Herding is instinctual in many breeds such as German shepherds and border collies, although few dogs are born with the natural talent to herd sheep on their own. It takes time, practice and diligent training to transform a mediocre dog into a sheep-herding phenomenon.
Enlist the help of a professional herding trainer. While you may be confident in your training skills, herding is a complex sport, and it takes years of practice to learn the ins and outs of effective training. Attend herding events and competitions to get a feel for the sport and decide if it is a good fit for both yourself and your dog.
Train your dog in basic obedience before you focus on sheep herding. Skills such as sit, stay, lie down and come are essential to controlling the dog as she runs through the field, so make sure her obedience skills are solid before moving onto herding.
Teach the dog a set of basic herding commands before turning her loose on live sheep. Give the command “come bye,” take a step forward and move the dog around you in a clockwise fashion. Call the dog back to the center and repeat the command until she readily runs in a clockwise circle when she hears the “come bye” command. Teach the “away to me” command in the same fashion, asking the dog to move in a counter-clockwise circle. To teach the “walk up” command, sit the dog next to you and throw her favorite toy in front of her. Give her the command and allow her to walk forward and get the toy. Repeat this quick exercise until she walks forward on command.
Place six live ducks in a small, enclosed pen and enter the pen with the dog. Practice the dog’s herding commands on the ducks before moving onto larger animals. Stand near the gate and ask the dog to walk up until she is within 10 feet of the ducks. Give her the “come bye” command to move the ducks around the pen in a clockwise motion, and reverse their direction with the “away to me” command. If the dog gets too close to the ducks, tell her to lie down and give them a chance to regroup.
Move onto sheep once your dog is confident working with ducks. Young sheep are more passive, making them an excellent choice for novice dogs. Work the sheep in a small pen to build your dog’s confidence, and keep a close eye on her for signs or boredom or fatigue. Work in short, 15-minute sessions once or twice a day to hone your dog’s herding skills without burning her out or causing the sheep undue stress.
Never encourage your dog to nip at livestock. Not only is this a disqualification in many organizations, it can also injure the animals and put your dog at risk of a life-threatening kick.
Contact national dog registries, such as the American Kennel Club, or local breed clubs for information on herding trials in your area.
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