Handling a nervous sheepdog – Nell

Nell has good days and bad days, but on the whole she seems a happier dog

Group of assorted Border collies

Either Nell's enjoying being part of the pack, or just believes in safety in numbers

When we first mentioned Nell in the blog, back in August, she'd been with us for a month. We felt we were making some progress (inasmuch as we could get her back into the yard when we needed to, and she'd stopped running off to the sheep if we weren't paying attention) but she didn't give us the impression that she enjoyed our company.

I'm still not sure she actually enjoys our company, but I think she might have decided we're not as bad as she first thought.

Isn't it said that pride comes before a fall? In our case, complacence came before an abscondment. For several days, just after her first blog, Nell had been reliably returning to the yard with everyone else when we gave the command ("In we go!" not imaginative, but it's served us well). On this particular evening we called the dogs back into the yard with us but didn't check to see whether Nell was coming too. As it turned out, she wasn't, but we didn't know until we'd closed the gate and saw her eyeing us from the wrong side of it. We didn't worry, believing as we did that she'd wait around until we opened the gate and called her in. Unfortunately, by the time one of us thought to do just that, Nell had gone. We walked out into the field just in time to see her squeezing under the wire into the next field, and making steady, determined progress across it and out of sight.

Calling her did no good at all, but I don't think either of us really expected it would.

We returned to the yard to weigh up the options. As livestock and dog owners there are many things you just don't want to see, but a dog you feel you hardly know, perhaps with uncertain morals, disappearing over the horizon is quite high on the list. As it turned out, Nell soon came back into her "home" field, but she wouldn't actually come home and any coaxing on our part simply made her more determined that she was staying as far away from us as possible. We left the yard gate and her pen door open, and found Nell tucked up in bed (thank goodness) a couple of hours later.

Tricolor border collie sheepdog Nell looking happy

Recently Nell's much brighter in herself - her body language (and ears) suggest she's much happier now

Andy and I had realised that evening that we'd both become accustomed to Nell staying back until the yard gate was closed and having to call her in separately. This was not only making Nell appear more important than the other dogs, it had developed into a real "This is how we do it" situation, quietly imposed by Nell, and condoned by us. It had become routine.

I'm afraid Nell spent the next few days mainly confined to her pen, with just a few minutes at a time loose in the yard. This time was spent in the usual anticlockwise circling in her frustration that everyone else was out playing in the field. It was all very well but, as we remind ourselves when we have a challenging dog to train and never really feel in the right frame of mind to take it out, "They don't learn anything while they're sitting in a pen". We had to take Nell back out into the field.

For the next couple of weeks, Nell was only allowed out on a lead. We should have done it before because we've found it so useful in other cases. Dogs hate to feel they're being singled out or excluded, and when twenty-odd dogs are rushing about having fun, the dog on the lead who has to stay with the humans is all too aware of the ignominy of its situation. What's more, so are the other dogs who will tend to come and stare at the "prisoner".

For example, if we have a dog who's continually nipping at or bullying another, or one who insists on rushing ahead when we're out for a walk, blatantly ignoring the call to get back into line, we put them on the lead. They have to walk politely, they can't explore anything, and they hate it. It doesn't seem to make them view the lead, per se, as a punishment, but walking when everyone else is running definitely is!

We'd been reluctant to do this with Nell. With a nervous dog, you feel the last thing you want is to make them feel even more vulnerable than they already do. Much to Nell's discomfort, not only was she required to "walk nicely" but Andy was calling her back to his side and insisting she come to him for attention before he'd let her walk away (at least as far as the length of the lead would allow).

The first two or three days weren't fun. She pulled relentlessly, and there was no way Andy was going to allow her any latitude at all while she was behaving so badly. It can't have been fun for Nell either. She was desperate to join in with the other dogs, but she had to walk at Andy's side, with a slack lead, to have any chance of being allowed any time to run with everyone else.

This is the hardest part of dog training; you feel you're being uncivil to the dog. You have to impose your will on them, but it makes you feel you're being rude to the dog! If she'd been a person, perhaps a family member, we'd have negotiated with Nell, but we don't have the tools for that. Instead, we have to be even more assertive than the dog, and it doesn't feel right.

It pays off though.

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Nell's happy(ish) to come to us individually when running loose

Before long we began to see signs that she was looking forward to coming out. Whereas previously, Nell would shrink back into her pen and we'd needed sometimes to physically drag her out, even when she was being allowed to run freely, suddenly she was beginning to poke her head out and look interested when she heard us come into the yard. Next, she was coming out and making it easy to put the lead onto her collar, and then walking calmly out through the pen door with us. The day we took her back in, removed the lead, and saw that she not only stayed with us but stretched her head up towards the nearest hand for fuss, really was a breakthrough.

For the last three weeks, Nell has been running freely with the other dogs. She waits patiently by the pen door when it's time to go out, hardly circling at all, and when she comes back in (with everyone else) she goes into her pen when she's called, instead of rushing for safety at the back of her kennel and hiding there. Once in, she stands at the door waiting for fuss. I'm not sure how much she enjoys it, but she expects it, and that's a start.

We're also seeing the new Nell out in the field. She's enjoying being a real part of the pack, and is finding her place. She's prepared to come to us when we call her and has even submitted to being groomed (I think she's as surprised as me to find she enjoys it) even while the other dogs are crowding around her, insisting it's their turn next. Last Saturday I even saw her experimenting with rolling. She was too inhibited to do it properly, but it's a start.

Nell still isn't happy to be around a group of people, and to her a group can be just Andy and me, but so long as either Andy or I are alone with the dogs, we can call Nell to us and she'll wag her tail and look happy to come. We no longer have to hold her collar to give her the attention she'd probably be just as happy without, but she'll stay and look relaxed. In fact, Nell's entire body outline is improved - rounded and relaxed. She seems taller, and her expression is brighter and more alert; her ears spend more time up than back (despite the evidence whenever we point a camera at her) and she's slowly revealing a sense of humour…

A nervous collie being stroked by Gill

Nell's early days. Hard to think this was a breakthrough!

I'd sometimes wondered why Nell was missing from the yard when I've been last in and couldn't see any sign of her out in the field, lurking behind the thistles or the muck heap (favoured dog-lurking places). Now I know where she hides. Nell's something of a water baby, and loves to throw herself into the water troughs to cool down - and to hide. On the call of "In we go!" she makes a bee-line for the water trough and lies down, completely submerged or at least hidden by the sides of the trough. Even the tips of her ears disappear! Now when she goes missing I only have to shout, "Nell, I can see you!" and her ears pop up, followed slowly by the rest of her. Once she can see I'm looking her way, she hops out and skips into the yard ahead of me.

Of course, this is really just another example of "This is how we do it", but it's at least one I'm prepared to go along with; a degree of give and take never does any harm. The only possible downside is that, distracted by all this nervous behavioural stuff, we haven't given her sheep training a thought for weeks!

5 Replies to “Handling a nervous sheepdog – Nell”

  1. I have a re-homed young border collie – we’ve had her since last summer. She is scared of many things – men, travelling, ball throwing, bike helmets – you name it. I have a great relationship with her but she does suffer with separation anxiety – this seems to have become worse over winter. She is definitely happiest when working and shows great promise. Unfortunately for her I only have 25 ewes, who are all now heavily pregnant and can’t be worked too much. She would probably be happier if she had hundreds and I had hours to work with her. I don’t so we muddle on and hope her psychological issues will improve with time! Thank you for your posts on Nell, they give me reassurance that it is worth persevering!

  2. Have you started Nell? I would be very interested to know how she is coming along. I have a Blue Healer rescue that is a nervous one too. I have hesitated to get him started (he is about 1 yr old now). I do not want any correction to ruin him on herding.

    1. Hello David,

      Yes, Nell’s already working and she thoroughly enjoys herself. She’s very one-sided, among the worst I’ve ever known, but the more she works and is pushed to go the way she dislikes (which is Come Bye) the better she gets at it. She really needs regular practice, and this winter’s been hopeless for training.

      So far as her confidence is concerned, Nell isn’t nervous of the sheep and when she’s working she’ll take any necessary correction seemingly without resentment. If she gets tired of being pushed “Come Bye” she might turn away, but she comes back to her work immediately because she’d prefer to continue than stop altogether. That, though, is pretty common for a very one-sided dog and doesn’t seem to be anything to do with her confidence, or lack of it. It’s important to make sure we regularly reward her with flanking in her preferred direction to take the pressure off her.

      If you have some docile livestock and a safe place to work, I think it would be worth taking your heeler to see if he’s keen to work. If he is, you might find that the activity will actually increase his self-confidence. If you do, then please let us know how you get on.

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