How to train a sheepdog to slow down

A common problem with keen sheepdogs is they work too fast, causing disruption and stress to sheep and shepherd alike. Teach your dog to work steadily.

Training a dog to herd sheep - giving the sheep plenty of space
Giving the sheep space makes them easier to manage.

For maximum working efficiency and minimum stress to the sheep, the herding dog should work with a calm authority, keeping a good distance between itself and the sheep, but not so far off that it loses control of them. This topic is covered in our online sheepdog training videos.

I received an email from a sheepdog handler in New Zealand yesterday. She had bought our 'First Steps' sheepdog training DVD and had managed to get her headstrong dog to outrun and fetch the sheep, but the dog is working at breakneck speed and she wanted some advice on how to slow it down.

My first reaction to a problem like this is that the handler is allowing the dog to work too far away from them. One of the vital rules of sheepdog training is that the further away from you the dog is working, the less control you have over the dog. Remember, the dog is using a primitive hunting instinct. When you train your dog, you're channelling that instinct into controlled work from the dog, but a trainee dog will usually only respect your control if you're very close. Dogs hunt in packs and a dog that is a good distance from the rest of the pack (that's you) feels it's getting no backup. It will often revert to its hunting instinct, rather than listen to a pack member who's shouting orders from afar.

If the dog works sensibly close-bye, then the solution is to work the dog calmly, and praise it with a gentle voice when it's working steadily, but stop it the moment it gets excited. The dog will soon learn that it gets a lot more fun (work) if it remains calm.

Of course, if the dog won't stop, even close-bye, you need to concentrate on this issue first. Repeatedly flanking the dog a little way around the sheep and stopping it by blocking it, is the way to drum it into the dog that it must stop on command.

Training a sheepdog to slow down
Keeping the dog behind the sheep as you walk backwards is a great way to teach the dog self-control.

Once you can stop the dog fairly reliably on the far side of the sheep (point of balance), walk backwards, keeping the dog in place as the sheep follow you (to get away from the dog). When you have a few yards between the dog and the sheep, call the dog up quietly. The instant it begins to rush, stop the dog with a sharp command, then repeat the procedure until the dog follows the sheep at a steady pace. Sometimes the dog will learn this quickly, but other dogs take longer to oblige

The next step is to increase the distance between the dog and the sheep, before you call the dog up. This teaches the dog to control itself and you'll find that most dogs will learn to moderate their speed.

If at any time the dog reverts to tearing around, go back to the very close work again - walking backwards as the dog brings the sheep up to you calmly.

If the dog has a good stop close-bye, but won't stop at the end of its outrun, the outrun was too long. Walk closer to the sheep next time and make sure the dog stops properly when commanded (not twenty paces later). Only then, should you begin to increase the outrun distance again (gradually).


  • ONLINE SHEEP AND CATTLE DOG TRAINING TUTORIALS
    Clear, inexpensive, sheep and cattle dog training instruction

    Click icon at bottom-right of viewer for full-screen mode.

    For a very small monthly (or annual) subscription, watch many hours of expertly presented sheepdog training lessons. Not just theory - we show you what should happen, and what to do when things go wrong. Signup now
    You may cancel payments at any time and continue to watch for the period paid for.

    © Images, video, articles and text on this website are protected by copyright laws and must not be reproduced without the owner's written permission.

8 thoughts on “How to train a sheepdog to slow down”

  1. Hi Jon. I live in the south of France and have some of your videos.
    I have two border collies, they have both done some turns with sheep. The female, is particularly adept at agility, which she does very well, except she doesn’t stop barking, so wastes time by not concentrating especially on me. She’s a blue merle with good pedigree for sheep herding through the blue merle side (father and grandmother) she doesn’t bark except when getting tired when sheep herding. I took her to Chamonix with a Welsh trainer for 3 days and she was quiet until the last day. Now I’m worried she will start when I resume trialling. Most opinion is she’s excitable. I’ve tried the usual, water spray, various commands to no real effect. I can’t seem to break the cycle. Any advice?

    1. There’s nobody called “Jon” here, Penelope, but assuming you intended your request for advice to be on this website, I’ll do my best.
      First though, I have to say I don’t really understand what’s going on. You have a dog which competes in sheepdog trials, but won’t stop barking? This makes no sense to me.

      A border collie dog which barks when it’s around sheep is barking either with excitement or fear. The dog lacks confidence. In my experience it’s impossible for such a dog to compete at any reasonable level in a sheepdog trial of the type run by the International Sheep Dog Society.

      Please can you clarify the situation? What standard is the dog working at and are the trials you refer to, ones where the dog has to outrun something like 200-500 metres, and bring the sheep to the handler through some “fetch gates” before driving them around the course, through more sets of gates, and then putting the sheep into a pen, or are we talking about some other type of trial that this dog competes in?

      Assuming the dog is not working to this standard, as I said, the barking is a sign that the dog is excited, or lacking confidence. If you’re controlling the dog while it’s around sheep, in my experience as the dog’s work improves and its confidence grows, it will stop barking.

      1. Hi Andy
        Sorry but I put the question in the wrong place and to boot got your name wrong! What a start!

        Her non stop barking is when she’s doing the agility course. I know it’s when she’s not sure of what’s expected of her but it’s becoming a habit, and it’s creeping into her trialling. We’re not at any standard here, it’s a fun run with sheep, a couple of times a month so not a big deal. Just the fetch, putting through a few fences and the penning. The outrun is quite far, it’s a big field…easily 500m or more

        She a vocal dog anyway. So much of this is excitement. It could well be confidence, but most of the time I have to calm her down for her to concentrate if she slips up. She’s a happy go lucky flirty dog, if I could describe her in that way. Highly obedient, but not as intelligent as my male, Bryn who works things out better and learns quickly. Megan looks to me all the time for orders and over anticipates what I might want. Very affectionate. I just wondered if you had any tips for this impossible situation?

        BTW I find your videos very instructive indeed. Although French use english terms, it’s all a bit vague, and Barry Joyce in Chamonix had to do quite a bit of correcting as for instance I was taught to zigzag the dog behind the sheep, which he says the French do, but it’s nonsense.
        Best wishes

        1. Well, this is as good a place as any to put a question about a dog barking while it works, Penelope, but I have to say I’m at something of a loss! If you’re saying that your (barking) dog will outrun half a kilometre and bring the sheep to you in a steady, controlled manner, then it’s the very first time I’ve heard of such a thing. Indeed I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
          Hopefully, someone else will have a more constructive comment to make, but this is truly beyond my experience.
          Meanwhile, if you want to stop the dog barking, you can train it not to. Dogs do things that they get a reward for, so if the dog feels excited about something and won’t stop barking, take it away from the source of its excitement (immediately it disobeys you). When the dog calms down, allow it to continue. Then if it starts to bark again, tell it to stop, and if it disobeys you, immediately take it away from the excitement again. This time for longer than before. The dog will soon get the message – but you have to be firm and consistent.

          Another way is to teach the dog to bark on command. From what you say, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Make sure you give a clear command to bark and a clear command to stop barking. Once the dog learns this, if it’s barking when you don’t want it to, you tell it to stop. If it won’t stop, you take it away from its fun (as above).

          Lastly, I feel I should point out that while sheepdog trials competitors (moving very small groups of sheep) need their dog to stay on the point of balance to bring the sheep in a straight line, this doesn’t apply in the “real world”. For moving larger bunches or flocks of sheep, it’s essential for the dog to flank back and forth behind the flock, otherwise the sheep at either end of the bunch can simply run away. A dog which flanks back and forth will keep the whole bunch together. It’s called “Wearing” – and I mention it at the end of the “Close Work 2 tutorial. (You need to be logged-in for this link to work).

          1. Hi Andy
            Thanks for your reply. Yes she goes two fields away to lift the sheep. Steady and controlled? Hmm not without some guidance from me, to stop a stampede. On her outrun she does no barking, but when the sheep get a bit stroppy that’s when she starts to bark, which of course is absolutely useless as they don’t care.

            Your suggestions gave me an idea, as she responds fanatically to rewards. I have tried the “punishment” method of telling her off etc etc to no effect. So I have started rewarding her on the command “stop barking” ( I had to find a command completely unique) when she does, and the penny seems to have dropped. Significant improvement. As I said she is incredibly obedient, loves direction and routines. There is a regional agility competition this week in our town so no agility tutorials, which is when she barks non stop. Here’s hoping that your good advice will pay off. Thank you.

            I take your point on the large flocks. Wearing on 12 sheep probably isn’t needed, maybe that’s what Barry Joyce meant. My dogs pick up potential stragglers or strayers anyway.

          2. Eeek! My “good advice” won’t pay off because you appear to have taken little notice of it!

            By rewarding it with a treat when it stops barking, you’re teaching your dog to bark when it wants a treat! It’s only a matter of time before the dog realises it’s onto a good thing.

            Far better to teach the dog to bark on command – and to stop barking when you tell it, or take it away from the sheep whenever it barks near them, as I described here:
            http://www.workingsheepdog.co.uk/how-to-train-a-sheepdog-to-slow-down/comment-page-1/#comment-41064

  2. Gday mate I have a young pup about 8 to 9 months old he’s kelpy x healer its the first dog I have trained on sheep and its becoming a struggle he has the basics worked out but when it comes to turning a ram that is fighting him he backs off and is intimdated is he to young to be around large sheep at that age or is there away to teach him to bite and turn him?

    1. Hello Jon,
      First, I should point out that we do not specialise in any sheepdogs other than border collies, so any advice I offer is purely my thoughts rather than my experience. Having said that, the question you raise is more to do with any dog’s confidence, rather than breed-specific.
      With all the articles and videos on our website stressing the importance of not allowing the sheep to threaten or frighten a puppy or young dog, I’m amazed you need to ask the question.
      Just as you wouldn’t start a pupil off at school with advanced mathematics, you should train a young dog on a small number of docile sheep – rather than “throw it in at the deep end” with an aggressive ram as you appear to have done.
      Start the dog off steadily and its confidence will build gradually – but not if you destroy any confidence the poor creature has at the outset.

We'd love to read your comments -