The secret of getting a good “stop” is: LET THE DOG GO !
It’s vitally important that the dog learns that you’re not necessarily stopping its game every time you tell it to lie down so, for a little while, be sure to reward your dog by sending it off again immediately it’s stopped. A thousand voices will scream that this paragraph directly contradicts the practice of harsh voice commands followed by repeated softer voice commands. How can you repeat commands in a progressively softening voice if you also have to send the dog away immediately?
In reality you need to do both to begin with and you must decide for yourself which is appropriate at any given time. If you stop your dog and try to put him on a lead because it’s taken ages to get him under control and now you’re late for an appointment – the chances are, he’ll dash away again anyhow. But if you stop your dog and immediately send him off again, he’s more likely to stop for you next time. After a few halts and departures, it will be much easier to walk up to the dog and put the cord through his collar and coax him away from the sheep. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking he’ll stop as soon as things start going wrong. There is NO WAY he’ll stop in ‘mid flight’ at this stage of his training – you must wait for him to pause or hesitate and then give a firm, sharp ‘LIE-DOWN’ but as soon as possible, avoid the harsh voice. Keep it in reserve for urgent situations!
Get as close to the sheep as you can before releasing the lead. Once your dog has run around the sheep for a while, you’ll have observed his pattern of behaviour and can decide how to begin training. If the dog’s mainly circling the sheep in a fairly calm manner, you’re lucky. Simply encourage him to stay on the opposite side of the sheep to you by using really warm and friendly tones in your voice when he’s in the right place and by growling or saying sharply ‘Ahh-ah-ah’ or similar when it comes round to your side. Don’t be afraid to let the dog circle the sheep – it will knock the edge off his enthusiasm and energy – normally making the training session more controlled.
What you should avoid is the dog circling in one direction only. Make him go both ways around the sheep to prevent him becoming “handed” – a bad habit which can be hard to stop later on.
Encourage good work – such as giving the sheep room, rather than crowding in on them. When you see the dog’s about to change direction, give the appropriate ‘come-bye’ or ‘away’ command in a really soft voice. Soon he’ll begin to respond and you can occasionally give the command when you see the dog’s undecided which way to move – if it goes the way you ask fairly consistently, you’re getting control.
If the sheep are really ‘flighty’, your dog may have difficulty in ‘heading’ them – that is to say getting to a position in front and stopping them. If this is the case, build a circular pen out of hurdles or fencing. The easiest way to build a circular pen is to buy 25 to 30 sheep hurdles. These can be new from your local agricultural supplier or second hand from a farmer or a farm sale. If you go for the second hand option, make sure you know what you’re buying as hurdles are invariably abused on farms and are useless if they don’t fit together properly. There’s a good deal of information about the use of hurdles on our DVD – First Steps in Border Collie Sheepdog Training.
Build the pen close to the field’s boundary fence so that you can open one or two hurdles out to meet the fence. This will make it quite easy to drive the sheep into the enclosure with your untrained dog on a long lead.
If you really can’t get the sheep into the pen, leave a little food in a trough inside the enclosure each day. Soon you’ll find that they come running when they see you arrive. You now have control! If you walk into the pen with some food, the sheep should follow you in and you can quickly close the gate – even better if a friend will close it for you. ‘Sheep nuts’ are readily available from agricultural feed merchants. Remember sheep don’t like being near dogs so if you’re trying to drive sheep into a pen, either have the dog well out of sight (and sound) or have him with you on a lead otherwise, he may be preventing the sheep from going where you want them.
If you have the hurdles opened out against the fence, drive the sheep along the fence and the hurdles will ‘scoop’ the m into the enclosure (at least that’s the theory). If you put your dog on a lead and take him with you, it will make it much easier to drive the sheep into the enclosure and it will also make it much easier for him to understand what is going on when you start asking him to drive the sheep.
This is not a conventional method of teaching a dog basic driving but it works! While you’re walking behind the dog, talk to him reassuringly and tell him to ‘walk up’ (or whatever request you intend to use for driving). As with all sheepdog training though, try not to overdo it as we are more interested in getting the dog to bring the sheep and hold them to you at this stage.
With the sheep in your ‘stockade’ you can now encourage your dog to circle around the outside as though he’s holding the sheep to you. Ideally, you’ll be moving around and trying to keep your dog on the opposite side from you and it does not matter whether you’re inside or outside and for the time being, you can even stand in the middle of the sheep as long as you can encourage the dog to circle.
As soon as you feel able, bring the dog into the hurdle ring and encourage him to hold the sheep to you whilst urging him to ‘come bye’, ‘away’ and ‘stand’ or ‘lie down’. When you feel you’re able to control the situation, try the same procedure without using the ring. If chaos ensues, you can revert to the hurdles but hopefully, you’ll find that your dog’s responding better and controlling the sheep. This is a huge milestone. Once you can trust your dog to stop and send him into a flanking movement, he’s really making progress.
* Whilst the sheep are in the circular enclosure they will begin to learn that the least stressful place to be is by you. Eventually, they will get this down to a fine art and it will become a nuisance by crowding around your legs. At this stage, your sheep are ‘dogged’ and you need to change them. Farmers are lucky as they’re able to keep sheep of various stages of ‘dog’ and using the more dogged ones for training pups and the flightier ones for more experienced dogs.
If your dog insists on circling around the sheep – rather than stopping and going back the other way – don’t worry, you have made a good start and if you persist with the soft pleased voice when the dog’s on the opposite side of the sheep from you – and the growling, or hard voice when he’s between you and the sheep, you should win in the end. You can emphasise your requests by walking towards the dog as it moves towards you.
If the dog’s coming towards you in a clockwise direction, walk towards it saying ‘away’ in a gentle encouraging voice. If he ignores this you can bar his way with raised hands and of course there are other ways of discouraging him by shouting or even waving your arms but these would be last resort tactics – best avoided.
If you use the lambing rope, it seems to work very well if you fold it so that It’s about 30 cm (1 ft) long and swing it around using just your wrist when you’re walking towards the dog and want it to go back the other way – but your dog will know what you like and dislike by the tone of your voice and the way you move so there should be no need for much waving arms and running around. If you use these methods, you should try to phase them out at the earliest opportunity.
Aim to control your dog with your hands in your pockets as soon as possible as he must learn to concentrate on his sheep and obey audible commands rather than be looking at you for signals. It’s most important to remember that the less pressure you put on your dog, the better at this very early stage. Far better to persevere with gentle encouragement than to start waving your arms or shouting so if you can stick with the early encouragement (and moving around) stages until they bear fruit, so much the better.
Try to remember, your dog’s basic instinct is to stop the sheep. If you position yourself on the opposite side of the sheep from the dog, they should stop between you. If the dog moves towards you, you want to turn it back, so by walking towards it, you’re putting yourself in front of the dog as a barrier – and as you’re both now on the same side of the sheep they will start to move away – so the dog should turn and go to the front of them again. Once the dog’s balancing the sheep to you, you can begin to stop it. This should be in an encouraging voice again – not too much pressure but be firm. We really want the dog to stop. Before you can get the dog to stop, it must feel that the sheep are under control.
If your dog’s charging at the sheep rather than circling, there is still no need to worry. Build the circular pen and put the dog on the outside of it as discussed earlier. If the dog’s hard to catch, use the long lead so that you can tread on one end as the dog goes round and round. As you tread on the lead, call ‘lie down’ or ‘stand’ fairly hard. When the dog stops, repeat the command in a softer and softer voice. This shows the dog all is well and it’s done the right thing (even though you gave it no choice!). It’s important to release the dog and “shhhhh” it away again as soon as it’s stopped – soon it will realise that ‘lie down’ or ‘stand’ does not mean the end of its fun – rather It’s merely a pause. Persevere with the circular pen until you feel you’re gaining control but aim to dispense with it as soon as possible to make the situation more realistic (and interesting) for all concerned. The same applies to the long string. If the dog’s working well in the pen but the sheep are still wild, make the pen larger by using a fence (if you have one) as the one side. A hedge will probably not be suitable as sheep will be inclined to huddle against it rather than moving.
The larger pen will now be ‘D’ shaped rather than a circle. The larger the circle gets, the straighter the sides are and consequently the less stable the hurdles become so when you make the circle larger you’ll need to knock some posts or strong pegs in to support the hurdles. If you don’t know how to go about this, It’s best to get help from someone who has experience – such as a sheepdog trialler or farmer.
Remember – whatever problem you’re having with your dog, you should be able to cure it. Think carefully about the problem – why the dog’s doing it and how you can change the training routine to correct it. Sometimes the dog will simply be using its own initiative to try to help you. For instance, if you stop him with the intention of stopping the session, he’ll not (necessarily) know this and as you walk towards him he may dash off towards the sheep again. This does not mean he’s misbehaving – more likely he’s trying to prevent the sheep escaping.
Once your dog becomes more skilled, you’ll be amazed how intelligent he is. He’ll know from the tone of your voice or whistle whether he should actually lie down, just stop, or even check his pace for a moment – but this will develop gradually. For now, he must lie down when you give the command. Keep commands simple for now and you’ll reap the rewards later.