“There is no more off-leash reliable, calm, sophisticated, go-with-you-anywhere dog than a trained sheepdog.” – Donald McCaig
What are sheepdogs?
Sheepdogs are working dogs used to herd sheep or other livestock, such as cattle or poultry. Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated by humans and have been selectively bred over thousands of years. In herding dogs, selective breeding has suppressed the desire to kill and eat livestock while maintaining many of the dog’s hunting instincts and skills.
Sheepdogs can be used to move sheep from one pasture to another, to bring sheep in to a pen or a barn, and to separate individual sheep from the rest of the flock. As well as working on farms and smallholdings, sheepdogs are often trained for competitions known as sheepdog trials which test both the skill of the dog and the handler. The breeds typically used for herding in the UK today are the Border collie, the Bearded collie, the Kelpie and the Huntaway. These breeds have good herding instincts and trainability; they also enjoy working and need plenty of exercise and stimulation.
What are the benefits of sheepdogs?
With a sheepdog to help you can gather and move your livestock much more easily; you don’t have to rely on bucket-trained sheep. It is easier to keep stock on rough hill ground or implement a system where you move animals on frequently. These benefits could allow you to use your land more efficiently or sustainably.
Dogs trump quad bikes in several ways (though, of course, they can be used together). A dog can work on wet, rough ground and never compact the soil. A dog can sniff out a hidden, injured, sheep and his or her sharp ears may even warn you that your sheep are out and halfway down the lane. With a dog, it is far easier to separate a single sheep which needs attention from the rest of the flock.
Training and working a dog can be a reward in itself. There will always be more to learn, and as you develop your skills you may even want to take part in sheepdog trials. There can also be opportunities to supplement your income by working with your dog on larger farms. Finally, a dog can also double as a guard dog and a companion.
What can I do?
Finding someone local who works dogs and paying them a visit is a great place to start. You can see what their dog does for them and think about whether a dog would work for your holding. Consider if you have enough work for a dog, and how you will provide them with enough exercise and stimulation if you do not. Bear in mind that sheepdogs need far more stimulation and exercise than many other dogs.
If you decide to go ahead, contact a local trainer with a good reputation to help you find a dog suitable for you. For your first dog, it is usually best go for an older experienced dog, which will be easy to handle. Even with help, training a young dog can be a time-consuming and, at times, stressful process. Handler training is essential. There are many places to get this but the ideal situation would be someone who could offer you a trained dog along with handler training. Even a veteran dog can struggle to understand a novice handler, so getting some training with the dog you are going to buy can really smooth your path.
The art of sheep movement – mesmerising.
There are some differences between the breeds. Huntaways may be particularly good with large numbers of sheep over a large area; Border collies may be best for precise work requiring agility. In general though, the individual should be chosen rather than the breed, and any of the breeds could do any of the work you might need. Watch the dog you are thinking of buying work the livestock. Does she (or he) focus on her work or is she easily distracted? Does she listen to her handler? Does she move the animals calmly without startling them? A good sheepdog should leave the sheep when called but also appear eager to return to work. Spend some time with the dog; you are going to be a team so you need to know you will get on.
If you know whether you’ll be keeping your dog outdoors or in your house, and you are buying a mature dog, you will need to buy a dog accustomed to living that way. An outdoor dog should have a dry and draught-proof place to sleep with some bedding, though you may occasionally find her sleeping out in the snow! An indoor dog should have her own space to retreat to, such as a dog bed.
Working your dog
Sheepdogs love to work. Their reward for working is the work itself, and receiving praise, but above all the work. A dog is rarely deliberately disobedient – the chances are, if things are going badly, your dog does not understand what is wanted and instinct has taken over. Your dog needs you to be calm and confident. She needs to have bonded with you and respect you, accepting you as leader of the pack.
Building a bond and earning respect is the first thing you need to do with your dog and may take several weeks. You, the handler, should be the one to feed, groom and exercise your new dog. As with any dog you need to be consistent and firm with discipline, without punishing or becoming angry. Always be pleased to see your dog, and always praise her when she returns to you, even if you had to ask ten times and you feel like doing no such thing!
To work your dog confidently, it’s important to have had some handler training, either from the dog’s trainer or from another trainer or college. The main basic commands when working a dog are: “come-bye” (move clockwise around the sheep); “away” (move anti-clockwise around the sheep); “lie-down” (stop); and “that’ll do” (stop working the sheep and return to handler). There are more commands, and which commands are used and when will vary between handlers. Start with easy tasks and short sessions; even if you have purchased a veteran dog, you need to build your own confidence. As you gain experience, forming a bond with your dog and learning to read her body language, you and your dog will become a team and working the livestock together will go more smoothly.
You can buy good quality dog food from farm feed suppliers in bulk and follow the feeding instructions on the pack. How much your dog needs will depend on how much work she is doing, and will vary between individuals. You need your dog to be fit; keep an eye on her weight and be ready to adjust the amounts if she is getting fat or losing condition.
There are ways to reduce the environmental impact of your dog’s diet. Avoid dog food made from ‘human grade’ meats rather than waste products; these feeds are no more nutritious and result in far more food waste. You could also look for feeds containing meat from MSC-certified fish or free-range poultry. Another option is to make your own dog food. Many people will not have the time or resources for this, but, if done well, it can be the most sustainable option. It is more likely to be feasible, and affordable, if you have a friendly local butcher who can source waste meat products for you, plus a large freezer and the ability to buy meat in bulk. If you choose to go down this route make sure you do your research thoroughly, so you can be certain you are feeding your dog the balanced diet she needs.
You need to have a good vet who has experience with dogs. The chances are you already have one for your livestock. If you spend time with your dog every day (and it’s important that you do), you’ll quickly notice if she is unwell. You should also regularly groom your dog, especially if she is long-haired.
Dogs are vaccinated against 4 main illnesses – canine parvovirus, canine distemper virus, leptospirosis and Infectious canine hepatitis. You should make sure the dog you buy is up to date with these. She’ll need boosters every 1 to 3 years.
Dogs can suffer from a range of parasites, including intestinal parasites, lung worm and fleas. It’s recommended to treat your dog for worms at least 4 times a year. You can also reduce the chances of your dog becoming reinfected by clearing up her faeces. You should treat your dog for fleas every 1 or 2 months. If she lives outside, or your house is not centrally heated, you may find treatment for fleas is needed less often in the winter.
At first, working dogs may simply be a tool for managing your sheep – but it can turn into a passion in itself. There are hundreds of local trialing events held all over the UK ever year where you can test your own and your dog’s skills.
A sheepdog trial typically involves the following tasks: the fetch (bringing the sheep towards the handler, passing through gates); the drive (herding the sheep back down, then across, the field, again passing through gates); shedding (separating a set number of sheep from the flock); and penning (bringing the sheep into a small enclosure). The types of trials you may enter are:
- Nursery: trials for inexperienced dogs unused to competition, often not including shedding.
- Novice: open to any dogs who have not won at novice level.
- Open: open to all dogs. It is at open trials that points can be gained towards qualification for national trials. At national trials handlers and dogs compete to be selected for their national team.
A young dog practices shedding.
Thanks to Alice Muir of Achalone for the information.
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Alice Muir has been working with sheep since childhood, starting on her parents’ farm. More recently, she has been managing 20000 acres and 4500 breeding ewes. She says sheep dogs are not only a hobby and a passion but she couldn’t do her job without them. Alice breeds and trains sheepdogs, and offers shepherding services: Caithness Shepherding Services.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's