Starting a non-starter (1 of 2)

Starting a non-starter, or motivating a dog which won’t work livestock.

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How to get your dog interested in working sheep

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Video Highlights

Ways to motivate your dog

Is your dog is the right kind of dog for herding?
The ability to ‘gather‘ sheep together and bring them, sets collies and kelpies apart from other herding breeds.
Safety considerations when working with cattle.
If the dog which won’t work, is under about 5 months of age…
If you have only had the dog for a few weeks, be patient and soon the dog should work.
What does ‘bonding with your dog‘ mean?
The importance of lead training (away from livestock) when you want to bond with your dog.
Other ways to create a strong bond with your dog.
At what age should dogs take an interest in livestock?
Five reasons why some dogs work livestock but others don’t.
A powerful hunting instinct exists in all dogs (sheep worrying)
Controlled use of the sheepdog’s hunting instinct.
A sheepdog must have hunting instinct, but that instinct must be controlled – with training.

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Trigger that instinct, so the dog will works for you

It can be very disappointing to find that your dog doesn’t seem to want to work sheep or cattle, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to change its mind. As with most aspects of training dogs to work stock, once you understand what’s happening and why, you can then start motivating the dog to work.

In these two tutorials, we look closely at why some dogs want to work and others don’t, and then we look at several proven ways of triggering the dog’s work instinct.

Often the work instinct is dormant, but if we can trigger that instinct, the dog will start working.

Starting A Non-Starter 2


23 responses to “Starting a non-starter (1 of 2)”

  1. Hanus hentze avatar
    Hanus hentze

    Hello my dog is 17 months old. And have interest in sheep, only when im in my ring. But he will not chase the sheep, when i’m outside of the ring.

    1. That’s interesting! If I understand you correctly, the dog works the sheep inside the training ring, but if you try to work him in the field or an open area, he’s not interested..?

      I would guess that something has convinced him he’s not allowed to chase sheep which are in an open space.

      If I were you, I would try making the ring a bit bigger, and if all goes well, make it bigger again. Alternatively, you could ask a friend to help you. Get the dog working normally in the ring, and while you continue to work him, get your friend to open the entrance to the ring (wide, if possible) so the sheep can escape. The dog should normally run after them to bring them back, and you might be able to keep him working on the outside.

      You don’t say how keen the dog is when he works. I assume he’s quite steady and unenthusiastic. If that’s correct, you need to make working the sheep more fun for him. I suggest you watch “Sometimes Nice Is Not Enough” for ideas on how to boost the dog’s confidence.

      I have another suggested video for you to watch, but I want you to do the OPPOSITE of the advice it gives! “How Can I Slow The Dog Down?” is intended to calm the dog down, but I want you to get him EXCITED when he works!

      The more excited you are, the more excited the dog should be. Give him lots of excitedly repeated commands, and encourage him to run at the sheep and split them up, or chase them a bit. Not so much that he harms them in any way, but enough to convince the dog you want him to enjoy himself more. If he REALLY wants to do it, he will run after the sheep wherever they are!

  2. Xeniamar Lopez Matos avatar
    Xeniamar Lopez Matos

    Hello Andy,

    Thanks for the response (I couldn’t directly reply to your comment). I tried working closer with my dog and you were right, I could tell he was much more confident and worked faster! It’s funny because in the very beginning he wouldn’t interact with sheep unless he could feel me holding his line. My trainer had called this his “umbilical cord” and commented that he had low confidence but was very over assertive once he could feel me holding the line. I completely forgot about this because we have made such progress since then, but it all makes sense how he still needs me to work closer. I will continue to gradually build on this. Thanks again!

  3. Xeniamar Lopez Matos avatar
    Xeniamar Lopez Matos

    Hello! I am having issues starting a dog. Some background…. He is almost 2 years old, comes from working lines (though not strong ones – father did herd, mother wasn’t used for herding as much) and we began herding lessons about 7 months ago. I only go once a week and the progress has been little. He has shown interest in stock by getting excited when he is in the pen with them and initially chasing them but then he either 1. Stops and tries to leave the pen and acts afraid or just disinterested or 2. Does distraction behaviors (i.e. sniffing, eating sheep poop, etc.). He is quite sensitive to the herding stick so we have begun desensitizing it to him by bringing it on walks, etc. and that is helping. I also did a lot of obedience with him prior to herding and my trainer thinks that is part of the problem since he always looks at me for approval. My main issue is how quickly he shuts down. He is either full out chasing and nipping and does try to bring the sheep together (although it’s not controlled by any means) or he is acts scared or disinterested. We have been trying a few things including: 1. Encouraging him with praise and using the sheep to build excitement 2. Not reprimanding him when he starts to show interest 3. Having him watch another dog we have that has strong instinct. So my questions are 1. How can I get him hooked on sheep? 2. When he chases, how can I begin training him if he shuts down for any little correction? We have taught him “come” and “way” when we are not around stock and he does it sometimes with stock but its not controlled and he breaks his eye on the stock to look at me. One other thing, when he does his “lie down” he immediately starts distraction behavior (eating poop, sniffing, etc.)

    1. Dogs like yours can be so frustrating to get started with sheep. Through no fault of their own, they react to the slightest thing, often misinterpreting our intentions. Unfortunately, having to use someone else’s sheep might be compounding the problem.

      Your dog is initially excited by the sheep, but then quickly senses (or imagines) it’s doing something wrong. It then disguises its embarrassment by sniffing around and eating sheep muck etc.

      What EXACTLY happens when the dog takes an interest and chases them excitedly? I may be wrong, of course, but I strongly suspect that at some stage, the dog has been rather too excited (perhaps nipping a sheep) and someone has scolded him for it. An over-sensitive dog will see this as not being allowed to take an interest (or chase) sheep.

      Here’s what I recommend you do, but you may need to talk to your trainer first, as it involves their sheep. The trainer may not want to risk the dog being aggressive with the sheep.

      FIRST, ditch the training stick – at least until the dog is ‘hooked’ on working sheep. Just the presence of the stick, even if you don’t wave it, can be too much for some sensitive dogs when you start training. Of course, if you need the stick to protect the sheep, that’s another matter, but it doesn’t sound likely from your description.

      Whether the dog has been corrected for being over-excited or gripping in the past, to build its confidence, it’s best not to correct the dog at all. Of course, you must look after the welfare of the sheep, but try to “turn a blind eye” to any indiscretions such as gripping as long as the sheep are not actually being harmed.

      Praise the dog softly whenever possible – DON’T shout excitedly – even this can put some dogs off. Lots of gentle praise is best – praise the dog for anything positive – even for keeping going!

      Talk to the dog all the time, to show it that you’re not cross with it.

      Watch the “Starting a Non-Starter” tutorials again, but this time, pay particular attention to anything I mention that may affect the dog’s confidence. Have you tried grabbing a sheep and dragging it away?

      It would be great if you’d let me know how you get on!

      1. Xeniamar Lopez Matos avatar
        Xeniamar Lopez Matos

        Thank you for the response Andy! It was very helpful and provided some reassurance. In the beginning my dog immediately chased sheep with some nipping (but nothing aggressive). After we saw he had interest in sheep, we began training and I think through some trial and error we realized how sensitive he was to correction. Since then we began focusing on encouraging him and having him change directions which he is starting to do. We are also keeping the sessions short and trying to end on a “good note”. I rewatched the videos as well as some other ones and I guess my next question is how do you begin stopping the dog or getting him to slow down without turning him off of sheep? I watched your videos on stopping a dog, but they didn’t seem to apply to my situation. I feel kind of stuck in our progress, like we are in between getting him hooked and having him chase sheep and moving forward with training. I’m also not sure what the timeline for training in a dog like this is. Our other dog has been the opposite (completely hooked on sheep and not as sensitive) so we have nothing to gauge it to. I greatly appreciate the insight and tips. Your videos and training have been insightful.

        1. You’re certainly on the right track, so don’t despair! Until you get the dog focussed on the sheep, I would try to avoid ANY pressure of any kind. If possible.
          By all means, gently try to control the dog’s direction with your body position and maybe using hand signals – but certainly no stick! Try to make it fun for the dog, praising it softly as much as possible. If you think the dog’s interest may be about to wain, call him to you and end the session on a good note – again, with plenty of praise.

          1. Xeniamar Lopez Matos avatar
            Xeniamar Lopez Matos

            Hello Andy,
            We have made tremendous progress since I last commented. We are even working on outruns, have moved to a larger area, and Braden has even improved on his sense of balance. I have two things I wasn’t sure how to manage and couldn’t find information on in your videos (my apologies if I missed a video that contains what I need). 1. How do I speed my dog up? I know to some people this may sound like the opposite of what they want, but Braden seems to go at a snails pace most times. There are times he moves quite fast (especially if something excited him before we went in with sheep), but other times he quite literally walks although he is doing his commands and finding balance and brings back any sheep that drift off. My trainer says he is still building confidence and his speed will improve with time, but I wanted to check if there were some other factors I wasn’t aware of that could be impacting him.
            2. Braden does not have the stereotypical Border Collie crouch when he works and works upright which I feel makes him less in control of the stock because they are more aware of his presence (although he keeps a good distance when working). He does crouch for other activities (i.e. playing with other dogs, etc.) but not with sheep. Will this ever transfer over? I’ve heard of some Border Collies working more upright, but I’ve never actually seen one besides my own.

            I appreciate your advice!

          2. What great news! It’s really good when the dog begins to understand what’s required – and they seem to enjoy it more, too.

            1. How do I speed my dog up?
            You’re right. Most people have the opposite problem, but you are lucky. If the dog is too slow, but working reasonably well, we have two tutorials which will help you a lot. The first one to watch is “How can I slow the dog down” – but what you need to do is the OPPOSITE to what is recommended in that video!

            Lots of excitement (from you) including whistling, clapping, laughing and anything else you can think of which will get your dog to think “this is great fun”!

            You also need to work as close to the dog as possible at first, and then as the dog’s confidence grows, GRADUALLY increase the distance the dog works at.

            Your trainer is right too though. As the dog learns, it’s confidence will grow, and it will speed up, but (in my opinion) it’s better to have control of the increase in speed, starting now.

            The video on this page has some good ways to encourage the dog’s excitement – and another good tutorial for giving the dog more confidence is “Sometimes nice is not enough“. Just be aware that as you increase the dog’s confidence, it might suddenly become over-confident. If it does, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get it under control again, but be aware of what’s happening!

            2. The dog works upright.
            The BEST dogs work standing up tall – and yes, you noticed it yourself – the sheep are more aware of the dog’s presence.
            CHERISH the fact that your dog works upright. All the best dogs I’ve had work upright, including Mel and Dulcie – two of the very best.

            The first picture is of Mel standing up while she works. Her head is down a little bit, due to the extreme situation she’s in here, but out in the field, she stood up straight. Although I love to see dogs working with their head right down (it looks so predatory and stylish) when I think about it, it suggests the dog is afraid… What do you think?

            Sheepdog Mel bravely holding a group of sheep in an open-fronted pen

  4. David Acuna avatar
    David Acuna

    Hi Andy,

    We have a 4month old male border collie puppy. Both his parents work with sheep (we could verify it). For the last 2 months we have been keeping him out of the sheep and yesterday and today we attended a training course so he could have the chance to meet the sheep for the first time with a professional trainer. However he didn’t want to work. We even tried putting him together with another very proactive puppies with the sheep who worked very well but he didn´t got started.
    After watching carefully his sessions (we recorded them on video) and all your tutorials about puppies and non-starters we believe he’s either lacking confidence or his instinct is dormant. I believe we have a strong bond with him and we dedicate a lot of time to be with him and train him in obedience. He showed no interest in the sheep and pay attention to everything else (the trainer, myself, the other dogs,…). He gave a look to the sheep a couple of times but remained close to the border of the ring and only moved when I was with him. The trainer recommended us to wait for another month and try again. Do you agree?. Is there anything we can do in the meantime to increase his confidence?. I guess we must wait before getting any conclusion, but I have to admit that this is very disappointment for us. We have seen many other puppies, even younger, that showed a lot of excitement and interest in the sheep.

    Many thanks, David

    1. When you say you’ve been keeping the pup “out of the sheep” does that mean he’s been trying to get to them and you’ve stopped him in some way, or just that you’ve made sure he can’t get to the sheep? It’s important, because if he was attempting to get to them and you repeatedly stopped him, that could be the cause of the problem. (You’ve trained him NOT to go to the sheep).
      If that’s not the case, and you simply kept him where he was unable to have contact with the sheep at all, then that’s a different matter – but at sixteen weeks, he’s just a baby. One of the best dogs we ever had (Carew) wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in working until she was over five months old – and I’ve known plenty of others start later than that (the oldest was ten YEARS old).
      First – don’t worry, the dog should be fine, but you must completely take any pressure off him. Don’t try to force him to work. Watch the “Starting a non starter (Parts 1 & 2)” tutorials (on this page) again – several times if needs be.
      You mentioned that he looks at the sheep occasionally. That suggests to me that he’ll be OK as long as you don’t try too hard to get him working.
      Try to set up situations where he’ll look at the sheep (with zero pressure from you) and then go and move them around yourself (or with another dog). Encouragement is fine (lots of clapping and laughing etc – watch the videos) but don’t be calling him and putting pressure on him. You want him to come near of his own accord – out of curiosity – because it looks as though you’re having LOTS of fun!
      I wouldn’t try to work him in a ring unless you have to, at this stage. It’s scary for a young dog. Walk around the sheep with him loose in a field. If he’ll come with you, that’s great. If he doesn’t want to, try again later on, or tomorrow.
      If sheep are totally new to him, he’s simply a bit unsure about them, and a dog’s best way of avoiding a potential problem, is to ignore it. If you’ve given him the idea you don’t want him to work, then you just need to GRADUALLY show him that it’s OK of he does.
      I’m pretty sure you’ll soon be wondering how you can stop him chasing them!
      Please let me know how you get on…

      1. David Acuna avatar
        David Acuna

        We’ve never stopped him to run the sheep, we were aware that that is a bad thing to do (thanks to your tutorials). He has seen the sheep a couple of times in the distance but he didn’t want to get closer.
        We’ll do as you suggest and maybe let him another one or two months before trying again. I’m not sure if we could walk with him in an open field with the sheep as we manage them in small mobile paddocks using electric fences, our sheep are not used to shepherd dogs and we also have a young donkey to protect them from hunting dogs. I guess we’ll need to set a ring with our 4 smallest and quiet ones to let him try again.
        We are also thinking about getting a 17 months male from a friend (she’s looking for someone to have the dog as she is leaving our region for very long). This dog never had contact with sheep and today tried for the first time. He was interested and it seems he could be a good sheep dog. Maybe if we keep him and train him will help our puppy to be close to another bigger and more confident dog working with sheep to imitate. Do you think this could be a good idea?.

        Thank you very much, Andy! We’ll keep you informed.

        1. I remember now! We talked about electric fences before – and as you know, I have very mixed feelings about them.
          Just a thought, and I hope I’m wrong, but it’s quite possible the pup has had an ‘experience’ with an electric fence, and now associates sheep with the shock.
          As I said in my previous reply, the normal sized training ring is unsuitable for a timid pup because the dog feels trapped in there with the sheep. You may have more success with a large ring, but again, as I mentioned before, the ring will put pressure on the pup and it may react against it.
          I know this may come across as negative, but I’m just telling you what we’ve experienced over the years.
          Having a keen older dog around may well stimulate the pup’s interest in sheep, but it’s still very early to be taking such drastic steps – unless you planned to have more than one sheepdog anyway?

          1. David Acuna avatar
            David Acuna

            We’ll wait for a month or two and try again (we’ll try make it without a ring). A second dog is only a possibility if this one finally doesn’t want to work.
            It is very unlikely that the puppy had a bad experience with the electric fence, but I cannot be 100% sure. Hope that wasn’t the case.

            Thank you very much Andy!

  5. Aaron Turner avatar
    Aaron Turner

    I have a 9mth old bitch that I’m training for a friend. She’s very playful and doesn’t seem to concentrate for long. She runs hot and cold as far as interest goes. Sometimes she’ll run in and grip the sheep other times completely ignore them. She’ll do a couple of really good runs around the round pen and then go back to sniffing and playing around ignoring the sheep. Is there a way of keeping her more consistently interested.The collies we have here in southern Ireland are common or rough type dogs with a bit of border in them. People have told me they can be slower to mature and take longer to train. Could it just be she needs more time and isn’t ready for training yet.
    Excellent videos I’ve trained two dogs to a fairly high stardard for my own farm using your tutorials.

  6. kent bradley avatar
    kent bradley

    Outstandingly helpful – always. thanks

    1. Thanks for the great feedback, Kent! It’s important for us to know we’re on the right track with the tutorials.
      Apologies for the late reply though – that’s my fault (sorry).

  7. Melissa Barrett avatar
    Melissa Barrett

    I have a cattle dog that is half catahoula, half Aussie. She is 3 years old. We wanted her to work cattle but neither myself not my husband knew how to train her so I’ve been searching for videos ever since she was about 1 because I had read that is when they are old enough to stay ahead of cattle. She shows an interest in the cows by chasing them but not all the time. She is very smart and learns commands quickly. After finding your videos, I feel like I understand how to train a herding dog and I am thinking of getting a few sheep or goats to start her on then work her up to cows. You said in your video that after 18 months they start to get pretty set I their ways so I’m concerned she may be too old to start training now. What do you think?

    1. Eighteen months is ideal for training a dog, Melissa. As they get older, they get more set in their ways, but eighteen months is still very good.
      Starting the dog on a few sheep is a great idea, too. Good luck!

  8. Helen Bamber avatar
    Helen Bamber

    I have watched both your tutorials and am trying them out with my 10 month old bitch. She is out of two working dogs from a big local estate. She seems to be frightened of everything – when I take her out onto the farm she will come with me so far and the minute I stop encouraging her or turn my back she heads back to our house. I have other dogs which she gets on with but she runs away back to safety whether I have her on her own or with them. She will walk round the sheep but shows no real interest and again as soon as I turn my back she is over the gate and back to the house. I feel she has absolutely no confidence at all, she is really happy with us and our other dogs but gets very hostile if anyone new comes in or someone she does not recognise. I am lead training her which she is absolutely hating and just lies down or goes mad and bites at the lead. Help!!

    1. Jumps over the gate and goes back to the house! That’s very interesting!
      As you say, she’s obviously showing a real lack of confidence, but when it comes to jumping the gate (something that takes quite a lot of confidence) she doesn’t think twice about it. That’s encouraging.
      How long have you had her, Helen? From what you’re saying, I suspect you haven’t had her very long, and she’s not settled in yet, but please let me know so I can get a better picture. Any more details will help a lot. Do you know any more of her history? What does she LIKE to do?
      As for the lead training, I suggest you get a lead on her and then relax. Don’t apply any pressure at all, just wait – and CALL her to you when she’s relaxed enough to listen.
      Any more information you can give about her will help a lot.

  9. Looking at the footage of the kelpies that you have, I was noticing that they all seem to have a very bouncy approach to sheep and work at a fast pace. Have you ever had one that tended to show “eye” instead of being aggressive when it approached sheep? Would that make it easier to train.

    1. It may make a difference, Anna, but our difficulty with Kelpies is the length of time it takes for them to learn. In our limited experience, collies are far quicker to “get the idea”.

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