The highs and lows of working sheepdogs

Kay and Carew take me from despair to joy in 48 hours

What with Powick, Mathon, and Evesham sheepdog trials as well as gathering sheep in the early morning on Wednesdays, the dogs and I have been exceptionally busy recently, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything and I'm sure they wouldn't either.

Sheepdogs Kay and Carew holding stubborn sheep at bay

Kay and Carew hold the sheep by the gate

If Kay's performance has given me cause for concern recently, her work this morning suggests there's nothing wrong with her at all. She worked consistently well, was simply amazing at times, and appeared to thoroughly enjoy herself into the bargain.

Carew goes from strength to strength when working a flock. She has a massive outrun, and because she'll bend out further or come in, as required, I can steer her across a field towards sheep she can't see. She can move the most stubborn sheep, and will bring them at whatever pace I ask of her. Any hormonal problems she had at Evesham SDT were forgotten when she was gathering today. It's slightly puzzling, but she's primarily a sheepdog and trialling's just a bonus.

Sheepdog Carew drives a small bunch of sheep through a gateway in the early morning sun

Carew brings a small bunch of sheep through an open gateway in the early stages of the gather

Oddly, though, we held a training course here on Monday and both Carew and Kay were an embarrassment to me. I know that Carew hates shouting, and she hates the training stick. When I use her as an assistant she relishes the challenge of keeping the errant sheep within a few yards of the trainee dog, but if I happen to be carrying a stick or, worse still, shout at the trainee dog, Carew immediately heads for the yard and hides under the trailer!

Kay, on the other hand, is fine with sticks and shouting. However, she's had a few unpleasant encounters recently with stubborn ewes and lambs, and now she's reluctant to tackle a sheep that shows any sign of aggression towards her. Our sheep are learning that they can avoid Kay if they stamp their feet and threaten to butt her.

The other thing our sheep are learning - at an alarming rate - is that they can jump out of the training ring with some ease. We sent away twenty five of the worst offenders last week but, of the remaining fifteen, at least half will leave the enclosure if they don't like the dog!

Ewes and lambs on the skyline at dawn

Sheep on the sunlit skyline early in the morning at Dean Farm

So, between Kay's and Carew's hang-ups, the airborne sheep, and one or two dogs that proved less than controllable, Monday's training class was somewhat embarrassing. So embarrassing that I offered to refund everyone's payments! There were no takers, so we persevered and, in fact, Kay eventually rose to the occasion and controlled the sheep as well as usual. By the end of the day I was utterly exhausted, and quite cross - mostly with myself - but I was touched when every handler on the course made a point of shaking my hand before they left.

I have to admit, the day would have provided some first class video footage - particularly when a certain young dog was chasing one of the sheep from corner to corner at the bottom of the field (and eventually into the maize field next door). As I stamped off to try to get the dog under control, I heard the owner call "I think he's trying to bring the sheep back to me." The dog was clearly having the time of its life, and not in the least bit interested in listening to anything anyone said. After a day in which just about everything seemed to have gone wrong, I'm afraid I couldn't resist shouting back: "Yes, with the flying pig!" Unprofessional I know, but it got a good laugh.

I really had no right to be cross. I make a point of telling "students" (and meaning it) not to worry if things go wrong - "even if your dog chases the sheep into the next parish, I have great dogs, and it'll give me great pleasure to bring them back." On this day though, for various reasons, those great dogs were not at their best, and I wasn't confident about extricating a single sheep from a field of very tall maize.

If sheep have one great asset, it's their instinct to flock together; and if I have one great asset, it's having people on hand who can help out when things go pear-shaped. In the nick of time, Alison and Gill appeared (having unsurprisingly kept a low profile until now) and, using Carew, they walked some of the sheep along the intersecting fence. The escapee sheep was drawn to them (bless that flocking instinct!) and followed them until it saw its chance. Just for once, our flock's jumping habit worked in my favour and the errant sheep jumped the fence back into the field to join its flock-mates. I was "off the hook" and by now had realised that it's down to me to make sure I always have the situation (more or less) under control.

For anyone attending future training courses, please note, the sheep will NOT be jumping out of our freshly modified training ring!

I've come to the conclusion that John's sheep are very clever indeed. Last week I noticed we'd missed a few of them on the gather, but John didn't think it was worth worrying about them. However, I'd been really careful to clear each field completely, so this suggested the sheep were actually dodging from one field to the other when they saw the dog approaching.

The main flock is divided between seven fields, so this morning I decided to have a close look at some of the hedges. Sure enough, there were signs that sheep have been squeezing through holes, and jumping over sagging fences. When we'd gathered the biggest field, I could hear sheep calling from a field we'd already gathered.

I knew John had a tight schedule, and there was a lot of sorting to do, so I took the sheep we had. When they were in the handling pens I offered to go back for the missing sheep, but John wanted to get off to market so we sorted and loaded the lambs first.

Sheepdogs Carew and Kay take a well-earned break from working

Carew (near camera) and Kay take a drink of water and a well-earned rest after today's sheep gather

When we'd finished, and John was on his way to market, I went back with Carew and Kay to see where the other sheep were. I'm still not sure where they all came from but, in all, we gathered up around a hundred ewes and lambs and put them in a separate field, as arranged with John.

Carew and Kay were both at their best and working as a team. It gives me a huge buzz to be able to work the two of them together. I've always assumed I'd get confused working a brace, but we're all doing reasonably well. John often mentions the time he saw me send Kay away in one field, and Carew clockwise in another - both dogs bringing the sheep together into one bunch at a central point.

I noticed today that when Carew sees Kay being challenged by a sheep she immediately comes to her help, showing the ewe that threatening her pal is definitely not a wise move. There are only one or two sheep that will threaten Carew in the sorting pens now, the others have learned to keep their distance and treat her with respect.

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4 Replies to “The highs and lows of working sheepdogs”

    1. Thanks Becky – it’s good to know you and Fly had a nice day. Things didn’t go so well from my point of view, but that’s the way it goes! Last saturday’s course went very well – even though one sheep managed to jump out of the (now modified) training ring.

  1. Andy, My dog Nero has to be back up for me with student’s dogs and a very common tool here at any horse facility is the flag. If I have a dog that is so rough that I have to use the flag then Nero is out of there. He’ll tolerate a training stick but not a flag. The other problem I have that is more worrisome is that if I put him on lie down while helping another dog he doesn’t move if things start going wrong. We’ve have a few near wrecks where I was sure his back would be broken. The worst was a well attended demo at our fairgrounds. I was backing up across a large arena letting a Kelpie pup wear to me. Nero was on lie down to be back up if I needed it and I stepped right into him and fell in front of a full grandstand. I popped back up and the Kelpie just kept pushing the sheep right into me. The audience, of course, loved it. NC

    1. That’s great, Nancy – at least I know I’m not the only one!

      Kay and Carew are pretty good at knowing when it’s time to get out of the way, but often it’s much later than I would have done.

      Falling over is a great way to get the class laughing, but it doesn’t do much for your pride, does it? Whenever one of the students falls over, I tell them they’re not allowed to – but unfortunately, they rarely see the joke. They love it if I tumble over, of course.

      I haven’t tried a flag – but one of the students used a polythene (supermarket) bag recently and that was really effective. I keep meaning to tape one to the end of the training stick.

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