Sheep Herding

 

 

When a friend told me that she had taken her Rhodesian Ridgeback to a sheep herding seminar and let him try it, I thought it sounded like fun. I hadn’t heard of any sheep herding greyhounds, but if a Ridgeback could do it why not a greyhound? My greyhounds, JD and Streak, were obedience trained and under pretty good voice control most of the time. I was able to call JD off of a raccoon in mid chase in the backyard and called Streak off the neighbor’s cat once. Maybe I could keep them under control around sheep too?

I am always up for a challenge and love to try new things with my greyhounds. I have gotten Rally Obedience Excellent Titles on my greyhounds, Canine Good Citizen titles, trained for Agility and Competition Obedience, did Flyball with one and taught one to read 6 flash cards and do what they said. We do Pet Therapy and my dogs perform at Renaissance Festivals with the Hounds of East Fairhaven. I believe that greyhounds are wonderful, smart, versatile dogs that are capable of anything. I am always willing to challenge my dogs and so far they have not let me down.

I called my friend Becky to see if she wanted to bring her greyhound Stormy along for fun and for moral support. Then I eagerly called the ranch that offered sheep herding sessions and signed the dogs up for their next seminar. It was $30 to attend with the dogs and let them try herding sheep. They even offered duck herding for smaller dogs. They signed us up for the class without asking me what breeds my dogs were. I decided not to offer that information, which I later found out, was a good thing.

We arrived at the farm on a chilly morning with muzzles in hand. The greyhounds got a polite but unenthusiastic greeting from one of the trainers. She told us that the greyhounds wouldn’t be allowed to take the class. We told her we brought muzzles and would have the dogs wear them, but that didn’t win her over. As we were getting ready to head home, another trainer told us he would be willing to give the greyhounds a shot. He would work with us but if he felt the dogs were a danger to the sheep we would be asked to leave. Apparently terrified sheep can go through fences so just preventing the dogs from biting them with muzzles wasn’t quite enough. We had to prevent the dogs from panicking the sheep too. Who knew?

 

Our trainer explained sheep herding first. When you see a dog herding sheep it is in a state of prey drive.  It takes a dog with a high prey drive to herd sheep but it has to be very controlled. That is the hard part for greyhounds. They are bred to chase and not look to a human for direction because that would slow them down. They are bred to be totally focused on the prey or lure and ignore and not be distracted by the humans cheering them on at the racetrack. Most sheep herding dogs are bred to be very responsive to people and look to them for direction. They are bred for the same high prey drive as the greyhounds though. So did that mean that our greyhound’s genes brought them at least 50% of what they needed to herd? I was hoping that was the case.

 

Each dog would be put in a small corral with 3 sheep. The dogs would drag a long line behind them so the trainer or the owner could get a hold of them and pull them off sheep if necessary.  The small area was supposed to keep the dog and sheep from getting far away so we could stay in control of the dog. The corral looked awfully big to me. We were given heavy gloves to wear to prevent rope burn when we grabbed the long line. The goal was not to have the dog chasing the sheep around the pen but to have the dog moving the sheep at a controlled walk or trot from one area to the other. The dogs were supposed to use the predator stare and crouched body position to hold the sheep still or to move the sheep as a group. They only actually touched the sheep if necessary to get them to move. Most was done quietly and slowly from a little distance to avoid scaring the sheep too much.  If a sheep broke away from the herd then the dog could run to get it and bring it back. I was relieved to hear that the sheep that worked with the new dogs were allowed to grow very long coats that protected them if the dog actually tried to bite them.

 

The trainer also had a staff that was used to tap or push the dogs back to give the sheep room. He did not hit the dogs with this and just put it in front of a dog to slow them or push them back off the sheep a bit.

 

He also tapped their chest a little to remind them that we were there which helped get their attention back on us when they got too focused on the sheep. He was an expert at it and was very careful and gentle.

While we had our seminar, there were advanced dogs moving sheep around in a huge field near us with their owners and other trainers. They were amazing! Our dogs were pretty excited by seeing that. The pen of ducks for the tiny dogs to herd was also next to us, which caused a little excitement. So far, the greyhounds had maintained their dignity and ours but we hadn’t gotten in the pen with the sheep yet.By the time I actually got into the pen with JD I was thinking that I probably should have listened to the first trainer. My heart was pounding. Would JD listen? I wasn’t sure I liked the way he was looking at the sheep. How do dogs automatically know what animals are prey anyway?

 

The sheep looked huge up close. Would the sheep hurt the dogs? JD raced at 76lbs and Streak raced at big 92lbs. Would it even be possible to stop them with a rope when they took off after the sheep?

 

 

Initially JD was a little too excited and took off after the sheep. They scattered in terror and the trainer used the rope to bring him up short a few times. A few taps from the staff later and he was under control. He seemed to figure out the game. He started moving the sheep around at a walk or trot. I actually saw my greyhound crouch down and assume a low stalking position like a real herding dog. He was doing it!!! My friend’s greyhound, Stormy, took to it right away too. Definitely too excited to begin with but slowed and was under control by the end of his first turn herding.

 

 

Streak was my more sensitive, typical greyhound. He wasn’t quite as good at herding. He would get excited about the moving sheep and then start chasing. When we tried to slow him down, he stopped completely and wouldn’t look at the sheep. He was always my good boy and it only took one correction to stop him from doing something permanently. It took a lot of coaxing to get him to try to move the sheep again once he thought he had done the wrong thing. He ended up getting the hang of it too though and seemed to really enjoy it.

We rotated turns with each dog in the corral with the trainer and their owner, while the other owners and trainers watched from outside the corral in another safely fenced area. I think each dog got 4 turns.  Each turn lasted quite awhile so the greyhounds were worn out by the time we finished even with all the rests in between.

To our delight and surprise the trainer said that our greyhounds had potential and that he would like to work with them and teach them to herd! He had never heard of any greyhounds doing it before but was up for the challenge and seemed excited about it.

Herding isn’t cheap and the farm was nearly an hour away from my house so it would have been a very expensive hobby. JD was the better of my two dogs, but had just turned 10. I figured he might be a little old to start a new sport, even though he was still lure coursing and had the energy of a 5 year old. We did plan to at least do it again for fun. A few months later JD was diagnosed with bone cancer so retired from all dog sports. Shortly after I lost JD, Streak came down with the same disease so we never actually made it out to the farm to herd again.

I now have two more greyhounds, Miles; that I got as a puppy, and Moose; that I adopted when he retired from the track at 4.5 years old.  Miles has been doing obedience and agility and is getting to the point that I think we might try herding with him. Moose is like Streak and very easy to correct even though he hasn’t had all the training that the other dogs had yet. We are looking forward to trying herding again soon.  If you ever get the opportunity to try it with your greyhounds, give it a shot. They may surprise you.

 
Joanne Johnson – has owned greyhounds since 2001. She is a Core member of the adoption Greyhound Crossroads and has fostered more than 400 greyhounds over the years.  She lives in Greenville, SC with her greyhounds Miles Per Hour (Miles), Happy Stutz (Stutz) and an Italian Greyhound Logos Holy Ghost (Peanut).

Streak (light fawn) and JD (brindle) exhausted after sheep herding. The sheep still look a little worried.


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