Saturday, April 23, 2016

Working Dogs vs. Recreation Dogs

Moving ewes and lambs with Ernie last night.
Every couple of months, I get a phone call or an email from somebody who has heard that we use herding dogs in our sheep operation.  Occasionally, these questions come from a fellow sheep producer (usually a new one) who wants to learn how to use dogs (and make themselves a better shepherd).  More frequently, the call comes from somebody looking to find a new activity to enjoy with their border collie or Australian shepherd.  With the latter, the conversation usually begins with the other person describing how gifted and intelligent their dog is.  While I'll still take time to help folks in the first category, I've become increasingly reluctant to help folks in the second.

First, I should say I'm not a dog trainer.  I've had help with my herding dogs. Much of what my dogs have learned, I've learned with them. The skills that my dogs have, they've developed through actual work - moving sheep and cows.

Second, a bit about my experience working with the second group of people - the folks who would like to give their dogs a new activity.  Some are entirely understanding when I explain that my sheep are (at least in part) my livelihood.  I usually ask whether they are committed to becoming stockmen (or women), or if they are simply looking for an alternative to frisbee or agility.  I will always help aspiring shepherds, but when I suggest that their dog (and especially my sheep) would be better served by something that doesn't involve chasing sheep (and most of these dogs chase rather than herd), the people who are looking for activity rather than skill often don't understand my concern.  A few folks in this category will then proceed to argue with me - their dog comes from working lines, after all.

Yesterday, I listened to an outstanding podcast from the Heritage Radio Network about guardian and herding dogs.  The host, John Wilkes (himself a former sheep farmer) interviewed Welsh shepherd and champion dog handler Aled Owen.  Our newest dog, Mae, is descended from one of Owen's dogs.  He talked about the need for a solid trial dog to get real work on a regular basis.  The best sheep dog trial handlers I know in this country say the same thing - a trial dog truly excels only when he or she has to do real-world sheep work on a regular basis.  Similarly, I think, a trial handler is well-served by day-to-day shepherding.

All of this reflection was caused by call I got this morning from a gentleman who wanted to bring his 6-year-old collie (as well as his doctor and her Australian shepherd) to "play" with my sheep.  I tried to explain why I was reluctant to have my sheep subjected to this kind of dog.  I suggested that frisbee or agility might be a better activity.  I don't think I got through, but I'm glad that his dogs won't be chasing my sheep through the fence.  I guess I'm getting grumpy about some things in my extreme mid-forties!


  1. You do a great job of educating folks about your sheep and your dogs. It does take education for the type of folks who called you (above) to understand the difference between agility and sheep work, for example. They just don't know. It is OK to be a little bit grumpy about it. :) Also, there are places where those folks can take their dogs to try "herding" and see if they and their dogs really have an interest in it, and that is where I would refer them. Carry on and keep blogging! I love the comment about extreme mid-forties!

  2. We just had an ARC vounteer show up on the property with her off-leash cattle dog and ask us if he could try herding our sheep. "Nope". We gave an explanation, but boy does that make us nervous and frustrated.