Spring is finally here and with it lambing is on the go all around the country.
For the next few months all the fields and mountains around the UK will be covered in ewes and lambs and this includes most of the popular walks and footpath accessible to dog walkers.
I love seeing little lambs running around and enjoying the sunshine and I have a huge respect for farmers and their hard work to keep everyone healthy and happy.
Controlling our dogs all year around is a duty but can be a bigger challenge during spring and summer when the number of sheep is more than doubled around the country and you may find sheep back in a field that was completely empty during winter. As a rule, I always check before letting my dogs off just in case that empty field is now full of new lives and If I can’t be 100% sure my dogs stay on lead, even if they have a good recall, even if I train my dogs to herd sheep as a hobby.
The NFU has released a report in February 2023 that states that £1.8m was the costs of claims agains dog attack in 2022 and the number is always rising.
How could this happen when we all know that dogs should be on the lead around livestock?
64% of owners claim that their dogs are capable of chasing wildlife and more than half believes their dogs will dog will never injure livestock.
Livestock can be injured by simply being chased by a dog that looks like it’s playing with them; they can have an heart attack, they can break a leg, they can loose their lamb before or after being born as as consequence of stress.
From a dog training point of view a dog that is allowed to chase animals on a daily basis like squirrels, birds or even just bees and butterflies flying around is a dog that has the potential of chasing bigger animals.
Once the dog has experienced the adrenaline of the hunt, even if their aim is not to grab and kill, will always look for that experience again as all dogs are predators.
How can we avoid our dogs becoming the reason that other lives are at risk and be more responsible dog owners?
First, understanding that dog learn better through reinforcement and any chance to practise a behaviour that bring them a rush of good hormones is a reinforcing experience for them. They will seek out activities that makes them feel good, exactly like us and for a predator there is nothing better than a hunt.
RULE NUMBER ONE is NEVER allow your dog to chase another animals. Not even for fun.
Taking a puppy or a young dog that has no recall and letting them off chasing other dogs and wildlife from day one will only teach them that running away from you is more fun the coming back.
You need to first teach a recall away from distractions: dogs have to learn their names and know that anytime they hear that “sound” it’s going to be a party with praises, goodies and a lot of play. Once your dog can do recalls in a low distraction environment gradually you can take your training out and about.
Make sure that your dog is on a long line attached to a good quality harness so they can still explore on walks but without the risk of running into the bad habits that will take you double of the time to unteach them.
The most important part of the being a predator is that they are attracted by movement, so be movement yourself if nothing else works. Moving away, even running away while calling your dog will make them want to follow you instead and will channel their need to chase onto you, making sure they wont seek this from the environment.
Before planning a hike on hills or through fields full of livestock, take your dog on a lead to see livestock from a safe distance. Most of the time you can tell straight away if they will be interested, especially if you own like me a herding breed.
Planning some safe distance training where you can work on calm around animals grazing by sitting down with your dog and just rewarding them for taking their eyes away from livestock, we call this disengagement training. Dogs can learn that taking their eyes away from livestock is more rewarding than fixating and staring.
Staring is one of the first part of the predatory sequence, so if you dog is “just” staring at livestock, chances are they are just assessing the hunt! Have you ever seen documentaries of wolfs or big cats? Staring, stalking and then off to chase and hunt down their cub’s food.
You can also practise some recall training with your dog on a long line with the presence of animals somewhere in the background. Start with tamed animals, that are used to the presence of dogs if possible, so they won’t trigger your dog by running away as soon as they see them. Doing this as part of your basic obedience training will give you a better chance of your dog not becoming a livestock chaser in the event of finding yourself suddenly in a field where you thought there was no livestock and your dog is off lead already.
When training our dogs to have a solid recall we need to plan ahead and introduce distractions gradually but making sure that situations you are planning to be taking your dog into are well rehearsed before it’s too late and the surprise of seeing a sheep will ruin all all your training.
Remember that telling your dog off after they already chased something and make the decision to come back to you it’s only going to make your recall worse as they will think that the reason you are angry with them is because they finally decided to come back.
As a last advise, if you have already a dogs that chased livestock or wildlife, avoid letting them off unless you are sure that is completely secure. If you are looking to improve your dog recall around other animals seek out a professional and qualified dog trainer that is experienced with breed that have an high predatory behaviour to help you channel that need to chase in other activities and to keep your dog and livestock safe.