“I think we've decided we need a dog...”
...is often the opening to an email enquiry, or a telephone conversation with a farmer, smallholder or shepherd who’s reached the size of flock that his friends and family are no longer prepared to spend a Saturday morning helping to catch. For a beginner to sheepdogs, what’s the best option?
Achieving an effective working relationship with a sheepdog takes common sense, patience, communication and hard work, but will reap dividends in saved time, nerves and energy (for stock and stockman). Whether you start with a puppy, a started or part-trained dog, or a fully trained and experienced dog, will depend on your inclination, circumstances and bank balance - not necessarily in that order.
That said, almost anyone who uses a well-trained dog on a regular basis will agree that a good dog more than pays for itself.
Cute and cheap! What’s the catch?
Buying a puppy gives you and your family ample time to bond with the dog at its optimum age for socialising and adapting to change. A puppy won’t have had the opportunity to develop serious bad habits, and is “programmed” to seek a bond with a pack leader (you) and adapt to a new pack regime. Prices start at around £300 for a puppy of about 8 weeks of age, and will range up to around £700 for an older puppy who’s already showing signs of working.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that anything over the age of 8 weeks has passed its Sell By Date - it hasn't. Where there may be advantages to buying an 8-week old puppy, particularly if cuteness is a concern, a 16-week old puppy, brought up around dogs and people, who's had fun, exercise, good nutrition and some discipline, is a very different prospect to the 8-week old puppy who's only sight of the wider world has been mealtimes, and watching people walk past the shed through a crack in the door.
A well-balanced older puppy, or young dog who's already showing an interest in sheep, can give you a head start if you're in a hurry to start training.
Fully trained - but are you?
A fully trained dog is the most expensive, but arguably the most tempting, option, offering the possibility of buying it one day, and working it the next. Budget up to £3,500 for this luxury, and be prepared to pay more for a dog that really catches your eye.
You need to be a fairly capable handler to get value for money out of this dog, at least in the short term.
You should remember that the dog you bring home won’t be the dog you saw working on its home turf, with a familiar handler. Dogs need time to settle down and feel confident in a new situation and with a new “boss”. Just as you need time to develop confidence in the dog, so does he (or she) need time to get to know you, and to recognise and understand your commands.
If the dog’s working on whistle commands, you’ll need to learn the commands it’s been trained to (and, possibly, learn how to blow the whistle). If the dog’s on voice commands then your accent may be very different from what it’s used to, or it may have to adjust to being worked by a man after being trained by a woman, for example. The difficulties the dog’s facing need to be understood to avoid confusion and disappointment.
Although your new dog should be perfectly capable of gathering your sheep in a fraction of the time it took you and your neighbours, it can be several months before the two of you are really working as a team. However, the more time you spend together, the sooner you'll bond. Don't be put off buying a 5 or 6 year old dog simply on the basis of its age. Unless you need a dog to be working 7 days a week, in all weathers, over hundreds of acres of hill, you could find yourself a real bargain.
A started dog - the happy medium?
Bearing all this in mind, a started, or part-trained, dog may be a good compromise. This would be a young dog, up to around 24 months, who can do short outruns, bring a small flock of sheep back to you cleanly, flank in both directions and - importantly - stop on command. The basics will be in place, though it may not look stylish and the stop might not be immediate, but the dog will improve quickly with regular work and new experiences.
Expect to pay between £1,000 and £2,000, depending on background and ability.
So - how do I choose a sheepdog?
For a beginner to dog handling, there is no easy answer. A puppy may seem like a long road ahead, but in the meantime you and your family will have a companion with a sense of fun and a desire to please. Just spending time with your puppy, taking it with you around the farm or to check on fences or livestock, will provide lots of opportunities to teach your puppy how you want it to behave, almost without its noticing. Good manners, and basic commands such as “Lie Down”, “Wait” or “That’ll do” - the sheepdog equivalent of “Come here” - are all essential and very easy to teach.
A started dog will have the basics in place, and can be helpful with stock almost immediately, but it can take time to adjust to a new handler. A young dog, just coming into maturity or perhaps still adolescent, can be sensitive to a change in surroundings and find it stressful, so allow a couple of months of settling-in time. It will also have had the opportunity to develop some bad habits (the perfect dog has yet to be bred and trained). The dog's faults may not be insurmountable, but a beginner might find them trying.
If you opt for a fully trained dog a really steady, sensible and obedient worker who won’t get you into trouble may be hard to find, and still won’t necessarily make a seamless switch between handlers. The older the dog, the longer it will take, but a trained dog can be a great schoolmaster for a beginner.
Which sheepdog will suit me?
Only you can find the right answer for your situation, but finding the right breeder and/or trainer is the first step. When you ‘phone to enquire about a dog or puppy you’ve seen advertised, expect to be asked about your previous dog training or handling experience, what type of sheep you keep, where, and how many, and how your dog will be spending its time when it’s not working. This information will help a conscientious trainer decide whether or not he has a dog that might suit you.
If you’re still undecided about whether to buy a puppy or an older dog, talk through the available options and find out what after-sales help, if any, the breeder/trainer is able to offer. A breeder or trainer has a right to expect that you tell him the truth about your circumstances, and in return you have the right to expect to be told of any weak points a dog might have, and how to improve, or maintain, the dog’s level of training. You should also expect to be given a period of time, up a month, to work with the dog and see how it fits in with your situation. If you have any reservations about the dog during this time you should be able to take it back for a full refund (assuming, of course, that the dog is in the same state of health it was when you bought it).
Whichever route you decide to take, your chances of success will be greater if you arm yourself with as much information as you can.
If you don’t have a trainer near to you there are DVDs, books, and online training tutorials to help you understand how and why dogs work, and what you can do to help, or hinder, the process, but your first line should always be the person from whom you bought your dog. Remember, it’s in their interests, as well as yours, to ensure that the dog has a useful and happy working life.