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To start working stock all you really need is a dog and stock but it really helps to have a working pen and some type of “stick”. The working pen needs to be a suitable size to contain the number of stock being worked AND with enough space that if the stock is bunched in the center of the pen there is 20 feet or more to the sides of the pen. A 100 foot x 100 foot pen is ideal. Corners are tough, so if the pen is round that is even better. Again, speaking from painful experience, make sure you clean up anything off the ground that you could potentially trip over.
The stick can be a piece of PVC, a crook, a rattle paddle or a lunge whip. I’ve known people to use bamboo as well. Basically the stick is no more than an extension of your arm so it needs to be something you can easily carry and use. If the dog is really sensitive to your body language, you may want to forego using a stick initially as it may pressure a beginning dog too much.
Before I start working a dog I want to make sure the livestock are familiar with the working pen so I’ll usually feed the stock in the pen for a couple of days.
If your stock is not dog broke (i.e., accustomed to dogs and not panicking when one appears) you will need to dog break the stock now. If you’ve fed the stock in your working pen for a couple of days, the stock should be comfortable in the pen. Put your feed in the center of the pen and put a dog on leash (this doesn’t have to be the dog you intend to start working on stock but it should be a quiet dog that isn’t going to be barking frantically.) Once the stock is quietly eating, enter the pen with the dog on leash and begin walking the perimeter of the fence line. You should be far enough from the stock (at least 20 feet) so that even if the stock notices you and the dog, other than maybe moving a couple of feet, the stock will settle back down. With every circle of the pen, move away from the fence line 6-12 inches. Switch the dog (or directions) so sometimes you are between the stock and the dog and sometimes the dog is closer to the stock. Watch the stock – you will notice when the dog’s pressure causes the stock to be uncomfortable and move away. Back away just far enough so that the stock settles down again; make another circles around the perimeter, coming in close enough to make the stock move a step or two and release the pressure. Do this a couple of time and then quit. Your goal is to have the stock respond to pressure from the dog without becoming panicked. Depending upon the stock, it may take a couple of days before the stock is quiet enough with the dog in the pen to move on to the next step. If you have stock that consistently doesn’t move away from the dog’s pressure but turns and faces the dog even though the dog is quiet and not threatening, you can use your stick to add pressure to the stock. If the stock doesn’t respond to the added pressure, this is not stock you want to start a young dog on. Too few head of stock will often be more willing to challenge a dog which is why I strongly suggest starting with more than three head. Stock with young offspring will challenge a dog more and I won’t work a young dog on stock with offspring less than a month old. Generally, if my sheep lamb in February / March I won’t start moving them onto pasture until sometime between mid-April and the first of May.
So now you have a dog and dog-broke stock. You are almost ready to start working your dog. Sit down with a cup of coffee (or other beverage of your choice) and think about what your long-term goals are for the dog. Are you moving all your stock at the same time? If not, do you have to sort stock before moving stock or is the stock penned separately? What is the routine for the stock? Are your animals used to be moved at a certain time of day? Always to the same location or does it change? If it changes, what factors influence where the stock is moved?
English Shepherds thrive on routine. However, and I’m speaking from experience, unless your routine will NEVER vary, you don’t want to fall into a specific routine with your dog too soon. It can make asking your dog to vary that routine later very difficult.
Once you know what you need to accomplish, take a look at your setup – fences, gates, etc. and determine the most efficient way to move livestock. You may determine that making a few changes in your current setup now to assist your dog is a wise investment in time.
If you have a working pen, your initial training will be in the working pen. Using a working pen allows you to have better (not absolute) control over what happens. Since good training is based on making the dog successful, having control over your environment in the initial stages is very, very useful. If you don’t have a working pen, you will have to train in the “real world” which brings a whole different level of challenges. As a well-known border collie handler once said, “you want to make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing hard.” If you don’t have a working pen, this may be accomplished by using “temporary” fences to help your dog move livestock where the stock needs to go. I use either corral or cattle panels (and lots of baling twine) to block off areas and help “channel” the stock when I start moving stock out to new pastures. Livestock, like your dog, fall into routines and it can be difficult for a young dog to convince the livestock to head in a new direction.