It has to be said that patience is the key when training a sheepdog, but patience can also be pushed, so you may also hear the odd expletive thrown in by the shepherd, as in: “What the duce was that?” Or worse!
While you may wish to learn the usual commands (see box, far right), it doesn’t really matter what words you use as long as you don’t mind being heard shouting across the field.
What is important is consistency and simplicity. So use “away to me” and not “away to me, now spot and be a good boy”. There is no need to make your dog work harder than is necessary for listening to unnecessary words. Equally, remember to deliver commands clearly and quietly. I have never understood the idea, found in so many dog training classes, of squeaking in a high-pitched voice while flapping your arms like a large demented bird. Be cool and calm. You are building up a relationship showing respect for your dog and he will know more about sheep than you ever will.
In Part 1 (Country Smallholding, January) I mentioned the approach of world-class handler Julie Simpson-Hill of ‘ask, tell, insist’. This means that you ask quietly and clearly and if your dog fails to respond, or responds incorrectly, then be firmer with the command. If this still doesn’t produce the desired response then you need to be very insistent with both voice and body language.
When training, hand signals and body language are important as they help to show what you want. Close by you will continue to use body language. For example, your dog is behind your sheep and you are in front of them. You ask you dog to stop, but he is reluctant (which is often the case with a novice dog).
So then make yourself a ‘big presence’ by standing very upright and leaning slightly in to your dog. You can also use a hand signal. Often I put my stick horizontal with one end facing the dog. You are effectively creating a barrier. However, try to ease off the hand signals as soon as you can. You want your dog to be listening to you and (generally) not watching you. So using a quiet, calm voice and consistency in command words is crucial.
You can also help by the pitch you use for the command. My “away” starts on a higher note and then drops by about a fifth with a long “a” and a shorter “way” on the lower note. My “come by” command starts on a lower note and rises. This is repeated in my whistle commands.
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