Give the Sheep Some Space

Thumbnail image for the sheep and cattle dog training tutorial: Give the Sheep Space!

Teach your dog to keep well away from the sheep when flanking

If your dog's going to work sheep or cattle properly, it must learn to give them plenty of room.

If the dog keeps well back off the animals, they'll be much calmer, and subsequently far easier to manage than excited or frightened animals will be.

In this tutorial, you'll learn ways of encouraging your dog to go out wider, and keep well back from the sheep or cattle.

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13 Replies to “Give the Sheep Some Space”

  1. Hi Andy , hope all is well. Ian is doing great. he’s still a bit tight on the sheep , we are working on it. My question is . now that he’s flanking well , ( most of the time ) stopping better . and improved greatly on all we discussed before . How do I get him to turn off. lol He is ALWAYS working . the others I can call them off and we go about our business. but Ian will go paddock to paddock and stare and while I am working, I can not watch him every moment. and he will lunge at them through the fence if he can , I need him to be with me on the farm working but I also need him to chill out a bit when I don’t need him to work , He can not seem to help himself, he will come away when told “here ” or enough or whatever. but as I go back to my chores . he goes back to staring and his idea of working.

    1. Great to hear that you’ve made such good progress with Ian, Saskia – but now you’ve arrived at the tedious bit!

      Dog training is all about reward. Ian loves nothing more than to be round sheep, and you’ve made it clear to him that he’ll only be allowed to be around them if he behaves himself and treats them with some respect. That much you’ve achieved.

      I always advise people to have their dog with them as much as possible, because that way, the bond between you and the dog will get stronger and stronger. Unfortunately, it can be difficult at first, because whenever you’re near the sheep, the dog will want to go to them. This is perfectly natural, but of course, we need to get through to the dog that it’s not acceptable.

      Call him back and tell him to lie down somewhere near you, and where you can easily see him. Carry on working, and if he slopes off, call him back again. You can repeat this a few times, but if he’s not improving, tie him up for an hour, and then try again. If he goes off again, call him back sternly and give him a warning.

      If he slopes off again, take him away back to the farm or to his kennel, and leave him there for the rest of the morning (or afternoon). Repeat as required.

      Just as he learned to respect the sheep, he must learn that if he wants to be with you, he’s not to go after the sheep when you’re working. Unfortunately, there’s no short cut to it, but it shouldn’t take long, and it’s well worth the effort.

      1. Thanks Andy ! I will do that . He will certainly be upset to be restrained or taken from me and his pack , so I will do that . The other dogs will play with each other and come when told . Poor Ian is just so desperate to “play sheep”! . I have also been trying to get him to drove or drive . Just started . He gets very confused as I’m trying to get to do the opposite of what I taught him , He so wants to bring the sheep to me . I have watched the videos you have on this . but I feel I am just confusing him . when I try to change the balance point as you show . ( Ian between me and the sheep } he gets very confused and wants to flank , and then he will rush in to get them moving which scatters them for a moment , then he will gather them back . I don’t know if I should stop him ? or how to proceed . I can feel I am awkward in my directions , but not sure how to remedy this. Thank you Andy , Ps, My dogs are doing as good as the are, because of your teaching. Hats off to you!

        1. He’ll be fine, Saskia – but I think you’re expecting too much, too soon! Once he learns that the way to stay out around you is to leave the sheep alone, he’ll do it.

          You saw the picture on my last reply to you – we’ve moved on still further from there too. As a typical example, just this evening I didn’t go out with the dogs until it was getting dark, and while we were out, I noticed that the sheep (who usually stay out of the way at the top of the field) obviously assumed the dogs would be away by now and were merrily grazing away, right where I take the (fourteen) dogs. Because our dogs are so good about situations like this, I continued to walk our normal route, getting closer and closer to the sheep, until Dulcie (one of Bronwen’s pups) ran on ahead in a huge loop between the sheep and the rest of us. The sheep fled back to their usual spot, and Dulcie continued her loop until she was back with the rest of us. We all carried on walking as though nothing had happened, except I praised Dulcie for doing a great job.

          Only a few weeks ago, Dulcie was being quite annoying because she insisted on running to the sheep and chasing them. She also chased the cattle next door, but now she’s learned, and behaves impeccably. It can be a trying time, but be firm, fair and consistent, and you’ll get there. Dulcie learned from a mixture of being put away in her pen and missing all the fun, and at other times, being put on a lead for the rest of the run (so humiliating when all the other dogs are running free).

          As for the driving, it WILL confuse the dog, so wait for an opportunity while you’re training Ian, and when you see him between you and the sheep, just encourage him to walk up on them. Keep him close at first, and if he tries to gather them back to you, stop him (if you can) and call him back onto line. (It’s all in the tutorials). If he begins to look confused, back off and give him something he enjoys, like an outrun. Take care though, not to let him think that if he looks confused you’ll immediately stop the driving lesson. Take it STEADY!

          1. Thanks Andy , Ill keep it slow and yes, reviewing events in my head , your right. I think I am expecting a bit too much from him . He’s progressed so well and seems to love it , and I forget he’s only almost 11 months old . I just need to slow down . I will re watch the videos and we will go back to his comfortable things more.

  2. Hi Andy my bitch is 11 months and seems to be flanking increasingly tightly. She circles faster and faster and tighter and tighter. Whooshing the training stick seems to make no difference. I seem to be behind the movement, but if I do manage to get ahead of her, she will change direction. She is trying to find a gap to dive in at the sheep – which are sticking to me like glue. I’m really stuck with this. This is the nearest video I’ve seen to my problem, but your solution is using the stick and with my bitch it just seems to make her faster and more determined! She is worse on the come by. Today I even tried leading her round the sheep and pushing her out. Any ideas what I should try? I’m in the open field with luckily very dogged sheep.

    1. The first thing I would recommend is to watch “Training Max – The Gripper”, Janice. These three tutorials should be a great help to you. If you’ve already watched them, watch them again! “Starting a Strong Dog” should help, too.

      If the dog’s going increasingly fast and tight, it sounds as though you’re not calm (who can blame you) but you MUST give the dog the impression that you’re calm and in control, even when you’re not! Excitement and shouting are definitely not the traits of a good leader – and leadership is what your dog needs. Look closely at your own behaviour as the dog would see it. Try to be “Calm but Firm” (another one to watch).

      You say the dog “circles faster and faster and tighter and tighter” but of course, I don’t know how fast or how tight! If you can get the dog to go around the sheep once or twice (and praise it) before things go wrong, that might be a good opportunity to abruptly end the session and bundle the dog unceremoniously back into it’s pen (or somewhere it won’t like being). You could then try again after an hour or two, and when the dog dives in tight and refuses to listen to you at all, bundle it away again. Be careful with this though – only do it once or twice in any one day, and be sure the dog is completely ignoring you before you stop it’s session. If the dog was actually making an effort to do as you want (much against it’s natural instinct) and you bundle it away, your punishment is invalid and confusing for the dog.

      If the dog’s ignoring the stick, you’re probably not using it aggressively enough! I don’t mean you should hit the dog (you mustn’t) but you should make the dog think that if it’s too close you will hit it. Try taping an empty polythene bag on the end of the stick. Use very thin polythene bags which make a sharp rustling sound. That often works well.

      With a dog like yours, timing is vital. You MUST learn to anticipate when the dog’s going to come in tight. When you first send it off or when it changes direction are the usual times but there will be a definite pattern to it – often at the same point of the circle each time it comes round in a certain direction. You already know that clockwise is worst, so for the time being, always start with the dog going anticlockwise. If that’s going OK prepare to whoosh the stick aggressively when you change the dog’s direction. Getting a sharp correction in just BEFORE the dog actually commits the offence is many times more effective than correcting the dog afterwards.

      Our “weapon of last resort” is a lungeing whip. Again, not to hit the dog with. Learn to crack it – immediately before the dog grips. Beware though. If you over-use the lungeing whip, you can put the dog off working in seconds. Only use it if you’ve tried everything else and are making no progress. If you can’t crack a whip, whatever you do, don’t practice near the dog. They get used to it, and will eventually ignore that too – but it’s mightily effective when you first use it, so be careful.

      Whatever you do, don’t despair! The dog will come good as long as you keep protecting the sheep, and chase her away from them. Ending the session can be a very useful training aid. Dogs learn by reward – and she’ll quickly learn not to be aggressive if you take her away when she gets nasty.

      Get the sheep away from the fence by leading her round them, and try to set her up to go round them nicely, first time every time. It’ll pay off soon. Lots of stuff to try there. Remember to watch those videos and please let us know how you get on!

      1. Hi Andy – thank you so much for this response, which I hadn’t seen til now. I think your comment about not being calm is very valid and definitely something to work on, I have seen you say this in a video and have to agree it makes a big difference, I didn’t realise because of the leadership thing and it makes perfect sense. Some of your suggestions I have tried (lunge whip – I’m able to use and have done,) she doesn’t seem to care much, plastic bag I haven’t tried, but will. Taking her away, I haven’t done, but interestingly I did do 2 sessions on Sunday, just because I wanted to, about 45 mins apart and I felt that worked very well – she was definitely a calmer dog second time. I have watched the Max videos and I will again and the starting a strong dog. Your encouragement is a big help and if I look at the bigger picture I do see small windows of improvement, in between the sheep scattering moments. I think the biggest problem I have – as you mention – is timing. This is very difficult for the novice. I’m going to keep watching videos, because they do help a lot in trying to learn and recognise how you react to what the dog is doing. I’ll update in a few weeks how things are going…. thank you again.

  3. I notice you say lie down a lot but the dogs very rarely actually lie down….are you using that command as a stop not actually wanting them to lie down?

    1. Quite right, Heather.
      This is a copy of a reply I posted on a similar question elsewhere on this website:

      Years ago, I used “Stand” because it was ideal for using in a short, sharp manner. In other words, to grab the dog’s attention. Over the years though, I’ve found that a longer, drawn-out command often works better than a short, sharp one.

      There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I try to avoid short sharp commands because they can actually excite the dog (especially when repeated rapidly) making it more difficult to control. Secondly, I’ve carefully observed dogs while I and others train them, and I’ve noticed that although a sharp command may be effective momentarily, once the command is no longer audible, some dogs seem to assume it’s OK to carry on as they were before the command sounded. For this reason, when a dog is proving difficult to stop, I drag the command out for much longer. I find this more effective in most cases.

      You should bear in mind that as the dog learns to work effectively, it will use the handler’s tone and the urgency in their voice, combined with the dog’s interpretation of the situation to decide how they react to the stop command. For example, many handlers (including me) use the stop command gently when they just want the dog to slow down a little – or they’ll use the same command more urgently and in an abrupt manner to actually stop the dog. This method gives an infinite variation in the intensity of the command – as interpreted by both dog and handler as a team.
      I changed to “Lie down” because if you drag it out over two or three seconds it doesn’t sound quite as strange as dragging out “S – T – A – N – D!”

      Although I use the “Lie down” command these days, I actually prefer the dog to stay on its feet because when faced with aggressive sheep, I think the dog will feel safer (and less vulnerable) standing on its feet, rather than lying down on the ground.

  4. Hi, thanks for the great video. My dog is very keen and likes to work quickly. He’s doing very well, but still pushes the sheep too hard and doesn’t seem to understand that I want a steady pace. I use the steady command, and he responds to it, but has to be reminded over and over again not to push too hard. How do you feel about lying the dog down continually while you’re wearing to try to teach it to give some space? Good idea, bad idea? He seems to have only one gear and that is FAST (although his stops are excellent). I want him to understand to hold the pace steady on his own and mind the comfort zone of the sheep.

    1. Glad you like the “Give the sheep space” tutorial, Brianna. Have you watched the other tutorials? For a dog with a good stop which is pushing too hard, “Backwards is the way forward” would be my first recommendation. Get this right and the dog will learn to have a steady pace and keep its distance from the sheep.

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