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Lessons (Sheep)

At what age do I begin working with a stockdog?  A dog is never too young to take to stock to see how it reacts, as long as it is in a controlled situation with a trainer and appropriate livestock.  What this means is that you absolutely do not want to let the pup get into a situation where it can get bullied or hurt by livestock, especially at a young age.  A traumatic experience with stock can quash the pup’s instinct.  Permanently.  So, taking a young pup, 3 months or older, to stock for an instinct test is fine, to see what you might possibly have.  But most pups aren’t ready to really begin training until they are somewhere around 8 or 9 months old.  Again, much depends on the individual dog - its general temperament, level of maturity, and so on.  Many young pups will show strong instinct, but it’s just fun and play for them at that point.  They will not be ready for the pressure of serious training until they are a bit older and more mature.


So your dog shows instinct, is mature enough to begin working, and you want to give it a go.  Generally, most students come once a week for lessons.  I begin all dogs on sheep, as sheep are more forgiving and more easily controlled than cattle.  If your goal is working cattle, you and your dog both need to know a fair amount before I transition you to the larger and more difficult stock.

For the first several weeks of lessons, again, depending on the dog, I will work your dog.  This is so I can put some basic ground rules on the dog, so that neither they nor the livestock get hurt.  In all stages of training, but especially early on, it is imperative that the handler be in the proper position at all times; this is the only way the dog can learn how to work properly.  Most dogs, in the beginning, are moving incredibly quickly.  They need to learn to slow down, to not come in and try to “shark attack” the stock, and to learn to balance the stock to the handler.  Only an experienced handler can do this.  In a few weeks, once the dog has a basic understanding of what I expect of him/her, I will then put you in to begin working your own dog.

In the meantime, during those weeks while I am working your dog, I will often let you work one of my older fully trained dogs.  This way, you can begin to get a feel for where you need to position yourself, and how you need to move to work a dog.  But the trained dog will be moving at a slower pace than your young, exuberant dog, which allows you to think about what you are doing.  That way, when I turn you loose with your own dog in a few weeks, you at least have a bit of a clue of what you need to do.  Be forewarned - in the beginning, this is a very aerobic activity - you will use muscles you had forgotten all about. 

     As you and your dog progress, I will make sure that you have appropriate stock for your level.  I have stock that are appropriate for all levels of dogs and handlers.  You will work first in a small enclosed area, then progress to a larger enclosed area, until eventually you are out in the open field.  In the beginning, I will bring the stock in from the pasture and sort out the sheep you will use for your lesson for you, but usually within a few months, I will have you gathering and sorting your own sheep.  So you will learn “sheep recognition,” as I will ask you to sort out certain ones for your lesson.  You and your dog will also learn to “read” sheep.  If you are not familiar with livestock, then you do not know how they move, or why they do what they do.  Learning to read sheep is to understand sheep.  When you can read your stock, you can then better anticipate what they are doing, or going to do, and how they are moving, so that you can direct your dog accordingly.

Many people ask how many lessons it will take for their dog to be “trained.”  That is a question that is almost impossible to answer.  Again, it depends on your dog, on your own abilities, and your goals.  You may have a dog that can be useful on a small spread with your dozen sheep in a year or less, but if you want a fully trained dog, either for ranch work or for trials, you will be working with your dog for years.  In fact, you will be working with your dog, honing both your skills and his/hers, for the rest of your lives.  Look at a working dog as an athlete–even the top athletes, no matter the sport, are constantly in training.  They are always working to keep in top shape, and to keep their skills sharp.  At some point down the road, most people who get serious about working dogs end up with at least a small home flock to work with.  At that point, they may no longer take lessons, but by then they have a circle of friends who also have working dogs, and they get together and give each other pointers.  Or they go to clinics with some of the top trainers in the country.  You will continue to learn something new about working dogs, finding new skills or solutions to issues you may be having.  Seriously learning to work with a stockdog is a lifetime commitment.  But again, that is for the hard-core person who gets “hooked”–there are still those who just enjoy learning and spending quality time each week with their dog.  So it really depends on your goals.

Home   How & Why "Herding" Works   Instinct Testing   Lessons   Finding The Right Dog   Working Cattle   Links   Terminology   Gallery   Contact Me & Directions

Anna Guthrie




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