I had never heard about the Working Sheepdog before I started breeding my very old and rare Drenthen Heath Sheep some 30 years ago. Later on when visiting the big herds that were still roaming the heather fields in my country (The Netherlands) I saw the sheepdogs at work.
It always amazed me how well trained they were and I really enjoyed watching them work around the sheep. I once went to the other side of the country to fetch a Kempisch Moor Sheep for a friend and the shepherd’s dog could single out the one sheep we had chosen. It was really something to watch.
It took about 20 years, before I bought my first two short haired Border Collies Tipper and Dixie. Well we call them Border Collies, but they’re actually Working Sheepdogs as they have no pedigree. Tipper (the blonde one) and Dixie (the black and white one) are full sisters from the same litter, though you woudn’t say that looking at them.
Copyright all text and photos, if not mentioned otherwise: Titia Geertman
The Working Sheepdog is a Border Collie or Border Collie related
It’s a wellknown fact that Border Collies are the sheepdogs par excellence, at least they are in Western Europe like Great Brittain, The Netherlands, Belgium and more countries, though the Australian Kelpi is gaining territory here fast.
What exactly is a working sheepdog:
A working sheepdog is a dog who works with sheep. It’s the righthand of a shepherd so to speak. A good working dog can think, it can oversee situations and can act on its own accordingly. Most working sheepdogs in Western Europe are Border Collies or related to this breed. They don’t have to be pedigree dogs and they are sometimes looking quite differently than the origianal Border Collie. At least that’s what I’ve been told many years ago. So…if that isn’t true, I would like to hear that.
How we got our two Working Sheepdogs
It was in the Summer of 2006
We had been without dogs since both our Wirehaired Pointing Griffon dogs Tsjip and Sarah had passed away within 6 months of each other in 2003 and 2004.
I had been thinking for a while to get a sheepdog, because due to hip problems, I wasn’t able to do a lot of footwork when the sheep had to be driven into the pen. I must confess that I actually didn’t like the Border Collie that much. The dogs I had seen were nervous and agitated dogs who showed a lot of subservience, a bit too much for my taste. They made me rather nervous myself.
I live right at the Belgian border and one day in August 2006 I was driving the country road to the next Belgium village, when I saw a beautiful Drenthen Heath Sheep Ram on the dyke along the road. As we are breeding this old and rare breef for over 30 years now, I was determent to know who’s ram this was, so I stopped at the nearest farm to ask. They told me that the owner lived a bit further down the road so I went there. It appeared that this man took care of some Drenthen Moor Sheep for a Belgian organization who had imported the sheep from The Netherlands. And….it happens that this man just had a litter of 8 pups from his female and male dog, both Border Collie related short-haired working sheepdogs.
After I had confinced my hubby that I really needed a sheepdog, there was this other problem. By the end of the month, I would get a new hip and it would take a few months before I would be able to handle and train a young puppy. I didn’t want to lay the burden of having to take care of me and raising a young puppy at the same time on the shoulders of my hubby, so I asked the owner of the pups if the dog could stay with him until I was ready to take care of her. That was not a problem he said. All dogs were spoken for, but when I visited the puppies a short time after, it appeared one of the pups, a blond one, had been brought back, because the farmer who had bought her, had forgotten to ask his wife first and this woman decided she didn’t want the pup in or around her house.
I told the story to my hubby and then we looked at each other, knowing without saying so, that we would take this pup too, as it seems to be our pattern, to start with one dog and end up with two. It had happened with the Sky Terrier dog we took home from the USA in 1970, she got a litter and we kept one. When the mom died of old age, we took in a Bouvier des Flandres, when they died we bought our hunting dog Tsjip and ended up taking in her litter sister Sarah who was abused by her former owner. So having two dogs wasn’t the strangest thing for us.
Leaving the pups with their breeder was the worst I could have done
In September 2006 I got my new hip and it took me about 4 months before I could take on the upbringing of two pups, so I went over to the breeder to fetch them. They were just two adorable little puppies.
However if I had known before what I know now, I would have never left those pups with this breeder. Not that he wasn’t taking care of them, he did, he gave them enough to eat and room to play around, but what he hadn’t done at all, was socializing the puppies. Everybody who ever raised puppies, know that the most important period in a pup’s life is the first two months in which the pup has to learn as much as it can about the world outside its puppy bin and this man had done nothing of the kind.
They were born in the backyard in some kind of shelter and they never came into the house, he never learned them to be in a car or walk on a leash, or not having to be afraid of loud noises or meet strange dogs.
If I had been able to get the pups at the age of 7 to 9 weeks, things would have been a lot easier I can tell you that for sure. What this man had failed to do, is taking the pups outside their small world of the backyard and teaching them the facts of how to become a mentally healthy and social dog.
Housetraining these two dogs took almost a year
Both pups – we called them Tipper and Dixie – were not housetrained as well, because they had spent their whole short lives outside in the garden. They didn’t know that inside the house was different from outside the house.
We borrowed a big dog bench from a neighbour and they spent a lot of hours in there in between playing time. Lucky we have a tiled floor so a little pee or poop doesn’t do much harm, but I just hated it that I couldn’t get them housetrained. I searched a lot of internet pages about the subject and finally found one about the rescue dogs from Spain (who are not housetrained either) which gave me the solution that finally worked.
Their advice was the following:
Leave the dog in the bench. It has to be big enough for the dog to feel comfortable in. In the morning: Take the dog outside on a leash for about 15 minutes. Don’t talk to the dog. If she pees praise her into heaven and give her a treat. You may play with her a bit inside the house, but put her back into the bench, don’t leave her wandering off on her own in the house.
If she doesn’t pee or poop within those 15 minutes, say nothing but put her back into the bench, wait about 15 minutes and take her out again. Repeat this until she pees outside and then praise her big time. Repeat this during the day, every few hours, but see to it that she never gets the opportunity to wander off alone in the house.
It took a long time and it was not easy, but it payed off in the end. The dogs got housetrained. We always kept to the habit though that when we had to leave the room for a longer period of time, the dogs were locked into their bench. They liked it and felt save in it. They had water to drink and toys to play with. For several months we kept them together in one big bench, until they outgrew it. Then each dog got her own bench.
Getting the Dogs socialized – Socializing should be done at a very young age
Socializing a dog should start at a very young age, because all that a dog learns within the first few months of its life will be fixated in their mind. Our dogs weren’t socialized at all and I had to start when I got them at 4 months old. I can tell you they were afraid of literally everything that came on their path. They hadn’t had any experience whatsoever outside their own safe backyard world. So everything that they were unfamiliar with, frightened them. That could be garbage bins, flapping flags, dogs, noises, well you name it and they were afraid of it.
So this is what I did the first year they were with us:
- First I learned them the basic obedience, like sit, lay down, walk on a leash and stay put. As the Border Collie is one of the most intelligent dogs with a great will to please, that didn’t take too long, although Dixie got herself glued to my leg. She wouldn’t get a yard away from me, she thought my leg was the safest place to be. So walking with her made me trip over her on a regular base and I started to deliberately step on her toes, which she didn’t like and she learned to take some distance to avoid me stepping on her feet.
- Every week there’s a grocery/veggie/meat market in a nearby village and I took the dogs to this market full of people and just kept walking along the stands through the crowd. Made them lay down a while so people, carrying bags, had to walk around them. I made them lay down next to flappering booth tarps, constantly having to explain to people what I was doing and why. I asked people to kneel down and let the dogs go to them, some thought it was funny, some thought I’d lost my marbles, but I didn’t care what they thought.
- I took them to places where it was crowded with loud noises like bus stations and fairs. They hated driving in the car, they would drewl all over the place. I asked the vet and he told me not to pay attention to that drewling or it would only get worse. He adviced me that in the beginning the car trip always had to end in something the dogs loved, like driving to the beach and let them play, or driving to the woods and let them roam around a bit. It worked. Tipper is still nervous during the trip, but both dogs have no trouble anymore to jump into the car. I take their crates along on long trips, because they feel safe in their crate and that gives them confidence.
- Though my dogs were 100% under control, I took them to an obedience training school to learn them to socialize with other dogs. Alas some borders are not dog friendly and mine belong to that group. I can’t let them play with other dogs, because it will always end into a fight. They have little self esteem and they attack from fear. Once you know that, it’s not a big problem anymore. If I’m in a park I warn the owners of other dogs, not to let their dogs approach mine. I make my dogs stay close with me and sometimes lay down till the strange dogs have passed. I can do that without the leashes on now. I can make them lay down and stay down at great distance.
- A dog you have no control over is a disaster. It’s the first thing a new owner should do. Dogs are like kids, they need rules and they need to know their boundries, so you have to be consistant in your decissions all the time. A no is a no, always. You have to use short words, the shorter the better and don’t use words that sound alike, or they can not tell the difference and always use the same word for the same command.
- I’ve learned my dogs to lay down when a car is coming. We live in the country with small country roads and cars are always driving too fast. So when I’m walking my dogs or when I’m on bycicle and I hear or see a car coming I have one command in Dutch “in de berm” which means they have to lay down aside the road in the grass. It’s good for everybody’s safety. Today the dogs let me know when a car is coming before I hear the car, because they automatically lay down in the grass.
I travelled with my dogs – Using the Van as a temporary camper
I travelled a lot with the dogs. I often took them along on my fishing trips and then I only took the crates with me. However when I had to go away for a few days in a row, I made other arrangements in my van and turned it into a temporary camper. Very cozy and the dogs loved it.
I started sheep training when the dogs were two years – Normally you start at the age of 7 to 12 months
Due to the fact that I had to socialize my dogs first and give them some self esteem and confidence, I started sheep training rather late, when they were about two years old, but I had no choice. When they would have gotten a bad experience with the sheep while they were still insecure, it would have ruined their herding career to the point that working with the sheep would be out of the question.
As I didn’t know anything about sheep herding either, both the dogs and me went to sheep herding school. Tipper did great at first, but she’s a dog with a mind of her own. She did great in class, but at my own dykes on which training a dog is difficult anyway, she played with my feet. She never will hurt the sheep, but she’s doing her own thing when she’s out of reach of my voice. Due to my hip problem (still need an operation on my right hip), I can’t run up and down the dyke to correct her, therefor I don’t use Tipper anymore for herding the sheep. Pity though because she certainly would have learned it if I hadn’t been so disabled.
Dixie however has the natural will to bring the sheep to me. It took a little time for her to comprehend what I wanted, but from that time on, she’s doing fine. I only have to say ‘Go’ and she’s gone and all I have to do is wait till she brings the sheep to me. Doesn’t matter how far away they are. She also makes sure that every sheep stayes in the group. I’ve made a small video of Dixie herding the young rams. Well not the best video, but it’s a bit difficult to film and give commando’s at the same time. You’ll see it below.
The one thing Dixie has trouble with is puting pressure on the sheep. When the sheep turn towards her she gets insecure and will retreat. I solve that problem to keep her going from left to right and that movement of the dog makes the sheep nervous so they start moving again.
You can solve that problem by taking the dog aside you and go ‘hunting’ together which will build up her self esteem, but again that’s physically not an option for me, due to that bad hip.
It doesn’t matter, it might take some more time, but in the end Dixie and me will get the sheep into the pin anyway and that’s what count.
Sheepdog training videos
That’s the Story of our delightful Working Sheepdogs
I’ve changed my mind about Border Collies/Working Sheepdogs. They’re not always neurotic dogs, though Dixie has a tendency to become over focussed easily. She’s a dog with too much energy and you have to keep her mind busy, or she will search for things to do herself and that can result in demolishing things, like tearing our wood shed down, because she insists of finding that creature she’s smelling. Tipper is always trying to see how far she can go before I get mad. Despite all that they are the best devoted mates you can get.
Border Collies/Working Sheepdogs are intelligent dogs. They learn very quickly, not only the good things, but also the bad things. Keeping the ‘herd’ together is their goal and the herd doesn’t always consists of sheep, it can be cats, ducks and even people. If not trained properly and if not kept busy, they easily can turn to neurotic behaviour, like chasing cars or byciclists. So they not only need physical workout, they also need mental workout.
Tipper and Dixie are 7 years old now, still eating and sleeping in their crates. I still think it’s a shame that due to my bad hip, I couldn’t train Tipper the way she should be trained. It’s like Ted Hope said in his last video: I’ve wasted this dog, but I had no other choice at the moment.