Dogs aren’t the only ones who can learn

Our sheep have become experts at avoiding pressure

Our sheepdog training course yesterday was a great demonstration of just how clever sheep can be. Many people think sheep are very stupid, because to us, they seem to do some really silly things, but anyone who really knows about sheep has a lot more respect for them.

Closeup of Kay concentrating hard on her sheep
Little Kay was heroic when it came to returning difficult sheep to the training ring yesterday

Certainly, sheep can be unpredictable at times and often it's difficult to understand why they act the way they do, but the small bunch of training sheep we have at the moment have learned just how to avoid pressure from all but the smartest of dogs.

It began a few weeks ago when one of the sheep developed a knack of trotting smartly away from the remainder of the group whenever they were in a tight spot. There's nothing unusual in that though. Watch any sheepdog trial and you'll almost certainly see more than one errant sheep making a bid for freedom.

Usually it's no more than a minor inconvenience for a well trained dog. The dog's natural instinct tells it to keep the sheep together, and quite often it will bring the lone sheep back to rejoin the bunch immediately, without waiting for a command.

Our sheep have perfected an admirable new technique though. Recently, the moment one sheep (often the same one) departs in one particular direction, one or more of the remaining bunch immediately gallops off the other way!

A group of sheep splitting to avoid the dog
These sheep have learned to separate and run in opposite directions to avoid the dog

It's so clever! Most trainee dogs are defeated by it and even Kay, our most skilled herder, is sometimes too slow to keep them together. If the sheep go in opposite directions, you have to send the dog one way or the other to gather them, so one or more of them aways gets a better chance of running back up the field towards the rest of the flock.

On yesterday's sheepdog training course, the first dog into the ring was very bouncy and aggressive around the sheep, and it upset them. As a result, the poor sheep were extremely reluctant to go back into the ring whenever they had the opportunity to get out into the open field. Who can blame them?

Kay was nothing short of heroic when it came to returning the sheep to the fold, but eventually she became exhausted so Bronwen, who was doubling as a trainee dog, and eventually Ezra, had to deputise for poor Kay.

We're running another course tomorrow, so the dogs are getting a good rest today, and I've arranged some sheep hurdles to assist with returning our crafty sheep to the training ring.

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