Yesterday I ended up with almost 6 inches of snow. Evidently the one goat shelter was flatter on top and didn’t have the right arc. While the shelter is still functional, the sheep shelter didn’t fare as well.
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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.
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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.
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.
The weather this fall was unusually warm. However, the cold weather has moved in with a vengeance this past week. The other morning it was in the teens when I got up and was still below freezing shortly after 9 am. I think the high was only 43 degrees. I had scheduled a propane delivery for next week, mainly just to take advantage of the propane pricing I had locked in last year that will expire shortly; however, if this weather continues I may actually have need of the delivery.
The borrowed ram has returned home and I’m hoping that he bred at least one ewe while he was here. The hogs are now gone – it was apparent that they weren’t going to pay for themselves and I didn’t want to spend another winter having to carry water out to the pasture every day.
I sold off almost all of my breeding ewes when I sold lambs this past spring. I kept one ewe which had earned a retirement with me (no. 86) and four ewes which I considered “cull” ewes; i.e., if I had continued breeding for lamb I would have not kept these four either because of bag issues or because of poor productivity. However, since I had the ewes, and my neighbor who breeds New Mexico Dahl sheep was willing to loan me a young ram for breeding, I decided to breed the ewes for spring lamb which I could butcher for myself. In the past, I could never afford to put lamb in my freezer as I needed to make as much as I could off selling lamb and the meat in my freezer was generally mutton (which is actually quite good.)
Here is the young ram. He has been here a little over a week and will be leaving in early December. Am hoping that he manages to breed at least one ewe.
I built another cattle panel shelter last weekend. The first two were built with two people and the shelters went up quickly and easily. Unfortunately, I am not tall enough to be able to easily “walk” a panel so putting up a shelter for the sheep was not as easy or quick. However, I did manage it. I bought a tarp to cover it last Wednesday so after work on Thursday, I tarped the shelter.
The chicks will be nine weeks old tomorrow.
Buff Orpington front left; Red Star front right; Delaware behind Red Star; Barred Rock in back. The Bantams are a Japanese and Red Frizzles. It is really easy to see the size difference between the Bantams and the full-size chickens.
As I noted in the last post, I was tired of cleaning out the chicken waterer every day so decided I would try using a hanging waterer with “nipples.” The one I bought worked well enough that I wanted another for the main chicken coop, but wasn’t willing to buy another one ($19.99 plus tax). I bought four nipples and then found two plastic buckets in my recycling. The smallest one is 1 gallon — too small for summer use but should be useful in the winter when I can’t leave water out overnight to freeze. The larger bucket is 3.5 gallons.
I put the smaller waterer together using a drill bit that was too small so I was pleasantly surprised when my attempts to enlarge the hole sufficiently didn’t result in a too large hole. I did buy the correct size drill bit before making the second waterer. The nipples came to just under 1.50 each and I used two nipples for each bucket (rather than the four nipples on the 5 gallon waterer I bought). I can add two more nipples to the 3.5 gallon waterer if needed in the future.
Over the past weekend I finished rebuilding the former sheep pen. Once a new shelter is erected, that pen will be ready for use. I marked off where the 8 foot alley gate needed to be set and ran a string to mark where the front of the two additional pens will lie. I couldn’t start building those pens until the other shelter was moved from the current goat pen to its new location as I didn’t want to have to maneuver around fencing. Monday evening after work a friend came over and we moved the shelter and brought over the two additional 8 foot gates which will be used for the two new pens.
Tuesday evening after chores I strung the remaining lines to mark the two new pens and started setting T-posts and attaching cattle panel. The pens are about half done at this point. I still need to dig holes to set posts for the gate in the alley and the pen gates before I can finish putting up the last cattle panels since those will need to be cut. Other than installing the gates, I should be able to finish putting up the pens by the end of this coming weekend.
Building the two new shelters for the doe pens shouldn’t take long so it looks like I may indeed make my goal of having the pens constructed and ready for use by the end of this month.
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.
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.
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.