There is sometimes a significance placed on training dogs to listen around livestock, particularly sheep and cows, as though it’s a vital life skill for many dogs. The problem with this is that it leads to an expectation that the dog will be off-lead around livestock. With the exception of actual farm dogs, should a dog ever be off-lead around livestock?
The short answer is NO. Dogs should never be off-lead around livestock, no matter how much you think you can trust your dog. Animals aren’t always predictable and it’s impossible to be certain how your dog will react to a sheep or cow, it only takes the wrong combination of factors for your usually trustworthy dog to decide to take off after a sheep.
Out of respect to farmers, to whom these animals are highly valuable, it’s good practice to always keep your dog on a short lead and never take any chances.
If you need another reason, then remember a farmer is entitled to shoot any dog who they deem a threat to their livestock, your dog doesn’t necessarily need to be chasing or hassling them, even if they appear to be causing trouble they are at risk of being shot.
Sheep and other livestock can sense predators and threats from a long way off, even if you’re calmly walking through their field, they will be very aware and alert to your presence. Behaving calmly and keeping your dog under close control will avoid them experiencing unnecessary stress which can lead to pregnant Ewes aborting their young.
Keep your dog on a short lead. The sheep will feel less threatened by a dog who is moving calmly and under control
Avoid using a long lead or flexi lead. These give your dog more space to roam but will also give you less control and may mean your dog can approach sheep more easily. The movement of your dog running more freely on a longer lead could worry the sheep too and many farmers will still shoot your dog if they believe them to be out of control and too far away from you.
Keep your dog focused on you. If your dog is fixated on the sheep, this eye contact may worry them, but it will also increase your dogs interest in the sheep. Aim to reward your dog frequently and encourage them to focus on you instead
Give sheep space. If sheep are in your path, wait quietly for them to move, especially if they have lambs. If you rush them or make them move, they could become separated from the flock or their lambs
Sheep are flock animals and will panic if they get singled off, this stress won’t do them any good and they could get injured if they flee in panic
If you live in an area where there are lots of livestock, training your dog to behave calmly around them is really important. However, your dog doesn’t need to be in direct contact with livestock in order to learn how to respond to them, it’s never necessary to take your dog up close for training purposes.
Ideally dogs who have regular exposure to livestock need to learn to ignore them, meaning they become insignificant to the dog, just like how many dogs are habituated to cars passing on the road or the various noises they encounter on a daily basis.
Observe sheep and livestock from a distance where your dog can see them and stay calm. Reward your dog for looking at the livestock and encourage them to turn back to you
Keep your dog under close control so they learn to always walk calmly when near livestock, pair the presence of livestock with an association of looking to you and staying close on a short lead
Remember you don’t need to get close to livestock for your dog to learn to ignore them, keep your distance and never get close enough to scare them or for your dog to be tempted to chase them
As well as teaching your dog to calmly observe livestock, it’s important to teach additional skills which will help ensure you can maintain control when walking near livestock.
Even dogs who seem completely uninterested in livestock may suddenly take an interest or you may be faced with a situation which they struggle with (e.g. sheep or cows unexpectedly running, blocking paths/gates, or starting to approach you and your dog)
Teach calm lead manners so your dog can walk on a short lead when needed. This removes the stress of trying to control your dog on a short lead near livestock
Teach a reliable recall so if anything goes wrong and your dog is somehow free near sheep, you can call them back. A good response to their name is also beneficial if you are in a situation where you need your dog to remain focused on you
Teach a good wait cue and manners around gates/stiles, so when entering or exciting a sheep/livestock field, you can maintain control
Whether you encounter livestock on a regular basis or just once in while, there is never a reason for your dog to be off-lead around them. If you are in an area highly populated by livestock, find other places like secure fields, woodland walks or other livestock-free areas where your dog can enjoy off-lead freedom.
When walking in areas with livestock, never take any chances and remember these are valuable animals to the people who own them, keep your dog on a short lead and have respect for those who take care of the animals.
Teaching your dog to feel calm around livestock is a great thing to do, but never put the animals at risk as part of your training, keep your distance and keep your dog closely controlled.
Written by Naomi White