Training a sheepdog can be much easier if you introduce the dog to sheep at an early age.
But only attempt it if you know what you're doing.
Our regular readers will know that we like to introduce pups to sheep at an early age, but they will also be aware that it should be done with great care.
A young puppy is very impressionable, and if things go wrong and the pup is threatened or harmed by the sheep, it may damage the youngster's confidence for a long time. Occasionally for life.
After a horribly wet winter, yesterday was gloriously sunny and we couldn't resist the temptation to take some youngsters to sheep. There were three very young pups from Audrey's litter - not yet twelve weeks old, together with Hayley and Gretchen (fourteen weeks) from Kay and Eli's litter.
Young Jack came along too (he's three and a half months old) and Dash - Meg and Eli's pup aged seven months - was the oldest trainee there.
Dash, Gretchen and Hayley have all been to sheep before, but very briefly. Dash showed great promise, while the other two were interested, but too young to do much. That was the case on this occasion with Audrey's pups. They all watched with interest, and occasionally went towards the sheep but thankfully, they were sensibly cautious. We'll bring them back to the sheep again in about two weeks time and hopefully, they'll be a little bolder.
We've got high hopes for little Jack, but he's shown no interest in sheep so far, and yesterday was no exception. Jack stayed close to Gill and me, but wanted nothing to do with the sheep. This is perfectly natural, and we're confident the little chap will come up with the goods in time. It's worth noting that Carew was positively frightened of sheep until she was five and a half months old.
On this occasion, Carew was our chief assistant. Her job was to keep the sheep together, but not to push them towards the puppies as this is likely to frighten them. It never ceases to amaze us how Carew comprehends these situations - especially when one or two sheep get separated from the others. Carew simply gathers the runaway sheep and puts them back with the group.
Gretchen recently sustained a leg injury so we were extremely cautious about allowing her to run with the sheep. On the other hand, we're equally concerned that being separated from all "farm" activities while she convalesces could possibly lead to her losing interest in working sheep. With this in mind we allowed Gretchen a very brief run with the sheep without any dogs, other than Carew, in attendance.
This way, there was less risk of her being overrun or panicked by the sheep. She was very keen, but, at the same time, seemed to know her limitations and kept a safe distance from them. The title image at the head of this page shows a good example of her reaction.
Once Gretchen was safely back in her pen we brought the other pups out in a group. At seven months old, it was no surprise that Dash was very keen to work, but in the early stages of the session at least, it was Hayley who really impressed us. From the outset she showed tremendous confidence. She was happy to circle the sheep, and on the occasions when proceedings came to a halt, she would stare at the sheep for a few moments, and then make the decision to move towards them.
Once a young dog learns that the sheep will turn away if it stands its ground, it's a huge boost to the dog's confidence and soon, Hayley was in command. When she moved forward, the sheep moved away. Very impressive, but we still need to exercise great care that nothing happens to damage Hayley's confidence in the near future.
It was as the session was drawing towards its close that Dash showed her true potential. I didn't want Hayley to get over-tired, so I picked her up and called Dash away towards the yard, but she was fully focussed on the sheep and ignored me. Not to worry, although Dash knew what I meant and really should't ignore me, it's very early in her training, so I didn't mind too much. I decided to watch her.
Dash was keeping the sheep together at times, but at others she split them up. Of course, Carew brought them back together quickly, but I decided to see whether I could give Dash some direction. This was easier said than done, I had no training stick with me and I certainly wasn't going to wave Hayley at Dash to keep her out so really, all I had was my voice and my free (left) hand.
Dash has never had any formal training, but she has limited experience of "Lie down" when she's been out with the other dogs in the woods and bridleways. Even so, I wasn't expecting her to obey the command when she was working sheep, but, to my surprise, she stopped every time I gave the command. This was a great help, but she was still coming round to one side and splitting the sheep, so I tried giving her some flanking commands.
Imagine my amazement when she appeared to obey each flanking command intended to send her back behind the sheep. I'm not trying to suggest she knew the meaning of the commands (she couldn't possibly) but she seemed to realise that each time I gave a "Come bye" or "Away" command, she should get behind the sheep again.
So on Dash's second visit to the sheep, we just about had enough control to be able to move the sheep in a given direction. This was excellent. Gill and I were extremely impressed and can't wait to give both Hayley and Dash more instruction - if only it will stop raining and allow the ground to dry enough for us to do it!