Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sheep Reading Clinic Notes

I did a small clinic at my farm a couple of years ago for a group of beginning handlers on "sheep psychology" or reading sheep. I'm hardly the expert i'd like to be on it, but i wanted to try to give these folks some things to think about. It was actually quite a good day in the end, i thought. After a morning session of talking about some things, i set up a maltese cross and the handlers tried putting sheep through it in pairs - no dogs, just 2 handlers working together. In the afternoon, after more discussion, handlers tried the maltese cross with their own dogs if they had one advanced enough. Those without dogs capable of it used my dogs. I mentioned this clinic just the other day to a person brand spanking new to the world of sheepdogs (hi Barbara! ;-) and decided to track down the outline from the clinic for her. After looking it over, i thought it might be good to post here, even if it might be a little cryptic. Food for thought anyway!

Clinic Notes, August 11, 2007

What makes a good handler? What makes a GREAT one?
Why is it so important to read your sheep?

Good handlers react quickly to keep lines straight, almost don’t know the line was off. Great ones are proactive, lines don’t get off.

Must think ahead, know what sheep are thinking. Thinking ahead about what sheep WILL do, not what have done and trying to fix mistakes – have already lost points. More important than point loss, the sheep are learning from the dog and handler to try to “disobey”.

Dog handling is about cutting off avenues of escape, or draws, and leaving only one option/direction to go. The best runs are ones where the sheep calmly DECIDE to go in nice straight lines. You make them make those decisions by taking the option of other paths away with your dog. Take the “escape thoughts” out of the sheep’s minds.

Reading Sheep: What motivates sheep?

Prey animal: Survival first and foremost – the only thing a sheep thinks about, at the root of ALL sheep thought is survival – is possible to backchain any sheep thought/behavior back to survival

Defense mechanisms = NONE.
Flight vs fight No real fight mechanisms, other than a bluff mostly (stomping, charging).
Teeth are made for eating grass – don’t have any pointed teeth, and no upper teeth.

270 degree field of vision (not clear, but wide), eyes on side of head
Excellent hearing, not so great vision

Flocking instinct/survival of the fittest/”sacrificial lamb”

Deal with threat to survival in order:
Comfort (uphill, sun, shadows, etc)

Draws and Pressure:

All that leads to “draws” and “pressure”, affect on flight zone
Flight zone – changes all the time, even in an 8 minute trial run
Other sheep – flocking instinct
Barn – safe space
Feed – to eat, usual feeding areas
Dogs – diff colors, tied out
Sun/shade - comfort
Uphill – sheep paths, gravity
Sleeping area
Dips in field where it’s cooler
Shadows – vision thing, spooky sheep can balk

Different kinds of sheep act differently:

High headed sheep
Lead sheep
Lambs vs adults
Lagging sheep - Why do sheep lay down on a run?
Dog broke vs unbroken vs range sheep
Wool vs hair, wool blindness, etc.

Dog and sheep interaction:

Aggressive sheep – what will make a sheep turn on your dog?
Fight or flight – won’t relax and turn tail on a threat – dark stranger syndrome
Why do some dogs make sheep comfortable “sheep like them”
So why isn’t a really mild dog always the best choice?
Eye – breaking off eye, putting it on
Square flanks – round flanks – “off” flanks, what and why?

Bringing it all together:

Dogs teaching sheep and sheep teaching dogs through positive and negative reinforcement, comfort vs discomfort, threat vs relaxed

Penning / Panels / Maltese Cross:

Mechanics – how to
What things are going to cost points, the ideal
What goes through the mind of the sheep and dog?
The balancing act of pressure on/pressure off, flanks


Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

This is wonderful, Robin. These are the kinds of clinics that all new handlers need to attend (and even some not so new ones). Susan and I did a year long sheep tending clinic with Kelly Murnighan, who we train with and she covered many of these same issues (plus we learned some husbandry skills). It's still awfully hard to keep it all in mind, though. Thanks for sharing your notes.

Barbara said...

This is great, just great. Thank you! Oh, and when did you say that you'd be offering this clinic again...? ;) Barbara

Robin French said...

Glad you enjoyed it!

Karrin said...

Robin, this is really great! As a new handler, I can use all of the information I can get. Thanks for sharing!