Connecting the dots
One of the reasons working stock is so interesting is because you are working with 2 separate species that have dire opposite needs. It’s the combination of these different needs intertwining that allows us (the 3rd part of this “puzzle”) to accomplish our goals. Dogs want to get close enough to the sheep that they can control every movement – while sheep want to get enough distance from the dog that they don’t feel threatened.
In “other words” dogs want to catch the sheep the sheep want to run away — somehow in your training you need to combine the needs of both species in order to make them comfortable enough to get your work done. In this “cat and mouse” game … a lot of novices are so focused on the “cat” they forget to take the “mouse” into account.
One of your jobs as a trainer/handler is to try to figure out what would make the sheep feel less threaten while “at the same time” keeping your dog empowered. Which means you have to know your dog and how specific sheep respond to him. If you have a strong pushy dog and are working light/flighty sheep – then you need to train your dog to understand that distance and pace will settle his sheep. If your dog is “light” and the sheep are “the type” that will challenge him – then maybe you need to let the dog come on hard on the lift – then back him off. If you have “running” sheep that won’t stop no mater what your dogs does – you better keep your dog in close enough contact to guide them or you will lose them completely.
You have to learn to understand sheep not just your dog. Taking the sheep’s “needs” into account is a necessity if you want to work them successfully. If you look at them as “just something to work your dog on” you will never get the best out of your dog. I’ve always said you can tell how someone trains by watching how their sheep react to dogs.
Do you work the sheep until they are so “numbed down” they don’t respond to the dog. If you work the sheep too long without “changing them out” (when they get tired)you will “create” sheep that just go through the motions of moving away. This not only ruins your sheep but ALSO your dog. A dog can’t be trained correctly on sheep that don’t respond. I have seen people who work their sheep until their heads are down and they are just moving … not connected to anything the dog is doing. Think about it from your dogs “point of view” … he’s hunting a “dead” animal … where’s the challenge in that. Not to mention – lack of respect for sheep.
Or do you keep your sheep running all the time so they never have a chance to settle and lean on a dog … letting him guide them. They are afraid of the dog not respectful (which is the correct “response” the sheep should have). You and the dog need to respect the sheep … only then will the sheep respect the dog. That will never be achieved by dogs chasing sheep. If your sheep SEE a dog and take off running as fast as they can … how can your dog possibly work them? All he can do is play “catch up”. There is no feel, no control, no thought, just chase. That’s not working … it’s harassment.
Do you work them in such a small area that neither dog nor sheep can find “a distance” that feels comfortable. Don’t get me wrong … I have a round pen and I use it with dog broke sheep (that have learned to come to me for safety). I think it makes it easier to control both sheep and pup. But the only reason this works is that the dog broke sheep have been “ground down” to have a very tight flight zone. “Normal” sheep with “wider boundaries” would be running from both the dog and me. So, starting there is fine … but get out in the open as soon as you see your dog trying to figure out where to be on his sheep.
Sheep are not “toys” for dogs … they are living breathing animals and need to be treated with respect – after all – we wouldn’t be able to enjoy all the aspects of working our dogs without them.