Loyal and Hard-Working Sheep Dogs
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Andrew Roberts of Llanrwst, North Wales, trains sheep dogs to sell to farmers. He also uses his dogs to manage his own flock and go out shepherding at larger farms where extra men and dogs are needed at certain times of the year. When I say that Andrew “trains” sheep dogs, he does, but he also readily admits that training is only part of the story because to start with, the dog has to want to work.
“You can’t make a dog work,” he explains, “and you can’t explain to it that you want it to go around the sheep for you. You have to rely on its instinct to want to do that.” Dogs that have an eye for the sheep can usually be trained to respond to commands from the handler, but that requires an enormous amount of patience from a handler as of course there is little in life that’s more annoying than a dog that won’t listen.
Andrew has four working dogs of his own and he usually has one or two that he’s in the process of bringing on ready for sale. Gathering days on hillsides can provide a great “shop window” for Andrew’s young dogs. Other farmers and handlers can see a dog in action and get the measure of it. However, as with any job that involves working with animals, it can all go badly wrong too, and if the dog isn’t working as it should be, then half of the neighborhood has seen it at its worst.
Commands by voice and whistle
In recent years farmers have brought in dogs from Australia, namely the kelpie, and also the huntaway from New Zealand. Andrew owns a couple of kelpies and a kelpie-collie cross. He finds that kelpies seem to have slightly more stamina than border collies, and they also have a tendency to bark, which the collies don’t. Barking can be handy on the vast hillsides, as not only does it get the sheep moving but it also lets the handler know exactly where the dog is.
Usually when a handler is working with two dogs he or she will call out the dog’s name before giving the command, so that the dog knows who the command is meant for. The commands used to direct dogs vary slightly from one region to another, but “Come bye” usually tells the dog to go in a clockwise direction around the sheep, and “Away” or “Away to me” moves the dog in a counter-clockwise direction. “Lie down” means slow down or stop, depending on the tone of voice used, and “That’ll do” tells the dog to stop what it is doing and to return to the handler.
Some handlers use word commands, but others prefer whistles. A whistle can vary in length, tone and pitch, and in that way whistles can be used to replace words. A different tone whistle can be used to direct different dogs, so that each one knows which the whistle command applies to, but techniques like that are usually only seen at the higher-level sheep dog trials.