Loyal and Hard-Working Sheep Dogs

Josephine Roberts introduces us to the faithful companion that is the working sheep dog

| June 2012

  • Mountain Sheep
    In the mountainous regions of Wales, sheep dogs are working dogs.
  • Sheep Dogs
    Pictured here keenly awaiting their turns are (left to right) Bella, a kelpie bitch; Fly, a border collie bitch; and Bob, a border collie-kelpie cross.
  • Border Collie Sheep Dog
    Fly's mind is on the sheep: No matter how close I get with the camera she won't be distracted!
  • Kelpie Sheep Dog
    Bella, Andrew's kelpie bitch. Kelpies are usually friendly enough, but because of their high energy level many people find they are problematic as pets.
  • Herding Instinct
    A trainer can modify the herding instinct, and he can teach a dog to respond to commands, but he can’t make the dog have “an eye for the sheep."
  • Border Collie Keeps Welsh Mountain Sheep Moving
    Fly in action. By keeping low to the ground and barely moving, Fly knows she can keep these Welsh mountain sheep still. She won’t take her eyes off the flock, and if a sheep attempts to break away she’ll be up on her feet and around after it in a split second. Her instinct is to keep the sheep together, and she can only do that by never taking her eyes off them.
  • Well-Trained Sheep Dogs
    Most well-trained sheep dogs use this crawling-type movement to get close to the sheep without frightening them. A dog that moves like this can move the sheep away gently rather than causing them to charge off, panicking in all directions.
  • Quads Making Life Easier
    The farm bike (or quad bike) has made life a lot easier for hill farmers. Several hard days gathering on the hillsides can tire the dogs, so a ride part of the way on the bike is a big help. When the dogs hear the bike being fired up they know it means they are going somewhere to work, and they usually all try to jump on at once!
  • Separating One Sheep
    If Andrew wishes to separate one sheep from the flock, he can ask Nanw to do that by encouraging her to position herself and her stare in such a way that it will cause one sheep to break away from the flock.
  • Getting Closer
    Nanw and Andrew get nearer to the sheep by keeping eye contact with the sheep and moving very slowly towards them.
  • Herding Instinct Always On
    If they can’t find sheep to herd, then hens will do! Luckily this chicken is used to being surrounded by dogs and she knows they won’t eat her, but this scene does illustrate the fact that sheep dogs have such a strong herding instinct that, left to their own devices, they will go looking for things to herd.
  • Working Dogs
    The herding instinct in sheep dogs is simply predatory behavior that has been modified over many generations.

  • Mountain Sheep
  • Sheep Dogs
  • Border Collie Sheep Dog
  • Kelpie Sheep Dog
  • Herding Instinct
  • Border Collie Keeps Welsh Mountain Sheep Moving
  • Well-Trained Sheep Dogs
  • Quads Making Life Easier
  • Separating One Sheep
  • Getting Closer
  • Herding Instinct Always On
  • Working Dogs

Britain, for a small island, has a lot of sheep. There are more than 60 different breeds of sheep in the British Isles, but Wales is the country most associated with sheep, mainly because in these mountainous regions there is little else in the way of livestock that will thrive.

In Wales we have several sheep breeds of our own, and these are mostly small, hardy animals like the Welsh mountain sheep, which as the name suggests are bred to cope with life in the hills. Steep hillsides and rough grazing land has long made sheep farming the prime income for most farmers here. A hill farmer may own several thousand acres of land, but have little need for machinery, as much of the land is too rough or hilly to cultivate.

Good instincts essential in sheep dogs

In that respect, hill farming has changed little over generations and many of the old traditions still continue. Farmers still gather the sheep down from the mountains for routine care such as ear-marking, shearing or to separate those to be sold. With several hundred head of sheep and five to 10 men (each with two or three working dogs), gathering days are hard work for both the men and the dogs, but they are also a time of laughter and camaraderie.

At one time there would have been many more sheep spending all year up on the mountainsides, but in recent years environmental schemes encourage farmers to either reduce the numbers of sheep on the mountains or take them off the mountain at certain times of the year.



Those hillsides that are sparsely populated with sheep can actually be more difficult to gather as there are more lone sheep to contend with. For gathering sheep from the hillsides, a good dog with plenty of stamina and lots of common sense is essential. A dog that waits for its handler to tell it what to do every minute won’t get far on a hillside, as very often the handler is out of sight of the dog. The dog must have a good idea what is needed of it and it must have a strong instinct to keep the sheep moving forward in the right direction.

The famed border collie

In Britain we have what are loosely referred to as “sheep dogs.” This blanket term describes several breeds of dog used to herd sheep. Most famous of all is the border collie, which is usually black-and-white (though these dogs can also be tri-colored, brown-and-white, or grey-and-white) and can come in a variety of sizes and builds. Since border collies have been bred for their aptitude for work rather than their appearance, the breed can vary immensely from small, rough-coated dogs to large, smooth-coated animals.



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