Originally Published in
American Border Collie Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
You've got a small flock. You're trying to figure out how to progress in training when you're told it's "impossible". You've lost sleep over the question:
"I've got 15 sheep set aside for training . . . they are about a year old. . . . Do they stay fresher longer if the same three or four are worked together over for, say, 4 months, and then another group is used? Or is it better to constantly mix them? Can it even be done?"
First, yes, it is possible. My small flock (Border Cheviots, and a few others) works between 3 and 5 dogs a day and stays fairly fresh. While I'm not an expert, here's what I (and others) do.
Once weaned, I don't work lambs until they are about a year old. Yes, I use the dogs for maintenance work (valuable training in itself), like moving the lambs between pastures, bringing them in for checks, holding them for worming, pushing them off of feeders, and the like.
This group of about 15 ewe & wether lambs comes of working age at about the same time that my older girls go on maternity leave. At that point, I start to work the youngsters in small groups. Groups are mixed and matched — never the same three, at least not on purpose — and the youngsters are NEVER allowed to get tired, winded, or be psychologically harassed.
That means, practically, that they get changed every dog or two, even if they still "look fine" and "act fine." You can get an awful lot of different combinations of 3, 4, and 5 sheep out of a base group of 15 . . . well over a hundred, I think . . . so the smaller groups never get fully "programmed" to the game. This keeps things fresh for the dog, and you.
Yes, they do settle down into the routine after a year or so (just in time for the next batch of lambs to start to work!). But in general, my 2 and 3 year olds are still not "doggy" and work well.
The fact that my older ewes have three or four months off each season for lambing also helps keep them fresh. The fact that, in the summer and fall when the training work is the heaviest, I have both the yearlings and the ewes to work helps keep them fresh. And, the fact that it is during this same season that I'm trialing (and so giving the sheep a break almost every weekend) helps, too.
BUT — and this is key — it's been my experience that it's not so much "how much" or "how often" the sheep are worked that makes them sour and doggy — it's "how" they are worked. Nothing ruins sheep for training faster than getting them physically tired, hungry or thirsty, mentally tired, letting a dog harass them or chase them, OR letting the sheep "win" confrontations (like letting them run to the barn out of control or standing a dog down).
Really beginning dogs (and handlers) are heck on sheep for the above reasons — and so I actually keep a group of stable, older ewes who ARE well seasoned just for them. And once a young dog is finished working, I always take a seasoned dog out to move these girls around and put them up . . . just so that they remember dogs the way they ought to. These sheep also have a place in training seasoned dogs.
Lastly, I feed grain, and a fair bit of it; it gives the sheep an extra boost of energy, and helps them maintain weight. If it can be arranged, I shear twice a year — it keeps the sheep cooler when working in the warm weather. I also turn over a fair portion of my flock each year. I keep the wether lambs to train on until they are a year, or two, old; then they are sold for mutton. The older ewes that have just gotten too doggy to be useful also are sold (unless they are really good producers).
This discipline may strike many people as a nuisance. It seems that you're always sorting sheep, changing sheep, trying to keep sheep separated, and "wasting time". Well, maybe so — but think of it as a great opportunity to learn stock handling, and that will help as a handler.
The fun thing is, with a smallish size flock, you get to know the sheep — and if you keep a wide variety of temperaments, you can create different combinations to help teach your dog (or yourself) different things. You can create a packet that's almost impossible to shed, to pen, to drive; or ones that help teach a dog to push, or to cover, or to pace.
Take this creativity one step further, and your small flock will give you many, many miles of excellent training. For instance . . .
If the sheep have learned to run back to the barn (and guess who taught them to do that?), use it as a great way to train your dog to cover pressure, catch running sheep (correctly), commit to brisker outruns, and . . . to learn to drive toward pressure (tougher done then said).
If the sheep "know the field" and you or your dog are "bored" because of it, be creative and change the field around! Buy a stock panel and some snaps, and set up a holding pen somewhere unexpected . . . put most of your sheep in it . . . and then go to work. Keep this portable, $20 holding pen on the move and manipulate the pressure. Trust me, the field will work very much differently each time. Feeding your sheep in differing locations helps, too.
If all of the sheep just "run into a pen" no matter how you mix and match them . . . think of ways to make the sheep want to AVOID the pen. (No, NOT by poor handling!) Try to make the pen unpleasant for them. A few off-the-wall ideas that have worked include: putting an 18" board across the opening (most sheep really don't want to go into the pen enough to jump in); lay a plastic tarp on the ground (noisy and feels funny on their feet); tie balloons inside; string a hot wire across the opening (yipes!); fill the pen with a big, deep mud puddle; or put a piece of freshly skinned sheep hide inside (they'll KNOW it's a trap then). Don't forget the positioning of the pen — use a strong draw to pull the sheep away (or straight past) the pen. Sure, the sheep may eventually become numb to these things — your challenge is to come up with other ideas and stay ahead of them. (By the way, when you learn what they don't like, you'll be ahead of the game with handling, too.)
Take your sheep and dogs and train in new fields at every opportunity — you will have "new sheep" each time you do this. The fields don't have to be big; your stock trailer might be a cheap, well-used utility trailer with stock panels for sides; but make the effort and do it. (My first stock trailer is a local legend; it was only $300, bought at a moving sale, as ugly as sin, and served me superbly for six years) How to find fields? Knock on doors — and offer to pay.
Use your dog for any and all sheep chores. For instance, I have a chute that I could use for vaccinations and worming. But instead, I take a young dog or two and make them hold the sheep in the corner of the field while I catch and medicate. Later, I'll use a dog to keep stock out of the barn while I clean stalls. More time consuming? Yes. The best use of my sheep for training? Also yes.
Lastly, use the areas that you do have to your best advantage; it keeps the stock (and the dog) fresh. "Pen" by pushing sheep across a stream or in and out of a trailer or across downed logs. Teach a dog to push by first holding, and then moving, sheep away from feeders when you feed (remember the grain you're giving them to keep them fresh and feisty?). Work on covering and pace by moving sheep through woods. Move then in and out of buildings. Tune redirects and flanks by making the only path to the sheep an indirect maze that only you know - perhaps through a series of paddocks and gates.
Managed properly and used thoughtfully, you may just find that your small flock gets you a lot further than you ever imagined. In fact, you may even find it to be a wonderful advantage.