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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Fix at Ten Months

For Fix’s ten month birthday today, we took a hike. The entrance to the Quebradas Backcountry Scenic Byway, managed by the BLM, is about a tenth of a mile from my gate. While traffic (vehicles and dirt bikes) can be an issue during holidays and weekends, during the week it is generally quiet. (It is also a place to avoid during monsoon season as flash flooding is common and dangerous.)

Sitting in the middle of a shallow arroyo created by flash flooding.

Fix drags a line on these hikes but that will change soon. His recall is such that I can call him off deer and today we flushed a jack rabbit and he simply returned to me without the need for me to call him back.

He is turning into an excellent companion as well as a good chore dog, but part of me misses the adorable ball of fluff I brought home last May.

 

 

Farm Dog 101: Working Livestock with Your English Shepherd – an Overview

English Shepherds are/should be control freaks. They understand rules and want those rules followed. That is one of the things that makes it easier to work with them on your own stock and one of the things that often makes it frustrating to work them off your property and with strange stock.

English Shepherds are “loose eyed” dogs and thus work closer in to their stock than border collies. While some dogs will bark at particularly stubborn stock, if a dog is barking almost constantly it lacks confidence and you will have to be extra careful in starting that dog to build confidence.

The first thing I do when starting a young dog (and young isn’t age related but determined by experience) is develop a bond with the dog. This means I spend time with the dog in a variety of situations, teaching the dog to respect me and fostering its desire to be with me. I will take the dog with me doing chores. Depending upon the dog and the situation, this may mean the dog is dragging a line to ensure I can control its behavior. While I don’t directly focus on the dog, after all I am doing chores, I do make sure the dog isn’t getting into trouble and is staying close (how close is a personal choice.) When I have a dog that is sticking with me doing chores, coming back to check in frequently on off-leash walks and has rudimentary obedience skills as well as self-control I’ll evaluate whether or not the dog is mentally and physically mature enough to start working stock. This is also dependent upon my stock. I won’t work a young dog on ewes with young lambs.

If I’m going to work stock with a dog, I will wait to do serious obedience training until AFTER I have started working stock. While I want the dog responsive to me, I want the dog’s focus on stock. A dog who focuses on the handler is either going to be less effective in working stock or, worse case scenario, is going to get hurt by not paying attention to the stock. It is very important to remember that if you want a partner, you have to ensure the dog is capable of making decisions and not expecting you to make all the decisions for him/her. All the dogs I train are taught self-control early on so that the dog is making GOOD decisions on its own and so that I’m not constantly telling the dog to do or not to do something.

It is also critical that you set your dog up to be successful and not to fail. While corrections are, in my opinion, a necessary part of training, corrections rarely have a place in “teaching”. Until the dog understands what is required and knows how to avoid a correction, it isn’t fair to correct the dog. Once I move out of teaching and into training, I can set it up so the dog has to make the right decision under more challenging circumstances, but again I have to ensure the dog is prepared for the challenge and I’m not expecting something I can’t reasonably expect.

The age you start a dog is not critical as long as the dog is mentally and physically ready to start. What is critical is that you haven’t done things to “turn the dog off”. I’ve seen pups that were put on stock too young and a single bad experience was sufficient to turn the dog off working stock permanently. I’ve seen older dogs that had been discouraged as pups from interacting with livestock who wouldn’t work as they got older. I’ve also seen dogs bounce back from traumas that you would have thought sufficient to turn them off permanently — my first ES got kicked by a steer so hard it knocked him across a pen, gave him a concussion and broke a molar. He tried, unsuccessfully because of the concussion, to get up and continue working.

Working poultry (chicken, turkeys, ducks), sheep, cattle and goats is challenging in different ways and some dogs will excel on one type of stock and yet may not be a good worker on another type of stock. The dog might be ready to work poultry very early on and not be ready for sheep, goats or cattle until much later. So just because your pup or dog doesn’t seem interested in working one type of livestock or another, don’t be discouraged. It may need more time just accompanying you doing chores or you may want to try starting on a different type of livestock. While I do use my ES to handle my American Guinea Hogs, I don’t recommend starting an inexperienced dog on hogs and I personally will NEVER use a dog to work horses. There are several reasons for that but it can be boiled down to a safety issue for both the dog and rider.

NOTE: The above was originally written a few years ago, when I was raising Katahdin sheep for lamb and was pasture raising American Guinea Hogs. I have downsized the number of sheep I have and the hogs are now in various freezers.

Farm Dog 101: Paper Plate Recall

Fix turned 24 weeks (6 months) old today. He still hasn’t outgrown the fuglies, but I am seeing some glimmers of the handsome dog he will be.

Fix at 24 weeks

 

Despite other Farm Dog 101 posts where I state I am going to start formal training with Fix, I have to admit that has not happened. His training to date has been just day to day interactions and doing chores.

So this evening, I decided it was way past time to get serious about training and I dusted off an exercise I used to teach to students in my beginning obedience classes – the Paper Plate Recall. This is an exercise I learned from a colleague, now sadly deceased, Dick Russell from Baton Rouge, LA. Rather than type it out here, I am providing a link to the exercise explained on another colleague’s blog: Paper Plate Recall.

So after chores, I put a leash on Fix, found a suitable plastic lid and put a few treats in my pocket. While Fix does know “sit’, I have not taught him a “stay” so he is a novice dog and a great example of the “magic” of this exercise. We started at 3 feet from the lid and finished, about 10 minutes later, approximately 60 feet away with Fix holding a stay while I walked away from him to put the treat on the lid and then while I walked back to him. Click on photos to enlarge.

Lid in foreground and Fix on Stay about 60 feet away.

After I walked back to Fix, I sent him to the plastic lid

Fix at the treat

 

 

 

Fix returning on a “come” command

Almost back

Farm Dog 101: Five months

Yesterday Fix turned five months old so I thought I’d chronicle his day. Since I leave the door open at night for the adult dogs to come and go as they please, Fix is still crated at night so he can’t get himself into trouble outside. When I got up in the morning, Fix was let out of the crate (waiting for his release word “free” even after the door was opened) and he made his usual check of the dog dishes to see if 1) one of the other dogs had not finished their dinner; or 2) if food had magically appeared in the dish overnight before dashing outside to pee. When Fix was smaller I used to go out with him, first on a leash and then later just to supervise, but he has been going out unsupervised for a few weeks now. I put the water on for coffee and washed dishes and Fix dashed back in to see if the dog dishes have re-filled themselves. After I finished my coffee, Fix was fed breakfast. (Again, waiting patiently in a sit until given his release word to eat.) Chores were next. After we did chores I went back to work on digging out gates. Fix hung around a bit and then went off to explore. He found a piece of horse hoof and played with it for awhile – throwing it up in the air, then pouncing on it when it hit the ground and then running laps with it in his mouth before starting all over again.

The Pounce

Running Laps

We played a little fetch with a stick he brought me and then he wandered off again. When it got too hot for me to continue, I took a shower while Fix hung out. I needed to run into town for groceries so I crated Fix since I was going to leave the door open for the other dogs to come and go. When I got back I spent a little time on the computer while Fix just hung out and then we took a nap in the hammock. At some point Fix jumped off the hammock and just laid down on the bedroom floor. After our nap, I did a little work using the computer and Fix alternated between lying next to me and going outside to explore. We did evening chores and he did a little more exploring while I was pulling more T-posts. He did come back to help me do a little more digging around the gate post. Then it was time for dinner and more time just chilling out in the house before bed. Not a real exciting way to turn 5 months old. . . I’ll have to come up with something special for his six month birthday next month.

 

Farm Dog 101: Fetch and Tug as training games

At not quite five months of age Fix is starting to help out with chores. I’ve allowed him to put up the sheep at night a couple of times. While in reality, the sheep will usually put themselves up once I bring them out of the pasture, as far as Fix is concerned, behind them and dragging a line, he is moving the sheep on his own. This morning after I filled a hay net with hay, Fix moved the hay net to the cart. He did this on his own, without any prompting by me.

I play games with my puppies – primarily fetch and tug – as a way to encourage team work (and to teach self-control). Fetch because later I will train a reliable retrieve to hand and tug because sometimes the dog will have to exert some force to bring me something – a filled hay net is one example.

Many years ago a fellow trainer told me a story that I’ve never forgotten. He trained bird dogs so his puppies were taught to fetch from day one. He also never corrected a puppy for picking up and carrying something inappropriate but encouraged the pup to bring the item to him. One day he had a young pup with him in a building where unbeknownst to him someone had put out rat poison. He noticed the pup with something in his mouth and called the pup to him. The pup came running with a box of rat poison. Had he been in the practice of punishing or correcting his pup for picking up things, it is likely that 1) the pup would not have come to him carrying the rat poison; and 2) the pup would have tried swallowing the poison before he was able to remove it from the pup’s mouth. I have taken that lesson to heart and I also never correct a puppy for carrying something in its mouth.

Fix really likes carrying my shoes. He learned very early on not to chew on shoes by simple redirection. However, every time I saw him carrying a shoe, I called him to me, praised and then removed the shoe from his mouth and gave him something else. Fix has also taken to carrying empty metal food dishes if I leave them on the ground. Again, I encourage him to bring those to me and reward him for that. In the past I’ve had to train dogs to carry metal objects so I’m very pleased to see Fix has no issues carrying metal dishes. Of course it means I have to watch where I put the wire cutters in the barn because I’ve caught Fix carrying the wire cutters a few times.

Finally, fetch and tug are useful games to use in training. The following is a brief introduction to TUG OF WAR.

The rules of tug are:

  • You start all games of tug (the toy should be put up away from the dog between games).
  • If the dog’s mouth touches your hand or arm at any time during the game, the game ends immediately.
  • You end all games of tug. The dog must release the tug toy on command.

Start all games of tug with the dog in a sit. Some dogs will be uncomfortable holding onto a toy if they feel you want it. If your dog is hesitant to hold on to the toy when you tug, start with just holding one end of the object and praising your dog for holding on. The next progression is very gentle pressure on the object while praising the dog for holding onto the toy. It may take several days before your dog is willing to hold on to the toy when you pull.

Remember pups that are teething have sensitive mouths – don’t jerk objects out of their mouths. Also, keep the object level and don’t tug up where the dog has to flex his neck.

Frequently during the game, tell your dog to sit or down and give. While tug should be a fun game, you don’t want the dog to become so aroused he no longer is under control.

Finish the game by having your dog sit or down and giving you the toy. The toy should then be put up away from the dog until the next game.

If you are having problems with your dog giving up the toy, with your dog in a sit or down, simply put your free hand under his muzzle and press his lower lip over a lower tooth. Praise when he opens his mouth slightly and remove the toy.

My Weekend

This weekend was spent taking down the working pen, cleaning out the lambing jugs where the bucklings currently reside, building a second compost pile with the old bedding, left over hay, and of course goat manure, and re-configuring the former quarantine pen for the sheep to give them more room. (The sheep got moved out of their pen to accommodate the horse when a tree fell into her corral.) I still don’t know if the two new does are bred, but one is starting to look as though she may be bagging up. If I have kids this fall I will need to have the lambing jugs available so my goal is to build three new goat pens plus two new shelters by the end of this month.

As usual Tuck and Fix were with me while I worked. It really is too bad Tuck doesn’t have opposable thumbs, but since he isn’t able to help with removing T-posts he elected to find a shady spot to lie down. Fix has decided that he needs to emulate his great-uncle and when I looked around to see what mischief Fix was into, I discovered he was quietly laying next to Tuck, just observing. When the temperatures started to climb I decided to quit until evening. However, later in the afternoon it started to lightly rain and I figured it was a good time to finish putting up the new, temporary sheep pen. I headed back out, accompanied by the dogs. Again, Tuck and Fix found a good spot to observe while being out of the way. Shortly thereafter the rain stopped – and the humidity soared – but I wanted to finish up so I kept working. It then started to rain heavier than before but still something I could work in. I looked over to see both Tuck and Fix hightailing it back to the house. I told them they were both wimps and kept pounding a T-post in. As soon as the T-post was set, the heavens opened and the rain started coming down in buckets. I ran towards the house – and nearly killed myself tripping over Fix who had come back to find out why I was still out in the rain. Fix is starting to act more like an adult dog and less like a puppy. . . I’m going to miss my puppy but am ready for the next stage in starting Fix as a stockdog.

A Working Dog No. 2

In the last post I mentioned that a dog with a herding title may not be able to actually work. There is a huge difference between taking direction in an arena where the handler is standing close by, and being able to work without direction to accomplish a task. In my experience, very few dogs which trial are capable of the latter. (And yes, I used to trial dogs many, many years ago.)

As an example of the difference, here is one of the many instances where Tuck has proven himself as a working dog.

Back in September of 2013 heavy rains caused flooding in my area (see post). The sheep had been in the east pasture when it started to rain and while Tuck and I had gone out after the rain let up, the depth of water and degree of mud made me decide to leave the sheep out for the night.

Tuck trying to get to the East Pasture

I received a phone call early the next morning from the post office saying that my order of chicks had arrived. I knew I was not going to be able to get off my property so I called a friend and asked her to pick up the chicks for me and once the frontage road had been cleared, I would meet her at the gate to pick up the chicks. So later that afternoon, after the county road crews had worked on both the frontage road and the county road I live on, she drove over to deliver the chicks. Tuck and I navigated around the cottonwood that had fallen in my drive and waded down the drive (which was still under water) to meet her at my gate.

Drive under water

Unbeknownst to me, the road crew had knocked down the corner post (a railroad tie) and the fence in the east pasture along the road was down. As my friend drove up she spooked the sheep that had made their way onto the road and the sheep took off south, around the bend and out of sight. My friend was upset and wanted to know what to do to get the sheep back. I simply told Tuck to bring me the sheep and he trotted off while I stood talking to my friend through the window of her vehicle. In relatively short order, the sheep appeared around the bend with Tuck behind them. He pushed them through the gate and down the drive where I knew the downed cottonwood would block them until I could wade back down the drive with the chicks.

A good working dog does not need to be micromanaged and given constant directions to get a job done. The dog simply needs to understand what the job is and then left to decide the best way to accomplish it.

A Working Dog

Every day since I returned with the new puppy, Tuck and I have moved the remaining sheep out to the east pasture. The east pasture is probably about five acres and was not used for a couple of years after a road crew took out a corner post and most of the fence along the road. I finally had the fence replaced last summer and was able to use it to graze sheep again but it is still very overgrown.

Yesterday morning Tuck and I moved the sheep as usual. Usually by evening the sheep are waiting at the gate to go back to their night pen. Last night, however, when Tuck and I went for the sheep, the sheep were no where to be seen.

Since I was wearing shorts I wasn’t enthused about traipsing through the pasture looking for sheep so I sent Tuck to find them. Given the terrain, I couldn’t see Tuck or the sheep so couldn’t give him directions other than just to tell him to find the sheep.

It took him awhile, but . . .

 

Unfortunately the phone camera isn’t a great way to take photos so I couldn’t get both Tuck and the sheep in the same shot.

While I think it is admirable that people want to do things with their dogs and are willing to spend the time and money to take lessons and trial their dogs, don’t ever believe anyone who has a herding instinct title or herding title when they tell you that their dog can work stock unless they can demonstrate that the dog can perform a task on its own without being given direction. If you need a true working dog look to a breeder who actually works their dog in a similar situation to yours, and not just one who has titles on their dog. These sheep are trotting – not running – and even so, if I hadn’t been yelling at Tuck to hurry up, he would have brought them up at a walk.

Over the past ten years Tuck has proven he is worth his weight in gold (most days) and I’m hoping his great-nephew will be as good, if not better, a worker.

Random Puppy Photos No. 5

As a “teenager” Fix is fluctuating between being a delight and a major PIA. Yesterday he was being delightful.

18 weeks – supposed to be napping in the hammock

Today he is all “You said what?”