Introducing a young dog to sheep (puppy training essentials)

Important points to remember when introducing a young dog to sheep

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Andy with Border Collie puppy Mo

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Video Highlights

Introducing a young dog to sheep is a great idea.
Done correctly, it can make training far easier – but you need to take care!
It’s natural to be keen to introduce your dog to sheep.
But are you able to recognise danger signs and act quickly enough to protect the dog?
By leading a puppy around sheep, you may be teaching it not to work.
Reasons why leading a dog around sheep can discourage it from working.
How to familiarise your dog with sheep and preserve it’s instinct to work.
Add verbal encouragement to boost the dog’s confidence.
Unless you’re sure you can recognise danger signs, and are in a position to quickly prevent them, keep the pup well clear of sheep, until it’s at least eight (8) or nine (9) months old.
Then, only allow access if you’re in a position to assist it when required.
REMEMBER: By repeatedly restraining a dog or puppy from rushing at sheep, the puppy may be learning that it’s not allowed to work sheep.

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Lead walking has consequences

The more familiar your dog is with stock before it begins training, the easier it will be to train the dog. This is because the hunting instinct is not as strong in pups as it is in adult dogs. It’s the powerful hunting instinct, combined with the intense excitement and novelty of being introduced to sheep for the first time, that makes many older dogs difficult to control or aggressive in the early stages of herding.

The more exposure the young dog has to sheep or other stock, the less excited it will be when we begin teaching it to herd stock.

For this reason it’s tempting to try your puppy or young dog with stock at a very early age. Beware of this! If the youngster is frightened, back-off! Allow the dog’s natural curiosity to develop. Trying to force the dog to take an interest will probably have the reverse effect, so wait until you can see that the dog’s keen to get closer.

If the young dog’s keen to get to the sheep or cattle, unless you can be absolutely certain you’re in a position to protect it from attack (or even the threat of it) there’s a very real danger that sheep or cattle will frighten the young dog and damage its confidence – possibly permanently.

Worse still!

On the other hand, if you frequently walk a pup or young dog around stock (on a lead) to familiarise it with them, unless you allow the youngster to chase the stock from time-to-time, there’s a very strong chance the young dog will learn (from being restrained) that it’s not allowed to run after the animals. Find out how to introduce a young dog to sheep

The Training Stick


22 responses to “Introducing a young dog to sheep (puppy training essentials)”

  1. Elisabeth Kelly avatar
    Elisabeth Kelly

    Andy what do you think about using runner ducks first – I feel if it’s all a disaster when he is young this might be less of a disaster than sheep?! And any good dog boy names?!

    1. Thanks for your question Elisabeth. We don’t recommend working with ducks until your dog is becoming quite advanced. Controlling ducks requires great self control on the part of the dog, and if “it’s all a disaster” it’s generally the duck who pays the price. Ducks are an option if you have space for them, AND an interest in keeping runner ducks per se, but otherwise you’re probably better off using the sheep you already have. Buying or borrowing a few well-dogged sheep would give you an advantage with a young dog, but they’re not easy to find.

      Boy dog names? I have plenty! If you just want a name for working then the world is your naming oyster, but if you need a name for your dog’s ISDS registration it needs to be only one or two syllables, suggest the sex of the dog, and be a name you can use while you’re working. Theoretically it can’t be a brand name, but I’ve met a few “Bistos” and “Marmites”. Gill

  2. Janice Mullins avatar
    Janice Mullins

    Andy, I am trying to train a border collie to work cattle. If the cows do not respond to the dog, how I proceed to get the dog to work, or move the cattle? Also, sometimes the dog ignores my commands. Any suggestions?

    1. You haven’t given me much information to work with, Janice. How old is the dog? What is the dog doing (if anything) when it’s near cattle? How does it react to them?
      As for the dog ignoring your commands, how long have you had it? When exactly, does it ignore you? It sounds as though the dog isn’t properly bonded with you. (In this case, bonding means the dog fully accepts you as its leader). A good test of this is walking the dog on a lead. If the dog walks with the lead slack for about 90% of the time, there’s a good chance it’s bonded with you. Proper lead training can help to improve the bond between you and your dog.
      Watch “Sheepdog selection and preparation“. I suggest you watch all of it even if you’ve already seen it once. There’s a link to the lead training section if you’re in too much of a hurry though. The FAQ “How to train your dog to have a great recall” deals with it in more detail.
      Whether the bond between you and the dog is the cause of the problem or not, I can’t really help you get your dog working cattle properly unless you give me a better picture of what’s happening. I’m happy to give my best advice if you do.

  3. Can your tutorials help with a Kelpie in training or does this training help more working collies. Thanks

    1. They definitely work very well with Kelpies, Fi. The only difference I’m aware of is the Kelpies can be a little slower to train, but definitely worth it!

  4. Hello Andy,

    Would you share your knowledge on raising siblings from the same litter ? Why it’s not a good idea or what a person needs to do to make it successful?


    1. It’s not a good idea to take-on litter-mates because it can be much harder to get them to ‘Bond’ with you – and thus they’re harder to train. Litter-mates are already strongly bonded with each other, so when they go to a new home, they don’t NEED to bond with anyone else.
      To overcome this, it’s necessary to exercise and train them separately – in other words, it takes twice as long. Even this is no guarantee of success though, because a vital part of bonding is for the dog to spend as much one-on-one time with the owner as possible. Obviously this will be halved if there are two to deal with.
      The term ‘bond’ (above) doesn’t mean the dog wags its tail when you pat it on the head, it means that the dog fully respects you as its leader. A good recall (even if the dog is in full play mode) and walking on a lead with the lead slack (not pulling at all) are good tests of how bonded the dog is with its owner.
      If you want two puppies, we recommend you buy one – and then when that dog walks well on the lead and will come back to you even if it’s having great fun somewhere else at the time – then you might consider getting a second pup.

  5. Charissa Buggs avatar
    Charissa Buggs

    Hello there! Thank you so much for these videos, we’ve been learning so much from them. We have a nearly four month old Border Collie puppy who is very energetic and full of life. We’re hoping to train him to work with sheep in the future. I’m struggling to know how to go about training him now though. We take him for 2-3 walks a day. But we live on a farm where he’s able to run around and explore. He loves sniffing, stalking and chasing birds and rabbits. Whenever we take him for a walk (not on a lead) he isn’t very good at coming back to us when we call him to come here. He’s learnt how to sit and lie down and will do those most often when commanded. So my questions are: 1) You say that teaching him to walk on a lead is very important. How often should I take him for a walk on a lead? Should I only be walking him on a lead for now or can I let him walk freely? I’ve been using a short lead so as to lead train him as you suggest. This is gradually improving over time. But should I use a long lead to let him wander about but still have control? 2) How do I train him to come when I call? He will often look at and acknowledge me when I call but then prance off in the other direction. Especially if something takes his fancy. When we call him back and he doesn’t come, do I keep calling him? Doesn’t this reinforce that he can disobey my commands? Or do I go and get him? And then pick him up and carry him away? Or insist he comes to me there? How do I train him to to do reliable recall. We obviously can’t take him to puppy training classes at the moment so having to rely on reading up and watching things! Thank you so much for your help! Much appreciated!

    1. [Thank you so much for these videos, we’ve been learning so much from them.]
      Thanks for the great feedback. It’s important to us to know our work is appreciated].

      [We have a nearly four month old Border Collie puppy who is very energetic and full of life…. We take him for 2-3 walks a day. But we live on a farm where he’s able to run around and explore. He loves sniffing, stalking and chasing birds and rabbits.]
      Basically, this is the cause of your problem. The dog has the freedom to do as he pleases nearly all day – including chasing animals, but you’re wondering why he doesn’t feel your recall command is important enough to him.

      Please watch Sheepdog Selection and Preparation. If you’ve already watched it, you’ve missed the point – watch it again!

      Your situation will rapidly get worse unless you keep the youngster in a kennel (with a proper run) when he’s not with you – and he should be with you as much as is practical during the day.

      With access the the thrills he finds around the farm (including chasing things) he’s going to become a real problem and very soon will discover sheep. Then he’ll either become a real pest, or one of the ewes will “fix” him and he may not ever want to go near them again.

      Once you’ve watched Sheepdog Selection and Preparation, start taking the dog out on a short lead, and first make sure he walks properly on it (not too much pulling). Occasionally, stop, crouch down and call him (even though he’s within arms reach). He’ll more than likely come closer, so you make a little fuss of him and praise him. Don’t overdo it though.
      Carry on walking, and repeat the above. Once he’s coming immediately when you crouch down and call him, you can extend the lead (say twice the length of a normal lead) and repeat the above. If he doesn’t come, pull him to you – and give him praise, but a lot less than you would if he came immediately.
      If all goes well, double the length of the lead (or rope) again – and so on.
      If at any stage he makes it clear he’s not going to come willingly, you march him briskly back to his pen, and unceremoniously bundle him into it. Leave him there for at least an hour.
      Keep working on the recall this way until the lead or rope is about ten metres (30 ft) then, assuming he comes back to you reliably, you can try letting go of the lead. He should still come back to you, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be a lot easier to catch because you can step on the long rope he’s trailing behind him. Take great care not to stop him too abruptly though. You don’t want to injure his neck. I suggest you connect the lead with something stretchy to absorb the shock.

      Remember – dogs don’t do anything unless they get some reward – if you think about it, it’s true. A dog which is sniffing around hoping for something to chase, isn’t going to feel inclined to come back to you unless it respects you as its leader. If it firmly respects your leadership, it will value your praise when it does something that pleases you – that’s it’s reward.

      We also have a puppy training article you should find useful.

      The first thing you need to do is gain that youngster’s respect!

      1. Charissa Buggs avatar
        Charissa Buggs

        Hi Andy, thank you so much for your reply, we really appreciate it.

        Just to clarify, our puppy is not roaming free all day but when we’ve been taking him for walks around the orchards/fields, he’s been largely free range except when we’ve been lead training him once a day or so.

        Your puppies seem to have a very different existence from ours, and most puppies, in that you have them in a group. You show us you exercising them in a group as well as lead training. Your puppies are therefore able to see the difference between free form pack time in a group, and the one to one training of obedience.

        With a single puppy how do we balance the “fun and games” exercise and the confidence building, exploring of their world, with training sessions? We can’t fulfil all our puppy’s need for exercise on a lead.

        So the question we have though is what percentage of their daily exercise is ‘free form’ and how much of it is structured training?

        Thank you, Charissa

        1. The same rules apply to dogs regardless of age, except that older dogs take longer to learn. Our puppies (when we have them) are confined to our garden, and later the yard, until such time as we can control them. You need to get your dog’s respect and control it too.

          In Sheepdog Selection and Preparation, I say “your dog starts learning from you the moment it sets eyes on you”. That’s absolutely true. When it’s not with you, it’s learning other things (usually mischievous things in the case of puppies).

          I can’t give you a prescription to follow as such because everyone’s situation (and dog) is different, but as I said in my last reply, your situation will rapidly get worse unless you keep the youngster in a kennel (with a proper run) when he’s not with you – and he should be with you as much as is practical during the day. It doesn’t have to be a kennel, but the dog must be kept out of trouble.

  6. Andy Snow avatar

    Hi Andy,
    Have you considered doing a tutorial on breeding pups and how to look after them up to the training stage? I would be very interested as I have a lovely dog and bitch that I would like to breed from in a year or so time and know very little about breeding from dogs.
    Apologies if this comment is in the wrong section, was not quite sure which tutorial was the most relevant!
    Many thanks

    1. If we did a tutorial on breeding, it would probably be quite negative, Andy. So many people have a dog they love, and quite naturally want to breed from it, but they keep one pup (keeping more is a big mistake unless you really know what you’re taking on) and they give little thought to where the rest of the litter will go.
      We’ve learned the hard way that there are an awful lot of people who want border collies (and other dogs for that matter) but expect the dog to live in a totally unsuitable home. I could write reams on this, but I simply don’t have time.
      My advice to anyone who wants to breed from their dog is to think very carefully about it, and make certain you have suitable homes for ALL the pups before you even get the dog mated.
      I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanted me to write, but I have to say what I know to be the truth.

      1. Andy Snow avatar

        Hi Andy
        Thanks for the reply. I fully understand what you are saying. It is the one thing that has always put me off in the past. I have two lovely dogs that I would like to breed from at some point and already have a few homes lined up . I can see why a tutorial on breeding might not be a good idea so will do some homework nearer the time that I need to think about a working replacement.
        Many thanks

  7. Chantal Pique avatar
    Chantal Pique

    Thank you Gill,
    the password is working and questioning if possible about 14 weeks old puppies and with about 18 weeks old sheep can be training them?

    1. Both the dog and the sheep sound a bit young Chantal, but to be honest I have not tried training a dog on sheep of that age. It would be worth trying them. Just try to remember that the dog is extremely young. Do not expect too much of it. Keep the sessions very short – and maybe once or twice a week at the very most until the pup’s a bit stronger.
      Perhaps you would be kind enough to post back here to let us know how you get on?

  8. Olle Sundemo avatar
    Olle Sundemo

    Hi! I really appreciate your videos and find them both inspiring and helpful in our trying and daily life with the old dogs. But we have now got ourself our first puppy in 15 years, and we are very exited about the fact that we get to do it all from the bening this time. She is only 13 weeks so there will take some time until we really get serious in the pen with the sheep.
    I believe this first year is crucial for setting leadership, general behaviour and basic commands. But Im not sure when Im to hard on her, or soft..
    Whats your focus for the puppies the first year?


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Olle. It’s great to get feedback from our members.
      No need to be too hard on the puppy, all you need to do is be FIRM, FAIR and CONSISTENT. Concentrate on teaching it good manners. To respect you, such as not rushing through doors or gates before you, and to come when you call. Teach the dog to be considerate – but don’t expect the dog to progress too quickly. It’s a tiny toddler in human terms, so be patient!
      Lastly, don’t make the common mistake of walking the pup around the sheep on a lead – this will almost certainly result in the puppy believing you don’t want it to chase sheep.
      Tutorials to watch are: Starting a Young Puppy and Puppy Training Essentials.
      Good luck, and don’t forget to let us know how you get on!

  9. Helena Barrio avatar
    Helena Barrio

    Hello there, I am thoroughly enjoying your videos, thank you. I was wondering if you had one on the lead training mentioned in a video with Scylla, or some tips on the site as to what you mean, trying to do my best!

    1. Lead training is one of the tutorials we intend to bring out soon, Helena. One of the ways to tell whether your dog fully accepts you as its leader is by the way it walks on a lead AWAY FROM SHEEP or livestock.
      If the dog is pulling, then it’s obviously trying to control you. If it walks with the lead slack, then the dog has fully accepted your authority – and will obviously be far easier to train on sheep or livestock than a dog which believes it can control you.
      If the dog is pulling, then it’s excited about going somewhere, so turn round and go the other way. If the dog then stops pulling, turn back to the original direction. If the dog pulls again, turn around and go the opposite way again – and so on.
      It’s tedious – and you may not get to your original destination on this occasion (or the next few times you try) but the dog will get no reward (going where it wants to go) unless it walks with the lead slack.
      Pulling back sharply on the lead can help to show the dog you won’t accept it pulling.
      Once you master it, your dog’s behaviour should improve all round.

      1. Helena Barrio avatar
        Helena Barrio

        Super, thank you for the guidance! Much appreciated, Helena.

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