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If you’ve ever passed by a farm that kept sheep or cattle, it’s hard to imagine such a farm without a means to keep the sheep from wandering too far. While in some cases, it may be a farmhand’s job to maintain the sheep while they graze, more often than not, the job is given to the farmer’s ever mindful dog who accompanies the livestock on their journey to and from the pasture. The most common breed that is selected for this job is none other than the incredibly intelligent Border Collie, normally representing their breed in a blaze of black and white fur as they round the sheep up and drive them in the direction the farmer would like them to go.
Developed near the Anglo-Scottish border in the 19th century, the Border Collie has lived up to the role of loyal sheepdog and the ideal working companion. For modern-day farmers, the breed remains just as popular to drive sheep, though training such a behavior to be reliable takes an invested and committed owner.
While Border Collies may be born with the instinct to herd, it’s not always as easy as letting them loose and hoping they pick up on what you want them to do. There is much work to be done with a puppy who has had his job picked out for him since birth if he is to be an ideal working dog. Not only must he master basic obedience, but also the specific tasks that come with the handling and directing of livestock.
Training for a sheepdog must start early, normally within the range of puppyhood, and can take months before he is prepared to be let loose with your sheep. A dog with an inappropriate or aggressive temperament will almost always struggle, if not wash out entirely, and it’s important to determine what sort of temperament your dog has before asking this much of him. It’s also important to consider consulting an experienced herding trainer for assistance.
First, ensure that your dog has had a full checkup by a veterinarian to determine that he is ready to start training to herd. A dog that is sick, disabled, or injured may not be suitable for this work. If your vet gives him a clean bill of health, ensure that he has the appropriate temperament. An ideal herding Border Collie should be eager to please, excited to learn, and be motivated easily by rewards like treats or toys.
Make sure you have access to animals like ducks, sheep, or other types of livestock for your dog to adjust to their look and presence. Without access to these animals, this training may not be successful. A herding Border Collie should also have a good grasp of basic obedience skills like ‘come’, ‘down’, ‘sit’, and ‘stay’.
Lastly, get together a leash for handling control, and some treats or toys for rewards as your dog learns.
The Lead Method
Adjust your dog to the sheep
Sheep can be large and a little bit intimidating when your dog or puppy is first introduced to them. Allow him time to get used to them being around.
With the sheep present and your dog on a long leash, practice some basic obedience commands like ‘down’ and ‘stay’. This will help him get adjusted to the idea of listening to commands while the sheep are nearby.
Teach ‘right’ and ‘left’
Focusing on one direction at a time, adjust your dog to moving around the sheep to the right and around the sheep to the left. Reward each time he moves in the appropriate direction, even if it’s on the leash with you.
Have your dog perform a ‘down’ and ‘stay’ on the opposite side of the sheep from you. You may either use a long leash for this or try it off leash if you feel confident in your dog’s obedience commands.
Practice the flank
A majority of what working Border Collies do is flanking livestock or cattle in order to drive them a certain direction. Using your ‘right’ and ‘left’ commands, allow your dog to practice going around the sheep in those directions. Remember that the commands should be referencing your dog’s right and left, not yours. Reward for positive progression.
Work up to the pasture
Most of your dog’s learning should take place in a controlled situation like a large fenced in area. As he gets more confident in his herding abilities, move out into the open if possible. Most herding is done in the open pasture or grazing grounds, so it’s important to practice in these environments.
Continue to work
Border Collies need constant practice and stimulation to remain in working condition. Even if your sheep don’t necessarily need herding on a specific day, practice commands with your dog anyway.
The Instinct Method
Bring your dog around livestock
Expose your Border Collie to sheep early on in the training. The more time she has to get used to them, the easier she’ll be able to herd them later on.
Some dogs may know instinctively what to do around sheep. Flanking behavior can occur naturally. However, do not allow any nipping at the heels of livestock as it can result in your dog being stepped on or kicked.
Reward for appropriate actions
Using treats or a clicker, reward your dog when she flanks in certain directions around the sheep or makes any inclination of moving them in a certain direction.
Use verbal commands
When you notice her performing ideal behavior, put a verbal command to each one that you’d like your Border Collie to repeat so she familiarizes the command with the behavior. Common commands are ‘come by’ which means to go left or clockwise around the sheep and ‘away to me’ which means to go to the right or counterclockwise around the sheep. Reward as necessary.
Remain in control
It may be practical to use a leash at first to ensure that your dog and your livestock are both safe. Use your own discretion regarding whether or not you believe your dog to be ready to be off-leash.
Practice usual obedience commands like ‘stay’ and ‘down’ to establish a working context with them. These commands should be used together with the new flanking commands that your dog learns.
Keep sessions short
Continue to work with your Border Collie daily, but never overextend her patience. Working in 15 to 20 minute sessions will ensure that your dog will remain interested in training and will not get burned out. Consider the patience of your livestock as well.
The Progression Method
Begin with smaller animals
Ducks or poultry may work well for this. Gather a few of them into a pen to maintain control.
Practice herding commands
With your ducks or other smaller animals, familiarize your dog with the flanking commands by either using ‘right’/’left’ or ‘come by’/’away to me’ verbal cues. You can either show your dog what you’d like him to do or allow him to figure it out on his own. Reward for good behavior.
Smaller animals may be easier to spook. Don’t let your dog get too close to them. If he does, place him in a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ to let the animals settle down. Remember not to overstress your animals. Take breaks as necessary.
Have your Border Collie master herding commands with smaller animals and then work up to bigger animals like sheep or other livestock. Remember to remain in control when first meeting larger animals as they have the potential to cause injury if mistreated or scared.
Repeat the learning process
Just as you worked with the smaller animals, repeat the same process with the larger. Practice herding commands and reward accordingly. Keep these sessions shorter than the ones with smaller animals.
With daily repetition and training sessions, your Border Collie will keep his knowledge at the forefront of his mind and be better able to herd livestock. Remember to practice basic obedience as well to keep him working and thinking.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 01/02/2018, edited: 01/08/2021