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Sheep Dogs, Sheep, and Signals

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Like most of us, I've always been intrigued by herding dogs. Here's a letter from a retired doctor that posed a "clickerly" question about herding. Thanks to herding dog studies I made in New Zealand some years ago, plus a trick Kay Laurence showed me in England, I was able to offer an answer. See what you think.

Sheepdog overlooking flock

Dear Karen,

We just returned from a visit to New Zealand where we visited many sheep farms. We were shown several demonstrations where sheep dogs herd sheep in the direction indicated by a whistle signal from the dog handlers.

I asked one of the people demonstrating the dogs' skill why, if the sheep also hear the whistle signals, they do not automatically obey the signals BEFORE the dogs start to guide them. After all, they hear these very same signals over and over.

His answer to me was that sheep are not very intelligent animals and are deathly afraid of dogs.

I am not satisfied with his answer and ask you to help sort this out. As far as intelligence is concerned, we said the same about cats and pigs before we found ways to train them. So the intelligence factor may lie with humans; perhaps humans are not intelligent enough to know how to train the sheep directly instead of setting them up to respond to the barking and threatening moves of dogs.

We were also told that one good sheep dog could control up to 2000 sheep. To me, this means that some of the 2000 sheep may NEVER see a dog but respond to her/his barking. So then maybe sheep could be trained to respond as we wish by using sounds other than a dog barking, and dogs themselves are not actually necessary. What do you think?

Dr. William Reese
Sun City, Arizona

So the whistles don't indicate destinations; they indicate actions.

Dear Dr. Reese,

Thank you for your question about sheep dogs, sheep, and signals.

The question is not one of training but one of logic.

In fact, quite often neither the dogs nor the sheep know where they are being made to go. It might be to one gate or another, or it might be to a pen in the middle of the field, or maybe the shepherd just wants the dogs to gather the sheep and hold them for visual inspection.

So the whistles don't indicate destinations; they indicate actions. The whistles tell the dogs, principally, five things: go forward to the left, go forward to the right, come back (going left or right around the sheep), and stop where you are. There are other commands, such as slow and fast, but these five are the main ones. With these whistles, the shepherd moves the dogs around like chess pieces, and thus moves the sheep. Since you might be moving two dogs in different directions, often each dog may have its own individual whistles for each of the commands. (If you buy a new dog in New Zealand, you also get a tape of its whistles. If you lose the tape and forget a whistle, you'd better be able to reach the seller by telephone, or you're in trouble!)

In New Zealand, where the fields are huge, the dogs may not always be able to see all the sheep and vice versa; that is one reason New Zealanders use dogs that bark a lot. Bred to do so, they are called huntaways. In the smaller fields of, say, Wales, the dogs (called eye dogs) are silent, and can actually move the sheep just by glaring at them in a predatory way. In both cases, the sheep probably do learn that if they move away from the dogs, the pressure will ease. Therefore, they do not necessarily move with panic.

In the vast terrain in New Zealand, I have seen farmers team up and use as many as eight dogs at a time. Since the whistles are commands to the dog, not destination indicators, and since there are so many whistles that may change from time to time, the sheep have no opportunity to attach much meaning to any individual whistle.

In simpler situations, such as the smaller fields and flocks in England, you are right about sheep training themselves without needing or waiting for dogs to guide them. If there is one flock of sheep, and one frequently used gate to the field, the sheep can learn enough about dog whistles to steer themselves. Kay Laurence demonstrated that to me in England. She parked the car at a roadside pasture full of sheep. We walked over to the fence and Kay whistled a typical "command to a sheepdog" whistle. Even though no dog was present, the hundred or so sheep in the field quit grazing and started calmly toward the exit gate which was downhill near the farmhouse. They knew what to do.

Is that a more satisfying answer?

Karen Pryor

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

First of all, I read "Don't Shoot the Dog" many years ago. It changed how I viewed my dogs, but more importantly it changed how I view my children. Behaviorism is one of the truism that exists in the world and although I would not like my children to act based on external stimuli, the reality is that they do respond to it and so do I. Fortunately, there are internal stimuli that can be more powerful. I hope I learn to respond to that.

I am currently learning a great deal about behaviorism and human nature by traing a little ram (sheep) using a whistle. Sheep are very intelligent animals. One must only learn what it is that they want and use the reward and shaping principles of behaviorism. I also need to understand their nature as an animal of prey, as I approach the task with patience.

My little ram steps up on a platform to one quick whistle. He spins in a circle to three. He comes to two toots and kneels to one long toot. He also jumps through hoops. These toots are accompanied by hand signals, but there is no doubt that the whistle alerts little Pooey to the promise of a reward if he performs and he is learning to recognize the different toots. 

Recently a friend challenged me to get him to 'fetch.' He was obviously making fun of what I have done by saying that I had turned my little ram into a dog, but I am taking on the challenge. I will be using a step by step process which will involve using as many of the sheep's natural behaviors and tendencies to shape this task.

Why don't the sheep perform to the dog whistles? They haven't been taught and it is easy to just respond to the dog. Frankly, they are too smart to do something just to do it...they gotta have a reason just like you or me. :)

Thanks for your work, Karen. I would not be able to train Pooey (or my other sheep who come when I sing) without it...and I am sure I would not be as good a parent.


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