A Sheep Dogs First Exposure to Sheep

A dog’s first exposure to sheep can be quite a wild ride and we want owners to have an idea what’s happening.

Keep a Sheep Dog on a Leash to Begin With

It’s best keep your dog on leash when he’s not actually working the stock. This is important for the safety of the dog and the stock. Your perfectly obedient dog will become quite a different creature when tempted by sheep and not many of us are fast enough to catch an exuberant youngster out of control and chasing sheep all over creation.

If it’s not your turn to work, it’s best to keep your dog in a crate, in the car, somewhere he can’t watch other dogs working. You may think he’s just watching, but he thinks he’s working even if he’s tied to a fence post and can’t do anything but stare. It’s hard on the dog and creates problems when he does get his turn to work. You want to get the most out of your dog, so don’t let him spectate.

Most beginner dogs are started in the small round pen and will be handled initially by an experienced trainer. This is necessary to evaluate the dog and how it is going to react to the sheep, and for the protection of the sheep. A very rough young dog, an owner who doesn’t know what to do and sheep flying around in a small space is a recipe for disaster. An experienced trainer can keep a better handle on the situation. The trainer will evaluate the dog and get the owner in the pen handling the dog as soon as it is possible and safe to do so. The goal is to show you how to work your own dog, especially since you need so much more training than your dog at this point.

The First Loose

What should you expect of your dog when he’s turned loose in the round pen with the sheep —

This varies from dog to dog. Some dogs will go in and just sort of softly float around the sheep, gently pushing them away from the fence and bringing them quietly to the handler, balancing them right at the handler’s feet. Most of us will never see this dog! It’s very rare, even with a trained dog, that things are quiet and calm in a round pen. It’s generally too cramped of a space for things to be quiet and easy. An experienced trainer can make it look easy, but only because he or she knows how to control the situation.

Initial reactions to sheep

Different dogs react differently in their first exposures to sheep. Many, especially the younger ones, will go in and not react to the sheep at all. This is almost always a very temporary state. A minute or two of sniffing around, eating sheep manure, looking over at mom, and all of a sudden the dog says “SHEEEEEEEP” and turns on as if someone had flipped a switch. These dogs are usually fairly easy to work after they’ve switched on, though they can be pretty darned exuberant once they’ve heard their calling. These dogs should probably be limited in their exposure, as again, most of them are young dogs. The session should be kept short and upbeat.

Other dogs will go in barking, hackles raised, sounding very tough. This is usually a reaction to just the opposite of what one might think – the dog is intimidated by the sheep. Again, this is usually a temporary reaction though the change is not as dramatic as with the first type of dog. This dog needs to be allowed to have a good bit of fun on the sheep to figure out they’re not something to be frightened of. He’s already feeling worried about sheep so he sure doesn’t need a trainer fussing at him too. Within reason, this dog should be allowed to run around and generally boss sheep, biting and darting here and there and everywhere, always being encouraged to get in there and take charge. This is also the way to handle other dogs that are a little intimidated by the sheep, ones that aren’t “acting tough”. You can’t force these dogs to feel brave, but you can encourage them into getting past their fear. Then you can start trying to control them a little at a time, always watching their countenance and building up their confidence.

Another type of dog is the one that goes in and bites hard, but not because he’s afraid of the sheep. This is just a tough, hardheaded kind of dog and probably couldn’t be stopped from working with a 2 by 4. This dog just needs to be shown that he can work without grabbing and ripping and tearing at sheep. You’ll hear this dog described as “a lot of dog”. While he can be tough to get started, this dog can go a long way in training. He’ll make you glad you’ve got the round pen to keep everything close! He doesn’t suffer from any lack of confidence usually. Rather he thinks he knows just exactly how to do this stuff and wishes you’d get out of the way. The mission with this type of dog is to explain that you are indeed the one in charge.

There are many different ways dogs will react to sheep in their first exposures but these are some common ones. The “why” is much more important than the “how” in determining how to proceed with your dog. Most dogs just need gentle guidance in understanding the “rules to work by” and to have their confidence built up. Dogs without the confidence problem generally just need some guidance. Overconfident dogs might need to be taken down a peg or two but also need to be shown how this all works and what is and is not allowed and expected.

What are we after from the dog in the round pen

What we want the dog to do in the round pen is actually very simple. All we want is for the dog to work the sheep to the handler.

What does it mean to say we want the dog to work the sheep to the handler? We want the dog to always be bringing the sheep toward the handler, always trying to turn the sheep so that they follow the handler’s movements. Most dogs do not go in the round pen thinking about bringing sheep to the handler. They’re excited by the movement of the sheep, they’re chasing them around and around grabbing a mouthful of wool here and there, they’re circling around the sheep and the handler at the same time, they’re cutting between the sheep and the handler, it’s all total chaos. The handler is far from foremost in the dog’s mind. We might let a dog fly around doing silly stuff for a short time just to get his interest up, but we will begin setting “rules to work by” pretty much from the start.

The first and foremost “rule to work by” is that the dog should be on the opposite side of the sheep from the handler. The dog must be over there or he cannot bring the sheep to you, which is our goal. Many dogs will start out circling everyone and everything in the round pen, orbiting around sheep and handler. You stop this basically by stopping it. That sounds odd, but you just don’t let the dog do it. Step in front of him and block him, force him to stay over on the other side of the sheep. Other dogs will circle the sheep, moving between them and the handler, and ignore the fact that there is a person anywhere in the pen. Again, you stop this by stopping it. Cut the dog off and don’t let him do it. Both of these situations are symptoms of the same problem – the handler doesn’t exist right then for the dog. The first dog thinks you’re just another sheep and the second one thinks you’re a ghost! Fortunately this problem is easily fixed by dealing with the symptom. Just assert yourself and the dog will realize you’re part of this too. This is the main goal to be met in the round pen – make yourself part of the picture for the dog so he brings you sheep. If the dog isn’t bringing you the sheep, you can’t move to a larger area or the sheep will just escape. For dogs with enough drive and confidence, this can be accomplished very quickly.

What we are after from the handler in the round pen

Here’s the hard part. If you’ve never done this before, it’s going to probably feel like someone tossed you into a whirlwind. Your foremost goals are to keep things calm and to keep the dog on the other side of the sheep. But there are lots of things that can make this easier or more difficult.

You need to be moving constantly in the round pen. You have an inexperienced dog and if things come to a stop, he doesn’t know what to do. Chances are he’ll create something to do by grabbing a sheep and making things very exciting! An experienced dog will settle and wait for things to get going again, but the inexperienced one doesn’t know how to deal with inactivity. He also probably won’t be able to deal with you moving backwards in a straight line for more than a step or two or three. He’ll end up right under the sheep and again it’ll get pretty exciting! You must keep moving and turning so the dog has something to do.

How you turn in a round pen is important. You will be backing up so you can keep an eye on the dog and sheep. The trick is to always turn squarely, not to arc around the pen. If you quickly turn 90 or 180 degrees, the dog gets to go and “gather” the sheep toward you. This is good, the dog is getting the basics in how to work sheep and you’re starting right away at building toward those magnificent 600 yard outruns we see top BCs do. You should turn quickly and try to “leave” the sheep behind so the dog gets to bring them to you. If you walk backwards in a gentle arc, never making sharp turns and leaving the sheep for the dog to bring to you, you are only frustrating the dog and not teaching him anything at all, except perhaps how to follow sheep around. We don’t want the dog following; we want him in charge and telling those sheep what to do! Pay attention that you are turning both directions too, so the dog learns to go to either side. You will not be able to keep yourself in front of the sheep by moving faster and faster. Rather, you have to turn and leave the sheep so the dog can gather them up and bring them to you. This is important – if you feel like you’re trying to out-run the sheep and dog, start turning squarely.

If the dog is working too close to the sheep, either behind them or as he goes around, the sheep are going to be very jittery and things are going to be moving really fast in that round pen. You may need to “push” your dog out further from the sheep, probably with a PVC pole and with your presence. Your dog should be turning out to go around the sheep but may need help in understanding this. Some dogs are more naturally “square” than others. Basically in such a small space, your dog should never move directly towards the sheep, except from behind. This is another “rule to work by” that you need to keep in mind. As you turn, you may need to push your dog out further from the sheep.

If you’re moving and turning and pushing your dog correctly, this is going to all feel pretty good. There’s a flow to it and you won’t feel like you’re going to get run over by the sheep.

Chances are, we’ll be working on building the confidence of most dogs in the round pen so there are certain things we’ll look for to quietly praise or just to gauge how the dog’s confidence is doing. Many dogs are a bit frightened to move between the sheep and the fence. Considering the round pen is a lot of fence in a small area, this can become an issue. We need to quietly praise a dog for doing something that is hard for him, so we might quietly say “good boy” as he sneaks through that space, even if he flies through and grabs a bit of wool on his way. Chances are next time he’ll feel more confident and do it just a little more nicely. A dog that is very intimidated by sheep might get praise for biting a sheep if it’s not a vicious sort of grip, just so he feels a little “bigger”. All praise should be very quiet, not loud or excited or exuberant. The dog is working very hard on figuring out the rules and we don’t want the praise to be distracting. Every single time a dog works his way through something that is hard for him, his confidence grows. But we can’t force it.

There are certain signs that indicate a dog’s confidence is shrinking or he’s becoming less keen on his work. Avoidance behaviors include running to the gate, sniffing, eating sheep manure, urinating or defecating in the pen, looking away from the sheep, running to the handler. We have to be careful to “read” the dog and make sure his experiences are positive ones. Many times the avoidance behaviors pop up if too much was asked of a dog too soon so we just have to make him feel good again. It can be something of a tightrope, especially with dogs that are fearful, but it can be worked through with care and patience.

In Conclusion

A round pen, an inexperienced handler and an inexperienced dog can make for a wild scene! If you can remember some basic rules it’ll be easier though. Most important is to keep the dog on the other side of the sheep. Do what you have to do to block him from coming around, but do it! Every time he “beats” you he is rewarded for it so just decide it’s not allowed. If he was running for the street and a car was coming, you wouldn’t worry about what method you used to stop him, you just would. So approach this the same way -it’s just not allowed. You can make it easier for him and you by moving and turning appropriately, the same way you could make it easier to stop him before he got to the street if you’d taught him to come instantly on command. Don’t expect him to do it right if you don’t help him. And make sure to read your dog, pay attention to what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, what’s going through his head. Help him when he needs it, fuss at him when he’s wrong, and tell him he was a brave boy when he was. The whole idea is to mold what you’ve got.

Remember – Training a herding dog isn’t so much about teaching him anything. It’s all there in the dog already. You’ve just got to figure out how to ask for it in a way he can understand and listen to him when he’s trying to tell you something. It’s all about teaching you and opening that two-way communication between you and your dog.