The Blacksheep Homestead



Training Your Pup to Help on the Farm: Learning by Doing

Posted by Tish Toren on September 2, 2015 at 2:10 AM

I’ve found our pups are always more interested in helping us do what they see *us* trying to do than they are in learning abstract commands (stop, go, lie down, get up, right, left, etc). In a practical setting, English Shepherd pups can learn an impressive amount just by watching and following us along every day at chore time. As pups grow in size, maturity and confidence, they will learn our rules and offer behaviors, useful or not, that we then have the opportunity to praise or discourage. This is the way working farm dogs have been trained since time out of mind.


Our pups learn “on the job” by following us throughout our day from the time they are old enough to toddle along without being stepped on. Little puppies care more about what you think of what they are doing, and are easy to catch/redirect if they head the wrong way. An older pup or adult dog can be difficult to control and could do significant damage to free range chickens or little lambs before you can chase him down or call him off. The older pups/dogs I’ve started, I’ve put on a long line for better control at first, but the process is the same. They watch you do the job until they feel confident enough to help, then you do it together awhile, allowing the pup to do more and more of the work. Later on you are just along for the ride, in case pup needs reminding that he should slow down or go get that split (“easy” and psst and point, or “hey, look”;), and you work this way until he is capable of doing it entirely on his own. Along the way, pups are consistently praised when they offer appropriate behaviors. When they’re headed off base or in the wrong direction, I redirect with a verbal “hey” to get their attention, and, importantly, this gives them the chance to size up the situation and think about and understand what it is that needs to be done, rather than taking that thought process away from them by giving more specific instructions. You can add a directional command here, or anywhere, if you like. But I usually give the pup a chance to puzzle things out for himself before I tell him what to do, praise like crazy for the right choice, redirect again if he’s not on the right track. This encourages the dog to think for himself and figure out the best way to accomplish the goal, and later on, should the stock get out when you are not there to direct him, you’re more likely to find them back where they belong by the time you get home if you have trained your dog this way. In my experience, a dog that’s never been allowed to problem solve on his own will always need you right there to tell him what to do. That’s not what I need, so that’s not how I train.

Some of the best dog training advice I’ve ever gotten was “Shut up”… Yeah, I admit it :) If you talk constantly at the dog, he’ll just learn to tune you out. If you want him to hear you when you are telling him something important, keep it to a minimum and as simple as possible, and never give a young dog a command you are not prepared to make him do, should he get it in his head to test your rules to see if they really are rules. If he’s doing something naughty, like unnecessary herding or harassment of critters, or refusing to tone it down when told to take it “easy”, give him an “aangkh” (like the game show buzzer noise for WRONG) and be prepared to go and * get* him if he does not call off when told to. “No” is usually something I reserve for puddles in the house, tearing up the trash, rude jumping up, all that fun stuff we never, ever want pup to do again. I avoid using “no” when we are working stock because I’m concerned that, as sensitive as some of these dogs can be, they might get the idea they are not supposed to be herding at all. But sneaking into the pasture and having fun at the expense of your stock, or roughing up/injuring young or vulnerable stock while you are working, are serious offenses, so warrant serious corrections, corrections your dog will take seriously and remember. 

My dogs enforce my “no climb” rule for my goats, because they have seen me fuss and flap at the goats when they put their feet up on the panels at feeding time. They know that poultry is never allowed on the porch or in the flower beds, because they’ve seen me shoo them away and fuss at them (“Oh no, get out of here, you bad, baad chickens!”;), and they are lavishly praised for taking on these simple jobs as their own. If they’re too rough, they get a “Hey, EASY.”, and then lavish praise when they do it just right. If the pup takes it upon herself to block animals from escaping through an open gate while you are working with them, praise! If you’d like her to, but she doesn’t do it on her own yet, you can practice by placing her there and saying, “watchem”, “gate” or whatever command you’d like to use, and “stay”, then fuss at the stock and demonstrate pushing them back yourself when they surge toward the gate. My dogs all seem to pick up “watchem” long before we have a good “stay”, probably because one is something that’s active and interesting (“go ahead, see if you can get past me, make my day!”;), while the other removes the dog from the action and makes him sit and wait (BORing!). Whatever you’re working on, try not to turn it into *not fun*, endless drill, which can shut a smart dog down. It doesn’t take many repetitions for an English Shepherd to learn something. They are quick studies and have good memories. Little by little you’ll find yourself spending less time doing the jobs yourself, and more time saying “Good Dog!!” 

This isn’t meant to be a blueprint by any means, pups, humans, preferences and situations differ. You’ll need to try different things and find what appeals to and works best for YOU. . . Here on my place, once the pup has learned the basics, I can pretty much draw from what he knows and get more and more out of him as we both learn to understand each other better. This is what’s most effective and most comfortable for me.



Categories: Training/troubleshooting

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