come to the handler when called because going towards the handler means moving closer to the sheep.

If the dog’s on the same side of the sheep as you are, but between you and the sheep, calling it to you is asking the dog to come away from the sheep. When you’re between the dog and the sheep, calling it to you means it’s going to get closer to them, and that’s what it wants.

If necessary, keep the dog in place and walk through the sheep to get yourself in position, before you call it to you.

But it’s not that simple! Working sheepdogs are very clever animals, so a very keen dog is likely to come towards you, looking very obedient – and then dart at the sheep a split second before you are able to grab the dog! Be ready for this! If you can anticipate the dog’s action, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to catch the dog.

Notice I say “CALL THE DOG TO YOU”. This is for a reason!
Very often the dog will lie down and resist all your (patient) efforts to get it to come to you. If this happens it’s worth creeping closer to the dog, but always try to leave a few paces between the dog and yourself. It’s important that the dog actually makes the effort to move towards you. Sometimes they’ll crawl on their stomach – but at least they’ve submitted to your command (eventually) and it’s an important milestone.

Picture of a very reluctant Maddie creeping towards Andy in the training area. Some sheep are in the background
It’s important to insist the dog actually moves towards you some of the way – even if it’s only the last couple of paces!

Once you’ve successfully caught the dog, there’s a choice between two basic actions:

  1. Put the dog on a lead and take it back to its kennel.(Bad idea)!
  2. Release the dog and continue the training session.(Good idea)!

The first option will reinforce the dog’s suspicion that once you’ve caught it, the lesson is over.

The second option will begin to convince the dog that if it comes to you, there’s a very good chance it’ll be able to continue working the sheep.

Of course, you must work within your own safe limits, but even if you feel tired and frustrated it’s worth letting the dog go, and continuing the session, even for just a couple of minutes. Ideally you’ll catch and release the dog several times before ending the session, and continue to do it in the next outing with the dog.

Very soon you’ll find the dog comes to you willingly, because it wants you to send it to the sheep again.

When you reach this stage, slip a rope or lead through the dog’s collar and lead it a few paces away from the sheep (and praise it) before you let it go. Now we’re beginning to teach the dog that if it comes away from the sheep, there’s a very good chance you’ll send it to them again. (You’re beginning to teach the dog to do outruns as well.)

When the dog is coming to me more willingly, I’ll try loosely holding the dog’s collar to lead it away. Sometimes, the dog anticipates what I’m about to do and begins to walk with me, and occasionally simply applying the flat of my hand to the dog’s face is enough to turn it away from the sheep and start it walking with me.

Picture of Andy calling the dog away when it's working
Once the dog will walk away from the sheep with you, a milestone has been reached in the dog’s training and it all begins to fall into place!

Another simple remedy for teaching a dog to come away from the sheep is to have the dog on a long lead or a rope, and pull it away. After a few minutes, bring it back to work again. If you keep doing this, quite soon the dog will become more willing to come away with you; it knows there’s a good chance it can work again soon. Once the dog will happily come away with you, you can reduce the returning to work!

The above assumes the dog is working properly on commands, but if the dog is ‘mesmerised’ by the stock (what people call “too much eye”) that’s a different matter; it’s caused by a lack of confidence. Once the dog stops it stares at the sheep, and won’t move, so when I get a dog like this I try to keep it moving as much as possible – don’t let it stop. There’s a lot more you can do to help. I suggest you watch the “Sticky Dogs” tutorial for details on how to free-up the dog.

Ultimately, if you really can’t catch your dog, don’t despair! There are still one or two options worth trying, although the first one requires the building of some kind of temporary pen for the sheep to run into. Obviously, you need to think about this before your training session. You’re not likely to be able to build the pen while the dog is running around the sheep!

It’s very simple. Just arrange some sheep hurdles (or panels) in whichever corner of the training area your sheep are most likely to run to when they’re being chased by a dog. If you get to the stage where you really can’t catch the dog, or get it to leave the sheep alone, you can deliberately ‘work’ the sheep closer to the pen so that they will see it and, hopefully, run into it.

Photo of four sheep in a hurdle pen, with Andy closing the gate. The dog is coming towards the pen.
If the sheep run into a pen, and the dog hangs back, you can close the hurdles and when the dog comes closer you can catch it!

Once the sheep are in, the dog will try to run in after them; that’s your opportunity to get really close, and catch the dog. If the dog hangs back you can quickly close the hurdles, and then when the dog comes closer you can easily catch it!

The other option is more risky. If you are working in a training ring, or small enclosure, you can open the gate a little way and let the sheep out. This relies on you being able to close the gate quickly enough to prevent the dog from running out too. If it does, you’re in even deeper trouble as the dog is likely to be much harder to catch in the open field – so think carefully before you try this!

To see Andy calling trainee dogs away from sheep watch the “Bronwen and Scylla” tutorials. Most have examples of catching a dog, but if you can’t wait, at least watch tutorials 5 and 6.

This post is one of our Sheepdog Training FAQs
Click here for the full list of frequently asked questions.

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