Back in January, on a shoot, Ruby decided that sheep were her new best friends. She had just brought me a pricked bird, which I was busy dispatching, when three spooked sheep ran across in front of us. Fuelled with adrenaline from the drive and her retrieve, Ruby joined the sheep - running in the middle of her new "pack", barking excitedly at her new companions. It took me a while to get her to recall; I will admit that I had to give chase. I kept a close eye on her for the rest of the day's shooting and she did not get a second opportunity to "play" with her new "friends". Subsequently on another shoot, we again had to work in a field of sheep and once again after a retrieve, Ruby gave chase to the sheep, with clearly no intention of hurting them but just excited by their presence. I knew I had to take action....
Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, if a dog worries sheep on agricultural land, the person in charge of the dog is guilty of an offence. The stress of worrying by dogs can cause sheep to die and pregnant ewes to miscarry their lambs. Sheep fleeing from dogs may be killed or seriously injured by their panicked attempts to escape. Ewes and lambs may become separated resulting mis-mothering issues, with lambs dying from starvation or hypothermia when they become separated from their mother and fail to find her again. Sheep may die as a result of a dog bite, an injury may necessitate them being put down at a later date, or in less severe cases involve considerable veterinary bills. Worrying sheep could include attacking or chasing sheep or even simply being at large (not on a lead or under close control) in a field in which there are sheep, and farmers are legally entitled to shoot dogs if they have reason to believe the dog is endangering their sheep. Thankfully the sheep involved in Ruby's escapades were unharmed by their experience.
So I made contact with Tobin Bird. Tobin runs a sheep farm in Iden Green in Kent. As a side line he offers a "Sheep Proofing" service where in one session he teaches clients how to stop their dogs chasing sheep. Whilst Tobin cannot guarantee that a dog will never chase sheep again, he will Sheep Proof both pet and working dogs, including those who "have form". I took Ruby and Merlin to be Sheep Proofed in April. I won't describe Tobin's technique here, but it was remarkable quick and effective. The whole process, for my two dogs took just under half an hour and cost £45. It appears to have been money very well spent...
I don't have access to sheep on a day to day basis so it was not until today that I could put Tobin's training to the test. Today I took the dogs to a training session with my gundog trainer, Graham, in a field where sheep were grazing. Merlin was his normal exuberant self when we arrived, excited to see Graham and the training equipment, and ready for the off. As soon as he realised that there were sheep in the field however, he really did not want to go through the gate. With some gentle encouragement from me, he entered the field, walking tightly to heel, off lead, and totally ignoring the sheep and their lambs. We did a number of retrieves with gunshot, a mixture of marks, blinds and memories, including some jumps in and out of the field and all the time he completely ignored the sheep around him. (I should mention that these sheep are used to gundogs training on their land and are not fazed by the presence of the dogs or the gunshot.) At the end of our session he walked back through the field, again tightly to heel and on my instruction, sat up in the middle of the field with sheep all around him, completely disinterested in them.
Impressed and intrigued I got Ruby out of the car (she doesn't usually train with Graham) to see what her reaction to the sheep would be. On lead, she entered the field more readily than Merlin and walked nicely to heel for a few meters. I decided to let her off lead and asked her to heel. She did this for a few meters and then as a group of sheep moved away from our on-coming path, Ruby broke her heelwork and went to run forwards. I employed Tobin's technique and instantly Ruby was back at my side. We were able to walk around the field off-lead and at heel without any further problems. Ruby then completed a number of long retrieves through the field of sheep, completely ignoring the animals and focusing entirely on me and the dummy.
All in all our Sheep Proofing has been a huge success. Thank you Tobin.