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  • Julie Muller

Ewe Goes There? Keeping Our Sheep Safe!

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

There are very few of us who don’t enjoy spending time and walking in the ‘great outdoors’. In fact, if we are dog-owners, then this activity is a daily requisite whatever the weather!

During the working week, our dog walks need to fit in with our daily routine and the type of walks available to us depends on the green spaces that are available in our local area.

However, when we have more time on our hands then we are always keen to explore further afield.

The need to escape to the countryside became even greater during Lockdown. The associated restrictions of Covid 19 prompted an enormous surge in the numbers of people visiting the countryside. Working from home and with time on their hands many households opened their homes and hearts to new pets, 57% of which were dogs according to the PFMA (Pet Food Manufacturing Association)

Everyone now recognises that the natural environment is vital for our mental and physical wellbeing, and we love to feel the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair.

However, the countryside is a living and working environment. It is not just a pretty place to visit and, there are times when conflict can occur between it and its visitors, and also between the demands of the different visitor groups. - Bikes clash with walkers, horse-riders clash with bikes, and dogs clash with both wild and domesticated animals.

Sue Harper, a local dog trainer, in Malvern knows all about these potential conflicts.

Many years ago, whilst living and working in the Ardennes, her two dogs, a pointer and an English Setter escaped on to the neighbouring farmland and were both shot by the resident sheep farmer. Later she saw the results of sheep worrying first-hand whilst working as a peripatetic sheep farmer and she knew that there was an important job to be done to prevent these situations from occurring.

Any dog loose in livestock, particularly sheep, is a potential worrier. The simple action of a dog chasing a ewe can cause her to abort or she could die of fright herself.

The instinct for a dog to chase, and potentially kill, a prey animal is very strong.

Sue set up her Sheep Safe training classes about twelve years ago. Over the course of six weeks, she teaches her human students how to interact with their dogs so that they can predict their dog’s behaviour and intervene before dangerous situations get out of control.

Two of my past dogs attended the sheep safe course – the second one Zak was a Border Collie who had had a shaky start to his young life.

From the first week, we owners were encouraged to develop strong bonds with our dogs. Our canine friends were taught the sits, lies, stays and recall so necessary for effective control.

As the weeks went on, we taught our dogs to ‘leave’ mouth-watering treats left in their path as well as to ignore live animals such as chickens and sheep or ‘make-believe’ ferrets dragged across the ground. As the training continued, our dogs learnt to return to their humans immediately if they encountered an unexpected animal on their travels and thus, any potential conflict could be avoided.

The training built on these strong foundations week by week and involved lots of fun and play to keep our dogs engaged and willing to learn. The most important thing that we humans had to learn was to predict our dog’s behaviour well before they began to ‘get things wrong’ it to prevent any bad outcomes.

The final lesson was the most exacting.

Each of us took our dogs into a small field where a small flock of sheep had been allowed to roam freely. We left our dog sitting in one corner of the field, walked to the opposite corner, and then called them back to us through the sheep.

Zak passed this test with flying colours although I was never sure enough of him to allow him off his lead anywhere where there were loose sheep, - and he was terrified of cattle.

Living on the slopes of the Malvern Hills where sheep and cattle are employed to naturally ‘mow’ the vegetation, I know how important it is for Bruno to complete the course, and so he and I will join it this coming summer.

It is natural for all of us to think that we know our own dogs, but this isn’t always the case and Sue provides that extra insight that allows us to think ‘dog’ and act appropriately.

Sue tends to run her courses in the summer. months but she is available for 1:1 sessions throughout the year, and she also provides intensive training course for anxious or more difficult dogs with excellent rates of success.

Zak - Border Collie Walking on Peachfield Common Worcestershire
Zak - Border Collie out walking on Peachfield Common, Worcestershire

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