Starting a strong or aggressive dog

How to go about starting a strong or aggressive dog on sheep or other farm livestock?

Subtitles: French*, Spanish* or English, click CC on viewer (*translation errors).



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Starting a strong or aggressive dog can be tough, but it’s worth it!

Video Highlights

The technique required to control a strong dog.
To control a strong dog, you must be very assertive.
Introducing Tess to sheep for the first time.
Try to set the dog up to collect the sheep cleanly.
Attempting to block the dog – too late.
Blocking the dog – successfully!
Running to keep up, and waving the dog out at the same time.
Getting too far ahead of the dog makes it go the other way.
Blocking the dog, to stop it.
Making the dog go wider, by whacking the stick on the ground in front of it.
Too far ahead – and the dog goes the other way again.
Tess is going wider around the sheep now.
Getting too far ahead of the dog again…
Look for patterns in the dog’s behaviour.
The sheep are running off – time to run closer to the action and wave the dog out.
Moving further and further back to block the dog and send her the other way.
Tess lunges at the sheep.
Getting the balance right when blocking the dog.
Keep your eyes on the dog ALL the time!
Tess lunges at the sheep, then gathers them together again.
A good stop!
Be prepared for the dog to ‘sell you a dummy’!
What happens when you look away for a moment.
Don’t put as much pressure on a sensitive dog.
Running back to get dog and sheep on the point of balance.
Ending the lesson on a high point.
Watch the full session at normal speed.

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A far cry from starting a puppy on sheep!

In part one of the ‘Starting a Young Puppy’ tutorials, we saw that with care, it’s possible to begin a puppy’s training at a very early age, but if you didn’t have the luxury of well-dogged docile sheep for your puppy to learn with, then you’ve had to wait before you can start training – and you may find you have a tougher dog than you bargained for when it comes to training it on sheep.

Rather like Tess in this tutorial, there’s a good chance your young dog will have its own ideas about how to go about tackling sheep! If the dog’s as tough as Tess, you’ll need to be assertive and patient.

We watch Tess’s training session at half-speed with an in-depth description of the action by Andy Nickless. Then we watch again at normal speed to give you a more accurate picture of starting a strong or aggressive dog on sheep or other farm livestock.

An Insight Into Pack Behaviour


25 responses to “Starting a strong or aggressive dog”

  1. David Buckley avatar
    David Buckley

    Hi Andy & Gill

    This Video is 100% ‘Flynn’. You will remember him better as ‘Roger’ who we collected from you nearly a year ago.
    The most important tip is ‘keep your eyes on the dog’. Thanks for emphasising that, as I did have to take time out to sit down while the field, the sheep and my life whirled around!
    With me in charge he’ll never be quite like his Dad, but he’s loving every second.

    He’s like Tess, in that a stop is not part of his vocabulary in the first few minutes. When the initial exhilaration has worn off, he can do a more than passable ‘walk-up’ without taking matters into his own hands. (glad of a breather probably).

    A lovely dog in spite of being incredibly strong willed.

  2. Fiona Shedden avatar
    Fiona Shedden

    Hi I have just started training my dog he has a fairly good stop but we csnt get him to circle the sheep he pins them against the side of the pen and when they go to move on he starts around the front ,

    1. What he’s doing is perfectly natural (as you’d know if you watched the tutorials in the order we recommend). Please watch the videos in the “Watch First” category, so that you have a better understanding of what to expect and how to control the situation.
      Once you have watched tat category, you could watch “Get off the Fence” to find out how to get the sheep away from a fence or hedge. It also helps if you have another dog (or a friend does) which will run around the outside of the pen while your dog is inside being trained.
      It sounds as though the sheep are not used to being used with a trainee dog – is it possible to get some “Dogged Sheep“?

  3. jimmy fletcher avatar
    jimmy fletcher

    Is it a good idea to have the dog start on the outside of the pen and have it go around the pen in the direction you want it to go in order for the dog to understand commands of directions (come by and away) and then bring the dog in the pen afterwards? Thanks

    1. It can be a help with some dogs Jimmy, but most young dogs are very keen to get amongst the sheep, and in our experience, having the dog on the outside of the pen “winds it up”, so that when it does get into the pen, the dog will be far harder to control.
      If the dog’s pretty placid, it would be worth trying because any commands you can get on the dog before you begin training it, can help a lot.

  4. Martin otoole avatar
    Martin otoole

    Hi Andy my dog is not consistent on the stop and know matter what want to work sheep all the time even at 18 months and when gathering to the pen wants to take know command and run in and take them out again any suggestions

    1. Yes Martin – take your time! The dog’s doing what comes naturally, but it sounds as though you’re trying to progress too quickly. Go back to simpler work, and then work up to pen work when you have better control. Watch the Eve At The Pen tutorial.

  5. Jonathan Cobb avatar
    Jonathan Cobb

    Thank you again for making these wonderful videos. (And thank you to Gill also!) I began watching your videos when I first got our pup, but due to circumstances was unable to work with him with sheep until recently. He’s just turned two years old. I was getting frustrated with our sessions as of late due to him being so strong and wanting to keep going away and not wanting to come by. Watching this video with Tess in real time looked just like my sessions with Alec! Only with an experienced trainer in the ring instead of a rookie. :-) You must be in very good physical shape, it was a workout!
    What do you suggest for my next steps? I don’t want to confuse him and I know I must keep my cool. Should we just continue on with circles like this video, looking for balance? He has come in balance a few times, and he has a good stop but is a bit like Max the gripper at times when he gets too close to the sheep.

    Thank you,


    1. Thanks for the feedback, Jonathan. It’s great to know you’re finding the tutorials useful.
      Once you’ve got the dog going around the sheep, and stopping on the far side of them, you need to… No, wait…

      You need to watch the tutorial “What Shall I Do Next“!

      Thanks again for the great comments, and good luck with training Alec!

  6. Charlie Starrett avatar
    Charlie Starrett

    Hi Andy, this tutorial is immensly helpful along with Max the Gripper.
    Ive been watching every tutorial over and over for a month trying to get as much info before i begin this new challenge.
    I am from a farm that relied on our feet to do the work instead of having dogs to work the cattle . Very old school. Hard labour and not alot of machinery to help but ive always been obsessed with working dogs.

    On the farm we have a number of borders and mixes 6 in total who are all fixed and who have just picked up what was basically needed and try their best to translate the shouting and . There isnt one who has been trained with a technique or method and none can be relied upon to confidently and non aggressively work the livestock.
    I got my first pup Moss 10 years ago and ( i think he kind of trained me honestly) within about 6-8 months he was “successfully” gathering the cattle from the field and down into the yard…. HOWEVER Moss is border collieXhusky. He is all about the go go go, drive drive drive always has been and the cattle would be coming like a stampede. It took me 2 years to get him to willingly stop and come away from the “prey” once the work was done.

    My Grandad brought home a dog pup last year from strong lines of hill working cattle collies. My grandad is older now, but still stuck in his ways (no-one was allowed to influence or spend time with the dog apart from him so he would bond with my grandad). He is walked twice everyday through the field with the rest of the dogsand for a year Roy this beautiful, intelligent, so eager to please puppy was given no leadership, no control, no obedience, no guidance. He is now almost 14 months. He is STRONG, he is so keen and is aggressive with the cows which isnt helped with the older dogs teaching what little they know, and being kept on a 20 ft length chain at the bottom of field where he can bark, nip and lunge at the cattle as they walk by. THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT i know, but im a 23 year old female on a farm full of 50 year old stubborn men and id be easier teaching Moss in his old age to dance than change the mind of these farmers.

    I have managed to persuade my granda to let me train Roy. For 2 weeks we have been going out for lead training and some chill out time and basic commands where he is away from all other livestock and animals. I cannot stress how quickly he picks up on what is being asked of him but if he guesses wrong trying to please so hard that he takes no notice of correction. i think he maybe is entirely used to the shouting and roaring around the cows and vehicles all day.

    This brings me to my current situation. A few years ago i won 2 welsh Lynn hoggets from an ag show, since then ive increased my little flock to 8 including 6 year and half old suffolks. They are very flighty and have never been around the dogs.
    Roy is definitely going to grip, of that i have no doubt. The question is how severe will it be.

    My main question for you Andy is this ….. Having the unperfect setup that i have, is there any tips on how to perhaps make this any easier? The sheep more compatible or Roy more controllable, im fast and strong and pretty stubborn myself but i feel like im a little out of my depth as this will really be my first time apart from moss ( when i was a teenager and sheep are easier targets than cows.

    Any tips would be amazing help and any constructive crticism is welcome :)

    Thankyou x

    1. That’s a difficult one, Charlie. If the sheep are terrified of the dog, and the dog’s been used to being aggressive with cattle, it’s going to be a steep uphill climb.
      It’s important to remember that both the sheep AND the dog are afraid of each other, so if you can control the situation until they’re more accustomed to being close, then there’s a better chance the whole situation will be calmer.
      If you wanted to completely de-sheep (or de-cattle) Roy, an effective way to do it would be to walk him around the sheep on a lead. Once he got over his initial excitement and learned that you don’t want him to keep lunging at them, you could lengthen the lead or use a rope. If he was settled on a rope (and not pulling) you could try dropping your end of the rope to the ground (so the dog still feels it on his collar, but it’s not actually doing much) and call him back to you. This process would be repeated until he finally showed no interest in the stock at all.
      OK – we don’t want to totally stop him working, but we do want to moderate his enthusiasm, so if it were me, I’d get him on a lead or short rope and carefully walk him near the sheep to see how he reacted. If you do this, understand that the sheep will probably panic and Roy will probably lunge at the fleeing sheep with the strength of a lion – so be VERY careful.

      I’d teach him to walk properly on a lead or rope around the sheep, and at the same time the sheep would be getting used to having him around. If they weren’t too wild, you could move the sheep around with him – eventually letting go of the rope and insisting he stay close to you.
      Admittedly, this will be teaching him to push the sheep away or drive, rather than gather them to you, but I think it’s worth doing – at least until his initial excitement is reduced, then you can try training him normally.

      Work any sheep long enough with a dog that’s under reasonable control, and the sheep will get “dogged”. Once they are calm enough, if you can’t get the dog to go round the sheep and gather them, you’ll be able to stop the dog and keep it in place while YOU go to the point of balance to show him that’s what you want. Then it’s easy to start Walking Backwards with the dog bringing the sheep to you.

      1. Charlie Starrett avatar
        Charlie Starrett

        Very interesting! i wouldnt have thought to de-sensitise Roy at all because didnt want to put him off working completely. We had a session yesterday where we zig zagged through the cows and calves. After 20 minutes i didnt have my shoulders threatening to dislocate or my hands burned from the rope!!
        The sheep are just a no go for right now. They arent even human friendly. Grazing only and with no hard feed they didnt get much contact so ive gone and bought some sheep feed and have twice now walked up and with much patience was able to stand next to them while they ate.
        So far so good, i’ll try introducing Roy during feeding once they are comfortable with me walking around and in through them.

        I’l keep you updated on the progress

  7. robyn harper avatar
    robyn harper

    Hi, we have an 8 month old bitch who acts very strong but I think part of this could have something to do with lack of confidence. She started off gripping the sheep quite badly but now is working well in the pen and has a decent stop. Only issue is once she is out of the pen with the sheep she just dives through them and doesn’t respond to any commands. She is totally obsessive about the sheep and would rather chase than herd out in open. Any advice anyone could give would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    1. Three things spring to mind, Robyn.
      First, at just eight months, you’re expecting a lot from her – she only has the brain of a baby – be patient with her.
      Next, you’re dog isn’t ready to move from the ring to the open field yet. She’s progressed from gripping badly, to working “well” as you say, in the ring, but you need to keep her working in the ring until her first instinct is to go round them when they run away, rather than chasing them. If the ring is too small for this, I suggest you enlarge it if you can. If you can make the ring longer (an oval shape, rather than a circle) you’ll be able to give her some short outruns – and more important, practice Walking Backwards with her (watch the Backwards is the Way Forward tutorial). If you have the patience to do it properly, this will teach her more than any other single exercise you can do with the dog. It will teach her many things, including to control the sheep and keep them together, rather than chase them away.
      Lastly, try to move out of the ring in a controlled way. Watch the Coming Out tutorial. If you can get someone to open the hurdles for you while you keep the dog circling the sheep, it will be a big help – and also (if possible) try to restrict the size of the field or paddock outside the ring.
      Oh – and one other thing… While you’re working the dog in the ring, make sure she’ll reliably come away from the sheep with you. That way, if it’s going wrong out in the field, you should be able to call her back to you and then get closer to the sheep before you send her round them again. You’ll learn a lot if you watch the Bronwen and Scylla tutorials, too.

  8. Jenny Ullgren avatar
    Jenny Ullgren

    We’ve just started our strong 9-month-old bc on sheep. We’re working on stops and wider flanks. Our sheep are about to lamb. Is there any benefit, or could there be any harm, in training on less responsive pigs instead? Can we practice flanking and stops with passive pigs? Or let her closer than with sheep? Will she learn to be too aggressive, or lose confidence and interest? Training often on pigs, or only occasionally on borrowed sheep – which is best?

    1. When a border collie works sheep, the collie is using a hunting instinct and the sheep see the dog as a predator, so it works well as long as the trainer is able to contain the dog’s aggression and channel it into useful work.
      I have no experience of dogs with pigs and I cannot really say whether pigs see dogs as predators – but if your dog is able to move the sheep without being over-aggressive, then I suggest you use a mixture of both. Work the dog on pigs a couple of times a week, and on sheep whenever the opportunity arises.
      If you feel the pig work is making the dog too rough with the sheep, then severely restrict or even abandon the pig work.
      Please be sure to let us know what happens – it would be great to hear!

  9. Gill Evans avatar

    Do dogs that start learning with well-dogged sheep, which stick around to allow walk-up & driving practice, end up more liable to frustration & possibly biting when they’re eventually faced with very lively sheep that split up three ways & run off, even when worked from a great distance? Is this why some triallists use herdwicks, & do they use them for pups? I saw a video of a trial where the very good dog shot off & bit a sheep which spun out of the pen & bolted as the gate was closing. I could understand it’s annoyance! Gill

    1. I understand your point, Gill, but in my opinion, the opposite is true.
      Dogged sheep can indeed be docile. They will stay in one group, but they are not very fluid, so the dog often needs to push them fairly hard to move them. The main reason we use dogged sheep is to give the dog confidence. Sheep can “read” a dog’s confidence, and if they suspect the approaching dog is even a little worried, they might refuse to move, or even attack the dog. If the dog approaches them brimming with confidence because it’s never experienced aggressive sheep, they’re more likely to move. Once they are on their way, the dog will gain still more confidence.
      If the dog is used to calm sheep it won’t be expecting a problem, and the sheep will usually comply, but the handler should be close enough to assist very quickly if the sheep are stubborn or threatening the dog.
      At a sheepdog trial, the dog should never bite the sheep – but yes, you can sympathise with them sometimes!
      I suggest you watch “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough” to find out more about building the dog’s confidence.

      1. Gill Evans avatar

        Thanks, Andy. I’m a beginner, & very reliant on kind offers of sheep to work by experienced trainers. I was hoping you might see an advantage in using Herdwicks as it would give me confidence, because I have found them very difficult to get near & keep together compared with Swaledale types earlier in the year. Obviously I’ve got a lot to learn re techniques, & my beginner dog is very keen & fast-reacting & not going to be under perfect control at this stage! He was brimming with confidence, but he’s lost some on these & gets frustrated as they split & run so easily. I thought there must be some advantage as the owners use them for training. It’s very useful to have another experienced opinion. I suppose the lesson is that if & when my dog & I can learn to work these, calmer sheep will seem easy. I have found your videos extremely helpful-many thanks, great website! Gill

        1. The more I train dogs on different sheep, the more I realise it’s not really specific breeds that are the problem, it’s down to the kind of life they have and how much respect the sheep have for a dog. Many sheepdog triallers in the UK like Herdwicks because they can be docile and stay together well (the opposite of your experience). We like Welsh Mules for the same reason, but the current batch we have seem to be jet-propelled.

          If the dog works in a calm, predictable manner, giving the sheep plenty of room as it approaches them, the sheep will normally behave well, but if the dog is erratic, fast or too close, most sheep will bolt if they can – or alternatively, they will bunch tightly together and refuse to move.

          We use calm, “dogged” sheep for the dog’s initial training, but once it’s sheep control improves, it’s very useful to be able to work the dog on more “flighty” sheep to sharpen it’s reactions. Often the dog will dart at an escaping sheep and grip it, but it’s up to the trainer to anticipate this and get in first with a sharp correction if the dog’s about to grip – and then praise the dog when it successfully brings the sheep back.

          Experience and good training will steady your dog down.

  10. Jane Caulton avatar
    Jane Caulton

    so do the dog learns ‘away’ and ‘comebye’ as it is circling the sheep – or are there exercises you can do without the sheep to teach your dog these commands? I am also doing agility with my young dog and in that he goes where my arm (or shoulders ) point- in sheep work it seems the opposite – you are blocking so they turn and go the other way ??

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jane.
      Whatever you teach the dog will remain in its memory, so it may be worth teaching the dog flanking commands when it’s away from sheep, but to be honest, it rarely helps in the initial (most difficult) stages when the dog is over-excited by working with sheep. As the novelty and fear wear off though, the dog will become more responsive and it will remember any commands it has learned.
      Because we have very limited time for training, we find it best to teach the dog most practical things when they’re in actually in contact with the sheep, but before we introduce them to sheep, we teach the dog good manners, such as waiting for the handler to go through a gate or doorway first, rather than barging through. The more good manners you can teach the dog, the more respect it will have for you, and (usually) the quicker you can train it.

      1. Jane Caulton avatar
        Jane Caulton

        Thank you so much- and for the email notification. We have good manners and an excellent ‘lie down’ so all good there. Unfortunately our lessons are few and far between so I was just looking for something else to do without sheep so we can progress when we do get on sheep. I am enjoying the video tutorials and have mentioned to a few friends so you might get an influx of Aussie ladies checking you out !!

  11. Felicity Singleton avatar
    Felicity Singleton

    I have been following the tutorials in sequence. All very enlightening. “Out of balance” has been mentioned several times in this one but I do not remember it being defined here or in previous ones. What does it mean?
    We were told that this was tess’s first time training with sheep but I would have liked to know what needed to have been established in her training beforehand. Come? Lie down? Stay? Obviously a lot goes out the window when the adrenalin is up!

    1. Thanks for two more important observations, Felicity. The best tutorials to watch for learning about the point of balance are Sending the dog the wrong way and the three Outrun tutorials – but these are really more advanced, so for the benefit of beginners, Gill and I will bring out a basic tutorial covering the all-important point of balance (quite soon).
      The only preparation I give my dogs before I begin training them to work sheep is basic good manners, and making certain the dog sees me as the pack leader. Sometimes, I reinforce this by teaching the dog to walk properly on a lead. Away from sheep, the dog should walk on the lead – with the lead slack. (Yes – SLACK). I don’t mean all the time – but at least 90{a56cfaadebb0a7665ef0b8bb5f8f73bbf0eca0e81cdb3d1fbeae9197b774aba9} of the time the lead should be slack – and the dog should never pull hard on the lead. Remember I said AWAY from the sheep. I don’t expect the lead to be slack when taking a trainee dog to sheep but if you achieve it away from sheep, it means the dog has fully accepted you as its leader.
      We’ll be doing a tutorial on this when we can, too!

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