Farm Dog 101: Working Livestock with Your English Shepherd – an Introduction (Part One)

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At the point the dog respects you, is responsive to basic commands, and is mentally and physically able to handle the challenge, you are ready to start working stock.

If the dog has been accompanying you on chores, it should now have an understanding of the routine. This is critical for an English Shepherd because most English Shepherds are working to maintain the rules set forth by their owners. English Shepherds should be able to walk through a pasture full of stock and totally ignore all the animals (without being told to do so) as long as the animals are where they are supposed to be, at the time of day they are supposed to be there. This is what enables farmers not to have to tie up or kennel their working dogs when the dogs aren’t being supervised.

Once I have decided the dog is mature enough mentally and physically to start working, I want to ensure that the dog is successful in its initial introduction to the work. Working stock requires the dog to be willing to put itself in situations where the dog may get injured — it is absolutely critical that the dog trust the handler and that the handler makes sure the dog isn’t over-faced early on. Fence lines and corners are dangerous places for dogs — they understand that even if the handler doesn’t. Handlers all too often get very upset with their dogs when they are working in pens and the dog refuses to get around the stock because it means having to go between the stock and a fence line, without realizing why the dog may be reluctant to do so.

Training a dog on stock is all about pressure – the application and removal of pressure to get the dog (and the stock) to move where you want it. Pressure, however, can be very subtle and not noticeable to the observer. The handler needs to recognize the amount of pressure that will be sufficient to achieve the desired result and be careful not to over-pressure the dog. Over-pressuring a dog will either result in the dog becoming frantic and out of control or shutting down and refusing to work. Over-pressuring stock usually results in the stock running. Stock work should be about calm, confident control. It is not productive to run the weight off your livestock. Nor should livestock be stressed by this type of handling. Having said that, especially when working a young dog, things are going to happen. Unless your livestock is heading towards the road or a high cliff, take a deep breath and slow down. (Actually, especially if your stock is heading for the road or a high cliff, stop and breathe.) Panicking has NEVER made a situation any better. Give yourself, the dog and the livestock a chance to settle down before continuing to work. This is really hard for some handlers — don’t beat yourself up over it if you overreact. Just try not to overreact the next time things get out of control.

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