Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Training the sheep dog.

Most people think of a sheep dog as a Border Collier skilfully helping the farmer herd and move his sheep from one place to another. Well on our farm we don’t have a Border Collier instead I play the role of the “herding dog” along with who ever might be available at the needed moment. Running up and down the steep farm slopes chasing stubborn sheep into places they don’t want to go can be quite tiring and frustrating and I’ve often thought how nice it would be to have a dog which could help herd the sheep.

We don’t have a herding dog, but we do have a sheep dog the kind which is officially known as a livestock guardian dog, we just call him a protector. He is totally useless at herding sheep and normally gets in the way chasing the sheep the in the wrong direction and generally adding to the frustration of herding the sheep. However he is very good at the role he is meant for; protecting the sheep and lambs from predators, which in our case are predominantly foxes. The year before got our sheep dog we lost 18 lambs to the foxes! It was quite terrible waking up morning after morning to the cries of a distressed mother desperately searching for her lost lamb. Then as we searched the farm for the missing lamb we often found half a lamb lower down the farm, the part the fox hadn’t managed to eat or take away.

Max watching the day go by in the company of his sheep.

These scenarios changed once we got our sheep dog “Max” ten years ago. He is an amazing animal who most of the time sits peacefully amongst the sheep watching the day go by. But when a fox is on the prowl you can see Max’s nose start twitching, he normally smells them a long time before he sees them, and then of he goes chasing the fox away. Or if there is an unknown danger at night and Max starts barking the sheep very often run behind him letting for him to protect them from the potential danger.

A Mastin dog in the mountains with a collar to protect it from wolves.

Max is a "Mastin Leonese" the breed of dog used in this region to protect the livestock. We got him when he was 6 weeks old and he came from a local farmer who kept Mastins to protect his sheep. When I got him I asked my self; how do you train a dog so that it will protect your sheep?

Mastins seem to be particularly suitable to protect livestock and are used all over this wild and mountainous region to do so. They have this inherent ability to protect, the important point in their training is to make them realise they must stay with the sheep (or whatever livestock) and protect them. It’s no good having a sheep dog who wants to come with the human owner all the time rather than staying with the sheep.

Max and the sheep

So from a young pup we always try and fed the sheep dog where the sheep were. In the early months at night we locked the sheep and dog together in the stable so they were together as much time as possible. In the early stages it can seem quite difficult as the sheep often butt the dog when he was young, but as he grew this becomes less of a problem. And of course you must not fuss the dog which takes a lot of self discipline as it can be very tempting to cuddle such a lovely pup.

With the hotel in the middle of the farm there is the possibility for lots of guests to come in contact with the dog and we have to ask the guests to ignore the dog so he doesn’t stray and abandon his sheep to the perils of a passing predator.

Max starting to show his age!

Now Max is getting old and the years are starting to notice on his joints. So this year we decided it was time to get a new sheep dog and start training her to eventually take over from Max. This time we opted for a female Mastin who arrived on our farm in June as a six week old pup. As the first few months are the most critical months for the dog to establish who it is and who it will associate with, we decided not to allow guests and visitors on the part of the farm where the sheep and sheep dog are. Communication with animals isn’t just verbal, body language and feelings play an important part in the interaction. It’s very difficult for a person not to show empathy to a lovely playful puppy dog so for that reason we decided it was best for the training of the dog and the future well being of our sheep if guests didn’t come in contact with the puppy.

Max examining the new dog the day she was introduced with the sheep.

The new dog is now three months old and is bonding well with the sheep. She is staying with them most of the time and no longer follows me after I have fed her. Some people may think it’s unfair on the sheep dog not getting the fuss many people would give to a companion dog. I actually think our dogs are quite lucky; they can be with the ones they care for (the sheep) whenever they want. They can play and sleep with them as much as they like and have the freedom to roam around the farm as they please. I think the contented smile on the dogs face when they are with the sheep reflects this freedom and happiness.


mfreund said...

Cute! Does the new dog have a name?

Nigel and Joann Burch said...

The new dog is called Shiva but hopefully she wont be coming in contact with guests this season.


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.