QUESTION: My dogs killed a sheep today. I don’t want to have the dogs destroyed, they are working Kelpie X Collie dogs which we want to train on sheep and cattle. What can I do?
ANSWER: I’m sorry to hear that your dogs have killed a ewe. I’m afraid this is what happens when people keep dogs that they don’t fully understand.
I will offer the best advice I can, but it’s limited because I’m not in a position to fully assess your situation. Only you can do that. It’s the responsibility of every dog owner to assess their own circumstances and make sure their dog doesn’t endanger other people, or livestock.
Untrained dogs cannot be trusted to wander around freely anywhere near livestock.
The working sheepdog uses its hunting instinct to work sheep – and if an untrained dog is allowed to wander around the farm, it will more than likely begin to chase sheep. The situation is worsened if there are several dogs involved, because they “wind each other up”. In extreme cases, it can end with dogs seriously harming or even killing the sheep or other livestock.
If you train the dog, spend time with it, show it leadership and give it regular work, it will learn that it’s not to chase the stock (of any kind) when it’s not under supervision.
Although I have never actually trained a dog which has killed a sheep, I have trained plenty that have attacked sheep – and I don’t see that actually having killed a sheep or not, makes a scrap of difference to the dog. It obviously has a huge effect on us humans though.
Just at the moment, we have nine Border Collie dogs of various ages, and we keep twenty-five sheep on our five acre (3 hectare) field. Twice a day, we take all the dogs out into the field for their run. The dogs can see the sheep at the end of the field, but they don’t go after them because they know they’re not allowed to when they’re out recreationally.
This is partly due to their incredibly strong “pack instinct’ and partly training. During these runs, Gill or I sometimes pop into the house to make coffee or make a ‘phone call, and the dogs can be trusted not to chase the sheep – for a few minutes.
All of the older dogs are trustworthy and can be left to wander around for long periods during the day without fear of them chasing the sheep, but the younger ones have not yet fully learned that they must keep away from the stock when they’re not working. All of our dogs live in kennels with outdoor runs when they’re not being trained, or out for their twice-daily run.
Dogs which live in the house, are no different, as long as they are shown good leadership. This is illustrated clearly in our training tutorials.
We have two pups at the moment, and when the dogs are in the field, the pups sometimes go and look at the sheep. This is a good sign, because when pups look at the sheep, it’s a useful indicator that their hunting instinct is active, so we’ll be able to train them to work stock.
Soon though, the pups will begin to run after the sheep, and that’s when the danger begins. In the meantime, we make a point of calling the pups back to us, when they get close to the stock. This has to be done with care though. If the pups are always called away from the sheep, they learn that they’re not allowed to have anything to do with them. This means that when it comes to training them on sheep, they won’t do it! To avoid this happening, we make a point of occasionally taking pups and young dogs to sheep for a few minutes, and encouraging them to go after them.
Starting pups off very young like this can make training very easy, but there are serious pitfalls. The sheep must not be allowed to harm or frighten the pup or it can affect their confidence for life. There are two whole chapters on Starting a Young Puppy in our training tutorials.
If I were in your position, I would make certain your dogs are securely kept away from the livestock at all times except when you are training them. Take them out twice a day for an absolute minimum of an hour per session – preferably more – to run about and play games etc. The time spent doing this isn’t wasted. Dome properly, it’ll pay you dividends. It’s the time when you can really bond with your dogs, and show them the leadership they need.
By bond with them, I don’t mean they wag their tail when you pat their head, I mean they are bonded with you as best friends. They should want to be with you at all times, and they should RESPECT you.
A good recall is a test of the bond between you. For instance, if the dog’s having great fun with another dog out in the garden for instance, it should run back to you instantly when you call it. If it doesn’t, it’s not properly bonded with you.
Another test is walking on the lead. Away from sheep or other livestock, the dog should walk with the lead slack for at least ninety percent of the time. If it’s pulling on the lead it obviously wants to go faster, or in a different direction to the one you’re taking it in. So it’s trying to control you. A dog which is trying to control you clearly doesn’t respect you as its leader.
Once you have the dog’s respect, you can begin to train it on sheep. That’s far too involved for me to cover here, but it’s exactly what our Online Sheepdog Training Tutorials are for.