All About Using Stock Dogs With Sheep

Stock dogs have long been used to help shepherds with sheep. Here are some tips for getting, training and using a stock dog to help around the farm.

by Jana Wilson
PHOTO: Jana Wilson

I honestly don’t know how I would get all my chores done—at least done in a decent amount of time—without the help of my border collie, Dash.

Bringing a stock dog on to work as my farm partner with our sheep was one of the best employment decisions I ever made! I would need at least two other humans to help me get done what Dash and I can do every day.

He helps as I set out feed and hay, move sheep to new pastures, and administer vaccines and worm my flock.

A History of Stock Dogs

From the time sheep were domesticated in somewhere between 2900 and 700 BC, dogs presumably have helped shepherds with the necessary daily work.

Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) lived with and protected the flock. Stock dogs helped move the sheep or separate the clock for various chores.

My breed is the border collie. This breed of dog emerged from the area along the border of Scotland and England.

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The breed we know today as the border collie didn’t attain official recognition until the 1800s. “Collie dogs,” however, have helped shepherds far longer than that.

Read more: Check out these different ways to protect sheep from predators.

Stock Dogs Bred to Work with Sheep

I’ve actually kept border collies for several years. But until I got Dash as an 8-week-old puppy, I never owned a stock dog bred for the specific purpose of working with sheep.

In fact, I did some training with another of our other border collies, Ari. It wasn’t easy to train her, as she didn’t really have a lot of herding instinct. And at the time, I didn’t have a lot of experience to know that she didn’t have a lot of herding ability. 

Finally I decided I wanted a canine partner with a serious working background. And so I bought Dash, a working dog with real working ancestors—many from that border area between Scotland and England! 

Dash is very serious about sheep. In the house or in the backyard, he is about as goofy as any two-year-old male dog can be. But once we head out to the pasture to move sheep, his head drops down and his eyes never leave the sheep.

He is ready to work the minute we head outside.

Succeeding with a Stock Dog

Using stock dogs with sheep successfully requires two things:

  1. Getting a dog from a breeder who has bred excellent working dogs
  2. Finding a good trainer to help you get your dog off to a good start

Even a dog with lots of herding instinct needs to be guided and taught to work with you and to respect the livestock.

I am lucky to have found Denice Rackley at Clearfield Stockdogs, who has been my herding mentor and teacher. I work through problems with her, such as how to get Dash to move sheep quietly in a small space. She also taught me how to get him to hold them in a corner while I put out their grain.

When you are starting to train a stock dog, it’s best to start with a few “dog broke” sheep familiar with dogs. We start our dogs in a small round pen. The dog learns what it takes to move the sheep in one direction or the other.

The dogs also learn commands such as “away” (counterclockwise around the sheep). They also learn “come bye” (clockwise around the sheep), “lie down” and “that’ll do.”

That last command tells the dog you are done working and it’s time to come away from the sheep.

Read more: A good dog makes the perfect sidekick for a small-flock shepherd.

Stock Dogs Reduce Stress on Sheep

I do know of some shepherds who will not allow stock dogs near their flock. They fear it will cause stress for the sheep. And I understand not wanting to stress your flock.

However, a well-trained stock dog can actually result in less stress for the sheep if they can move or hold them quietly and efficiently.

I really enjoy having my dog work with me as a partner on the farm. I don’t regret hiring him at all. For payment, he only expects a couple of square meals a day, a pat on the head and a chance to do what his breeding tells him to. 

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