Lessons in reading sheep 

Written by:  Various sources - 2011 OBCC newsletter 

As young children, one of the first things we are taught to do in school is read. This lifelong skill will bring us much joy and pleasure. The ability to read can open doors to new and exciting places and experiences. Sheepdog trialing one of them. 

One of the skills required to be a successful handler in Trials is the ability to read the sheep. Reading livestock is a complex combination of natural ability, intuition, and past experiences. There is no substitute for going out, moving, and observing livestock to sharpen our reading skills. Often a novice handler can be heard lamenting that the dog seems to be in the wrong place. It could be that the handler is the one in the wrong position to assist the dog and the natural instinct of the dog is actually placing him in the right position. 

Along with practical experience, you can improve your reading skills by keeping a few facts in mind about the stock: 

  • The most effective way to move the sheep in the open is to aim your or your dog's movements at the animal's shoulder, approaching from slightly behind their heads. Novice handlers will often make the mistake of coming directly toward or behind the sheep. 
  • Flight point of sheep - when they are just about ready to turn from your dog or person is generally when half the packet/flock is facing toward the handler or dog and half is facing away. 
    • Example: in a packet of five sheep, they will turn when the lead sheep and one or two of the others are looking in the direction being sought by the handler. 
  • The head and ears of the sheep telegraph the mindset of the flock as loudly as a megaphone. A high head and laid-back ears indicate unsettled and anxious sheep who are feeling threatened. Backing off the dog or yourself will release the pressure they are feeling and they are more likely to move in the direction the handler wishes them to go. 
  • Avoid excess yelling or loud whistling when close to the stock. This isn't just for your dog's benefit, but also for the sheep. Sheep have a more aversive reaction to extreme noise and pitch than humans do, and the loud sounds can disturb the sheep and they will actively seek to move away from the loud noise. 
    • Example: sheep are unlikely to move into a pen when the handler is loudly whistling instructions to the dog at the gate. 
  • Agitation is persistent over time. That is to say, most times ewes who handle badly (don't flock, ignore the dog, challenge the dog, overly stubborn etc.) will always handle badly. So you should consider culling a particular individual to make the whole flock less stressful. Care should be taken however not to remove a ewe for the occasional misbehaviors. These can be a good challenge and learning experience for both the handler and the dog. Sit back and analyze why the stock is behaving in a certain manner and what worked to solve the situation - more pressure, less pressure, etc. 

Lots of practice and a liberal dose of common sense will go a long way to increasing your reading skills 
and accomplishing both simple chore tasks and the challenging trial force.

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