Lighter Side of Stock Dogs
Lessons From a Stock Dog
Sheep Sense by Mike Neary
Sheep have an unfair reputation as being less than intelligent. Most likely this stereotype has resulted because sheep have a strong tendency to associate with their own kind and the many follow a few. These same two characteristics apply to a number of people, yet, humans are considered quite intelligent.
What makes sheep behave as they do? There are many factors, but they all basically result from the fact that sheep have limited means of defense from predators. The use of herding dogs to control sheep utilizes the predator-prey relationship.
Sheep's main methods of defense are a strong flocking instinct and flight. To compliment the flocking and flight instincts, sheep use their excellent eyesight as their main sensory device. For example, when sheep bed down, they usually do so on a high area (if available) with ample distance between each other, so their field of vision is uninterrupted. There usually are some sheep in a flock that seem to have a sentinel duty. Notice sheep trails in a pasture, rarely are they in a straight line. This compensates for the blind spot behind the head; the winding of trails allows sheep to observe their backside first with one eye and then the other. Sheep can spot dogs or other perceived forms of danger from 1200 to 1500 yards away.
The high reliance by sheep on visual observation explains some of their behavior. Sheep are extremely reluctant to go around a sharp corner, move into direct sun glare, crest steep hills, or any other situation that limits their ability to see. When working sheep through a series of pens, they will often stop, turn and look behind them at a working dog or a person. Efficient handling facilities are designed to avoid sharp turns and are often placed in a north or south location to reduce potential balking from sun glare.
However, sheep do not rely totally on sight; their hearing and sense of smell are also utilized as sensory devices. Sheep, particularly range sheep, will usually move more readily into the wind than with the wind, allowing them to utilize their sense of smell. Also, sheep do have an excellent ability to detect unnatural sounds. Yelling, loud noises and barking are not usually natural sounds to sheep. To keep sheep calm they should be worked as quietly as possible.
Sheep's strong flocking instinct results from several factors. There is safety in numbers for sheep and the flocking is a defense mechanism. Also, historically sheep have been subject to extensive droving throughout their domestication. Therefore, sheep have been directly selected for their flocking instinct to allow for increased ease moving them. Furthermore, sheep exhibit a strong following instinct right from birth. Ewes do not hide their newborns like cattle and deer; they encourage them to follow. Therefore, sheep are conditioned from birth to follow the older members of the flock. When in a trial or work situation, determine the natural leaders and try to maneuver them to lead the rest of the group.
For sheep to be sheep, there needs to be a minimum number of five in the group. Less than five and their behavior is not as predictable. There has to be familiarity among the sheep for them to readily flock. It takes at least several weeks, and sometimes months, for strange sheep to fully integrate into a normally responding flock. This is extremely important to keep in mind when planning a trial that uses sheep from more than one common source.
So how do you "read" sheep? With experience one can often reasonably predict how sheep will react if breed, age, health, type of terrain, weather conditions and time of day, prior exposure to working dogs and similar information is known. At a trial, the most accurate way of predicting how your draw of sheep will react is to closely watch as many runs as possible prior to yours.
Different breeds react differently to dogs. Light, hill breeds such as Border Cheviots, North Country Cheviots or breeds derived from hill breeds (Montadales, etc.), are usually fast, active and rarely challenge a dog. Heavy down breeds like Suffolks, Hampshire, Dorsets, Shropshires, etc. are usually slower, do not flock as tightly and often have to be "persuaded" to move. Suffolks particularly will often stand their ground and fight, especially if they perceive weakness in a dog. Many of the down breeds are quite intelligent and will quickly learn bad habits on reruns. Wool breeds (Rambouillets, Columbias, Corriedales, etc.) are usually tight flocking and will readily move from dogs. However, the type of management system the finewools come from can affect their behavior drastically. Fresh range sheep that have had minimal contact with dogs or people can be quite unpredictable in a trial situation. They may run wild, stand and fight, run for awhile and then fight, or any other interesting combination of behaviors. Range sheep are often quite wary of people and sensitive to wind direction and weather conditions. Furthermore, running range sheep in small groups (3 to 10) is probably the smallest flock they will ever be associated with; this can affect their response.
Just a word about Barbadoes: consider this a disclaimer on their responses. Frankly, Barbadoes are used too often in trials. Occasional use of Barbadoes is probably good, but overuse of them in trials could be detrimental to the Border Collie breed in the long run. If the goal of trials is to improve the breed by practical situation, then the use of Barbadoes does not fit in this scenario, simply because people raising commercial sheep for income do not raise Barbadoes. These people raise the wooled breeds and down-type breeds. The majority of people that own Barbadoes are ones training or trialing dogs. The age of sheep affect how they work, primarily in that lambs can be quite dumb. Actually, lambs are less experienced and there may not be a firm pecking order established within the group. Therefore, there is often not a natural leader and they may tend to mill more and the group may move "herky jerky". The use of ewes with suckling lambs in a trial situation should be discouraged.
Healthy sheep, in average body condition, with a normal fleece length, will certainly work more normally than unthrifty, sick, fat or wool-blind sheep.
Sheep will move more sluggishly on hot days and during the middle part of the day. Sheep are creatures of habit and they usually graze, drink and are more active in the morning and during the evening. Thus, if you are running in the middle part of the day, the sheep may flock tighter, move slower, and spend more time looking at and fighting a dog.
The terrain in a field can play a role in how sheep move. Natural obstacles such as creeks, wet spots, hills, valley, tall grass, etc., influence type of movement. Most breeds of sheep have their genetic roots in breeds domesticated in hilly or mountainous regions. Thus, the natural inclination of sheep is to move uphill when sensing danger. However, sheep do move at a faster pace when going downhill. This probably has something to do with a thing called gravity. Generally, sheep will move at a more controlled, even pace on ground that has a moderate to light incline. When coming to sharp terrain changes, sheep will usually stop, if given a chance. For example, after running down a steep slope, sheep will usually stop or slow down at the base before continuing uphill or on flat areas. Sheep take several weeks to get familiar to new areas or terrain and this is reflected in their behavior. They are not as comfortable in new areas and will probably be more flighty.
What about bad draws of sheep? Everyone gets a "bad draw" from time to time. However, it does seem some people spend an inordinate amount of energy bitching about bad draws. I wonder if the dog's attitude toward his sheep affects the draw of sheep? Certainly it does. Sheep can determine weak dogs, powerful dogs in control, biting dogs, strong-eyed dogs, etc., quickly and from quite a distance. They do respond accordingly. I have noticed that strong-eyed dogs and line dogs tend to group the flock tighter than loose-eyed dogs and easy-flanking dogs.
Probably the most important skill to develop when handling sheep is how to apply pressure and that sheep have to want to go somewhere. By this, I mean they have to have their heads and they need an escape route. We control sheep by limiting their options and movements and thus they "want to go" where we desire them to. Too much pressure or force and they will react with panic. Rushing and movement by fear is not good stockmanship. Many times when the situation is sticky or not going well, the best thing one can do is to let the sheep stop, settle down and let their brain resume working.
One final important point to consider when working sheep is that it is anatomically impossible for a sheep to go anywhere, for any length of time, without its head. When moving sheep watch their heads. They will move in the direction their heads are pointed. Thus, to change direction of movement or to maneuver sheep often times the proper position of the dog is at the sheep's head. One should be able to work large flocks of sheep where the dog cannot be seen behind the flock, and still be able to determine location of the dog by the heads of the sheep and their subsequent movement.
There are many variables that affect how sheep work. No one can guarantee a sheep's response to a particular situation. The best way to develop sheep sense is to spend time around them. Move sheep without a dog on occasion to learn their movements. Observe as many types of sheep and situations as possible and notice how they respond. Personally, I spent about 20 years raising sheep without a dog. For twelve years I have been using dogs to handle sheep. The use of dogs has definitely made the job easier, more enjoyable and made me a better sheepman. Let your sheep help make you a better dog person.