The Working Sheepdog Website

Online sheepdog training videos advice and articles

Starting a non starter (Parts 1 & 2)

If your dog doesn’t want to work, we can help you to change its mind!

WHY CAN’T I SEE THE VIDEO?

If you have a paid account with us please LOGIN.
Our sheepdog training videos are restricted to paying members who have logged-into their accounts.

Photo of a border collie clambering through a fence to get away from the sheep in the background

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, if you understand what’s happening and why, there’s a much better chance of putting things right.

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


18 responses to “Starting a non starter (Parts 1 & 2)”

  1. Xeniamar Lopez Matos avatar

    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. Andy avatar

      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

        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. Andy avatar

          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.

  2. David Acuna avatar

    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. Andy avatar

      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

        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. Andy avatar

          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

            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!
            David

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Hide picture