Backwards is the way forward

Our best sheepdog training exercise, once you have control of your farm dog, and the dog has basic control of the sheep or cattle.

Subtitles: French*, Spanish* or English, click CC on viewer (*translation errors).



Our best sheepdog training exercise - Andy walking backwards with a dog.

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Video Highlights

What to do next, once your dog goes round the sheep, and stops reasonably well.
Our best sheepdog training exercise once your dog has basic control of the sheep.
Improving the stop, flanking, manner, control, working distance – and the bond with its trainer.
Done correctly, walking backwards enables you to take a bunch of sheep wherever you like.
The walking backwards exercise paves the way for teaching outruns, driving, shedding, and even penning sheep.
Taking sheep in two circles (a figure of 8) means the dog must flank both ways to control them.

Take care!

WARNING: You may fall over if you do the Walking Backwards exercise in a field.

Introduction to a ‘walking backwards’ session with a strong dog.
Setting the dog up for an outrun.
The dog runs to the sheep, but goes around them – just!
Try to give the dog the impression you’re in control, even if you’re not!
Keeping the dog back, allows the sheep to reunite.
Using the training stick, to keep the dog back off the sheep.
Continue to give calm, well-timed commands when control is lost.
Making the dog stay back as you walk backwards.
Flanking practice to relieve pressure on the dog.
Taking the sheep towards two trees to practice figure of eight flanking.
Reminding the dog to keep back behind the sheep.
Working in a figure of 8 to improve both of the dog’s flanks.
Turning to face the dog improves control.
Time to use some outruns to relieve the pressure on the dog.
Moving through the sheep, keeping the dog in place, to allow the sheep to move away.
The dog stays in place while the sheep are still, but moves the moment they do!
When the handler crouches down to put the dog on a lead, the sheep move away!
When the dog loses a sheep, it’s a good opportunity for a ‘look-back‘.
Calm, well-timed commands, should still be given if control is lost.
And once again, keeping the dog back enables the sheep to reunite.
The moment the dog is restrained, the sheep move off …

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Our best sheepdog training exercise

It’s boring – and it might appear pointless to the novice, but walking backwards with the dog bringing the sheep up to you, is our best sheepdog training exercise, but it relies on your dog having basic control of the livestock before you try it. It improves pace, flanking, working distance, the stop, general sheep control, and much more.

As well as clearly demonstrating how to get a strong dog to bring the sheep up quietly – this tutorial provides a valuable tip on how to ‘read’ your sheep, or in other words, predict what they will do next.

Back To Forwards!


30 responses to “Backwards is the way forward”

  1. David Buckley avatar
    David Buckley

    Me’n Flynn (né ‘Roger’ – one of yours & Gill’s)) have reached this stage. This video is perfect for where we are at! The problem lies mainly with me, in that I try to ‘help’ him by turning round too often to ‘place’ him the other side of the sheep. As a result, he kept circling the sheep.A kind friend video’d our efforts and as a result I can see, that I can trust him not to dart in while the sheep and I are proceeding backwards. As result, your video here video makes 100% sense and I have now watched it many times. Thanks so much!

    1. It’s good to know the tutorials are working for you and Flynn, David.
      Thanks for the feedback.

  2. Paula Baldry avatar
    Paula Baldry

    My Moss aged nearly two and a half only works sheep once a week as we don’t have our own sheep. He is coming on well but is sticky, and I have watched the sticky dog video. When I walk back sometimes he just stops in the large open field and although I can usually get him to come with a walk up I am not sure this is really improving….and it is incredibly wearing, evenI get fed up with hearing me
    Any ideas?

    1. It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on without seeing it Paula, but usually if the dog doesn’t bring the sheep to you when you walk away, it’s because you’re not walking away far enough! Try walking away much farther if you can, and don’t give the dog any commands (or even look at it) just let the dog work it out for himself, if he can.
      If Moss still doesn’t get up and bring the sheep to you, try walking to him, and moving him with your foot (don’t kick him). Just give him a shove and the appropriate command, and he should move. Once he does that, try not to let him stop. You will know the times when he’s most likely to stop (from your description, you’ve had plenty of time to study it) so do what you can, to keep him moving.
      If I’ve misunderstood the situation, why not get someone to video the session, and send me the video (read this link first).
      Also, be sure to watch the Sticky Dogs tutorial a couple of times more to be sure you don’t miss anything.
      Feel free reply if you want to.

  3. Holly Grant avatar
    Holly Grant

    Hi Andy- When the video reaches 40 seconds it skips to the end!

    1. Not happening here, Holly. I just checked it and it plays fine on our system.
      Backwards is the way forward is one of our most popular videos, so I’m sure that someone else would have reported it by now if it wasn’t working properly.
      The usual cause of problems like this is your browser cache. The cache can become clogged from time to time, so you need to clear your browser cache.
      Alternatively, try logging in with either a different browser (Firefox, Chrome, Safari etc) or on a different device (maybe a friend’s computer or phone).
      If the video or player were at fault, it would happen at our end, too.

  4. Cees Kruyt avatar
    Cees Kruyt

    Hello Andy Nickless and Gill Watson,
    much appreciate your video’s and lessons. A technical remark: the video ‘Backwards is the best way forwards” tends to stop halfway. That is a slight problem if it only happens once, but I tried many times, and the same ‘stop’ does happen again and again. Ans it’s the only one with this problem. Hope it can be solved.
    Kind regards from a dutch sheperd-and-border in training, Cees Kruyt and Sky.

    1. Thank you for reporting this fault to us, Cees Kruyt and Sky!
      The “Backwards is the Way Forward” tutorial is working correctly now.
      Please do not hesitate to report any other issues you have with our tutorials – it’s very good to know that you appreciate them!

  5. carolyn johnston avatar
    carolyn johnston

    When you say “lie down” why don’t you actually make her lie down???

    1. I understand your confusion, Carolyn…

      This is a quote from the Stop tutorials.

      This brings me to a few issues that you might be wondering about.
      Firstly, if I give a dog the stop command, I don’t always want it to stand still.
      This is herding, it’s not obedience!
      I want my dogs to think for themselves, to a certain extent.
      They’ll develop far better sheep and cattle skills, than I ever will, so I want to encourage that.
      The alternative to this, is to have a range of commands for various speeds, rather like the gears in a car.
      I think this is confusing and impractical, but if you want a robotic dog that doesn’t think for itself, you might want to try it.
      It’s not for me though.
      I’m sure I’d get the commands mixed up, and I try to limit the number of commands my dogs have to learn.
      If I want the dog to stand still, I’ll give the stop command, and then sometimes add “Stay there!”

      I hope this helps.

  6. roger levy avatar
    roger levy

    Hi Andy
    Meg is a year old we train once a week in a small Paddock with five Sheep next week will be her twelfth training session. She knows her sides with a good stop flanks both sides with ease even a mini outrun and has started to walk on. However when I do set her up to walk on (stopped behind the Sheep if) as she starts to walk I give her the command …walk on….she immediately flanks…I stop her or send her round again stop her behind the Sheep once again as soon as I give her…walk on…she flanks…
    I am still walking backwards and backwards and backwards I have also managed to soften her commands (less shouting) which is so much better…calm dog calm sheep with me included in that…
    As a novice handler I do not have Sheep of my own all of her commands were taught away from Sheep (voice and whistle) with Sheep its like a switch she is keen as Mustard!!!
    Any advice regarding walking on would be much appreciated…

    1. You stop the dog behind the sheep, and then when you give her a walk-up command, she flanks to one side or the other instead of walking up?

      Very common problem. The answer is simple – walk away! The dog SHOULD realise the sheep are off balance and go back to the point of balance to correct the situation. If it doesn’t go to collect them keep walking away but give a command to send the dog to collect them.

      If she still won’t go and get them, go back to walking backwards but try to get her to balance the sheep to you without any commands from you. You can use the stick or wave your hand to send her back, but the idea is to make it second nature to keep the sheep on balance.

  7. Richard Williams avatar
    Richard Williams

    Dear Andy,

    Firstly, thanks for the brilliant tutorials, I’d be lost without them.

    Griff (9 month old Collie) was flanking well and I was ‘walking backwards’ and he would wear behind the sheep.

    However, during the last two training sessions he’s ignoring my commands, flanking in the direction he wants, stopping in front of the sheep rather than behind and running wide. He’s also gripping a little. Away from the sheep he’s become belligerent and wilful although he’s a sensitive and gentle dog.

    We’re training every day; do you think I’m over doing it?

    Thanks very much


    1. Hmm… Griff (9 month old Collie). An adolescent male…
      You may be overdoing the training but I doubt it. More likely, he’s just adolescent – and finding ways to do things his way.

      If you have a training ring (and even if you don’t) I suggest you go back to basics. Get him in the ring (or somewhere where you can control the situation) and get him doing as he’s told again. Be firm, but don’t be too hard on him. If he’s running wide, it’s probably just him being “bloody minded” but it might be that you’re being hard on him (or he thinks you are).
      Watch “Bronwen and Scylla 7” for some guidance – and also “Calm But Firm” should help.
      Thanks for the feedback on the tutorials, it’s good to know they are helping you.

      1. Richard Williams avatar
        Richard Williams

        Dear Andy

        I’ve gone back to basics as you suggest. I’m giving the flanking commands and asking him to lie down. He’s doing very well albeit sometimes I have to walk through the sheep and become a little firmer.

        The problem arises when I ‘walk backwards ‘. The sheep begin to follow and Griff will circle ‘away’ to land in front of the sheep. Or he will go really wide ‘away’. Either way the sheep stop walking and become rooted to the spot. I’m being very calm and gentle with him as you suggest, but I noticed he went wide when I used a harsher tone.

        Another issue is that he has a lovely outrun, but does not bring the sheep back to me. He will either lie down or circle the flock and no amount of encouragement will make him move the sheep. The sheep are forty ewe lambs that are reasonably well dogged.

        He is quite confident with the sheep, this morning he got them off a stone wall fearlessly for example. However, I noticed this afternoon that ewes can challenge him and he’ll back down.

        I don’t think I’m over doing the training, as his enthusiasm seems endless.

        Thanks very much


        1. FORTY ewe lambs? That’s a small flock!

          Richard, “back to basics” means back to basics. The dog should be working with no more than four, or five sheep. No wonder you can’t keep the dog in place when there are forty of them to walk through.

          Where in the tutorials do you see me giving the dog basic training on more than a handful of sheep?

          Get the dog to stay in place while you move back with the sheep, and he should only move forward at the pace YOU are moving back at.

          The dog seems OK, but you’re trying to move on too quickly.

          When he circles the sheep at the end of an outrun, I presume it’s when the sheep are a good way off. Again, get him to do short outruns first, and once he’s doing them well, you can increase the distance GRADUALLY.

          The dog will have far more confidence when it’s working close to you.

          If he’s lying down or circling the sheep at the end of an outrun, the chances are he’s not confident enough to outrun that far. I also suspect it’s because the sheep are stubborn and don’t want to move. Watch “Sometimes Nice is Not Enough” to learn how to build up his confidence.

          Going out wider when you’re firm with him is another sure sign of a sensitive dog.

          With respect, I think that not only do you need to go back to basics with Griff, you need to watch ALL the basic tutorials again.

          1. Richard Williams avatar
            Richard Williams

            Dear Andy

            You’re absolutely right!

            In my defence we started on five sheep in the ring, then five sheep in a paddock. Then one day he dived into a field with one hundred ewe lambs and kept them together. I thought forty would be ok!

            I’m going to do as you say. Keep up the good work!



  8. June Ritchhart avatar
    June Ritchhart

    I have a very head strong border collie. He wants to rush too much. I have watched Backwards is the Way Forward and do walk backwards. Any other suggestions?

    1. June, there’s no panacea for this – it takes a lot of training and a lot of patience to train a dog to work stock.

      It’s unlikely you’ve done the walking backwards properly because if you had, the dog would be walking up on the sheep steadily. It’s only four days since you posted the same question on the ‘Calm but Firm‘ tutorial, so unless you’ve been out there with the dog for many hours each day, it’s unlikely a strong-willed dog will have mastered it in this time. (There is always the exception to the rule though).

      If your dog will do a very short outrun, stop on command behind the sheep, and then (as you walk backwards) bring them along behind you at the same pace you’re walking back at, then the dog must be working calmly. It just won’t happen if the dog’s rushing around unless the sheep are extremely ‘dogged‘.

      You’ll see below the ‘Backwards is the Way Forward‘ tutorial that we recommend you watch ‘Back to Forwards‘ next. I suggest you try that as a test of how well your dog does the ‘walking backwards’ exercise. It’ll be chaos if the dog isn’t doing the ‘walking backwards’ part properly.

      I wrote a blog about slowing the dog down. Read it. As well as what I’ve written here, it lists some other things you can try. My advice is to watch ALL the tutorials in the ‘Pace (slowing)‘ category. If you’ve watched them once, watch them again, then go out there with your dog and stick at it! You’ll succeed if you keep trying – but it won’t happen overnight.

      If you mean the dog is rushing around when it’s working further away from you, then you’re sending it too far too soon. Get the dog working well close to you, and then VERY GRADUALLY increase the distance. If the dog rushes around and splits the sheep up, reduce the distance again – and so on.

      1. June Ritchhart avatar
        June Ritchhart

        Thank you so much. I do believe he is starting to get it. I will stick with it. It has been only a few days. I will let you know how it goes.

  9. Natalie Redding avatar
    Natalie Redding

    I wanted to commend you on the quality of your videos. I usually can’t get through 2 minutes of online tutorials of any kind because they are poorly communicated and poorly filmed. You’ve done a superb job of giving concise instructions, fantastic camera work triangulated with honesty in filming (i.e. you’ll leave your own training mistakes in). I appreciate the work you and your partner do and it’s helped me tremendously with shepherding my own flock and helped me understand my working dogs minds and motivation. Beyond learning about dog behavior and herding from the dogs perspective, I’ve used these video tutorials to put a solid foundation on a yearling border pup who I’d committed to going to professional training in the summer. Instead of sending the trainer a completely clueless dog, I’m sending a dog who knows not only his his flanking commands, but also: down, stand, get out, walk up, there, look back and of course, “that’ll do.” Before your videos, I couldn’t teach a dog to “sit” let alone teach the basic commands of a sheepdog. These videos have taught me what my expectations should be and what types of behaviors are “offenses” and which behaviors I can let “slide.” I also appreciate your kindness towards your dogs and how you truly seem to appreciate each and every one of them, even if they aren’t going to be super stars. To me, that’s such a hallmark of a great trainer i.e. someone who loves all dogs, even the ones who aren’t naturally gifted. I just can’t say enough nice things about these tutorials… a membership was WELL worth the money spent (many times over). Thank you again for the work you do. Natalie Redding, Namaste Farms in sunny Southern California

    1. Britta Waddell avatar
      Britta Waddell

      I couldn’t agree more with Natalie :-)
      Britta Waddell in sunny New Zealand

    2. Melinda Stevenson avatar
      Melinda Stevenson

      I agree 100%. I think these tutorials are priceless!!

  10. Britta Waddell avatar
    Britta Waddell

    Thank you so much, now I understand why I have to do this exercise!!! So far, everybody told me that I have to do it, but nobody has bothered to tell why I am doing it. So I never really bothered. Plus I could never do it, simply because my dog rushes the sheep too much and they run away; even more reason to do it, I now understand. Andy, you are a star :-)

  11. Stephen Burton avatar
    Stephen Burton

    how do I stop my dog from cutting in or getting close to the sheep when finishing an outrun… he is a very fast dog so going closer is sometimes worse…

    1. You’re “trying to run before you can walk” Stephen. If the dog’s working very fast, as you say, it’s because it’s excited and lacking confidence). Get the dog under proper control and working at a sensible pace when it’s closer to you before you ask it to do longer outruns. IT would be a good idea to watch the three Outrun Tutorials to see how to widen the dog out when it’s nearer the sheep, but you really need to steady the dog down and get it working confidently first.

  12. Amie Brodie avatar
    Amie Brodie

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks for the tutorials. I’ve been working my Sheltie for a little over a year now. My instructor has us doing this exercise all the time, but my problem is SLOWING HIM DOWN. I lie him down, walk up to the sheep, and try to get him to “walk up!” as I walk backwards but he leaps up every time and runs up on the sheep too fast. I am trying to teach him the command “easy!” to tell him to slow down but he isn’t getting it, so I must not be getting the point across. Any ideas on how to teach a dog to slow his feet down? He has a fairly reliable stop.

    1. A sheltie working sheep! That would be worth seeing!
      Walking backwards is what’s required. It reinforces your authority over the dog and it also teaches the dog self-discipline – and to work at the correct distance from the sheep. The difficult part is getting the dog to do it properly.
      Of course, it’s difficult to get a true picture without seeing you training your dog, but I think you might be walking too far back before you allow the dog to walk up a little way. The closer you are to the dog, the more control you have over it.
      As you walk back, keep your eyes fixed on the dog. If you glance back to see where you’re going, the dog will probably set off to the sheep but you KNOW this is going to happen, so be ready for it – and stop the dog immediately, then MAKE the dog stay in place.
      Don’t worry about teaching him to slow down. If you do the walking backwards exercise correctly, that will come. By allowing the dog to come forward just a metre (a yard) or so before you stop it – and repeating this over and over again, the dog will take the easy option and come forward slowly – because it will learn that if it walks forward slowly, you won’t stop it!
      I suggest you watch the “Backwards is the Way Forward” tutorial again – at least once!
      The dog should eventually walk forward onto its sheep at the same pace that the handler is walking backwards.
      Lastly – safety first. Expect to take a tumble or two as you get used to walking backwards. Don’t do it if you’re not prepared to risk a few falls.

      1. Amie Brodie avatar
        Amie Brodie

        Thanks! Let me get this straight. What I’m doing now is walking to the sheep and asking him to walk up with the sheep between me and him or next to me. I start walking backwards and then tell him to “walk up!”. Should I be between him and the sheep? Or do you mean don’t have the sheep (and me ) too far ahead before asking him to walk?
        I sure have fallen down quite a few times! I’m sturdy enough to take it, although I sometimes feel it the next day….
        We use Shelties commonly for trialing here in the States. He got his AKC Herding Tested title at the Cleveland OH Shetland Sheepdog Club trial. I’m in Ohio so it was close by! I doubt they are used much on working farms though. I wish I could figure out how to send a photo.

        1. Difficult to see what you’re doing without being there, Amie. I can only suggest you watch Backwards is the Way Forward again – and if there’s a specific part of it you don’t understand, let me know.
          Basically, the idea is, the dog is on the opposite side of the sheep to you, and far enough back to maintain control of the sheep, but not stress them. You should then walk backwards (if you can do this safely on your ground) and the dog should bring the sheep to you, whilst maintaining the same distance from them. This means the dog should bring the sheep towards you at the same speed that you are walking backwards – so the gap between the dog, the sheep, and yourself remains constant.
          It’s virtually impossible to achieve, of course, but it’s what we aim for – and it will improve the dog’s work and sheep control immensely.

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