Category Archives: Sheep Dogs

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Jess the sheepdog at 10 months

Sheepdog Jess working the sheep

Jess is progressing well at 10 months

Well, it’s been a while since I updated you last and there are two reasons for that, firstly with summer coming finally my spare time has decreased considerably, the garden taking most of it, secondly the training of a sheepdog goes through phases, and this one is a bit monotonous! Some are due to the dog maturing and suddenly catching on, and some are dictated by me. An example of this is the second stage of training which we were entering when I last wrote. The first stage is to get the dog running around the sheep and then getting her to stop on the opposite side to me. Once we have worked on that for a few weeks then stage two involves a lot of me walking backwards doing figure of eights around the field as the dog naturally moves from side to side balancing the sheep on the opposite side always keeping the sheep between us. During this stage we start the session by encouraging the dog to run out from my side around the sheep to the other side, only a few yards away initially but this is the beginning of the out run that maybe developed into many hundreds of yards and in some cases half a mile or more up in the dales and mountains.

What we are trying to instill within the dogs brain is the desire to go out and gather the sheep and bring them back to the shepherd so this involves weeks of repetitive work walking up and down the field very gradually increasing the distance she has to run to get behind her sheep. So this is what I have been doing for a large proportion of the time throughout May and June and so there hadn’t been much to tell you really. However during this time the dog is maturing and gaining confidence and I am constantly commanding her one way or the other which she slowly begins to understand and respond to, I can then use less body language and movement and more simple commands. She still makes plenty of mistakes as she reacts to the movement of the sheep rather than my command but as time goes on she makes less and less errors.

Expanding her experience involves changing sheep and field if we can, so when we moved last years lambs into Skippings field with plenty of longer grass it was the ideal time to increase her outrun distance and with the sheep hiding under the trees it makes her use her brain to work things out. Trees are also useful for helping with this as you can set up the situation so that she has to go out around the tree to get to her sheep thus keeping her distance from them. A sheepdog must go out in a sort of pear shape ideally to get to the back otherwise if the dog ran straight at them the sheep would take off into the distance. This was the first time she had run so far and she went beautifully out and round them the first time of asking even ignoring the cows who, much to my relief, seemed equally uninterested in the little dog racing by them. She was however happier to run on the right side rather than the left so plenty of work on that side with lots of encouragement has eventually pretty much cured that and she’s now fine on both sides and we just practice practice practice!

During May I began to introduce whistle commands along with the verbal ones so that she began to associate both with a certain instruction and she now responds well to both. For the last couple of weeks I have been stepping things up by the biggest change to her training yet. Up until now it has all been about the dog gathering sheep, bringing them to me and holding them against me, which means she can always see me for reassurance. During June we began the attempt to do the opposite and introduce what we call driving, that is pushing the sheep away from me and therefore working for the first time without me in sight. We start gradually by stopping her going round and asking her to walk at the sheep whilst at the side of me, I will walk alongside her for encouragement until after a few days I can walk directly behind her so she cannot see me but I am still talking to her all the time to reassure her. Over a week or so we increase the distance until she can go from one end of the field to the other and then I can ask her to go around them and bring them back. We also get a bonus during this exercise as she cannot gain any clue as to which way I want her to move so she has to rely on my voice or whistle and therefore begins to really take notice and learn them properly. So now after 3 months we have a dog who can go and get the sheep, bring them to me, hold them in a corner and take them away in whatever direction I desire, well more or less anyway.  Although there are a few more things I need to teach her we now enter another period of regular exercises involving all the things she has learnt so far to really make sure she fully understands what I expect.

Written by Steve Stone volunteer shepherd


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Jess the Sheepdogs Training Continues

It’s been a while since I updated on Jess’s progress and that’s because until a couple of weeks ago there wasn’t any! Our early training had come to an abrupt halt when we sort of hit a brick wall trying to get her to go round the sheep rather than straight at them as she was pretty intent on getting hold of one. This is obviously not acceptable, although many sheepdog pups have a tendency to try and bite the sheep which we term as “gripping” and as a trainer it’s our job to protect the sheep from this by the methods we use, however Jess was proving hard work which I put down to a lack of confidence. I therefore decided to stop things altogether and let her mature a bit more as she had also become a bit disobedient and was not listening to me. We embarked on what turned out to be a 2 month break and concentrated on building a better bond and establishing who was boss!

Jess the sheepdog working the sheep

We took plenty of walks just working on getting her to come back when called and to lie down when told, starting with a long 30 metre leash before letting her run without one. Once I was happy she was obedient enough I reintroduced her to the sheep and to my great relief I noticed a difference, back on her long leash for safety I allowed her to have a bit of slack near them and it was immediately noticeable she was keeping off them and giving them a bit of space. In a larger paddock the following week we tried to get to the first important stage, getting her to the far side of the sheep without scattering them. It took a while manoeuvring wary sheep and excitable dog around until we got there but once we achieved it she was away, walking nicely on to them and keeping herself exactly on the opposite side to me, moving left and right instinctively to balance them. In these early stages this is done without commands as she doesn’t know her left from right yet and we want to bring out this natural herding or balancing instinct.

Jess sunbathing while keeping the sheep in check

Now we are getting somewhere and we can begin to expand her abilities and knowledge week by week a little at a time, so from a point of despairing a couple of months ago I am now very excited and looking forward to the next few months and hopefully many useful years.

Written by Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd at COAM


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First steps on the sheep for Jess

Right from the first month we had Jess, and as soon as she was inoculated she was allowed to see sheep, just so she could develop an interest in them.  First she was shown them, then to follow them, eventually she was allowed to run with them a little. Some dogs are not that interested, some transfixed by the sheep and some are just mad keen to get hold of them! Jess was the latter and the most common type and this means I have to be careful at this stage to ensure the sheep are safe. One good thing about an introduction at this age is the pup has not developed enough of her adult teeth to cause a problem so if she does have a nip she just ends up with a mouthful of wool. Sheepdogs have wolf ancestry and herding is a part of the hunt and the part we need to develop but the killing part is also in there and needs to be totally suppressed so careful thinking and planning comes into the training when you have a pup like this.

The best way is to protect the sheep is in a circular pen so that Jess can run round them but not get close. Rachael our trusty shepherdess built us a nice one where we could encourage a few sheep in with a little food and then let Jess have a little run around them. One of the main objectives here is to get the pup to develop a desire to balance the sheep to me, what I mean by that is if the sheep are in the middle of the pen then I would be at 6 o’clock and Jess at 12 o’clock and if I move one way she should move to correct the situation. To do this we encourage her to run around the pen in both directions attempting to stop her when she is in the right place, here the lie down or stand commands will be required and the fruits of my labour at home will hopefully prove worthwhile. In one of the videos you can see this happening as she takes a command nicely and drops down, we are therefore getting somewhere but it’ll be a while before we try anything without the pen as she still has a desire to get at them given the chance.

Training a dog is little steps some forward but plenty back and as I take every lesson I look for little signs that we are progressing in the right direction, one such sign is the tail, in the first session it was held high over her back indicating a mischievous desire but in only the second session she was holding it low which indicates a more serious working attitude and that’s a real plus. That’s about all for now apart from saying that whilst all this running around is going on I will also be starting to introduce the directional commands that most will be familiar with;

“Come Bye and Away to Me”

Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd at COAM


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Jess the sheep dog at 15 weeks

Jess at 15 weeks

Well Jess is continuing to grow at a pace and weighing in at 9.6 kgs, she is pretty much toilet trained and is becoming less of a full time job and more an integral part of the family. Socialising now is the priority as she is a bit limited with the current COVID situation, so, plenty of walks and chances to meet other people and dogs. She seems to love people as long as they are not to “in her face” she then tends to keep her distance for a while until she builds up courage. Dogs however are a bit more scary and she’d run a mile if she wasn’t on a lead so the more chances to meet them the better. Yesterday, she met a tiny puppy about the same age as her and was scared to death at first but a bit of perseverance and she soon overcame any fear and was rough and tumbling and realising what good fun it was.

Sheep dog puppy walking sheep up path

Now over to her main purpose in life, being a sheepdog! Over the last couple of weeks she has been to see the sheep at feeding time and is developing a mild interest so it’s important to keep nurturing it steadily. Today we needed to move the sheep to pastures new as we have recently wormed them and they need fresh grass so it seemed an opportune time to let Jess get a little more involved. All dogs are different and as a trainer I need to recognise what sort of temperament she has and how will she work sheep, some won’t develop a desire to work for many months, others dive straight in and attack ( this is the wolf ancestry hunt and kill instinct that ultimately drives them all to work).

sheep dog puppy observing sheep with head it's head in a bucket

Jess seems to be in the middle somewhere with quite an interest but a bit wary so it’s vital she doesn’t get put off by an angry sheep as this could affect her for life. Many pups don’t do anything at first particularly if the sheep aren’t worried by the dogs’ presence and don’t move away, the pup just ends up confused and unsure what to do. What we need is moving sheep to bring out the chasing instinct and this change of pasture seemed ideal. Starting with the lambs who have been grazing off the Hidden Meadow (our piece of chalk downland) I let them go past her and proceeded to follow them with Jess on an extendable lead, the video was taken by Rachael our shepherdess and you can clearly see Jess getting very excited, nipping at their heels and even showing a desire to want to go round them and head them off. These moments are without doubt my favourite part of training a working collie as you get that flood of relief that your new acquisition has something in her that we can work with.

For now that is about as far as I will go with her, just regular visits to see the sheep to build up a real burning desire to herd them, we’ll wait until she is big enough and fast enough to out run them before we start the serious business of training to commands etc. She will however be getting home schooling on the basics, walking steady, stopping, lying down etc. and of course coming back to me which seems to be our biggest challenge at the moment!

Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd at COAM


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Jess the sheep dog at 13 weeks

Well it’s been almost three weeks now and Jess is growing fast, she has gained 1.6 kgs and is noticeably bigger. Dogs are like children but the whole growing and learning thing is accelerated so that a few days can see a dramatic change in behaviour and attitude. She is now allowed out for walks having had her vaccinations so we are learning to walk to heel and getting used to traffic and strange people, she has a bit of a fascination with cars going past so I have to keep a tight hand on the lead and try and distract her as they whiz past. At home we are getting her used to living with a family and knowing her boundaries, plenty of trips to the lawn are paying off as the little accidents lessen off and she is starting to go to the door when the urge is there.

Jess the sheep dog puppy meets the sheep

 

A few days ago I took her to meet some of the museum staff and to have her first look at sheep. She was well accepted by all so I’m sure she will become a special volunteer in everyone’s hearts. It does somewhat depend on how she turns out as a sheepdog, some of which will be down to my training. Rachael (COAM’s Farm Assistant) and I took her to the sheep for a first look and she wasn’t too keen but they are pretty big. Regular visits will eventually bring out an interest and sometime in the next few months I will let her have a free run to encourage her to herd them we hope.

For now it’s just enjoying her young days being cuddled and played with to hopefully make a friendly happy dog!

Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd

Other blog posts by Steve

The circle of life
Jess the sheep dog


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Jess the Sheepdog

A new volunteer for COAM

So a mild enquiry about sheepdog pups that might be available after Christmas resulted in me being told that an old friend of mine who is a top sheepdog trials man might have some puppies, he lived in Sussex so not too far. I called and had a chat telling him I wanted a pup after Christmas if possible. Unfortunately he didn’t have anything currently although he knew of a pup at a neighbours and his dog was the father. I expressed mild interest and asked for some details and pictures to be e-mailed to me.

My old dog Ted was a rough coated, tri colour male dog and that is what we intended to get again as we liked that look, the puppy being offered was a Black and White, short coated bitch! Surely this would not be for us? The picture arrived, not the most appealing picture, they obviously weren’t into marketing!! She did however appear to be nicely marked.

Having established that she did indeed have two eyes I responded that we would like to see some more and a video if possible, inwardly I was not convinced. However when the better pictures arrived we were warming and had pretty much made up our minds to pay them a visit for a proper look, a visit to Sussex was quite appealing, it was a bit of a shock to find out that my old friend had moved to Devon when his neighbour sent the address of their farm!! So were we to go all that way just to see a puppy that was not what we intended to get and at least 3 months too soon. Suffice it to say it didn’t take long to have made arrangements to drive down and see her, stay overnight in a delightful little B&B called the Old Bakehouse in Chulmleigh Devon, go back and collect her the following morning and wend our way back home.

Our trip down was excellent and we arrived early afternoon to be greeted by the owner who led us to a farm pen, opened the door and out ran the sweetest little dog you could imagine, scooped up immediately by my wife Sue who exclaimed “we’re having her” My chances of a good deal had just gone down the drain! Our fate was sealed and after a very pleasant evening in Chulmleigh we found, ourselves back at the farm the following morning collecting our new charge. Money’s changed hands, papers sorted, a supply of her current puppy food obtained, popped in her travelling crate and on our way back home we went. Well talk about a change, our adorable soft little pup turned into a screaming howling wolf cub as she experienced car travel for the first time, we knew what to expect but with a 3-4 hour trip ahead it didn’t bode well. Fortunately after about half an hour she was a little sick, made some mess from a couple of other orifices and then settled down. The rest of the journey was quiet and Jess as she was now called was settling in to life with us.

Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd

Other blog posts by Steve

The circle of life
Jess the sheep dog at 13 weeks


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The Circle of Life

The problem with dogs is that they don’t last long enough, it is said that one man year equals seven dog years, whatever the answer I know that every fourteen or so years I have to say goodbye to one of my closest friends. A month ago I said goodbye to fifteen year old Ted, when finally his body said I’ve had enough. So it was with a heavy heart that we took that all too familiar trip to the vet and saw him drift away peacefully. He was a great sheepdog, naturally gifted with genetic material passed down over decades, and highly trained over years to do a job that cannot be done by any other animal or machine. He served the museum well herding and holding the sheep for various tasks and thrilled the visitors with his skills in our working displays, he even pitched in with a spot of acting when the film crews were around, most famously in Downton Abbey when they filmed in the farmyard in series two.

Sheepdog, Ted at Chiltern Open Air MuseumChiltern Open Air Museum proudly owns one of the few flocks of Oxford Down Sheep in the country, a breed established around 1830 in the south of England originally in the Oxfordshire area. My job at the museum is volunteer shepherd, something I’ve done here for 23 years and it’s because there’s a saying “there’s no good shepherd without a good dog” that I find myself about to embark on the long struggle towards the perfectly trained sheepdog once again.

Don’t think for one minute I don’t enjoy it, there are few thing’s I like more than the early stages of sheepdog training, trying to assess the latent potential, working out the best way to overcome the problems etc. All dogs are different, like children, and need a slightly different approach, although you can generally categorise them and use tried and trusted methods for each. So, I can’t wait until my new charge is about six month old and I can begin to introduce her to the flock.

So who is she? Well ‘she’ arrived several months too early! As a family we planned to wait until the new year before taking the plunge but a chance conversation with an old friend uncovered a single pup left from a litter from good working dog stock, the sire has competed in the English National Sheepdog Trials. Quickly we organised a trip with an overnight stay in the West Country and collected our new charge, many names were bandied about but ultimately it was Jess that was chosen. So I know how my spare time will be taken up next summer and you maybe lucky to catch a training session at the museum sometime (the early ones can be a bit over enthusiastic).

Steve Stone
Volunteer Shepherd
Chiltern Open Air Museum

 


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