The technology of the sheep dog
December 21, 2022
Looking around a farm at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) there are pieces of equipment we wonder how we ever did without, i.e. a quad, a telehandler, a digger, a pair of vice grips to name a few, but a well-trained and reliable sheep dog is something a farmer will never part with!
How to nurture and develop the young sheep dog is something a few local Business Development Group (BDG) members have been asking about lately, so Michael Gawn from Parkgate hosted local sheep BDG members on his farm recently. Michael has the skill and patience needed to develop and train his own collie pups into fully trained farm dogs and in the past has also helped other local farmers with the training of their dogs.
Choosing the correct pup is never easy so before buying, it is advisable to see the mother or even both parents working to get an idea of the breeding potential and also if that breeding line is suitable for your farm i.e. hill farm, lowland, bigger sheep etc. Temperament is important, a friendly, keen and active pup that is in good health is generally the one to go for. Also ‘looks’ do matter as a dog is a partner for life after all!
Before the pup is introduced to sheep, get comfortable with the universally held commands like ‘Come bye’, ‘Away’, ‘Lie down’, ‘That’ll do’ etc. Teach the dog its name and familiarise it with the farm surroundings and the type of environment it will be working in. Try to avoid training sessions at the edge of dark, sheep become unsettled in low light and the pup’s eyesight becomes less focused.
The pup can be introduced to sheep as early as you like but don’t let them chase sheep on their own until they are fast enough to pass them, or it will become a ‘game of fun’ for them which will hinder training later on. As a rough guide 8 to 10 months is an ideal age and over a year old before serious training starts, but every dog is different and if you think they are not coping with the pressure it is worth going back a step until they mature a little.
With an excellent turnout for the BDG meeting, Michael ably took the group through various steps out in the paddock with the young dog:
With about six sheep inside the pen, position yourself outside the pen opposite the dog and as they move around the pen you move to keep the balance position. Avoid talking too much and keep everything as calm as possible as over excitement will end up in loss of focus and aimless chasing. A ten minute session is long enough at this stage.
Once the dog is confident moving around the sheep in a reasonably controlled manner, you can now start putting some pressure on to force a change of direction by moving towards the dog as they come around towards you to encourage them to turn the opposite way. Don’t be aggressive and remember the dog is still young and don’t worry if things don’t go perfectly every time but try to end on a good note when things are going well.
Once you can move around with the dog now holding the sheep to you, start to introduce commands. With the sheep out in the paddock against a fence, move between them and the dog while blocking their access and command the dog to stop “lie down”. Once they obey reward them by moving away to allow them back to the sheep. For ‘come bye’ and ‘away’ give the direction command when the dog moves that way, then try to stop them before giving the opposite command to avoid confusion at this stage
Extending the outrun
As training progresses you should be able to send the dog greater distances but start small at 5 to 10 metres with the outrun in a pear shape with the dog widening around the sheep. This can come naturally to some, others can require a lot of work but take this stage slow as too far too soon will create problems.
Again, don’t rush this stage. The dog will naturally want to head the sheep so walk alongside the dog calling it to you. A light rope or working along a fence can help at this stage, plus quiet sheep that don’t bolt also helps!
Shedding is easiest taught in a large group of sheep. Lie the dog on the far side, make a gap between the sheep and call the dog towards you. Gradually reduce the number you shed off and even drive the sheep a distance away to give some purpose to the exercise.
If your dog fails to bring all the sheep, stop them, walk towards them and command to ‘turn back’, some pressure may be needed at this stage. You should eventually advance this session by allowing your dog to shed the two groups, stop them midway and command to ‘turn back’.
To some, all this training may seem a lot of effort, time and patience, and essentially it is! Training the recently bought pup is not for everyone and some may send the pup to professional trainers. For others who have the time and patience to develop the dog in its home environment it can be a very rewarding experience and the bond between man/woman and dog will last for many years and one will wonder ‘how did I ever farm sheep without that good dog by my side’.