Shepherd and Sheepdog Training Commands and Terminology

Close-up photo of herding sheepdog Carew keeping her sheep under control

Definitions and descriptions of the commands, words and terms, used by shepherds, farmers & handlers when working, or training sheepdogs

Click a word to discover its meaning

Some of the definitions below have links to our relevant sheepdog training tutorial videos. Paid membership is required for access to these videos.

Stock Herding Terms

When a dog is asked to do something it doesn’t like, it will look around for a distraction, such as something interesting to sniff, or it might suddenly take a keen interest in an object on the ground which it has previously ignored. Another good example of this is when the dog suddenly decides to defecate or urinate. Yet another sign that the dog is feeling the pressure, is yawning. If a dog yawns or licks its mouth, it probably doesn’t like what’s happening at the time. Top

Not to be confused with droving (see below) driving involves the dog working on its own, pushing the sheep or cattle away from the handler, sometimes for considerable distances. It has a great number of uses and although driving has a reputation for being difficult to teach because a dog’s natural reaction is to bring the stock to the handler rather than push them away, with patience and an understanding of why the dog finds it difficult, it’s not so hard to achieve and will reward the handler many times over.
There are no fewer than three tutorials on the subject of Driving in our online tutorials library. Top

Not to be confused with driving (above) droving involves the dog working alongside or close to the handler, pushing the sheep or cattle ahead of them. It’s very much simpler to teach the dog to drove, than it is to teach driving, because the dog will be happy to work closely with the handler. Top

When the dog is moving around its cattle or sheep in a circular fashion. The dog should maintain a constant distance from the stock whilst flanking so as not to alarm or panic them. When commanded, the dog should stop without moving closer to the stock. Several of our online training tutorials explain how to improve your dog’s flanks when it works cattle, sheep, or other livestock. Top

Working a large number of sheep as opposed to a small bunch which is recommended for basic training, and used in sheepdog trials. It’s usually far easier for the dog to control a small group of sheep. Flock work involves the dog working much larger numbers – sometimes several hundred. It often requires quite different skills to those used at trials or in training. See the Flock Work Tutorial. Top

Strictly speaking, a gather is when a dog goes out around the stock and brings them to the handler, but gather is also the term used for much larger operations on vast expanses of (often mountainous) ground where several or even many dogs and handlers are sent out to gather sheep (usually) and take them to a designated place. Top

A dog which stops immediately on command, is said to have ‘a good stop’. Unfortunately, in their efforts to achieve a good stop, trainers often undermine the dog’s confidence. Rather than trying to get the perfect stop too soon, we prefer to work on it gradually throughout the dog’s training. Our Stopping the Dog tutorials consist of three videos taking an in-depth look at how to stop your dog without damaging its confidence. Top

A case of the dog biting the stock. Often brought about by fear or excitement, gripping can be a sign of lack of confidence shown by the dog. It’s not allowed in sheepdog trials. Instant disqualification being the normal penalty, but if the judge considers the sheep to have been sufficiently awkward it is sometimes acceptable for the dog to nip the nose of a particularly difficult sheep.
In cattle work, it’s often essential for the dog to nip the heels of the stock to get them to move in the required direction. As with the good stop (above) especially with sheepdogs, many handlers try to completely eliminate any gripping. This can have a severely detrimental effect on the dog’s confidence.
When dogs are faced with aggressive sheep, such as ewes with young lambs, they need some means of defending themselves. The sheep must be gathered in for their own health and welfare, so the dog must be able to move them.
We prefer to put a command on the grip. We then discourage the dog from gripping unless we command it to. In our experience, dogs trained this way have far more confidence than dogs which have been totally forbidden to grip.
Management of the dog’s grip is covered in several of our online tutorials. Sometimes Nice is Not Enough and Training Max the Gripper (3 parts) are tutorials that will help get your dog under control while maintaining its confidence. Top

The outrun begins when a herding dog leaves the handler’s side and goes out around the stock in order to bring them back to the handler, or take them to some other place. If the dog were to run straight at the stock, it would probably frighten them further away, so ideally, the dog should run out wide enough to avoid stressing the stock. At the end of its outrun, the dog should be in a position to move all the sheep or cattle to the required place. Top

A sorting race is usually a long narrow area, designed to (ideally) allow animals through in single-file. At the end of the race is a sorting gate which can be operated to direct some animals into one holding pen, and others into another. The operation is made much easier by the race only allowing animals through in single-file. Top

When you command your dog to flank one way or the other, it should turn sharply and move around the stock at the same distance from them as it was when you gave the command. Many dogs insist on moving closer to the stock when commanded to flank. This is a bad habit as can unsettle the stock. A dog with “square flanks” is a joy to work.
Several of our online training tutorials explain how to improve your dog’s flanks when it works cattle, sheep, or other livestock. Top

Larger numbers of sheep or cattle can be inclined to split up when they’re being moved with one or more dogs, so when this happens it’s necessary for the dogs to flank wider in order to keep the stock together. A good dog will learn to back and forth in this way without being commanded. It helps the dog to keep good control of its stock.
In sheepdog trials, wearing can be useful if the sheep are stubborn, but it runs the risk of the sheep deviating from their line, thus losing points for the run. Top

Once the stock are inside a sorting yard or pen, often they will not go through the sorting race unless there is a dog behind them, pushing them through. Although being ‘trapped’ in a confined space with the stock can be frightening at first, once dogs become confident in a yard, they usually go on to be highly skilled at it. A good dog will only use just enough force to get the stock through the race without undue stress. Top

Stock Herding Commands

Move around (circle) the stock in a clockwise direction (unfortunately, in a minority of areas it’s the opposite way)!
To avoid confusion, don’t think of the dog going off to its left or right towards the sheep, because when the dog is on the opposite side of the sheep from you, the dog’s left and right are the opposite way round to yours! It’s far less confusing if you imagine the group of sheep in terms of a clock-face lying in its back. Then remember the direction as clockwise or anti-clockwise.

The first letter of each command can help, too. C is for Come-Bye – and Clockwise. From facing the sheep, the dog should turn squarely and keep at a constant distance from the stock as it casts or flanks around them. Our Learn Your Commands tutorial will help you to understand and remember which is which! Top

Move around (circle) the stock in an anti-clockwise direction (unfortunately, in a minority of areas it’s the opposite way)!
To avoid confusion, don’t think of the dog going off to its left or right towards the sheep, because when the dog is on the opposite side of the sheep from you, the dog’s left and right are the opposite way round to yours! It’s far less confusing if you imagine the group of sheep in terms of a clock-face lying in its back. Then remember the direction as clockwise or anti-clockwise.

The first letter of each command can help, too. A is for Away – and Anti-Clockwise. From facing the sheep, the dog should turn squarely and keep at a constant distance from the stock as it casts or flanks around them. Our Learn Your Commands tutorial will help you to understand and remember which is which! Top

Confusing, this one! They all mean stop, or sometimes just slow down! Rather than try to have several different commands for various speeds, like gears in a car, most handlers prefer the dog to lear to regulate its speed according to the urgency in the handler’s voice. With time and experience, the dog will learn that a sharp command means the handler wants it to stop immediately, but when the command is soft it should just check its speed to allow the sheep or cattle to go further ahead. More confusing still, some handlers want the dog to lie on the floor when it stops, while others prefer the dog to stay on its feet. We have three Stopping The Dog tutorial videos which will help you to stop your dog without damaging its confidence. Top

The dog is working too close and likely to cause stress to the stock. The command is used to send the dog further out to give the animals more room. Although it’s not wise to introduce too many commands during the early stages of the dog’s training, GET BACK can be extremely useful if taught as soon as the dog has basic control of its stock. Top

Used during shedding or separating some animals (usually sheep) away from the main group. When a gap has been created between the stock, the handler uses “in here” to command the dog to move from its position on the opposite side of the stock, through the gap to separate them. The dog will then be expected to keep the separated animals away from the others, and take them away. Watch our Shedding tutorial video to learn more. Top

The dog must leave the sheep it’s working, and turn around to look for more sheep. Regarded by many as advanced, this under-rated command is extremely useful for teaching a trainee dog to go back and collect some animals it’s left behind. The dog will soon learn that it’s easier to bring all the sheep or cattle at the first attempt, rather than have to go back a second time.
Learn how to train your dog to ‘Look Back’ with our Sheepdog Training Tutorial – ‘Eve at the Pen. Top

The dog should slow down – usually used to put more distance between dog and sheep when the dog’s eagerness is likely to panic or stress the sheep. An excellent sheepdog training tutorial for this is Backwards Is The Way Forward. Top

The dog must stop what it’s doing and return directly to the handler. This everyday command which is simply a recall, can be of enormous help when training a dog to drive. As the dog veers off line because it desperately wants to fetch the stock back to you, the dog is effectively getting farther and farther away from you. The dog’s far more likely to obey the ‘That’ll Do’ command than a flanking command to bring it back towards you, so we use ‘That’ll do’ as a sort of ‘cheat card’ to bring the dog closer, and therefore into a driving position behind the stock. Top

Used by some handlers to tell the dog it has completed the required flanking manoeuvre (casting) and should turn squarely back towards the stock. (In the early stages of training, we prefer to use the ‘Lie down‘ command, to avoid confusing the dog with too many commands). Top

These commands require the dog to move straight towards the sheep in a calm, steady fashion without spooking or stressing them. Top

Herding or Sheepdog Trial Sections

In the Tutorials Library there are two great online sheepdog trials tutorials to help you prepare yourself and your dog for sheepdog trials and competitions. (top)

Standing at “the post”, the handler sends the dog to collect the sheep and start the run. The dog should go out in a pear shaped run, getting wider as it approaches the sheep. Towards the end of the outrun, the dog should move in behind the sheep, close enough to gain control, but leaving enough room to avoid disturbing them. In a trial the handler will choose the direction for the outrun. Top

When the dog stops at the end of its outrun, it should be on the point of balance. This is not necessarily directly behind the sheep. The point of balance is where the dog needs to be, to keep the sheep in place, prior to moving them towards the handler at the lift. Top

At the end of its outrun, the dog should be behind the sheep on the ‘Point of balance‘. The lift is when the sheep begin to move under the influence of the dog. It should be controlled and orderly. Top

The dog brings the sheep down the course towards the handler, making sure all the sheep pass through the fetch gates. If one or more sheep fail go go through the gates, no retry is allowed, and the sheep must not pass back through the gates. The sheep must pass behind the handler at the post, and they are driven towards some more gates. As the sheep reach a point directly behind the post, the drive section of the trial begins. Top

Having completed the fetch (above) and driven the sheep around behind the handler in the direction dictated by the course director or judge, the dog then drives the sheep away from the handler to the first drive gates. Top

After negotiating the first drive gates (above) the sheep are driven across the course to the second drive gates. The cross drive must be as straight and orderly as possible. Once again, no retries are allowed at any of the gates. Top

After passing through the second drive gates (above) the sheep are turned towards the shedding ring where dog and handler sort out and separate a specified number of sheep. The handler shouldn’t leave the post until all the sheep are inside the shedding ring (about 40 yards in diameter). Until shedding is completed the sheep must stay within the ring, or points will be lost. Often, but not always, the judge will signal to the handler that the shed has been accepted, and the sheep must then be taken to the pen.
We have a Shedding tutorial video as well as plenty of advice on shedding at a sheepdog trial, in the Sheepdog Trials tutorials. Top

The pen is a part of the sheepdog trials course where the sheep are driven into a small enclosure (sometimes the pen is a stock trailer but more usually it’s a fenced enclosure with a gate). The handler holds the rope to the pen gate and must continue to hold it until the sheep are penned and the gate is closed. The handler is not allowed to touch the sheep or push them in to the pen using the gate. Top

Singling is similar to shedding – but more difficult! At open trials, once penning is completed a single sheep may be required to be separated from the main group and driven away. This operation is carried out in the shedding ring, and the sheep must not leave the ring until one has been singled off. Watch the Shedding tutorial to learn more about ‘Singling’! Top

At some of the bigger open trials, the dog must collect a group of sheep and bring them to a specified point. The dog is then commanded to go to another location on the trials course to collect a second group and bring them to join the first batch before continuing around the course. Top

The designated point at a double gather (above) type of sheepdog trial where the dog must abandon the sheep currently under its control and turn around to look for more sheep. An advanced ‘look back’ can be done in such a way as to indicate to the dog which direction the new sheep lie in.
Several of our online training tutorials show you how to teach your dog to go back for sheep or cattle. Top

Herding or Sheepdog Trials Hardware

A pair of gates or hurdles – through which the dog should direct the sheep as part of the drive section in sheepdog trialling. There are normally two sets of drive gates on each course. Top

Enclosure into which sheep are driven after each run at a sheep dog trial. If there are not enough sheep available for the number of competitors, the sheep are allowed to collect in the exhaust pen until there are a large number, and then they are taken back to the letting out pen and re-used in the trial. Top

A pair of gates or hurdles spaced a few metres apart, through which the dog brings the sheep during the fetch section at a sheepdog trial. The ‘fetch‘ normally follows the ‘lift‘. Top

Enclosure from which a specified number of sheep (normally between three and five) are released for each run at a sheep dog trial. Top

Point to which the required number of sheep are brought before each run at a sheepdog trial. In more advanced sheepdog trials the sheep may not be visible to the dog or sometimes even the handler, at this stage. Top

Enclosure into which the sheep must be driven during a sheepdog trial. Usually a temporary construction but sometimes a trailer. More recently, some trials have a “chute” arrangement, where the sheep merely pass through. This is much easier for handler and dog, a the sheep are more willing to go into the chute as there’s no back in it, so they can see a way of escape. Top

Point at a sheepdog trial where the handler stands to send the dog off on its outrun. Once the dog leaves the handler’s side, the handler must not move away from the post until the dog has collected the sheep, taken them right around the drive section, and then brought them to the shedding ring (below). Top

A 40 yard diameter circle (usually marked-out) close to the post, where the shed and / or singling takes place before or after ‘penning‘. Top

Herding or Sheepdog Trial Terms

In the Tutorials Library there are two great online sheepdog trials tutorials to help you prepare yourself and your dog for sheepdog trials and competitions. Top

The judge asked the competitor to leave the course because of a rule infringement such as the dog leaving the course, or biting the sheep. Any points scored by that competitor in that run will be lost. Top

On completion of the fetch, the sheep must pass beLeftHandDrivehind the handler in a clockwise direction and be driven towards the left hand drive gates. Top

On completion of the fetch, the sheep must pass behind the handler in an anticlockwise direction and be driven towards the right hand drive gates. Top

If a run goes really badly, most competitors will signal their intention to the judge, and leave the course without completing it. The run will score no points. It should be noted that even though you retire, you are normally expected to take your sheep to the exhaust pen. Top

Most sheep dog trials specify a time for each run. If a competitor cannot complete the course in the allocated time, they must leave the field but the run still earns points and counts towards the results. It’s quite possible to win a trial even though you were timed out. Top

Herding or Sheepdog Trial Types

In the Tutorials Library there are two great online sheepdog trials tutorials to help you prepare yourself and your dog for sheepdog trials and competitions.

Run every three years (the first was in 2002 at Bala in Wales) the ISDS World Sheepdog Trials are the pinnacle of sheepdog competition. The best competitors from countries all over the world come together for a gruelling four days of intense competition.

To qualify for the ‘International’, dogs must be registered with the ISDS and qualify to become members of their UK national team (see below). The winner of the annual International Sheepdog Trial becomes the ‘ISDS Supreme Champion’. Top

Run by the ISDS (International Sheep Dog Society) the ‘National’ is sheepdog trial in which dogs qualify to represent their country in the International Sheepdog Trials (above). To qualify, dogs must be ISDS registered and gain points by successfully competing in open trials (below) in England, Scotland Ireland and Wales. Top

A sheepdog trial in which entry is open to any competitor and dog – will include outrun, lift, fetch, drive, shed, pen and sometimes a single. Points awarded in open trials count towards qualification for National Sheepdog Trials. Dogs do not need to be registered with the ISDS to compete in open trials. Top

Open to less experienced dogs. Rules vary but normally for dogs which have not been placed in an open or won a novice trial. Will include outrun, lift, fetch, drive, shed and pen but not usually a single. ISDS registration is not required for dogs to compete in novice trials. Top

Nursery trials are open to inexperienced dogs. Rules of entry vary but usually for dogs which have not been placed in any novice or open trial. A nursery sheepdog trial will typically include outrun, lift, fetch, drive and pen. Surprisingly, nursery sheepdog trials courses often have an outrun of equal length to novice or open trials. Dogs do not have to be ISDS registered to compete. Top

Herding Dogs or Sheepdogs

A dog which has been taught the very basics of stock work. A started dog will usually run reliably around stock (rather than splitting them up) if sent to them from a short distance away. The started dog can be stopped (sometimes with a little difficulty) and taken away from the stock. Top

A partly trained dog is more skilled than a started dog. Usually reliably working around sheep from a short to medium outrun (rather than splitting them up) and stopping reasonably well on command. The partly trained dog will not usually have experience of penning, shedding, pushing stock up or through a handling area, but it will be a useful dog, and should learn more skills quite quickly. Top

There is no such thing as a fully trained dog! Even the world champion trials dog will have room for improvement at some skills, and will be learning all the time. We have yet to find a dog which is fully skilled in every aspect of stock work (for instance, good cattle dogs can often be much too aggressive with sheep) but of course, there are a great number that are highly skilled in a good number of tasks. Every shepherd and every farmer has different requirements of a dog, so it’s unwise to describe a dog as fully trained. Top

A powerful or strong dog is a confident dog. One which works in a relaxed way and which commands instant respect from the stock. It will stand no nonsense. If they stop, it will just keep coming towards them in such a confident manner, the animals will continue on their way. The dog’s attitude and body language makes it clear to the stock that they have no choice. Top

A dog that’s commonly called ‘weak’ is simply a dog that has little confidence around stock. It may be extremely obedient and work well with light or co-operative animals but when faced with a difficult situation a dog has little confidence will either stop and stare, grip or even turn away from the stock altogether. Sheep can interpret weakness in a dog surprisingly quickly and will take advantage of it. It is therefore af paramount importance to avoid putting a young dog in a position where it might be challenged or (even worse) attacked by sheep.
The dog’s confidence can be improved with a little care. ‘Sometimes Nice is Not Enough‘, ‘Calm But Firm‘ and ‘The Dog’s Confidence‘ are three videos that will help you increase your dog’s confidence when working stock. Top

A good sheepdog needs what’s known as ‘eye’. This is a kind of powerful glare the dog can fix on sheep to make them move in the direction the handler wants. Top

Farmers and shepherds say a dog has ‘too much eye’ if it appears to become entranced – standing rooted to the spot, glaring at the stock and ignoring all commands. In fact, this is another symptom of the dog lacking confidence. The dog can be trained out of this habit, particularly if it’s young.
Sticky Dogs‘ is a video dealing specifically with dogs which are thought to have ‘too much eye’. Top

Sheepdog Breeding

Based at Bedford, England. Keepers of the ISDS Stud Book (Border Collie type dogs only). Despite it’s long-term refusal to recognise herding dog breeds other than the Border Collie, the ISDS appears to have become the recognised body of sheepdog trialling. Top

The family tree of a dog – showing generations of ancestors. Pedigrees of ISDS dogs are copyright and must not be publicised without their permission. Top

Dog whose birth has been registered with the ISDS. Normally, the parents must be registered before a puppy is eligible for registration. Top

Books which have been kept by the ISDS for many years – recording the ancestory, registration and breeding details of all ISDS registered sheepdogs. (Border Collie types only). Top

Male dog – usually ISDS registered and from excellent working lines – used for breeding purposes as well as sheepdog trials and / or farm work. Top


Steep, rugged hill or mountain pasture – usually in the North of the UK (such as Cumbria) and traditionally populated with sheep. Top

Often referred to in the USA as panels, hurdles are lightweight frames similar to a small gate which joined together, make a convenient and portable enclosure for containing sheep. Top

Fencing energised with high voltage (but low power and therefore harmless) electric current – often used to keep farm animals within an enclosed space. Top

Sheep Types

In the Tutorials Library, in addition to the regular Sheepdog Training Tutorials there is a Sheep Tutorial to help you choose the best type of sheep for training. Top

Usually smaller breeds from highland, hill or mountain farms, these are sheep which are easy for a dog to move but they can also be difficult to control. Sometimes they run away or scatter, with little or no provocation! Top

Stubborn sheep which can be difficult for a dog to move. They will sometimes even attack a dog and can have a disastrous effect on its confidence. Heavy sheep are normally large, lowland types which keep together well but can be very stubborn. Generally they are not recommended for training sheepdogs. Top

After being used repeatedly for training sheepdogs, sheep become ‘dogged’ – meaning they are less likely to run away from the dog, and can be more difficult to control. Lightly dogged sheep are very useful as they stay calm and it’s easier for the trainee dog to keep them together. Extremely dogged sheep will either rush to the handler as soon as the dog is sent off to fetch them or others will bunch together tightly and be near impossible for the dog to move. Sometimes, they will crowd around the handler’s legs, becoming extremely difficult to work with (and painful because they hurt your legs and tread on your feet). Top

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