Balancing Sheep & Calling Off Dogs

A Dog’s Very First Lesson On Stock

Sheep Dogs

A “sheep sandwich” in motion. Note the dog here is trailing a rope or leash still attached to its collar.

By Denice Rackley,

In previous articles, we have covered the basics needed to give our stock dog a great foundation that will enable us to be great working partners:

• Our young dog is coming to us when asked.

• We’re able to take the pup for a walk (off lead) in pastures with grazing livestock.

• The pup shows sustained interest in stock and their movement, telling us it’s time for the dog’s first lesson.

The most natural instinct for gathering and herding dogs is to keep the stock together in one group. The round pen will assist us in helping the dog accomplish this. All I’m interested in for the first few lessons is the dog going around sheep, keeping them in a group. And leaving the sheep (coming to me) when asked.

Some dogs hit the ground running; everything falls into place: The pup keeps the sheep toward the middle of the pen, easily going around them both directions, stops when the stock are stopped then comes to the handler when asked.

It’s not uncommon for pups to chase or hold livestock along the sides of the round pen. Some seem oblivious to our presence. Their focus can be narrow, they see only sheep and may not even hear us.

I don’t worry about this. It should change after a couple of sessions, or I make my presence more known.

The most common problems are the dog:

• Doesn’t quit working when asked

• Isn’t confident enough to go between the sheep and fence

• Goes only one direction around sheep

• Holds sheep against the fence

• Is unsure what to do so continues to stand beside us. Don’t be overly concerned about any of these things, one step at a time.

How pups start doesn’t necessarily predict the finished product.

In future articles we can address helping the young dogs work through common problems as they begin working sheep. But let’s first talk about the ideal scenario.

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Ideal Scenario

I want the dog to keep the sheep between him and me: A “sheep sandwich,” with the dog and me being the “bread.”

The dog balances the sheep to us in the beginning. Balance is the dog’s reaction—and movement—that enables the dog to keep the sheep in a group and prevent their escape.

Our movement will influence both dog and sheep. So just a few reminders are in order:

Movement toward the dog’s rear or pressure there pushes him forward and faster.

Stepping toward the dog’s head or blocking its path can change its direction.

Stepping toward or applying pressure at the dog’s shoulder can “widen” the dog, moving him further off sheep.

This is very similar to longeing a horse off-lead in a round pen. It’s common for a pup to almost ignore you the first lesson or two; our position may not mean a thing to new dog.

When the dog does respond to our movement, where we place ourselves becomes very important.

A word of caution: Some dogs are very pressure sensitive; any step their way might cause unwanted consequences, such as gripping (biting a sheep), etc.

Ideally, the dog travels around the group of sheep thoughtfully, at a steady and calm pace, staying the same distance from the sheep all the way around. (To flank is the standard term for moving around the sheep.)

As we walk in a large circular motion around the sheep, we move toward the dog’s tail, following the dog’s arch, which makes the dog move farther around the circle.

Changing direction: Simply turn walking toward the dog’s head, so that the dog also turns, changing direction. Changing direction can be accomplished by stepping in front of, or behind the sheep, then moving toward the dog’s head to get him going the other way.

“Open up” the area where you want the dog to go; block where you don’t want it to go.

Blocking can be just your presence and body position, holding out your arm, or a stock stick. (Holding the stock stick is simply an extension of your arm and should not be threatening.) You move to keep yourself on one side of the sheep, the dog on the other.

At this stage you may be doing the majority of the work, moving yourself to keep the sheep between you and the pup. That’s fine; it’ll let the pup “feel” balance.

Make sure you do not allow the pup to orbit the sheep mindlessly in one direction.

Few pups start out ideally.

Most are simply excited, which is fine, but I’d want the pup to (a) start thinking, (b) start being aware of my presence and then (c) Thinking about what I want. Within a few sessions: If this isn’t happening the pup may not be ready to start training.


The only command I will use is, “Here,” to call the pup off.

It’s much too early to worry about commands and directions.

I’m more focused on the pup gaining confidence and learning how its movement affects the sheep.

I encourage (and correct slightly, if needed) because the more you say, the more you have to enforce.

If we’re teaching the pup that we say what we mean and mean what we say, then there’s no choice.

We get ourselves and our dogs into trouble when training becomes more about obedience and less about instinct.

encourage the pup to “go to stock” with “sssss, shshsh,” uttered quietly for an excited pup, more enthusiastically with a timid pup. It’s the movement of the sheep that ignites their instinct. If the pup isn’t sure about leaving you and “going to stock,” simply move the stock yourself, while encouraging the dog.

Once the pup is okay being on the other side of the sheep, try backing up—so the dog is able to bring the sheep toward you.

You, continuing to move, will change the “balance point,” allowing the pup to keep working.

If you remain still and the sheep are close to you, there’s nothing for the dog to do: Excitement can cause the pup to blast into the group of sheep!

If you keep moving, changing the direction the pup is going around the sheep, it’ll encourage him to think and move around the entire group.

Stopping & Calling Off

Ideally, when the sheep are stopped, the pup stops.

This is where I ask the pup to come to me. It’s easiest for the pup to stop when you and the pup are in a position that prevents the sheep from trying to escape and all the action is stopped.

I begin teaching the recall by stepping close to the side of the round pen. I will be standing along the side, sheep in front of me—the pup, closest to the center of the pen, facing the sheep.

I’ll take a step or two forward, placing the sheep behind me and closest to the side of the pen. This allows me to be front and center, so the pup can focus on me.

I can step to either side, blocking the pup from the sheep and thus preventing him from moving the sheep.

I squat down and call the pup to me, “Here, (pup’s name)!” You can pat your leg, talk in a higher tone, encouraging the dog to keep its attention on you and come to you.

I take the dog’s collar if I need to (or leash or long line, if you left it on). Praise the dog for coming and walk away from the sheep with the dog. I continue to speak to the dog, to try to keep its attention.

I may squat down, petting the pup a bit helping him relax if needed. Once relaxed—or as relaxed as I think he’ll get—I release the dog again, sending him to go around the sheep with a “shshsh.”

I might even take a step or two with him and then off to the side of the sheep, to encourage the dog to arch around them, rather than letting the dog go straight into the sheep: You need to be the one closer to the sheep and the pup on the far side of them from you. As the dog leaves, I step where I need to be, to either help the dog “balance,” or to discourage splitting of the group.

I always repeat this several times in a training session.

You never want to call the dog off once, then leave the round pen as soon as he comes to you. Dogs are smart, if you call them off once and stop working they soon figure out if they allow you to catch them the fun stops.

There are two things I never want to happen:

My dog not wanting to go to sheep and gather.

My dog not calling off when asked.

I encourage when a dog is doing the right thing and correct when it’s doing something that isn’t right—all vocally.

If a pup doesn’t want to walk away from sheep with me, that pup gets a verbal correction. (a correction equals a deeper and hasher tone).

What if I ask the dog to come to me and he moves back toward sheep? Verbal correction! That’s quickly followed by me asking in a nice tone.

(Because the command “Come Bye” is actually a command for a clockwise flank around sheep, I use “Here” for the recall, instead of risking future confusion with the word “come.”)

So you could sound like “Lad, here. Here. AH!” (Pup focus is on sheep.) “Lad here.” (Pat my leg.) “That-a-boy, here.” (Pup turns back toward sheep.) “AH!” (Pup looks at me.) “That-a-boy. Here.”

Review & Analysis

I’m always trying to give some feedback to the dog to let it know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.

Down the road, a dog’s reward comes from being allowed to work sheep. So when the dog is wrong, I try not to let it get to sheep, or to move sheep.

We’re not at that stage yet.

As long as a dog isn’t getting aggressive with the sheep, there won’t be much correction, besides just a warning: “Ah!” or “Hey!”

Verbal encouragement and correction helps make a dog aware of your presence and begins to build that all-important partnership: It’s all useful feedback, if done correctly.

Timing is critical.

Many people are still grumbling a minute later. This just confuses the dog and sets things up to go badly.

We must correct within a second or two, then let it go—paying attention to the dog’s body language. Its positioning and speed are its ways of communicating with us. We need to be taking note of the dog’s posture—and our own—during work session.

These sessions don’t need to be long: A five to ten minute session is plenty. I try to end work sessions when things are good and the dog wants to continue working.

Believe me: Shorter is better.

When I have been greedy—wanting more—things blow up. You can undo lots of good that just happened moments before. A pup’s confidence—and yours-—need to increase. How comfortable and confident you are makes a difference to dogs.

These beginning lessons expose dogs to sheep; getting their instincts to “kick in;” learning to call off sheep and if possible, going both directions around the sheep with the pup thinking: That’s what I’m after.

Since everything is in motion, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

We‘ll continue to discuss beginning training sessions in detail next time.

I’d be happy to answer questions as we go, so don’t hesitate to contact me at my e-mail:

Each dog is different: Often, I can’t answer absolutely what will work for you and your dog. But I might have suggestions to try, or things to watch for, which will help you decide what to do.

Sheep Dogs

Denice Rackley employs, raises, trains and sells cost effective canine farm hands.

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of sheep!.


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