Starting a Strong Dog


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Is your dog hard to control around sheep?

Thumbnail image for the sheep and cattle dog training tutorial: Starting a Strong Dog

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!


  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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. 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.

  4. 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. 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 !!

  5. 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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