FIRST LESSONS ON SHEEP
by Mari Taggart Morrison

You now have a young dog that is physically and mentally mature enough to outrun any kind of stock and you’ve got him well trained through the getback game. He’s already learned to lie down when intensely excited by a ball which makes him easier to get to lie down when around sheep. You’ve taught him to get back to the pressure of your body and cane, defined a perimeter around the ball, and hopefully he knows what “back” means.

For his first introductions to sheep I now switch to a long “popper” (also called a buggy whip) because it has a snapper on the end that makes a noise when you slap it on the ground that causes dogs to startle and move away from it. Also, it is lightweight — a plus when you’re running around sheep! Again, it should go without saying, you
don’t strike the dog with the popper. (It could hurt bad and turn him off working.) Also, don’t snap the sheep with it, either!

I like to start the young dog on really slow moving, dog-broke sheep since I have to concentrate less on what they are doing and can move around and work the dog without them bolting for the next county. Be prepared for the dog to just be happy and over-excited about the sheep or to need some coaxing. If the dog is overexcited, get in with the popper and begin to define a perimeter around the sheep, slapping the popper on the ground to keep him running a wide circle around them. If he needs coaxing, move around the sheep, touching them and driving them around a bit yourself. Don’t use the popper with a hesitant dog till you’re sure you have his interest.

Even with very tame sheep you want the dog to respect a perimeter unless you ask him to walk in straight, An average, perimeter would be 10 – 40 feet (depending on the sheep’s reactions). If the sheep are moving too quickly, it probably means that you need to move the perimeter out wider.
morrisonstart2_forwebOne of the first things people notice about pups that have been well started with the get-back game is how easily they bend around the sheep and move away from the cane without struggle or fear. After the first five minutes or so your young dog is less excited and he will begin to show signs of “Aha! We’re playing the get-back game but with something really fun!” The smartest pups recognize the game and many will even lie down when you tell them to the first time out on sheep. But the first few times I just let them run circles defining the wide perimeter and then back up and let them take a few steps in straight to bring the sheep to me. Having started many pups this way I will never go back to the old chase-pups down method with no pre-training … the pre-training makes things so easy and much less struggle-free.

To define the perimeter I walk forward around the sheep (about parallel to the dogs hip) pushing him farther back. It’s a fashion in Aussies to use the cane as a block. If a dog has started thinking the cane is only there to block, then when you start walking at him he’ll often think he’s being blocked and not go around, or worse, he may think he’s in trouble and sour out on you. Although I use a cane or popper to block when teaching directions, the rest of the time its used to define and move a dog out wide. Novice handlers act in trouble by trying to edge around side-ways like a crab or they stay in tight with the sheep and try to reach over the flock with their cane — both are losing propositions! If you’ve ever watched a car race or horse race, you know that the outside position has to go the LONG way around, while the inside position has less far to travel. If you walk at the dog, walking forward, as he runs around, and you stay parallel to his hip.. you are forcing him to take a longer way around than you, and you will be able to walk (not run) while he will be running hard (see photo).

Another problem many novices have is that their dog runs wide on the sides but shaves it off when he gets opposite the sheep from you. This causes the sheep to run off. The secret is to get to the top and really slap the popper and tell the dog to get back out here — and when he darts back out really PRAISE him. Too many Aussie trainers refuse to praise, or forget to praise enough when the dog is doing what you want. The dog can’t possibly know right from wrong unless you make it clear. Praise for going out wide is the only motivation an Aussie will have for keeping back out -its more fun to get in close, so you have to give him a better reason to do it -your praise of him.

Your goal is to teach the dog to run wide whenever he’s flanking (going around the sheep or from side to side) and he is only allowed (at this stage) to come in close when you ask him to walk straight on to the sheep. Here again, your dog will know this command from his pre-training. When you first ask him to down, make sure he’s had several minutes of running hard and wide around the sheep before you ask him to lie down. He will hopefully be grateful for the chance to stop and catch his breath. Try to make sure the sheep have slowed or stopped, because a flock in motion will keep the dog wanting to go on around and keep them there.

Of course, it’s best to use very slow, tame sheep for this. Another reason tame sheep are good is that when the pup does lie down, I like to go to him and praise him (while he’s down) and then back off to the other side of the sheep. You’ve got to have tame sheep for that! I teach a dog that lie down also means stay until I say, “Get up” so the dog should stay put until you actually release him with “get up”. If he doesn’t the first time I will run him very hard for awhile longer and then ask him to down again. You’d be surprised how eager they get to lie down then!

After the dog is running reliably wide then I switch to wilder sheep so he can see that if he comes in too close he’ll lose the flock, but at the beginning, use sheep that are very easily controlled. You’ll note that I’m not advocating starting the dog in a little pen or round pen. If you’ve done your pre-training right, your dog will need the room and will be easy to control, eliminating the need for you to be close to him. Its impossible to get a dog 20 feet off his sheep if he’s in a 15 foot pen. I use an area of 80 X 90 feet to start a young dog, and when they are running wide in this little area I move them into a larger space (about one acre and then more).

What if your dog tries to flash in and pull wool or bite somewhere on the sheep for no reason? This is where you can walk at the dog and chase them back a bit more, repeating “back” to him. If he dives in, I make a harsh, growling sounding “no” and the minute the dog moves back out I praise him. He needs the contrast — I DON’T want that, yes, this I DO want. This rarely becomes an issue if the dog is being• kept out wide enough in the first place. How wide is wide enough? About 20 feet (1 car length) at the very start, gradually widening out to three or four car lengths, however, you can always tell if the dog is too close by how the sheep react. If they’re galloping or moving at a trot the dog is in too close. The sheep ideally should be walking at a leisurely pace, showing no fear. This is another reason not to work a dog in a little pen.

Very wild sheep have a flight radius (the distance around the sheep before they start to run) that is larger than the pen you’re working in. I have worked very flighty sheep and cattle that have been on the range and their flight distance (the area the dog had to stay back off them to keep them in control) was half an acre! The same is true for cattle. Too often you see Aussies in so tight that the cattle are charging around, running off valuable weight. Again, the ideal distance may not be as wide as with sheep, but the dog should get in and head or heel cattle that refuse to move and THEN BACK OFF and take the pressure off them.

Cattle and sheep really don’t think very much when they’re running — I tell my stockdog students that the minute the sheep or cattle have broken into a rum they are not thinking and really can’t be reasoned with.

Once the dog has more experience I will go back and teach him that “Get back” means to turn and go way back, no matter what the sheep are doing. I will take him back to the tame sheep for a few sessions and bring everything to a halt. Then I will walk toward him and tell him to “back”, praising him for turning his head for just a second and cutting back out to the side very wide. Remember to praise AS THE DOG IS
GOING BACK, not after he’s done something else. Then I’ll have him lie down. Again I’ll walk toward him, asking him to get back and praising when he does.

Some dogs will give you an exasperated look, as if to tell you that you’re working against their natural balance. Again, he must learn to obey the command, regardless of what the sheep are doing, because you’ve asked him. This is invaluable for having the dog gather sheep that are hidden on the range, or at a free-standing pen or gate on the range or in a trial where the dog needs to work wide and sometimes off balance. In Border Collies this is referred to as “squaring the flanking commands”. Dogs that are trained to do this can be readjusted on their outruns to gather in a field, or to take pressure off at a pen or gate anywhere where being too close might spook the sheep or cattle.

Many Border Collie trainers will tell you that Aussies just don’t ran wide enough. My counter to this is that if you took a good Border Collie pup and started letting it chase stock with its little baby legs the way many Aussie trainers do, you end up with a very close-running Border Collie — I’ve seen this happen! In other words, its not the breed, it’s the training methods that determine whether a dog runs close or wide. Some lines of Aussies run closer or wider, too, and you need to ask about this before purchasing a pup.

Ranch Dog Trainer editor note: Mari Taggart Morrison grew up on a working Charolais cattle ranch where cowdogs were used on a daily basis. She is the first trainer to have trained and titled four different breeds to Herding Championships or their equivalents. Mari’s first stockdog training book; HEELER POWER, remains the definitive work on training heeling cowdogs, and has been translated into ten languages worldwide. Mary’s second stockdog training book, AN ALL-BREED APPROACH TO SHEEPDOG TRAINING, is currently in its third printing and a new revision will be out in the Spring of 1998.

Mari’s early mentors were the late, legendary trainers Arthur Allen, Reg Griffon and Les Bruhn, and the great Australian trainer, C. W. Hartley. She trains cowdogs by well proven Australian and British methods and teaches practical working skills in her courses, including chute work, gathering, negotiating gates and driving in aisle ways. Attention is given to teaching dogs to head or heel appropriately as well as directional commands. Mari emphasizes humane work of cattle and she believes that dogs should at all times be a help, not a hindrance. Her classes utilize videos as a learning aid and books are provided for students along with `hands on” instruction on cattle.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine December ’97/January ’98

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