Training the Sheep Dog
by Thomas Longton & Barbara Sykes
pub. Crowood Press, 2003
New Paperback Ed., 144 pages, £12.99
ISBN 1 86126 638 3
The television programme 'One Man and His Dog' brought the work of the collie to millions of people, and when you see border collies bringing in a flock of sheep you have to marvel at the bond between dog and shepherd. 'Training the Sheep Dog' is for anyone who needs to train a sheep dog for work in the field, or for the world of trialling.
The authors begin with a review of the evolution of the working dog; the Border Collie emerging from the Scotland-England region around 300 years ago, and selectively bred for the stamina required in the hill country of the north. Sheep dog trials began in the 1870s, and in 1906 the International Sheep Dog Society [ISDS] was formed.
You have to admit that choosing a dog to work with is very different from owning an ornamental pooch, and the authors take the prospective owner through the advantages of buying a puppy or an older dog; a young puppy having the advantage - as the authors put it - that: 'it comes to you with a complete innocence of mind'. When choosing an older dog you will need to look to see how it gathers sheep [runs wide, too straight and the outrun] in addition to physical characteristics and temperament. Indeed, a good temperament is essential, while the ability to work with cattle is an added plus [one dog is quoted as working cattle 'roughly' compared with the same activity with sheep].
Having bought your pup the book takes you through the care and management of a puppy and highlights some of the medical problems collies are prone to. In particular Progressive Retinal Atrophy [PRA], which can progressively lead to blindness, and also Collie Eye Anomaly [CEA] which should be tested for as soon as possible in a puppy. For would-be breeders there are some words on Canine Hip Dysplasia.
Of course 'communicating' with a collie is key to a working partnership with the owner / handler, and the book takes the reader through the basics of introducing a dog to human language, developing the partnership with a handler and understanding a dog's disposition, teaching basic obedience and, obviously, introducing a puppy to sheep. Eventually, the young dog will make the transition towards a working animal, the authors saying that: 'he will drop his head [when facing sheep - Ed.], indicating that instinctive desire to control is taking precedence over playfulness.'
From basic training the book moves on to early training using a pen and the 'clock theory', where the dog and handler are at the opposite sides of an imaginary clock with the sheep in the middle. There are lots of diagrams explaining the 'moves' though the recommendation is to keep training sessions short - at around 10 minutes. Handlers are also taken through the transition from directional hand and body signals to those of voice and whistles only.
Eventually the collie will be sufficiently trained to work outside the pen and that is where the handler can really begin honing the collie's skills, in particular 'shedding' or separating, part of a flock of sheep or, more difficult, shedding a single animal.
The last couple of chapters deal with Problem Solving - covering subjects such as dogs not wanting to work, refusing to stop, or running too fast - and Sheep Dog Trialling.
Crowood Press titles can be bought online at their website: www.crowood.com or by calling 01672 520320.