Originally Published in
American Border Collie Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Many times I have been really naive in my experiences training dogs. The first one that comes to mind is how, early on, I thought I was really lucky to have such good sheep to work. From the beginning, my sheep have always seemed to be conducive to working dogs, whether they were hair sheep, black-faced sheep or sheep that I had purchased for wool. Each day they would go out and perform an important role on my farm. Although they actually can't verbally complain to me, they seem to happily go out and go through the paces with my dogs and myself. They really allow me to train and condition my dogs to become better and stronger sheepdogs.
Recently, on a couple of different occasions, I have been asked to stay and help at different students farms. One of the first things that strikes me when we go out to work dogs is that the sheep are extremely spoiled or ruined for dog work. They run, they fight, they have no respect for my dog or any other dog that they might encounter during the day. It is extremely frustrating to try and accomplish much training or conditioning when you have sheep like this.
I have to ask myself, "Why would anyone want to keep sheep like this. Or how do they expect their dogs to get the one necessary tool (good sheep) to help them make that transition." After watching and discussing their situation, I find that they might be really nice people, but they are naive like myself when it comes to treating and keeping good sheep. Many of them let other "students" or "dog enthusiasts" come and work their sheep even though these dogs and students are not properly trained to respect the sheep. They don't realize the impact the poor dog work is having on their flock and their own dog training.
When I first started working dogs, the "ol' boy" attitude existed when it came to working sheep. Many people would tell me: "I don't care about the sheep; I bought them for the dogs. If they grip or tear them up, that is what they are there for." They would go through large numbers of sheep, hauling them back and forth to the sale barn. Luckily, I haven't heard of people talking like this for quite some time. These people seem to be short-term people in our sheepdog world as they haven't found that good livestock is the key to any successful working team.
The problem is seen with most new students in the fact that they don't realize that my sheep are great because I have treated them with the respect that they deserve. My sheep are not allowed to be harassed by a dog nor are they allowed to harass a dog. They are allowed rest just as I would expect rest if I had been physically working for a long period of time. Their health is of concern, just as my dogs' health is a concern as I need them both healthy to function at their peak. If I find that a dog is having trouble moving the sheep, it is allowed most any reasonable method to get the job done. I don't let my dog beat up my sheep, not do I let me sheep beat up my dogs.
When I give lessons at my house, many students go away wishing to buy my sheep. They think if only they could purchase my sheep, their problems would be solved. Unfortunately, that is not the case. My sheep are wonderful to work because they are worked by good dogs and I respect them for it. I do not allow dogs to chase or harass my sheep. If I have a dog that is a poor dog, I won't allow them to work my sheep for long periods of time. I will either send the dog home to its owner or find another way to work my sheep without causing stress or distress to my animals,
A good friend has told me that our sheep are a reflection of our dogs. How true this statement is. Think about that when you are having a difficult time working you own sheep. Think about that before you offer your sheep to be used by dogs that have no respect for your animals. Think about it before you offer to put your ill-mannered pup out on someone else's group of sheep.