Sheep definitely respond better to routine. Do not expect them to
take to something new right away. For example, if you want to be able to run them
through a chute without stress on worming day, make sure you run them through the chute
for practice with some reward at the end, like their evening meal or a bit of extra grain,
at least several times before worming day.
The sheep learn to come to the rattle of grain in a bucket very
quickly if they get fed as soon as they come. If you call them with your voice at
the same time, they can associate the call with the food and be more willing to come to a
Any movement toward our Shetlands heads' usually results in them lowering their heads in a
defensive, butting motion. For this reason, we go under the chin for the first contact and
scratch around to ears or neck and then to the top of the head if the sheep is
comfortable. Elevating the sheep's head from under their chin and straddling them (one leg
on each side at their shoulders, facing front, like a head stanchion) works very well to
them. We try to avoid pulling on wool to catch, if possible. Small catch pens work
much better than large ones.
With mature rams, it is important to make sure they do not get too familiar. I use a
shepherd's cane to tap them on the shins if they crowd or get pushy. Hitting them on the
head will only trigger a butting response so is to be avoided. I find using a harsh growl
in my voice and thinking of them as lamb chops/prey also helps if they start to become
aggressive. I think they pick up on my change in attitude quite well. In breeding
season, try to limit interaction with ewes when a ram is around. Rams will usually respond
with aggression to someone/thing being with "their" ewes. Even your friendliest
buddy can give you a punishing shove if he is concerned about his status as top ram in the
pen at breeding time. The advice about always keeping your eye on the ram has served us
I find, in general, motivational training works better than negative reinforcement with
the ewes. Most important is a calm manner and lots and lots of handling. The sheep
generally have no desire to please as most dogs do, so rewards have to be something they
like i.e. chest scratches or food. I still rap a pushy girl on the nose to make her
back off, but that is to discourage an inappropriate behavior, not to try to instill by
force or fright a positive behavior. You might enjoy reading Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen
Pryor, about motivational training of dogs, dolphins, spouses, etc.
We have had several requests for information on how we
train our sheep. Some people are interested in taming older sheep, some people are
interested in the halter training. There are some points common to both
activities. I will set out a brief summary of the process that we used at Fibre
Works Farm over a three week period in the summer of 1999. I have no expertise as an
animal trainer but decided to treat the sheep as I would a shy or distrustful dog that I
was trying to win over and train.
We like to start with our sheep when they are lambs, halter training
and such, so they are easy to handle later. We also try and train any new purchases as we
want to be able to handle all of the sheep easily. We work with the ewes and lambs
in one group and any mature rams separately. We are always more cautious
working with mature rams as even when friendly, they can give you quite a bump. I think
that lots of older ewes or rams can be tamed but some will always be "flighty"
by nature. These ones are always harder to catch, to vaccinate, etc. but the extra
handling in the halter training does seem to help. It is wonderful to be able to
halter and lead an animal where ever you need to take it, instead of having to set up
panels and gates or drag it along. It also makes a big improvement in the image you
and the sheep present at a show or fair.
The best training tool for us has been a food treat. Apples and carrots work with some
sheep but the sheep have to get used to eating them before they will take them as
"treats". The best treats we have found are the "horse crunchies" that
we get at the feed store. They are a mixture of alfalfa and other forage stuffs, vitamins
and minerals and molasses, all extruded in cubes about 1" by 1/2". Once
the sheep try these out, they are usually very eager to get more. Just check the
labels on any product to avoid copper or other inappropriate ingredients. Clicker
training might also work well but we haven't tried that yet.
First we "grain train". That is we take a small amount of
oats or barley into the pasture, rattle it in the bucket and call the sheep. They
generally learn to come for grain quite quickly, if they don't know already. We put
some horse crunchies (or apple or carrot pieces) with the grain so they get used to eating
them. Once they learn to come up for grain and treats, we offer treats only from our
hands. Once one sheep takes a treat from the hand, the others will usually copy in
time. When training the lambs, they copy their moms who already know about the
At this stage, we do not try to catch anyone but do gently pet if
the animal is willing. Once we start petting, we move on to giving scratches on the
neck and chest. Sometimes just sitting in the pasture with a stock of treats to hand
to reward the brave souls who approach will help the ewes and lambs accept you. I
would not recommend this with mature rams as they may be more aggressive. One of my sons
would take a wheel barrow into the pasture to sit in as that prevented the lambs from
jumping on him but allowed him to hand out crunchies, pets and scratches at a comfortable
level for all concerned.
When training, we always make sure that we do nothing to startle or
hurt the sheep. It might take several weeks of this to get the more nervous sheep to
approach. Some may never be comfortable. We do not do this training in the catch pen or
any other place where the shots and painful stuff takes place. We always have a
pocketful of crunchies when we go for a walk at any time in the pasture during the
training period. Any sheep who approaches calmly, gets one. Any sheep who
jumps on me or pushes too hard gets a knee in the chest or a tap on the shins and no
We start the halter training after we have general acceptance of the
crunchie/treat reward. We run the lambs (or older sheep) into the catch pen.
We use a stock cane or shepherd's crook to catch them and then straddle them (one leg on
either side of them) to control them. We then put on a one piece rope sheep halter and
lead, talking to them calmly through the whole process. This usually only takes one
person and my 12 year old son has become quite adept at the catch and halter process.
Several halter styles can be purchased from the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers
(1-800-567-3693) or Bickerson's Farm in Canada and Premier in the USA. We like the
one piece rope ones the best and these can also be homemade quite easily if you are handy
Once we put a halter on, the sheep immediately gets a
crunchie/treat. It is rubbed and scratched and talked to calmly, while still being
straddled and held under control. Holding the halter lead firmly, we then release
the sheep from the straddle hold. Some sheep just stand there (they get another
crunchie right away), some start pulling and jumping and trying to escape. The key
is to keep talking calmly and reward appropriate behavior with crunchies and pets or
scratches, never doing anything to hurt the animal. For the animals that fight the
halter restraint, reward any small increment of improvement, such as just a momentary
pause in the pulling or jumping. Most animals learn that standing still gets them a
crunchie and fighting only makes them tired. My 10 year old son was the best at this
"gentling" aspect of the training. After a sheep has the halter on for 4
or 5 minutes, we again straddle the sheep to control it and remove the halter, give a
crunchie and release the sheep.
In the next training session, we repeat the haltering process.
Once an animal is over the initial surprise of the halter on its head, we tie the
lead to a fence post and have the animal get used to standing tied up. Again some
pull and fight, others just wait for the crunchie. We reward the calm behavior and
also reward any small increments of improvement from the more feisty ones. We watch
all tied animals closely to make sure that they do not get tangled. The lead should
be tied quite short to prevent tangles in legs or horns. Animals are then untied,
straddled, the halter is removed, a crunchie and scratches are given and the animal is
released, all with calm words and praise. As we go along in subsequent sessions, we
try to rely less on the crunchies and more on the scratches and pets as rewards.
Some animals become addicted to chest scratches and prefer them and others only want the
The first session might only be 4 or 5 minutes per sheep. The
next ones might be 5 to 10 minutes. It usually only takes 2 or 3 sessions (with lots
of crunchie/scratching rewards) for most lambs to accept the halter.
Once a sheep has accepted the halter and does not fight it, we start
training it to lead. It is first haltered and rewarded. Then the trainer takes
a few steps away, holds out a crunchie, tugs gently on the halter and invites the sheep to
get the treat, talking calmly. Most of the sheep will willing take a few steps to
get the crunchie. As soon as they step forward, the tugging on the halter stops and
they get the crunchie and praise. As the sheep get better at this, the trainer
starts to move away as the sheep approaches, always using the crunchie as a lure.
After a few sessions, most lambs will follow the crunchie all the way across the pasture
with no pulling or balking. When the leading behavior is firmly established, the
crunchie lure can be done away with. However, we usually give a crunchie
reward after we have led the sheep to where we want it to be and we praise the whole time
the sheep is leading well.
After the initial training, it is important to make sure that there
is positive reinforcement of the halter from time to time. If you only halter to
give shots, pretty soon it will be harder to halter the sheep. We find that
haltering to do body scoring can be a good time to give a treat and positive reinforcement
of the halter.
This may sound like a lot of work and I have to say that there is
some effort involved. However, we made it a family affair with my sons helping out
and we all found that it was more fun than work. The payoff is that the sheep are easier
to handle (which saves a lot of time and effort), easier to show to prospective buyers and
much calmer around people.