Helping Stock Dogs Remember
Practicing the Basics
By Denice Rackley
The last series of articles focused on our first few lessons on stock. We have been concerned about the ideal picture we were looking for and the most common challenges.
We now have our young dog walking calmly “to round pen” and waiting next to us until asked to “go to sheep.”
Our sheep-handling trainee is working calmly to keep the group of sheep with us as we walk around. That includes stopping behind sheep and “calling off” of them well. It also involves familiarity with “Here,” “That’ll Do,” “Lie Down” or “Stand” and a sound chosen to indicate he should go around the sheep to gather and bring them to us.
We have learned that young dogs naturally respond to our body movement, wanting to keep stock with us. We are slowly introducing commands, wanting the dog to eventually pay more attention to the command than our movement.
Teaching “Walk Up” is one of the easiest commands. With the dog stopped behind sheep, begin moving away in a straight line and ask for a “Walk Up.”
The dog will want to come forward, pushing sheep toward you.
You can incorporate some sound to mean walk up. Two short whistles are commonly used. I ‘click,’ like the sound I would use for a horse to increase speed (since that comes easily from my horse training days).
The dog might want to circle sheep since we have been doing quite a bit of that. Encouragement to stay behind the sheep is signaled by raising a hand or an arm to block off the circling.
You may use a fence line to help a dog understand what you want: Walking a few feet from the fenceline will assist the sheep in continuing in a straight line and help keep the dog from circling toward the fence, so you only have one side to block. Once the dog understands, move toward the center of the pasture.
Remember: If the sheep pass you, allow the dog to circle around them in a gather, to bring them back to you.
Position Yourself Well
Your body position will affect the dog and the gather.
If the dog is on your left side, it should go left; on right side, it should go right. You want to be standing up near the dog’s shoulder, sending it off with a ssshhhh as you step away releasing pressure.
As of yet we have not introduced flank commands (named to indicate which direction we wish the dog to go.) I wait a bit before introducing commands. If I say a specific direction before the dog is easily going both ways, then I need to do all in my power to ensure it goes the way I have said. It’s easier to introduce flank commands by “sending” the dog, with a sshhhh, then “say” that direction. (“Come Bye” is a standard command meaning clockwise. “Away to Me” and/or “Way” mean counterclockwise.)
If you’re standing at the dog’s hip when you send it, that puts some slight pressure on its rump, which can make it go faster. Standing near its shoulder helps the dog turn its head away from sheep to the outside of the circle, so it’s not putting pressure on the sheep around the circle.
The pressure to move sheep needs to come as soon as the dog is stepping toward sheep to move them to you (a “walk up”), not as it’s traveling around the circle.
After the Round Pen
Once a pup is keeping all the sheep together, moving them to me, stopping and coming off sheep when asked, I begin working in different locations, adding more “dog-broke” sheep.
From the round pen, I move into the training pasture. It’s about 250 feet by 150 feet, with loose-woven wire, so if animals hit it, they’ll bounce off. (I hope for the best, but plan for the worst.)
I tend to best get the small group of sheep in their favorite spot in the pasture by walking with the young dog on a lead, “pushing” the sheep. One can then just drop the line, asking the dog to begin gathering.
Repeat the things that were being done in the round pen in one-third of the pasture, gradually using the complete pasture. If there’s a skill or particular location the dog has trouble with work closer to both it and sheep, by going closer to a corner of the pasture. If things get out of hand, go back to the round pen for a few more lessons.
I work in a smaller enclosure, do a bit of work in corners, try inside the barn and then work a larger group of sheep in the small training pasture. Working in those different areas with different numbers of sheep will help the young dog learn different lessons and perfect the lessons you’ve started in the round pen. The dog will learn to relax with sheep and build confidence, enabling good work in the smaller, confined, tight spaces — as well as practice keeping a larger group together in a bigger space.
Periodically, I revisit those areas best suited to the skills the dog needs more help with.
At any stage of training, you need to feel free to go to the area where you can best help your dog. It’s not a step back to take a three-year-old dog into a round pen.
I work my fully trained dogs in the round pen occasionally: Working where you can take a step or two to help the dog (rather than the dog being 25 or 200 yards away) is good training; it can be very productive. You aren’t going to be able to help the dog as quickly or easily at 200 yards.
Your corrections should be more effective in a smaller place, because you will see what needs to be corrected, sooner.
The correction is given at the appropriate time, ensuring the dog will clearly understand what the correction is for.
Once the dog understands what you want, then move to a larger space, setting things up to judge whether the problem has been taken care of.
Remember, corrections only work if the dog knows and understands what it did that caused you to correct. When you are teaching a skill, you need to be helping the dog understand. It’s important not to “drill” — don’t get into the habit of repeating lessons on the same sheep in the same place.
Once the pup is calling off well, working thoughtfully and keeping sheep in one group, then move on to another step in the training process.
When there’s a problem, move back into a smaller space with fewer sheep and work on that problem.
Remember to keep lessons short: Dogs learn correct skills just as quickly as they learn the wrong things. Try not to “practice” the wrong stuff.
I have started pups in my training pasture, not needing the security of the round pen. These pups listened extremely well, never chased, or did silly puppy things. They were working in a large pasture on 20 lambs at six months old. I still went into the round pen and smaller pen to teach them to relax while working in tight spaces and surrounded by lambs.
At some point, I will want the dog to confidently walk into the middle of 100 ewes, parting the flock on its way through. The smaller pens enable me to begin to develop this skill.
Training is nothing more than planning for life. Every skill I will need the dog to accomplish I keep in mind while the dog is young. I try to set up situations in a controlled space with easy, predictable sheep, so I help the dog understand what I’m asking.
I’m setting the stage for success. A confident thoughtful dog will be willing to try anything I ask in the future.
If the dog has mastered individual skills, or at least been exposed to them, it’s easier to put the pieces together while learning on the job, helping with chores.
I expose a dog as it’s ready for increasingly difficult tasks. Testing the dog in real work situations will show you where it’s comfortable and what skills it needs to practice.
We can take a step back, setting up training scenarios when we encounter a trouble spot. Experience is a great teacher. If the dog has a good stop and recall, I figure things can’t go too wrong. But I start small, working our way up to complicated tasks.
We can discuss the young dog helping with chores in a future article.
Originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of sheep!.