Sometimes Nice is Not Enough

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sheepdog training video about improving the dogs confidence with stubborn stock

It's all very well training your dog to keep back from the sheep and not upset them, but what can you do if the sheep refuse to go where the dog's trying to put them?

For the welfare of the sheep, they simply must be handled, treated for any ailments and managed, so we need to teach the dog to get tough when the time arises.

Find out how Carew's confidence grew immensely once she learned to be more assertive. As well as difficult sheep, Carew can now handle stubborn cattle with relative ease.

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25 Replies to “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough”

  1. Andy, another excellent and very helpful tutorial. Thank you! I could use some more information, though, on ‘heavy’ sheep. We have a small flock of Katahdins with 20 mature ewes and 10 replacement yearling ewes, and a 13 month old Border Collie bitch, Pippin. I started training Pippin on the replacement ewes last summer after weaning when they were just 4 months old. The mature ewes and yearlings are in separate paddocks for the winter, but will be back together in the barn for lambing in about three weeks. Right now, Pippin is holding back both groups of ewes while I feed hay in feeders in the pasture, and then we practice outruns, flanks, and figure eights around the pasture with the mature ewes. All of the sheep are ‘heavy’ and the older ewes are becoming increasingly difficult, especially the last couple weeks as we get closer to lambing. The yearlings are the worst – they simply stand still! Pip sometimes gets frustrated and will jump at the yearlings especially, and I’ve started to encourage this after watching your tutorial. But so far, it hasn’t done much good (it does work pretty well with the mature ewes). I suspect they’re so heavy partly because they’re getting so big and partly because they’ve become so accustomed to Pippin’s practice sessions? Is it possible the ewes will become easier to move after they lamb and once we start rotational grazing again? Or is this likely to be permanent? They were easier last fall. Will continuing to let Pippin attempt to work the ewes when they are so uncooperative affect her self-confidence? Will it reinforce the ewes’ lack of respect? I like to let Pip do something besides just hold the ewes back each evening, but would I be better off not letting her work them until after lambing? Is it likely that using a friend’s dog to work the ewes will help, or will they just go back to being heavy once Pip is working them alone again? Finally, how do I make sure that this year’s replacement ewe lambs don’t become so heavy? Thanks so much again!

    1. The more sheep get worked with dogs, the more “dogged” they will become, Kathy, but even with a skilled dog it’s not a good idea to work pregnant ewes any more than is absolutely necessary. It’s fine for Pippin to keep the ewes back while you’re feeding them if she’s doing it sensibly, but other than that I think you should give them as much peace and quiet as possible. Once the lambs are born, the mothers are likely to be even more defensive – and who can blame them?
      When the lambs are weaned, the ewes might be a little more easy going, but if they already know they can stand up to Pippin, they won’t forget.

      Working a trainee on heavy sheep like these will damage her confidence unless you get in there with her and make sure the dog is successful.

      Is it not possible to obtain a few of last year’s lambs, or three or four “cull ewes” (ewes no longer suitable for breeding)? This would give the poor dog a better chance of success.

      1. Hi Andy. Many thanks for the advice and insight. You’re right – I’ve always kept my dogs away from the ewes this late in gestation. But, Pippin is so much softer and the ewes don’t seem at all stressed and rarely move at more than a walk, so it didn’t occur to me earlier. This might be a good time for Pip to bow out for a while.

        I’ll have to give some thought to how I can keep some ‘fresh’ sheep available without compromising biosecurity. Our ewe lambs from last spring will be lambing themselves in just a few weeks (approximately on their first birthday). They’re the ones who are the most difficult to move right now. The background information you’ve provided really helps me to understand and hopefully anticipate some of the problem areas.

        Pippin will be absolutely essential when we start trying to move ewes with baby lambs back out on pasture, but I’ll be very careful to either keep her on lead or find some other way to ensure she’s safe from protective mothers. A tutorial on working with and/or moving ewes and young lambs would be helpful!! Weather permitting, we like to get ours out on pasture by 2-4 weeks of age.

        Thanks again for your time. The information you provide is so helpful, and the opportunity to have questions answered so valuable!!

        1. If Pippin’s not stressing the ewes it’s probably OK for her to be around them, but she’ll need to assert more authority when you need to move the ewes, so you need to plan how you’re going to achieve that. A few fresh sheep would be a big help.
          I’m really surprised you breed from lambs. Here in the UK, the rams will be put with last years lambs this coming October so they’ll be 18 months old at that point. On the occasions when they’ve accidentally bred earlier, it restricts the growth of the ewe and the lamb quite severely.
          When it comes to moving the ewes and lambs, I’d try to avoid using a lead, but I’d keep Pippin close to me so that I can help her if she’s in trouble. Be very careful though. If a ewe is trying to attack her, it might miss the dog and hit you…
          The best thing is to teach her to nip a troublesome sheep, on command. If she knows she’s got that option in reserve it’ll boost her confidence. The sheep will learn to respect her too. Watch “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough” again!

          1. Thanks for the advice on what to anticipate with Pippin and how to manage through lambing. Your tutorials have a wealth of knowledge. Hopefully by the time the lambs are ready to move, I’ll have had a chance to watch them all!

            As far as breeding ewe lambs, it’s fairly common practice here. We have a moderate sized breed (average ewe size is 150 lbs) and we’ve successfully selected for early maturity for 15+ years. You’re right, it does require more management. And yes, lambing at 12 months of age does slow growth somewhat, but we find that by the time the ewes are three years old, they weigh the same as ewes that lambed for the first time at two years old. And yes, twins out of yearlings are smaller (singles are usually the same size as twins out of mature ewes). But it’s an environmental effect, not genetic, and they catch up. If managed appropriately, we’ve seen no negative effects to ewes or lambs.

            Thanks again for your help. I’ll get back to watching more tutorials!

  2. Thank you Andy and Gill. This is a really useful video for real working situations. I have a fast but sensitive young dog who tends to avoid/ignore difficult sheep. She will grip occasionally and has learned to bark if we’re pushing sheep up and I put her on a lead. Her confidence is growing and I love the idea of a particular noise to encourage her to turn an animal.

  3. Great timing on the video, I am new to sheepdogs and bought a part trained dog around 8 months ago. He is not the most confident of dogs but whilst the sheep are moving well and stick together he does all I ask of him. He has had to work with the ewes and their lambs for the last few months and it has set him back in training as he has lost confidence, he has become quite sticky and will refuse to move if he becomes uncomfortable. I have not helped by telling him off for going in on a ewe, he gripped and held her face, resulting in a bleeding cut. Although he did let go when told off, I am concerned for the welfare of the sheep and it felt like he was biting out of frustration rather than assertion. I would like to build his confidence and teach him the right way to respond to a challenging ewe. Do you have a few pointers in this direction. Thanks.

    1. Jack, you were quite right to correct the dog for a hard grip which damaged the sheep’s face. The dog must learn to use the minimum of force to get the job done. Hanging on is not the minimum!
      Try to encourage a nip – perhaps under a less stressful situation – quickly correcting it if the dog goes in too hard. Don’t wait until the dog’s in a situation where it will be frightened before encouraging it to push – perhaps try to encourage him to push them harder when they’re already moving (then he’ll only grip a woolly back end).
      If the sheep stop, get up close and help the dog – correcting him if he’s getting too aggressive.

  4. Great editing and presentation on this video. I loved learning about the differences in the two dogs. Very interesting to see Kay blow by the sheep in the hedge and “pretend” not to to see them. Also to hear Carew’s backstory and how you worked to bring up her confidence.

    Awesome segment!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Nancy. It’s very important for us to get feedback on the tutorials – and nice to know our efforts are appreciated. There’s a new tutorial coming in the next few days.

  5. Andy, many thanks for this video, it will help me encourage and stimulate my youngster to gain the confidence to move up to stubborn sheep that try to face the dog off. I has certainly given me reassurance that my training with him is all going in the correct direction and my thinking and planning is travelling parallel to it.

    Many thanks

    1. Good to hear that you find the tutorial useful, Martin. Of course, the welfare of the sheep is important too, but it’s vital the dog has the confidence to do the job.

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