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Dog-breaking sheep


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Our still-sheepless co-op has located a flock of Coopworth and crosses to work and train our dogs with. The owner has had sheep for 30 years, and is also interested in training her own dogs. Problem is, her sheep, while used to the farm's cattle dog who occasionally pushes them off of a bale, etc, aren't used to being worked by a dog. We tried to move the yearling / cull ewe flock of 15 last night and while it wasn't exactly a rodeo, it was chaotic at best. The owner does not want to bring in any other sheep, which was an idea since I know that working non-broke sheep with some dog-broke sheep will help train them. So... how does one go about doing this? I have a BC who I'm getting ready to trial at the P/N level, and at this point is the most experienced dog of the group.




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Do you have access to someone with a fully trained, sensible, experienced dog? That would be the quickest way to break the sheep.


If not, I would probably break them into smaller groups (no fewer than four though and probably closer to 8-10), choosing the first group to be broken from the most sensible sheep in the flock (i.e., the ones least likely to run or do stupid stuff; the sheep who are the natural leaders; mother-daughter pairs who will tend to stick together and so on--that is, use your sheep sense to figure out which sheep should be the easiest to get started with, and start with them). Then just start out by doing simple stuff with them--stuff your dog knows well and isn't likely to screw up. Bad habits are learned quickly and it can go both ways: both dogs and sheep can learn bad habits from being worked poorly. Mark that group, cull any who make trouble back into the main flock, and work the initial group regularly. Once you have that group, which includes your leaders, broke, you can substitute in some of the non-broke sheep and let your recently broke sheep help to "train" them.


I would probably start out by holding the chosen group on something they really like (grain, alfalfa hay) so they don't bolt on sight of the dog and I'd start in close. Even if your dog is capable of a 250-yard outrun, don't even try that until you get the sheep used to being worked at 25 yards. If the sheep have seen a dog enough to know to move away from it, then you've got a leg up. If they've never seen a dog, they will likely turn and go up to the dog out of curiosity. At that time, it is crucial that your dog be willing to stand its ground and perhaps even push back (without losing its cool). If the dog gives ground, the sheep will have its number and will take advantage of that in the future. Always help your dog, even if it's something your dog does well on broke sheep. So for example, if you are trying to drive the sheep to a gate and the sheep are being difficult, don't stand there giving commands, but get behind the sheep too and help the dog push them. Under no circumstances should the sheep learn they can get the better of the dog. If they do, you'll spend time undoing that notion.... This is also the reason for keeping the work close--it's easier for you to help when things go wrong.


If you don't have a smaller area to use and the sheep are bad about running, then try working along a fence or near a corner, so at least one or two sides are already covered; that is, the sheep have fewer directions in which to run, which will mean less work for the dog in covering them.


It is tough to dog-break sheep when the dog and handler are both novices, but if you don't rush things and take a commonsense approach and make sure you use a dog that isn't completly green and has good sheep sense (not a chaser, nasty gripper, etc.--things that will sour sheep quickly), you'll eventually get there.


Another idea is simply to use the dog at first at times when there's practical work that needs to be done. Push the sheep away from feed. If they're used to coming to the barn at night, send the dog for them--they'll be going in a direction they want to go anyway, and so will be less likely to do stupid stuff, while at the same time getting used to having the dog around.


I'm sure other folks will have additional ideas to share.


I'm getting a few sheep tomorrow that have rarely been worked by dogs and not at all for the past three years. I'm looking forward to the fresh challenge!



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Where in WV are you?


We have found our Border Leicester x Romneys (purchased as undogged adults) do not hold up well to the stresses of dog training as compared to our Katahdins and Texel x Cheviots. This is one reason we are selling all our Border Leicester x Romneys this year.

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