Starting a reluctant dog

What to do when starting a reluctant dog, which doesn’t want to work.


How to train a dog which isn't keen to work sheep

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Video Highlights

Every dog is different

It’s normal for a dog to be excited, when you take it to sheep or cattle for the first time.
Dogs use a hunting instinct when they work, but sometimes the instinct is dormant.
The dog shows no interest in the sheep. She should be glaring at them!
Waving the training stick appears to worry the dog, but she soon reacts to the sheep.
Take care not to frighten a sensitive dog, at this delicate stage.
The dog is hassling the sheep, but not harming them.
Tapping the stick on the ground can help to keep the dog out as it runs at the sheep.
The dog’s bouncy pace suggests she’s playing, rather than actually working.
We must protect the sheep, without putting the sensitive dog off working.
Taking the pressure off the dog, to keep her interest in the sheep.

Guide the dog around the sheep

Trying to guide the dog around the sheep, and not through them.
This time, gently waving the stick encourages the dog to keep out.
The dog went in the ‘Away‘ direction, but doesn’t want to go ‘Come bye‘.
The dog goes ‘Away’ again, but reluctantly.
Once again, Maisie refuses to flank in the clockwise direction,
Trying to block the dog as it goes between sheep and hurdles, to change it’s direction
A great opportunity! The sheep are in the middle of the training ring!
Getting between the dog and the sheep, to ‘push’ her out around them.
Another opportunity to block the dog, and send her clockwise again!
Whacking the stick on the ground keeps her out, and she gets the sheep off the fence.

She’s stopped bouncing!

Importantly, Maisie has stopped bouncing. She’s taking her work seriously.
Whacking the stick, helps the dog get the sheep off the fence again.
Trying to keep the dog flanking, to get her used to going in the ‘Come bye’ direction.
Now Maisie seems reluctant to go ‘Away’, and dives into the sheep!
An early correction, stops the dog splitting the sheep.
The dog’s tired so we’ll stop soon, but first let’s see if she’ll go clockwise again.
Maisie went clockwise, but dived into the sheep when they were close to the hurdles.
The sheep are tight on the hurdles but Maisie gets them off – just!
Getting between the sheep and the dog, to catch her and end the session.
At the start of the session, Maisie didn’t even look at the sheep. She’s keener now!
For another training session with a sensitive (but aggressive) dog, watch ‘Calm but firm‘.
Starting Maisie was easy! To get a more difficult dog started, watch ‘Starting a non-starter‘.

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There’s always the exception…

Most dogs are over-excited when they first encounter sheep and it’s up to the trainer to do their best to protect the stock. Occasionally though the dog takes no interest in the stock at all and doesn’t want to work. Starting a reluctant dog requires patience and determination.

In this tutorial, Maisie shows no interest in sheep at first, but once the hunting instinct kicks-in, despite being a sensitive dog, she’s aggressive with them.

Our video demonstrates how to limit the pressure applied by your control measures, while at the same time encouraging the dog to work.

It also shows a good example of how to get a dog to flank both ways around the sheep when the dog prefers to cast in one direction only.

Close Work 1


13 responses to “Starting a reluctant dog”

  1. Fergus Dermody avatar
    Fergus Dermody

    Hi Andy, i am a novice trainer. I have a dog about 8 months now, she is 1 year and 3 months old. When I got her she was extremely shy but has improved immensely. She is very stuck on me and when I bring her out with sheep she is hard to get going. She may venture away from me but after a bit will look for me and come straight back to me. She’s definitely interested and is flocking the sheep against the fence but when I give commands she will run straight back to me. I’ve got her to come by in the training pen but she will not come away. She sticks under my ankles going back and forth. Can you offer any help

    1. Don’t worry Fergus, if the dog’s showing any interest at all, you should be able to build on it – but of course you need to be very patient.
      It would take me half the day to tell you all you need to know about the problem, but luckily we have tutorials for that! I recommend you watch both of the “Starting a Non-Starter” tutorials, and also “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough“.
      Building your dog’s confidence will work wonders! Please let me know how you get on.

  2. Amy Barnes avatar

    Hello, I am new to shepherding and have recently bought my first sheep dog. She is 6, very keen but not that trained.

    She sticks to me like glue during the day which is great but this is not helpful when trying to train her with the sheep. She seems to understand ‘Come by’ but ‘away’ seems to fall on deaf ears. I thought that perhaps I could start in the pen and send her different ways by using the stick to direct her as you do in your videos, however with her sticking to me this is not very possible. She also very often starts to gather and then returns to me, I’m guessing this is a lack of confidence? Thanks, Amy

    1. Definitely a confidence issue, Amy but you don’t say how long you’ve had the dog. If it’s only a few days, things may well change as the dog begins to bond with you. (Don’t mistake the dog staying very close and possibly being affectionate, for the dog recognising you as its leader. These are different things). Proper bonding can take weeks or even months in an older dog.
      You don’t actually say whether the dog has worked sheep before either. If it has, and you’ve only had it for a few weeks, its work should improve as it bonds with you. If it hasn’t worked sheep before, bear in mind that the older the dog is, the longer it takes to train…
      If the dog wants to work, you should be able to get it working soon though. If the dog is “bonded” with you, you should (at least) have enough control to be able to make it stay in place, so it’s simply a matter of making the dog stay where it is, while YOU move to the opposite side of the sheep. This is fairly easily done in a training ring, even if you have to squeeze between the sheep and the hurdles. It teaches the dog that you want it to be on the opposite side of the sheep from you – NOT by your side. Be patient. As I said, the older the dog, the longer it takes to train.
      Once you get the dog on the opposite side of the sheep from you, I suggest you watch “Backwards is the Way Forward” for help with getting the dog to control the sheep from that position.

      1. Amy Barnes avatar

        Hi Andy, thank you for this. I have only had her for 2 weeks so hopefully with time she will be more confident. She has worked before but it was at least a year ago and I don’t think she was hugely trained before this but I expected her to know the basic commands.
        As you suggest I will practice getting her to stay and then move on to other commands. Thanks.

  3. Bridget Sayers avatar
    Bridget Sayers

    Hey Andy thanks for your advice was looking at your videos again and I think I’ve figured out what wrong was watching your video on sticky dogs and that’s exactly what’s happening with my pup so I’m going to take ur advice on the sticky dog video and I’ll see how I go thanks I’ll let you know how I get on . Delighted to have this site it’s provided me with invaluable information on training sheepdogs thanks again

  4. Bridget Sayers avatar
    Bridget Sayers

    Hi Andy I have a young pup 7 months have had him in the round pen but he keeps sitting down after about a half circle he pulling of the lead going in and if I left him off he d tear around the pen after them and they would all jump out but as soon as I get control he keeps sitting down I’ve tried him out in the field same thing happens or he ll just push them against a wall and hold them there if I try circles in the field he sits down and I’ve to try and encourage him up all the time . I’m not sure what to do maybe he is too young yet or more than lightely I’m doing something wrong. Any advice greatly appreciated thank you

    1. Sounds as though he’s a bit immature yet, Bridget, but it also depends a lot on how you “get control” of him. It’s a very fine balance between protecting the sheep, and being too hard on the dog. With a youngster, I tend to give the dog a bit more leeway than perhaps an older dog.
      Without seeing how he reacts when he sits down, it’s impossible to be precise. Sometimes the dog will look frightened and perhaps look for some way out of the ring (or away from the scene). This could be because your correction is too harsh.
      If the dog appears to simply lose interest, it may be what Gill and I describe as “if I can’t do it my way, I’m not going to do it at all“.
      Both need lots of encouragement to keep the dog interested, but you will know by now what triggers it and when it’s likely to happen, so try to avoid (or reduce the intensity of) whatever causes it.
      If you can’t fathom it out, give the dog a month or so away from sheep altogether, and see if he improves after that.
      Watch “Calm but Firm” to see a dog similar to yours, and how we cope with it.

  5. Bridget Sayers avatar
    Bridget Sayers

    Hi Andy have a young dog he very eager to work but on his outrun he doesn’t run I just about get a light jog out of him he manages to get around the sheep but everything is done at a very slow pace if the sheep are running he has no problem it is mainly when the sheep are static on the outrun any help or advice would be appreciated thanks

    1. If you can get some more lively sheep (ones that are not so used to a dog) that will do the trick, but if you can’t, you need to try to encourage the dog to move them more quickly. Also, if you can take your dog to new sheep – somewhere away from it’s familiar ground, that should help too.
      Watch “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough” for other ways to perk the dog up!

      1. Bridget Sayers avatar
        Bridget Sayers

        Hey Andy thanks for ur advice I’m just back from training my dog changed the sheep used lambs oh my god what a turnaround he was a joy to watch thanks again

  6. Ron Pate avatar

    Good video answer my question. I have a pup that is like the video pup. Really good

    1. Good to know the video helped you, Ron. All feedback is very important to us – thanks!

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