How can a dog be safe around livestock?

How can a dog be safe around livestock?

The vast amount of land in the UK – 71 per cent – is farmland, and around 22 million sheep can be found scattered around the countryside. The vast public footpath network enables walkers to access our beautiful landscapes with their dogs, and these footpaths often put dogs and their owners in situations where they might come into contact with livestock. It might come as a shock to learn that a recent report by the NFU (National Farmers Union) found that claims amounting to £2.2m were made against dog attacks in 2023, an increase of 30 per cent from the previous year.

Dogs are predators and, without appropriate training, they may end up chasing and potentially injuring a prey animal such as sheep and lambs. Some alarming statistics from the NFUs recent survey reveal a growing trend of more dog owners opting to let their dogs roam off lead in rural areas compared to the previous year – 68% in 2023, compared to 64 per cent in 2022. Less than half (49 per cent) affirmed that their beloved pet will not reliably return when recalled.

Almost eight per cent of those surveyed confessed that their dogs have engaged in the pursuit of livestock, yet a staggering 46 per cent remained convinced that their canine companions lack the ability to inflict harm. Additionally, over half (54 per cent) expressed the idea that they don’t need to implement any training to prevent the behaviour of chasing farm animals.

It is our duty as dog owners to ensure we have adequate control of our dogs year round, but this can be a bigger challenge during spring and summer

Sheep don’t have to be bitten for there to be severe consequences from a sheep worrying event. Even if a dog doesn’t attack and just wants to “play” a game of chase, the simple act of being chased by an unfamiliar dog can cause immense stress to a prey animal which can panic and exhaust itself, break limbs, or even cause the abortion of unborn lambs. It is imperative that dog owners and dog trainers come together to reduce livestock worrying and to implement strategies and training to prevent lambs and their mothers from stress and injury.

It is our duty as dog owners to ensure we have adequate control of our dogs year round, but this can be a bigger challenge during spring and summer when the number of sheep in the countryside more than doubles and you may come to find sheep in a field that was completely empty during winter. As a rule of thumb, is always good practise to check the field you walk into, that might have been empty during winter, as it can suddenly become populated as flock sizes increase. When you cannot tell if that is the case before entering a field through a gate, always choose to keep your dog on the lead.

How can we help reduce livestock worrying, and how can we make our dogs more reliable on walks where encountering livestock is likely to happen? Training dogs to recall and ignore other animals can be a challenging process and sometimes basic training is not enough to prevent your dogs natural instinct from taking over and initiating a chase that can have huge consequences.

Certain breeds may find reliability around livestock even more challenging than others, as selective breeding over many generations has tweaked their DNA to such a degree that the instinct to chase comes pre-programmed! We need to be responsible when choosing the right breed to fit our lifestyle and circumstances, and also be prepared to put the time and effort in to train any breed the best we can.

Many dogs will chase squirrels, rabbits, and birds if allowed to in city or semi-rural areas, and that habit itself can be enough to promote livestock chasing if allowed to be practiced. The reality is that while responsible owners can still get access to training opportunities when it comes to recalling away from wildlife, not everyone has regular access to livestock to practice training safely.

I always emphasise to my students that they must always keep dogs on a lead and under control around livestock. I do it myself if I walk through a field of sheep that are not my own, and my dogs are trained sheepdogs. Some dogs will find it difficult to walk through a field and may bark and pull on the lead, so training to pass livestock calmly is beneficial to both dog and owner as well as the sheep!

The three elements I teach in my workshops and classes are Disengagement, Recall and Impulse Control

Let’s not forget that dogs can be shot if found worrying livestock; and they can also get injured while chasing – there are many stories of dogs falling off cliffs, getting stuck somewhere difficult to access, or simply getting lost. Both dogs and livestock will sadly keep losing their lives unless dog owners start implementing training plans and good management.

Training a dog to ignore livestock comes with some challenges; the first being that it cannot be done without livestock! And this is why as a dog trainer that lives on a farm and owns sheep, I decided to introduce workshops and classes to give dog owners the opportunity to learn how to teach their dogs to ignore, and if needed, recall away from livestock using positive training approach.

The three elements I teach in my workshops and classes are Disengagement, Recall and Impulse Control. Without one of the three elements the other two cannot be strong enough. These training elements are more advanced than your basic puppy class or obedience training.

prey drive leads to livestock worrying

Disengagement is what I would consider the most important element. The aim is to build a default disengagement from sheep and engagement back to owner. I am a Control Unleashed Certified Instructor, and I often use the Look At That game training technique; pairing the sight of sheep with something reinforcing coming from the owner. This training technique requires gradual approach to sheep, exposing the dog to the easiest situation possible at the beginning so that they will succeed and never find themselves barking or reacting to the presence of the sheep.

A gradual approach and proximity to the livestock is an important part of this programme, dogs should never approach sheep if they can’t reliably respond to training in their presence. Recall training has to be reliable in other circumstances before you can even start approaching a pen with sheep, and dogs need to have enough motivation and drive to come back to you in order to make the decision, that even in the presence of sheep, coming back is a high value behaviour.

Building a reliable recall using positive reinforcement and motivation is at the base of all my training programmes, and to train dogs to recall away from sheep is no different.

One of the most important parts of teaching dogs to ignore and be more controlled around livestock is to never allow your dog to experience the chase

The last element is impulse control. This involves improving the dogs ability to listen to instructions even in the presence of something really exciting, and goes beyond simply teaching your dog not to take a treat! With the use of toys and fun games, we teach dogs how to delay the gratification to “chase” something in order to have something else instead delivered from the owner, and this training process includes an emergency stop while the dog is running or chasing something.

Training impulse control involves layers of difficulties that test the dogs ability to “control their impulses” and allows them to stretch that limit and improve their listening skills. One of the most important parts of teaching dogs to ignore and be more controlled around livestock is to never allow your dog to experience the chase. Like in any other training, the less we have to re-train the easier it is for the dog to be successful!

Initially my sheep (which are well used to dogs and not stressed by their presence) are in a pen, where they cannot run far and trigger the dogs chase drive. As the training progresses over several sessions the situation is adapted to more closely resemble the situation that you will find on a walk through a field, where sheep are just doing sheep things while the owner trains the dog.

Equally important to the training of the dog is good management from the human side of the partnership! Be vigilant when entering fields, stay on public footpaths and if there is livestock in a field, consider whether you can reroute your dog walk via another path. If this is not possible, then ensuring your dog is on a suitable lead with a well-fitting collar or harness is a must.

With time and careful practice, livestock will just become part of the wider environmental picture for the dog and you will be able to enjoy your walks in the countryside with a well-behaved dog at your side while keeping livestock safe and farmers happy!

This is a guest essay by Martina Miradoli, Border Collie and Herding Breeds specialist, as published in our April 2024 Edition.

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