How Breed Affects Sheep Behavior

How Breed Affects Sheep Behavior to Working Dogs

by Michael Neary
This article will be an attempt to discuss how various breeds of sheep respond to working dogs. This is a subject based upon heavy reliance of generalities, which means there will be many exceptions to the discussion. Also, when starting a discussion about breeds of sheep, I always try to be a bit careful, as many sheep owners are pretty attached to their breed of choice. Often, they don't like to see what they perceive as criticism (even if it is not intended as such) and can get pretty defensive.

There is no question there is a breed effect on how sheep respond to a dog. Especially when the sheep are really fresh and not very dog broke. However, this breed effect tends to become less and less over time as the sheep become more familiar with dogs working them. Environmental effects other than dog exposure also are just as important to how sheep respond to dogs as is the breed makeup of sheep. Sheep response to dogs is really a fairly complicated phenomenon of which breed make up is just one important factor.

Environmental Effects


There are many environmental effects that play a role in how sheep respond to a dog. These factors are often as important, or even more important, than the breed.

Probably the most important factor is previous dog exposure and experiences to sheep. This can range from them being attacked by a pack of loose running dogs with the intent of great bodily harm, to being worked often by a well trained Border Collie, or to never have seen a dog of any consequence. Depending upon previous type of dog exposure, sheep can be spoiled, fresh, just well broke, too well broke, wild, panicked, fighters, etc. Breed can play a role in these responses, but previous and type of dog exposure will play just as important a role.

Previous exposure to people is also a factor in how sheep respond. Sheep originating from smaller farm flock operations are more likely to be tame and unafraid of people as compared to sheep from larger range band operations.

Age of sheep, regardless of breed, certainly influence responses to dogs. Older sheep are more likely to have a defined social pecking order in a group than are lambs. This, coupled with a more "worldly" outlook on life, usually results in groups of mature sheep working like sheep. While a group of lambs often works like a collection of lost and misguided souls.

Sex of sheep influences working behavior. Rams are usually more aggressive and belligerent than ewes, especially ewes that are not suckling lambs.

Time of day and weather conditions are important factors in how sheep respond to dogs. Sheep do much of their grazing activity early in the morning or in the evening. Thus, they are often more amenable to moving at these times than they are at mid day. This is especially true if weather conditions are hot and sunny.

Sheep response is also dependent upon the size of the group they are in. Sheep in a flock of 200 will respond differently to a dog than if they are in a packet of 5, regardless of breed.

The feeding status of sheep will effect how they react to a dog. Hungry sheep respond differently than full sheep.

There are other factors that effect how sheep respond to dogs and are not breed dependent. Some of them include; amount of wool, face covering of wool, health status, location (home ground or not), topography, etc.


Breed Effects


There are a number of ways to classify sheep breeds, depending upon how one wants to evaluate them. Breeds are often classified as to the production use. Such as; ram breed, ewe breed or dual purpose breed. Wool type; fine wool, medium wool, etc also often describe sheep breeds. For this discussion, breeds will be described as to how they respond to working dogs. The four classifications used for this discussion will be; hair sheep, fine wool sheep, lowland sheep and hill sheep.

Sheep are often described by herding dog people as being "heavy" or "light". Most people describing sheep this way are referring to how they react to dogs. Heavy sheep usually move slower, are less excitable, and often require a dog to "push" them more to move them as compared to light sheep.

Heavy or light also describes sheep by their body weight. These two definitions of sheep as heavy or light are often highly correlated. Sheep breeds that are heavy in terms of body weight are usually heavy in regards to response to dogs. The same often holds true for breeds of sheep that are lighter weight.

Hair Sheep Breeds


In North America this includes four main breeds. They are; the Barbados, the St.Croix, the Katahdin, and the most recent is the Dorper. Hair sheep breeds, as a rule, are very light to work with dogs. They move fast, often running from a dog, and usually do not fight or challenge a dog. They tend to stay light and fresh longer than most breeds other breed types. They have good stamina, and can be worked for longer periods of time than wooled sheep. They are quick, intelligent, and fast.

One thing fascinating about hair sheep breeds is the way they carry their ears. Many of these sheep carry and control their ears more like a horse than a wooled sheep. While working hair sheep with dogs, much can be determined about their attitude by noticing how they are holding and moving their ears.

The Barbados sheep has been around the longest of the hair sheep breeds in North America. Dog people, especially in the south and midwest, have been using them for years for training and trials. There seems to be less of them now than in the recent past as other hair sheep breeds are supplanting them. They are very light in regards to behavior to dogs and body weight. Very quick, very fast, and dogs have to stay off them quite a distance to work them correctly.

The St. Croix is a breed from the island of the same name. They are also quite light moving and stay pretty fresh. They are larger and a bit more settled than the Barbado though. They are often primarily white in color.

The Katahdin is a breed developed in Maine by crossing St. Croix and Suffolk sheep, and various other meat breeds, including the Wiltshire Horn. Generations of selection developed a hair sheep breed larger than St. Croix and Barbado. However, they are still considered light moving sheep. Even though ewes may weigh near the 140 to 150 pound range. They are also fairly muscular sheep, for a hair breed. They can be about any color, but the most common colors are brown, red, or white based.

The Dorper is a relatively recent import to the U.S. from South Africa. They are physically larger, heavier and seem to be much more docile than the other hair breeds. They are heavier moving and much more settled than the traditional hair breeds.

Finewool Breeds


These breeds are also known as as Merino derived breeds. The most numerous breed in the U.S. is the Rambouillet. In the U.S. the other breeds of any consequence include the Merino and the Debouillet (cross of a Delaine Merino and a Rambouillet).

Predicting how fine wool sheep will respond to dogs is best done by considering the production system type, rather than the breed. Rambouillet or crosses of them are the predominant type of sheep in the U.S. in regards to pure numbers of sheep. The ranches that still run large bands of sheep have fine wool sheep. Sheep from these types of operations receive minimal individual or small group contact from humans or dogs. They are usually handled in large flocks and are often in an extensive production system.

There are smaller farm flock operations that use fine wool or fine wool cross sheep. These sheep tend to act and respond to a dog similar to heavier meat sheep breeds. This is due to production system differences rather than genetic differences.

Some characteristics of fine wool sheep include the fact that they have a stronger flocking instinct than most breeds. Although this doesn't always seem as evident when they are parceled out in small groups for a trial vs. when run in larger bands. Fine wool sheep are also not known as being the brightest bulb in the string of lights. In fact, they are considered quite dim witted, in general.

Mature fine wool sheep originating from large range flocks can be both cantankerous and runners when confronted with working dogs. Many times their past interactions with canines have come in the form of a predator. They will often initially test the mettle of a dog, and if the dog proves it's worth they will then try to outrun them and even split from a small group. Fine wool sheep from a large operation will often be as scared and wary of people as they are dogs. They are more cautious and cognizant of potential danger than sheep from a farm flock setting. Wind direction and amount, sunlight that impedes vision, new experiences, and impending confinement become factors when working fine wool sheep.

Another thing about working lightly dog broke or non dog broke fine wool ewes, and especially lambs, is it has been my experience that the balance point is different than with most other types of sheep. It is hard to explain in written form, but it seems almost like "good timing" is often not good with sheep like these.

Lowland Sheep


Lowland sheep refer to sheep breeds originating the lowland areas of England. These are large, heavy, meat type sheep. They come from an area with flatter topography, more plentiful feed, and more intensive management systems than many breeds of sheep. Most of these breeds are black faced breeds but there are a few white faced breeds.

Common black face breeds in the U.S. include Suffolks, Hampshires, Shropshire, Oxford, and Southdown. These sheep are large physically, and heavy in both weight and working style. They are also quite intelligent for a sheep, especially Suffolks. Many unbroke black face sheep will fight a dog until they can be properly taught to be respectful. A Suffolk ram or ewe that wants to fight a dog can be fairly imposing to a dog that is perhaps a bit borderline on confidence or power. Black face sheep can be heavy, obstinate, and often need a dog to push them.

White face lowland sheep most common in the U.S is the Dorset. Dorset sheep are usually smaller than most black face breeds and more docile. Dorset and crosses of them are less confrontational and lighter moving than most of the black face breeds. They do tend to get very dog broke quickly. This can be good for starting young pups, but not so good for the seasoned dog needing a bit more action.

Hill Sheep


These are sheep breeds with origins from the hills and border regions of Great Britain. The same regions that produced and refined the great Border Collie dog. Breeds in the U.S. in reasonable numbers most commonly include the Border Cheviot, North Country Cheviot, and the Border Leicester. Another breed that often acts like these breeds is the Montadale, which is a synthetic U.S. breed from the crossing of the Border Cheviot and Columbia.

These type of sheep are usually very hardy, rather excitable, free moving and fast, and seem to stay fresh longer than most other wooled breed types. However, they will fight dogs when needed, especially when suckling lambs. They can be fun and challenging to work with well started or seasoned dogs, but may be a bit too fast with a green pup.

So, which breed is best?

No correct answer. Probably the best answer is for most people keeping a few sheep to work dogs on is to get some crossbred sheep of breeds locally available. One can mix and match the crosses to get traits desired from multiple breeds. Crossbred sheep also tend to be healthier, hardier, more easy care and productive than purebreds.

Keep in mind, regardless of breed, over time sheep will tend to work for dogs as much from environmental aspects as from the breed make up. The biggest environmental factor in how sheep work is the amount and type of exposure they have to working dogs.
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