It is natural for dogs - particularly young ones - to chase sheep but it is a problem that is fairly easy to overcome, says David Tomlinson
According to the National Sheep Association, there are more than 33million sheep in the UK, which means that every working gundog is certain to encounter a flock sooner rather than later. From a dog’s point of view, there are few animals that are more inviting to chase.
Thoughts of sheep were triggered, first, by the sight of the spring lambs, and secondly by a letter from a reader. “My 15-month-old cocker has chased sheep twice now and I feel I can’t let him off the lead. I have had some success with treat training but a few trainers have said that he needs scaring to stop him chasing the sheep — what do you think?”
Following the old-fashioned advice
Of the spaniels I have owned, about half showed an inclination as puppies to chase sheep, while the others weren’t interested. My first springer displayed every sign of being an enthusiastic sheep chaser and, as I then lived in an area with many flocks, it was vital that I did something about it. I decided to follow the old-fashioned advice of introducing her to a ewe with lambs at foot.
Finding a suitable ewe is the biggest challenge. I knocked on the door of a local farmer who had a flock of sheep and explained my problem. Here I was extremely fortunate because the farmer was a keen shooting man who not only understood my problem, but also was more than happy to help. He told me that sheep were such stupid animals he didn’t like them very much, which rather surprised me. Anyway, the next day I took my spaniel along to the farm and put her in a straw-filled loose box together with a large ewe and two lambs.
The whole episode was carefully managed so there was no risk to either dog or sheep. The ewe took one look at the spaniel, stamped her feet and advanced. The spaniel retreated — the ewe was much bigger than her — and that was the end of it. My dog lived to nearly 14 and never looked at a sheep again, let alone showed any intention to chase, so it was a satisfactory cure. Perhaps I was lucky but it was clear evidence that the traditional method certainly does work.
Don’t get complacent
Some years later I walked another young spaniel of mine every morning through a neighbour’s field of sheep. This particular puppy encountered sheep on nearly every walk so took absolutely no notice of them and the sheep ignored her, too. As a result I thought, with good reason, that she was 100 per cent safe with the creatures but I was wrong. On her initial walk on Exmoor, at the age of 11 months, she chased the first pair of sheep she came across. By luck, though, she pursued them right back towards me so I was able to intercept her as she came galloping past. I didn’t hit her, but she did get the biggest telling off of her life and never so much as looked at another sheep.
If there is one thing that sets the amateur handler apart from the professional, it is reliable dog recall. Whereas…
The best way of stopping a dog chasing sheep
Why she should have chased the Exmoor sheep but ignored those at home in Kent is a mystery. One theory is that sheep on the hill have a different smell about them. When I suggested this once before in this column, many years ago, I received a letter from a reader, a professional trainer, saying that it was rubbish and all sheep smell the same. Perhaps it was simply the different environment — a heather-covered hillside rather than a grass pasture — that prompted her behaviour.
- The best way to stop a dog chasing sheep is to introduce the former to the latter under controlled conditions.
- It is best to work with the sheep farmer or shepherd, while I would also advise having the dog on a long lead so that there is no risk to the sheep.
- I would use bribes to keep the dog interested in me, not the sheep. High-value bribes, such as scraps of hot gammon, are more likely to work than boring dog biscuits.
- Practice the exercise as often as possible. Most dogs will soon learn that sheep must be ignored.
- In extreme cases I wouldn’t hesitate to use an electric collar as the ultimate deterrent, especially if there is a risk of the dog having to be put down. Used sensitively, an electric collar is not the dreadful device that many people, including the Kennel Club, would have you believe. They have a range of settings, as well as a buzzer, and by using the buzzer in conjunction with a light shock — test on your own wrist first — most dogs will be cured instantly. The magic of the collar is that it can be used as the dog commits, or attempts to commit, the crime.
- Never forget that sheep worrying is just that and the mere presence of the best-trained dog in the world can get sheep worried. Even if your dog is 100 per cent sheep-proof, always be careful when working it near them.