Know your good shepherd well

11th August 2000 at 01:00
Kevin Berry visits a farm-based training course for owners of that essential rural tool, the faithful Border collie

"DOGS are irreplaceable in hill country," says Barbara Sykes. "Some farmers reckon to use their quad bikes but try gathering that flock on yonder hill and you really need a trained dog."

Whether moving a flock of sheep or cutting individual sheep out of a flock you need a dog -

everyday management of hill sheep is just impossible without a fully-trained Border collie.

Barbara Sykes, an acknowleged authority on Border collies, runs a training centre at her farm in West Yorkshire's Emmerdale country.

Humans are trained with her working dogs and shepherds send their pups for basic training. There are townie visitors, inspired by an affection for TV's One Man and His Dog, and then there are the farmers or smallholders who are doing it seriously. Working with a good dog will make them more efficient.

Barbara also has students from agricultural colleges and she gets newly qualified vets coming as a group. "They all come for the body language, they don't teach body language at vet schools," she says. "When you work with animals you need to know what an animal is going to do."

Looking carefully at the dog and learning to communicate with the dog forms the basis of Barbara's teaching. She will have an intensive one-to-one with a farmer lasting the best part of a day.

All Border collies, throughout the UK, are trained to obey four basic commands - "lie down", "away" (meaning turn left), "come by" (turn right) and "walk on" (get cracking!).

Sometimes a shepherd will swap the "go right" and "go left"commands, because in most situations the shepherd is facing the dog so the shepherd's right will be the dog's left.

"I did have one farmer who said to me - can you do anything with this dog, Barbara? I paid pound;500 for it and it won't do a blasted thing."

The dog had been trained in Scotland and the farmer spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent.

So when Barbara gave the commands with an impressive Scottish accent the dog suddenly knew what to do.

Barbara takes a dog for up to eight weeks to train but she insists that the farmer has to put in further work with them.

Full training can sometimes take up to a year. A good Border collie will know what to do, looking at the shepherd for the signal to move. Body language is vitally iportant, spoken commands come next and whistling is just for long-distance work.

Dogs look upon the shepherd as another dog, the leader of the pack in fact. When shepherd trainees are matched with fully-trained dogs the dog will refuse to move if it knows the command is the wrong one. Rather than run to the left of the flock the dog will sit and wait, leaning to the right until the embarrassed trainee understands that is the way he should tell the dog to go.

Has business been falling off as a result of the crisis in farming? Apparently not. In fact Barbara's telephone is ringing more often.

"The next generations are sending their dogs," Barbara says. "Sheep are in the blood. You stick with it through the bad times and the few good times. It's what you do. And it's often the wives who insist on the dog being trained properly. The dog has become part of the family."

More and more managers and management trainees are benefiting from days at Barbara's farm. Not simply as a chance to relax away from the office or the lecture room, but learning from the relationship between man and dog.

"When you are with the dogs, it's just like an employer-employee situation," she says. "When you are a manager people have got to trust you.

"You must let them know that you know what to do, you can be trusted and you are in control. That's exactly what you have to do with a sheep-dog.

"By putting someone who has done management training by the book in with a dog you can see what they are made of. The dog will dive in and take over and so will the workforce.

"As soon as your body straightens up and remains graceful and looks confident your mind clicks into gear, and you have the authority.

"The dog recognises what it looks for in a pack leader - a calm authority.

"Human beings recognise that because we are all animals just the same." Barbara says the experience of working with such intelligent and responsive animals can be an education in itself.

"When you interact with the dog, you have authority and control and you find out something about yourself.

"It's a wonderful feeling. It does your self-confidence a power of good. It can work with handicapped people who are lacking in confidence, children who are bullied at school - everyone."

Mainline Border collie centre telfax: 01274 564 163 or visit website at

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