Have you ever let your dog off leash only to see it run after a squirrel, cat, or sheep? There is a popular video from 2011, depicting Fenton the black labrador chasing a herd of deers in Richmond Park, while his owner – helplessly and desperately – tries to get hold of him.
Certainly no dog owner can possibly wish to find himself/herself in Fenton’s handler’s shoes.
This is because, even in the best case scenario, where the dog isn’t injured or hit on the road, the owner is able to catch it, the chased animal escapes, and no person has any accident trying to avoid a collision, the owner could still have to pay a very high price for not having kept the dog under control.
In fact, if it is found that your dog was not under control, the handler can be issued a fine or even imprisoned, and his/her dog seized and put down (see Sections 3 and 4 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991). Similarly, it is an offence to let one’s dog worry livestock, including sheep, under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, and this can lead to a similar ill-fated outcome. It is not necessary that the dog attacks a sheep, it is sufficient that it causes it distress or even just “be at large” (i.e. not on a lead or under close control) in a field with sheep for triggering the application of these provisions.
James Rebanks, in his book The Shepherd’s Life (2015), recounts a dog related incident from a shepherd’s point of view. Uncontrolled dogs are one of the worst nightmares for shepherds, who work all-year-round and count on the profits from sheep and lambs for their income. Many shepherds will be inclined to shoot a dog in case they threaten their livestock (they can find a legal defence under Section 9 of the Animals Act 1971 ).
Good recall training and distraction proofing are certainly key elements for the safe and trouble-free enjoyment of off-leash time (as well as the best practice of putting the dog on the lead when around sheep). But how do you teach your dog not to run after sheep if you do not own a herd to practice with, and you are unsure about how to do it?
I had heard of ‘Sheep Proof Your Dog’ training, run at Woodside Farm in Iden Green, Benenden, Kent, by shepherd Tobin Bird, and I decided to pay them a visit with my dog Argo.
Sheep Proof Your Dog!
Tobin is an experienced farmer living in a lovely farm in the garden of England, together with a herd of over 300 breeding ewes (which can reach 700 heads during lambing time).
He started training some friends’ dogs not to chase sheep many years ago. This training of his proved so effective among his friends’ dogs, that they encouraged him to start offering it to a wider public. And so he started his Sheep Proof Your Dog activity. Five years later, Tobin is still working dogs and teaching their owners how to handle them in presence of sheep, apparently with good feedback.
Tobin’s sheep proofing is based on the association between an unpleasant/scary noise and sheep. The idea is that the dog will be persuaded that getting close to them does not bring anything good. Of course after the sheep proofing session it is up to the dog owner to reinforce and refresh what learnt in the field.
Getting there. Woodside farm is in Iden Green, Benenden, Kent (near Cranbrook), and can be easily reached by car. However, we opted for travelling by train and bus. From London it was quite a journey, but feasible. We got the train from London Charing Cross to Tunbridge Wells (which takes just under an hour) and then the n. 297 bus from the station to Benenden (which adds 1h15/30min circa). Just make sure you check the bus hours, because they are infrequent.
Once in Benenden, we stopped in a lovely pub called The Bull (see further below) on the main street; from there it was just a 10 minutes walk to the farm along a nice path, and we could also enjoy some sun between rain showers!
Sheep Proofing. The training proceeded in stages: starting in a small fenced area and moving into increasingly larger ones; with more and more sheep; beginning on the lead to finish off-leash. Tess, Tobin’s working border collie, helped out by steering the sheep thoroughout the class.
In the first stage, Argo was terrified by the noise and started keeping his distance from the sheep (and from the source of the noise, of course). Working through the stages, we ended up off-leash in a field with wondering sheep, with him showing no interest at all in getting close to them, even when sheep were running in front of him. This was quite an impressive achievement considering his high drive.
Tobin recommended that once at home, we would reinforce the training using the method he showed us. He also suggested we applied it with other animals the dog might show an interest in.
If you are interested in sheep proofing your dog, you can find further information and the relevant contact details at this link.
In the surroundings: a dog-friendly pub
If you are up for a lunch/dinner near Woodside Farm, in Benenden, there is the village pub, The Bull at Benenden, hosted in a wonderful antique building (from 1600s).
The Bull is a dog-friendly pub. Staff are truly dog lovers and they even have a dog biscuit cookie jar! Apart from biscuits, Argo received so many cuddles (of course putting up his ‘cookie face’ the whole time might have been of help).
If you plan to stop by, I would recommend booking (phone No. 01580 240054), because on our Saturday at lunch-time it was very crowded and people coming after us could not be accomodated.
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