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Training Working Sheep Dogs

Training Working Sheep Dogs 
Border Collie and Kelpie sheep dogs mustering sheep in Queensland, Australia.
Image Courtesy Figaro/Wikimedia Commons 

The first time saw Josephine Roberts’ article about working sheep dogs in the June 2012 issue of Farm Collector, I was delighted. I’ve been interested in working dogs and the work they do since I was about eight or nine years old, the first time I met the working cattle dogs (Blue Heelers in this case) on my grandparents’ ranch. These were tough dogs, focused on the cows while working and not always open to being petted by small children when there weren’t any cows around (although one of them did deign to walk beside me, and ended up alerting me that I was about to step on a rattlesnake. Taz made sure to keep the snake in his sight and too frightened or busy to strike while I backed away to try and find an adult with a forked stick). It was clear that those dogs took their jobs seriously and were proud of their contribution to the work on the ranch, a sense of security and purpose that I hadn’t seen in the city dogs my neighbors kept.

Well-trained working dogs can make a significant contribution to the daily life of  a farm or ranch (read more about that in Associate Editor Beth Beavers’ blog on the subject), but the sheep dog article intrigued me. How do you train a working dog? Where do you start? And after that time and effort, what can a well-trained sheep dog do? Well, I found a few answers.

For the first question, there are many answers.  There are, of course, many ways to train a dog, and often the training method changes based on the dog’s personality and what you want them to do. But most dogs start young (sometimes at six to eight weeks), both with basic obedience commands and with their introduction to sheep (often at around four to six months), and training for a good sheep dog seems largely focused on positive reinforcement of behaviors the dog often already knows how to do. There’s a short video overview you can watch here that includes a demonstration of what Josephine means when she says a working sheep dog must be brave. If you want something a little more in-depth, the late Ted Hope (a decorated sheep dog trainer) filmed a short series of videos covering how he teaches young sheep dogs.

As for what a working sheep dog can do, well there are a few options. The first is, of course, to herd sheep on a farm, but there are other venues where these dogs can show off their skills. If you’ve never seen sheep herded before you might watch this video of Becca, the World Sheep Dog Champion of 2011

If you’re looking for something a little more exciting (the sheep dog trials are a little like watching any other sport– they’re exciting if you know all the rules and understand what’s happening, but if you don’t then a lot of the commentary won’t mean much to you), you might watch the video below. The dogs aren’t listed as the stars of this display of shepherding talent and creativity, but it definitely wouldn’t be possible without them.