Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow...

by Susan W. Sullivan

A New England Postcard, Lottie tending sheep
New Year's Day in Massachusetts
While many herders put away their crooks and move inside once the snow flies, some of us who tend with our dogs actually look forward to a good snowfall. By capitalizing on our dogs' instinct to follow borders and the sheep's winter hunger, a good snowfall presents a nearly perfect opportunity to teach a German Shepherd Dog to tend.

All breeds of dogs as well as wild canines instinctively move along on paths. Dogs were used in parts of Europe to tend sheep by confining them to a specific area surrounded by different surfaces. The dog's high drive makes him want to move and his high level of obedience as well as his instinct to follow paths makes the dog patrol the perimeter of an area, never coming in nor running way off the border, allowing the shepherds to maximize grazing while not using fencing to guard growing crops form the ever hungry sheep. This became a successful method of managing sheep after the Industrial Revolution, and the use of tractors and farm implements, putting vast amounts of land under tillage.

Carol Buchanan and Sally Ann Robbins, Jewel,
15-month olds, her first time on sheep.
Snow provides a great medium in which to create easy to follow paths, especially if it is about 6-12 inches deep. First, you must create a border or path for the dog to work in. I have used a tractor plow blade, a snowmobile track, a car track or even a snow shovel to create a clear "furrow" or path through the snow. I usually make a square in the corner of a pasture, two of the sides being the fence and the other two sides formed by the path. I have also made a track by just walking through the snow and dragging my feet if the snow is not too deep. However, deep snow is even better for a new dog just starting to learn. It makes sense to the dog to travel down the path of least resistance. Going through the deep snow inside or outside the path is much more work for the dog so they usually decide to stay in the path with very little coaxing. Next, I like to show the dog the border without the sheep. Breaking it down into little pieces makes it much easier to teach; sequentially building upon the dog's experience helps the dog understand the skill. Once my dog is walking up and down without trying to come in to the center while I am standing in the graze then it is time to bring out the sheep.

Ronda Lynch's Leica racing in the border
I put hay or sprinkle whole corn around the graze. This will give the sheep something to eat. If the sheep are hungry, they are much more likely to ignore the dog totally. If it is a brand new dog, I do not put the feed very close to the border, as that may be too much temptation for the dog. As we are training here, we want to set up a situation that will give the dog the best opportunity for success. I want everyone including the sheep to be relaxed. The sheep always race for the feed so make sure the dog is on lead as this can be very exciting for the dog. Once they all settle down and start munching, go back to walking him up and down a few more times. If things are looking calm, let him loose. Step a few feet back towards the sheep and drop the lead. Continue to walk slowly with the dog so that you are not only encouraging him to move but you are between him and the sheep. This is important because as soon as he steps out of the path into the graze, you will be able to correct him verbally and physically. Using your crook, you can block the dog from coming in reinforcing your verbal command to "out border." This quick physical and verbal command is very effective especially in the deep snow as it will actually slow the dog down and he will quickly recognize that it is easier to stay in the path. Most dogs start to move back and forth independently very quickly, as this makes sense to him.

The light bulb goes on! This is Jewel about ten minutes
after the first picture, Look at how intensely the dog
is watching the sheep and that she is in the border.
At first, the light bulb will only flicker, but once the dog starts to move and is not corrected, he will move more confidently and more often. Patrolling reduces his drive and makes him feel good. Usually it takes very little time to have the bulb burning brightly and the dog moving up and down watching the sheep intently. Soon the handler can stand back with the sheep and watch the dog moving beautifully against the white background.

Snow herding benefits both the dog and the sheep. I used snow herding when I first got sheep. The sheep were free and had never seen people let alone dogs that looked distinctly like wolves. Yet feeding them while a dog patrolled quickly got them acclimated to the work. The first dog I really started this way was an older bitch named Diva, the dam of the first herding trial champion of the breed. My nine, wild, free sheep had arrived in late October, and I had only about three acres fenced for them and the horses. Every day I put hay out and shoveled a path around the sheep and their hay in an area that was about 100 feet long by about 60 feet. Then I would let Diva work the border. This was where I wanted the sheep to stay, as I did not want them to try to eat the horses' grain. We worked around those nine sheep all winter. The sheep lambed that April and, by then, they were used to having lunch in the company of a dog. I was able to start to work them up and down my farm lane and take them out for grazing where there were no fences. The sheep we use today are descendents of those original nine ewes. That April, Diva qualified easily for that first PT leg and eleven trials later had not only her PT, but also her HS, HI and HX.

Loolah, Richard Jacob's Briard, working in the border
Today, I continue to snow herd. I love to start new dogs in deep snow, or to give dogs that are more experienced the opportunity to get out in the winter. It is good exercise for both the dogs and us. It serves a very practical function as well. The dog holds the sheep in an area while we open the gates and fill the hay feeders. While this is a bit too difficult for a beginning dog, it is a great activity for the experienced dogs giving them plenty of reason to actively patrol. It is so much nicer to do this without having the sheep milling about. Not only can I leave the gate open rather then lifting each bale over the fence, I do not have the sheep pushing and shoving around us to get at the hay. It also teaches the dog to relax when working around sheep and to encourage them to work without commands. Allowing a dog to work independently helps keep the dog interested and teaches him to watch his stock and anticipate their behavior.

So next time it snows, give your herding trainer a call, push your dog off of the couch, dress up in some warm clothes, and try tending sheep. It is a wonderful way to spend some time out doors doing something both you and your dog will enjoy. A word to the wise, make sure you have warm boots, gloves and a hat! You will never look at a fresh snowfall again without thinking about going herding.

Hungry sheep, happy dog!