by Beth Kerber
After putting a sale ram lamb into a holding pen, I attended to some other farm chores. When the buyer arrived 30 minutes later, the ram was roaming free in the barnyard. He, like many ram lambs are prone to do, had jumped the fence.
“Give me a few minutes,” I told the buyer as I went to get my Border collie. Within five minutes, the dog and I had the ram lamb back in the holding pen and then loaded into the trailer.
Without a dog, the buyer and I would have spent considerably more time trying to corral the ram lamb—and the ram lamb would have been more stressed.
When closing the trailer gate, the buyer said, “That was impressive. Would a herding dog make my life easier?”
The answer to that question is, “it depends.” Before getting a herding dog, you should weigh the pros and cons of owning and managing a working dog.
Here are some pros to adding a herding dog to your goat or sheep farm.
Can save time. This is especially true on farms with larger acreage or where the stock is moved to different pastures. When the sheep are spread out over larger fields, a trained herding dog can gather them more quickly than a person on foot or a person on a vehicle.
May reduce the need for additional help. Before I had herding dogs, it often took two people to move sheep through gates and into the barn area. With a herding dog, I don’t need an additional person to move the sheep throughout the farm, including into the barn and into holding pens.
May reduce stress on sheep and goats. A herding dog that works calmly and with authority can gather sheep or goats and move them into holding areas efficiently with minimal stress on the animals.
May reduce the need for additional equipment. Sheep handling systems are wonderful, but they can be cost-prohibitive, especially for smaller operations. I often use my herding dogs to crowd the sheep into a corner or move them into small pens where it’s easier to catch a single sheep. The ability to crowd and hold the sheep into a corner can also be useful when the sheep are in the pasture. Once, a four-month-old lamb had a bucket and handle around his midsection. My Border collie quietly moved the flock to a corner of the pasture, and I was able to catch the lamb and remove the bucket.
While a herding dog can be super helpful on the farm, there are some cons to getting one:
A dog can be expensive. The dog can cost thousands of dollars, and there are the on-going costs of feed and veterinary care.
Dogs require time. Unlike equipment, the dog can’t be put away until needed again. A herding dog requires attention, exercise and training so that his herding skills are maintained. Depending on the skill level, training a herding dog takes many months or years.
Some dog handling skills are required. Herding dogs work in partnership with their handlers. A handler must have both some dog training and livestock handling skills for the herding partnership to work. If you’re not a dog person or not willing to learn some new skills, then you may not want to add a herding dog to the farm.
Finding the right dog can be a challenge, especially if there are children on the farm. Finding a dog that is suitable for your skill set and can help with the specific tasks on your farm can take time. Because of their herding instinct, many herding dogs may try to herd or bite children. If there are children on the farm, it’s important to find a herding dog that is accustomed to children and to teach the dog and children how to behave around each other.
Using my Border collies around the farm saves me time on many farm chores, but I also spend considerable time training them, taking them on walks and caring for their general health needs. Because I enjoy dogs and working livestock with them, it makes sense for me to have working dogs on the farm. For others, though, a working dog may not be worth it.
In our book, Think Like a Sheepdog Trainer: A Guide to Raising and Training a Herding Dog, my co-author, Kay Stephens, DVM, and I address more about the training skills needed for training a herding dog, managing a herding dog when he’s not being worked, how to select a herding dog, and detailed instructions for training a herding dog.
Beth Kerber, is co-author of Think Like a Sheepdog Trainer: A Guide to Raising and Training a Herding Dog. She uses her Border collies for managing a flock of sheep and herding competitions.