The Blacksheep Homestead

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Introducing Young Dog to New Stock

Posted by Tish Toren on September 2, 2015 at 2:25 AM

It is always best to begin exposing and socializing your English Shepherd puppy with your livestock from the time you bring him home. Other-breed herding trainers may advocate keeping pup away from stock until he is older to ensure he will be “keen” enough to herd, but this is not an approach intended to help a multi-purpose, working farm dog like the English Shepherd learn to accept and treat young or vulnerable stock with consideration. Delaying exposure can have the consequence of missing critical developmental/bonding windows. By the time your pup is six or eight months old, she/he should already have learned the rules of your farm and been taught that “full-tilt” is not an appropriate way to approach YOUR livestock! A pen or isolated yard is not a good substitute for the important early training and socialization necessary for pups intended to serve as loose-on-the-farm, *trustworthy* working dogs. But it’s never too late to work on this, a good dog of almost any age will still want to please you, his leader, to learn and follow your rules. In my experience, controlled contact with newborns and time taken to teach the dog that these babies are part of family pack, to be nurtured and protected, can be a very good way to influence the way an overenthusiastic, untrained dog may perceive and approach your flock. 

First, put your pup on a line and make a habit of taking her with you as you feed and care for your stock. Make up reasons to go into the pen, if necessary. Spend time “just hanging out” in the pasture watching stock graze/forage. Praise relaxed body language and calm observation. Your pup needs enough exposure to get over the novelty and excitement of being around livestock. Remember, “keen” is for herding trials and other sports. Pups that are super-keen need super-secure containment, so they will not get loose to harass and injure your flock. When the wellbeing and humane management of your sheep is the primary goal, you will want them handled as calmly, slowly and gently as possible. Teach your pup that livestock are not just there for her to herd. She must learn that there will be times she must walk among them at your heel without posturing, lunging or even giving them any kind of intense or predatory LOOKS. When a dog tenses and stares at livestock like a predator, this causes the stock to repel away in fear and causes them unnecessary stress. Smart, well bred, well trained, well socialized English Shepherd farm dogs easily learn that when they direct their gaze down or away and drop their heads and tails in a more relaxed way, the stock do not feel hunted or harassed, and may not even get up from lounging, chewing cud as you and your dog walk the paddock, observing the flock. Praise this kind of demeanor! Continue to work at this calmly and diligently until pup can walk through the sheep pen at your heel on a slack lead without any reminders to “leave it”, always praise for calm and self-control. 

At some point, your pup will go thru that “teenage” stage, where pup can seem to have completely lost its brain… But, don’t let this influence you to wait for her to outgrow bad behavior. There is no magic age she will suddenly understand how she is supposed to behave around your livestock without training. NOW is the time to address this, it will not go away on its own. If she is too out of control to bring into the paddock even on a line, put her on NILIF (nothing in life is free) until you achieve a better bond and some control over her behavior, and a rock-solid recall or “out” command. Tire her out daily, doing something else before training on stock, so that she will be able to relax and focus on you and the behaviors you want from her. She must accept that *you* are in control of when or IF she gets to herd, that the stock are *yours* to be respected and not approached unless you have directed her to do so, or if they are breaking *your rules* as she understands them, such as by escaping their enclosure. 

I take young or new dogs in to meet new lambs while they are still wet, as this is the time the new babies are most likely to bring out a nurturing response from the dog, when they are so obviously helpless and in need of protection. When they are bigger and frantically bouncing and darting around, they tend to evoke a prey/play/chase response instead. So don’t wait to do this. Lambs that are accustomed to the dogs don’t act like terrified prey, and dogs that are accustomed to and accepting of the lambs don’t focus on them like a fox on a field mouse. Take the lamb out of the pen, and work just far enough away so that they are not baa-ing frantically for each other, but mama can’t whomp the dog and elicit a fight-or-flight response, either. This should be very controlled, dog on a line, you holding the lamb in your lap ready to correct her for anything but gentle curiosity. You may need an extra person for this, but try to keep your energy levels low, breathe slowly and calmly, move deliberately, don’t get panicky and nervous, or she will get keyed up, too. Licking is good, but don’t let go of your protective hold on the lamb until you are positive that the dog is not going to get excited and chomp. Whenever she gets too excited, you come down on her with a mother’s protective response, as if the lamb is YOUR baby. This could take several sessions, or even weeks of daily repetition, maybe even a few scuff shakes or rolls if the dog is a particularly hardheaded or predatory one. Don’t give up, I’d be very surprised if your ES pup has NO guardian instinct at all. Choose a command or some language you’ll go on using when you introduce your dog to other new flock members. I use a soft, crooning voice, like the one I use to speak lovingly to the pups when they’re little, and keep repeating “look (dog’s name) it’s a baby, what a niiice baby, such a goood baby”, as I stroke and cuddle the lamb (poultry, kitten, or whatever). Don’t worry about disrupting the ewe/lamb bond, you won’t, as long as you remain within sight of mama and keep training sessions brief. An old shepherd’s trick for kicking in mothering instinct in a ewe that’s not sure she wants to claim her lamb is to bring in the dog and tie it within sight. More often than not, mama will plant herself protectively between the “wolf” and her suddenly very precious baby. 

Bottle lambs or kids, or a brooder full of baby chicks are great for teaching your pup that babies belong and are to be cared for and watched over, especially if they can be kept in close proximity for a time, perhaps in a corner of the farmhouse kitchen, mudroom or on a porch, where you can spend plenty of time overseeing your pup’s behavior around them. 

Working with the pup on a line, I like one at least 10-15’ long, so the pup can have “enough rope” to offer behaviors and begin to learn rules about how to approach the stock. This could take weeks or even months of patience and repetition. Be firm, consistent, resolved, and don’t lose your temper. If the pup goes after the stock like they are prey or toys to be run around the pen or chewed on, she should meet up hard with the end of the lead and get a stern “Leave it” every time. Allowing your pup an opportunity to run loose and chase for fun will only reinforce these inappropriate behaviors and undo all your hard work, as chasing is exciting, rewarding and can become an ingrained habit very quickly. Supervise your pup when loose! If you will be tied up doing something else and unable to keep an eye, put pup on a line, in her yard or in her crate with a chewy until you are ready to resume supervised activity. The dog has to accept that the stock are *yours*, you are the one making the rules, not her, and that the livestock do not exist solely for her entertainment. Appropriate behaviors, controlled positioning to assist you in keeping the stock from pushing out of the pen as you go in or out, keeping stock from coming up behind you or shoving you around when you go in with your grain bucket, helping circle and drive in a controlled way as you put animals through a gate to another paddock, into the barn or out to graze, these things should be lavishly praised, and always try to end training sessions on a postive note.

It will take time, patience, and repetition for raw instinct to be molded into useful behaviors, until your little puppy has matured, learned the rules of your farm, and can be a trusted, reliable stockdog, guardian and farm manager.

 

 

Categories: Training/troubleshooting

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