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Sheep Dog Secrets

Good Dogs Save You Time, Effort & Money


By Tim King

Photos ©2005-2007
By Christine E. Henry


Shepherds with a well-trained dog may not need a hired hand and will find little or no use for sheep handling systems, according to David and Christine Henry of Fieldstone Farm near Meadowview, Virginia.

Fieldstone Farms' 'Rook.' This top Border Collie ranked third in the nation under demanding international herding trials.
Fieldstone Farms’ “Rook.” This top Border Collie ranked third in the nation under demanding international herding trials.

The Henrys have a flock of about 100 Rambouillet ewes that they cross with a Dorset ram. The Rambouillet/Dorset crosses produce growthy lambs that local buyers appreciate, David says.

Christine and David also breed, train, and trial Border Collies. Their dogs have a history of being among the top dogs not only nationally but also internationally.

Christine is ranked third in the nation with her dog Rook. Another dog, Tweed, was recently voted the most promising young dog in the nursery finals in competition with hundreds of dogs from the U.S. and Great Britain.

Still another dog from their kennel, McCloud, is seventh in the nation.

David Henry and McCloud place range ewes into a pen at the Meeker Classic in Wyoming. A trained dog cuts toil, getting the sheep you want, and putting them where you want them.
David Henry and McCloud place range ewes into a pen at the Meeker Classic in Wyoming. A trained dog cuts toil, getting the sheep you want, and putting them where you want them.

The Henrys, who work with their dogs and sheep every day, know what a good dog can do for a shepherd.

“A hired hand can easily cost you $12 an hour,” Christine says. “If you buy a well trained dog for $3,000 you’ll pay for that dog in six to eight months. The dog will do many of the things a hired hand will do. Also, a trained dog can teach you a lot.”

“Besides,” adds David, “the dog always shows up for work.”

Save Money By Training A Puppy Yourself?

Three thousand dollars will buy a dog that is ready to perform a variety of tasks pretty much the day it comes home. Four hundred dollars will buy a six-week-old puppy. Although many people buy puppies, David advises against it. Time is a factor. Do you, as a working shepherd, really have time to spend hours and hours training a puppy? Or are you instead really looking for experienced help that will make you a more effective and efficient shepherd?

There is another major reason for not purchasing a puppy.

Henry's 'Tweed' - voted most promising young dog out of hundreds from U.S. and Great Britain.
Henry’s “Tweed”—voted most promising young dog out of hundreds from U.S. and Great Britain.

“I don’t care if you get them from me or anybody else,” David said. “If you have a litter of six to eight puppies, not every one is going to be trainable. Buying a puppy is a big gamble.”

By eight months, however, a lot is known about a dog, its personality, and its potential. There has also been enough time to give it some basic training.

“We have two eight-month-old puppies who have a start at working groups of sheep and we can see that they will be mentally tough enough to take some training pressure and that they will have enough confidence to bite a sheep on the nose if it turns around,” David said. “We’ve got them on our web site for $1,000 a piece. That’s $400 more than a six-week-old puppy but some of the variables are eliminated now.”

The two eight-month-old dogs are brothers but they have significantly different personalities. That means they will have different strengths and weaknesses when working with livestock. A trainer can point those personality traits out to a new owner. With a six-week-old puppy that would not be possible.

A shepherd who buys a puppy, a partially trained dog, or even a fully trained dog can benefit by reading books, looking at training videos, and going to training clinics, David says.

Power & Skill Worth More To Flockmasters Than Top Pedigree

Whether a shepherd buys a puppy or a more experienced dog, the pedigree of that dog should not be a primary concern to a farmer, according to Christine and David.

Christine Henry with her dog Rook, shedding sheep at the Edgeworth Open Sheep Dog Trials. In open country, sheep can hardly be managed without a good dog.
Christine Henry with her dog Rook, shedding sheep at the Edgeworth Open Sheep Dog Trials. In open country, sheep can hardly be managed without a good dog.

“The heart of a dog and the desire and trainability are what counts,” David said. “My first dog, Holly, wasn’t an import from Scotland or Ireland and didn’t have high powered blood lines. She was a farm dog. Her parents fought cows for a living. Those were tough dogs and they worked those cows every day. I have nothing against pedigree, but those kind of parents mean more to me than pedigree.”

The best way to find a dog like that, the Henrys say, is to find a breeder who is also a farmer.

“If I were looking for a good dog I’d seek out a reputable breeder who was also a farm person. Not just a field trial person,” David said. “Not all dogs that run in trials are strong enough to do farm work. There are a lot of Border collies in this country that do not have the power to push a ewe and her lambs off the lamb bed if you wanted to bring them in. We breed for that power.

“I would only buy a working dog,” He emphasizes. “I would go to the farm and watch the mother and father both work. If you have a farm and you want to send your dog out 300 or 400 yards—or a thousand yards—and bring your sheep in, then go to the person who has dogs capable of doing that.”

A good dog really helps manage nervous breeds. Robin French's Zac makes handling spooky Cheviot ewes quick and easy.
A good dog really helps manage nervous breeds. Robin French’s Zac makes handling spooky ewes quick and easy.

“Farm dogs are going to have to acquire a lot of different skills,” he continued. “They are going to have to push sheep off of hay or feed and they are going to have to move the rams—or ewes with lambs. A lot of dogs aren’t able to do that. They need stamina, power, and courage to stay with you all day long while you’re shearing, lambing, or worming.”

Those are the kinds of services a well-trained Border collie can provide for a shepherd. The Henrys also use a dog to catch rams to replenish chalk in the marking harness.

“The dog brings the ram up to you and you flip it over and pop new chalk in,” David said. “It takes just a couple of minutes as opposed to catching everybody, then running them through the chute. Things run a lot more efficiently with a well trained dog.”

Helping Good Dogs Help You

Dogs don’t move sheep by themselves, though. The dog and the shepherd work together as a team. David says that the two work as a series of gates or as a vise. He talks about squeezing a group of sheep to get them sorted.

“When you get the one or ones you want, the dog will keep those sheep separate from the flock,” David said. “If you have the right kind of dog and handler, there’s no need for any type of pen. You can worm the sheep just by letting the dog hold them up into a corner. As a matter of fact I had sheep for about seven years before I ever bought a handling system. At that time I had about 200 ewes.”

Max (littermate to Henry's Tweed), holds sheep so owner Mark Adams can select and catch one. Many flockmasters with trained dogs have little or no need for working chutes.
Max (littermate to Henry’s Tweed), holds sheep so owner Mark Adams can select and catch one. Many flockmasters with trained dogs have little or no need for working chutes.

If a shepherd does decide to have a dog join the farm team, Christine and David say there are a number of low-cost things to do to protect the dog’s health. Top quality dog food is essential, they say. So are regular vaccinations.

“All of our dogs have a yearly seven way booster,” David said. “All of our dogs are on a regular rabies shot and we do an intestinal de-wormer a couple times a year. We also do a monthly heartworm preventive and regular flea and tick protection. We do all our vaccinations ourselves, except rabies.”

Housing can be a ten-by-ten foot kennel with a doghouse, or it can be a little fancier with covered indoor/outdoor dog runs. That is where the dog should be when the shepherd isn’t working with it.

“The dog should not have a regular view of the sheep from its kennel and it should not be allowed to run lose on the farm,” Christine said.

“These dogs move the sheep by intimidating them through their stare,” David said. “It will change their performance if they lie around and watch the stock graze. If they lie there for hours and constantly stare at sheep and the sheep are moving they think they are moving the stock. When you turn them out into a field they’ll run out there and lie down.

“If you leave them loose when you go to bed they don’t know that they aren’t supposed to be out there working.”

“Get Enough Dog For The Job”

'Get enough dog for the job.' This dog, Lew, has what it takes to hold these big-breed ewes without fear or fatigue.
“Get enough dog for the job.” This dog, Lew, has what it takes to hold these big-breed ewes without fear or fatigue.

David and Christine emphasize that whatever age of dog you purchase you should get one that is ready to work with you any time of the day and has the courage to not get beat up by the stock. One of Christine’s most embarrassing moments was early in her career as a dog trainer when an imported dog of hers, with a good pedigree, faced a particularly tough sheep.

“My dog got run off the field by that sheep. It knew my dog wasn’t tough enough,” she said.

A farmer doesn’t want that to happen. Whether you’re thinking about buying a dog or you have a dog that needs more training, the Henrys can help you make sure that kind of setback doesn’t happen. You can learn more about Fieldstone Farm’s Border Collies (and also their line of flock guardian dogs) by visiting their website www.pbase.com/pastorshill or by calling them at 276-475-5501.?





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