How to Train Your Dog to Herd Sheep

Hard
6-12 Months
Work

Introduction

A farmer has a flock of sheep on 40 acres of fenced land. Today, the sheep need to come in for medical treatment, vaccinations, and shearing. There are ewe sheep, lambs, and rams and they are quite happy where they are, and not the least bit interested in coming into the handling pens to be sheared. This is not going to be easy... or is it? Fortunately, this farmer has a sheep herding Border Collie named Ben, who is going to help out and make this job a whole lot easier.  As the farmer goes out to the field with Ben. he calls to him 'away to me' and 'come by' to direct Ben to the left and right of the herd and gather them up into a group.  Then, Ben directs the sheep back to the handling pens--with a bark here, and a nip there, the sheep run right through the gate into the pen, ready for shearing and any medical care they need. Well, that was a lot easier then it would have been without the dog to help, the sheep are ready for processing in record time, and Ben gets the satisfaction of a job well done.

Defining Tasks

It takes many months of training for a sheep dog to learn his “trade”, and although trainers start dogs young, exposing them to sheep and the sights and sounds of herding, a dog must be mature enough to have control and respond to off-leash commands before they can be started herding sheep. A sheep dog will respond to his handler's cues, either hand signals or auditory signals, sometimes whistles,  or verbal commands, to go to the right, to the left, gather a flock,  direct and drive a flock, stop and hold a flock, and leave off or back away from the sheep. These are complex behaviors, and for an excited sheepdog, learning to respond to direction and cues from their handler takes maturity, discipline, and experience. When your sheep dog learns to gather and bring sheep in for you, to the location you direct, without overly stressing the sheep or losing control, you have a working sheep dog that is an asset to your operation.

Getting Started

You should ensure you have a dog with the aptitude and ability to herd sheep before initiating training. There are 25 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club as herding breeds. Dogs that are too aggressive or have physical limitations that affect their agility or stamina or orthopedic conditions may not be appropriate, as quick responses and movements are required. Prior to work with sheep, herding dogs should know basic obedience commands such as come, sit, and stay. Herding dogs are often initially taught control around livestock with the use of a long lead line.  Having another experienced herding dog to assist with modeling behavior is an asset.

The Practice with Birds Method

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Step
1
Teach 'come bye'
While your dog is on a leash, give the 'come bye' command. Step forward as you move your dog clockwise around your body, repeat several times over a few days.
Step
2
Practice 'come bye'
Step back and call come by. When your dog moves around you in a clockwise direction, praise him.
Step
3
Teach 'away to me'
While your dog is on a leash, step forward and call, 'away to me'. Move the dog in a counterclockwise direction around you, repeat over a few days.
Step
4
Practice 'away to me'
Step back and give the 'away to me' command. When your dog moves counterclockwise around you, praise him and give him attention.
Step
5
Practice off-leash
Practice 'come bye' and 'away to me' on and off leash.
Step
6
Establish approach command
Throws a toy out and give the command to walk forward, when your dog moves forward to retrieve the toy, praise him. Practice.
Step
7
Practice commands with birds
Put ducks or geese in a pen and give him the walk up command. When your dog gets within 10 feet of the ducks, say 'come bye' or 'away to me'. If your dog circles the ducks in the correct direction, praise, say 'yes', or 'good'. If the dog continues to approach the ducks directly, say, 'lie down', make him wait, and repeat again.
Step
8
Move to young sheep
Once your dog is comfortable herding ducks, transfer commands to working with young sheep in an enclosed pen.
Step
9
Use larger sheep
Gradually introduce larger sheep in a more open area.
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The Natural Herding Method

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Step
1
Set up sheep
Use a round pen or corral that has had the corners blocked off with panels, so that the sheep can not get stuck in the corners. Young sheep are more likely to move and respond than older sheep.
Step
2
Introduce dog with lead
Bring your dog into the corral with the sheep. Keep your dog on a long lead. If your dog tries to go into the middle of the herd, recall him, guide him back with the lead if necessary.
Step
3
Capture circle left and right
Let your dog get used to going around the sheep. As your dog goes right or left around the herd, provide the correct command, 'come bye' or 'away to me'. Keep sessions short so the dog does not become overtired, over excited, or nervous.
Step
4
Capture other herding behavior
Use the lead and direct your dog to back off, stop, bark, or hold, when the dog exhibits the behaviors, capturing the behavior by coupling it with the command. Practice lots, say "good" and praise the dog. As the dogs shows confidence and does not bolt into the middle of the herd, you can remove the lead. Continue working with the dog in a controlled environment.
Step
5
Provide commands to direct
Start providing the commands that your dog has associated with his natural herding behavior. Recall the dog if he is does not perform appropriately. Do not punish the dog, but take him out of the situation. He will soon learn that he only gets to herd if he listens to and responds to your commands.
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The Model Method

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Step
1
Teach herding commands
Teach your dog off leash herding commands such as 'come by', 'way to me', and 'that’ll do', so your dog is familiar with these commands. Move your dog around you with a leash as he learns to associate these commands with certain directional movements.
Step
2
Introduce model dog
Introduce an experienced sheep herding dog, that knows and responds well. Let the dogs get used to each other.
Step
3
Introduce work
In a controlled environment, either a corral or small pasture, start working with the experienced dog and sheep. Keep your trainee on a lead by your side. Allow the new dog to become acclimatized to the sights and sounds of the sheep and the other herding dog working.
Step
4
Use long lead
When your trainee is accustomed, and interested, but not over-excited. Take the trainee dog on a long lead around the sheep, providing the commands, 'come by', 'way to me', 'stop', 'that’ll do'. Direct with the leash as necessary.
Step
5
Take off lead
When the trainee is comfortable performing these tasks on lead, take the trainee off lead and let him work with the experienced dog, and the experienced sheep.
Step
6
Practice commands
Give basic commands to the experienced dog, and your trainee. If the trainee does not follow the experienced dog's lead, recall your new dog, and have him wait with you for a period of time before trying again.
Step
7
Praise following model
If the trainee dog follows the mature dog, praise him, say “good”. Keep sessions short and let your new dog end on a positive note.
Step
8
Start independent work
Eventually, your new dog can start working independently, once he is responding well, and understands what is required, how to stay safe, and not get kicked by the sheep.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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