Starting a pup.
Pups usually take an interest between 3 and 6 months with the odd one perhaps not ready to do anything until 12 months or more. If you like the pup and are prepared to wait that long, there is no reason why it will not be as good as an early starter.
There are many different methods of starting pups and I will talk about the way I have been taught, and what has worked for me. No way is necessarily right, just different. Find a method that works and stick with it. Constantly changing the way you train can be confusing for the dog. This does not mean that you can’t try different methods, but it will be easier in the long run to stick to methods which make sense to you, so you can progress.
I use a round yard (preferable dog proof) about 30m circumference and a few quiet young sheep. Not a mob of old ewes that are going to stand up to the pup and ruin his confidence all at once. The best age for the sheep is from 8 months to 2 years, ewes, or wethers. They really need to be dog broke, as in they have been worked by dogs before, and are reasonably quiet. This does not mean they have been chased all over by dogs, but that they have been taught to follow the handler calmly and quietly while the dog is present. If it is not possible to break in your own sheep your may have to borrow or buy sheep from someone or better still attend a training clinic for the first few sessions, or visit someone's place where quiet sheep are available.
The only tool needed is a plastic garden rake, to direct the dog to where you want him to be, or to stop the sheep from intimidating him.
What we want the pup to do is to gather the sheep and bring them towards the handler. This is balancing up, and no matter where you walk in the yard the pup should be on the other side of the sheep. Not as easy as it sounds for the handler, but most people pick it up after a few tries. Be careful not to walk around the yard in circles as this can cause the dog to work on one side instead of behind the sheep. Walk straight across the yard to the other side.
If you have never done this before it is better to start with a more experienced person on hand to assist. When the pup first sights sheep, the reactions will differ. They may be frightened. (What in the heck are those scary things?) They may be totally disinterested. (What is that lovely smell over there?) Or the reaction may be, 'wow sheep, let me at 'em'.
If he is scared or disinterested let him watch for a while, so his instinct has a chance to kick in, but don't allow him to become too frightened or to escape. Walk through the sheep yourself and move them around. If this does nothing, after a few minutes take him out, and let him watch other dogs working for a while, which may fire his interest. If he is only young, just put him aside for a month or two then try again.
The keen pup, will just want to tear around and have a great time chasing the sheep all over, trying to bite etc. This is where we use the rake to push him away from the sheep every time he tries to split them, bite them or otherwise take over. Unless he is really hurting the sheep do not put him off too much. A young pup needs to know that working sheep is fun. Gently push him away using the rake on the shoulder until he realizes that biting or splitting is not the way, but he is allowed to go around the sheep calmly. After the first initial dash most pups steady up and think a bit, so then we allow him to come around the sheep using the rake to keep him on the other side of the sheep, and not letting him cross between the sheep and us. Short sessions are important, no more than a few minutes at a time, while his interest is still strong. If he is allowed to leave the sheep every time he gets tired you will end up with a dog that will quit when things get tough. Not what we want in a dog. Stopping him can be tricky if he is keen. You need to get between the pup and the sheep and using the rake to block him until you can either get his attention and call him off or corner him and grab him.
Let him rest and think about his work for a while, then give him another short session. Three or four short sessions a day is fine, a young pup does not need much work at this early stage. No commands are needed, it is better not to talk to the pup except praise him when he is doing the right thing.
This sort of work will allow the pups instinct to develop naturally without confusing him with commands. It also teaches him how to move sheep around, control them, and bring them to you.
When the pup is calmly and confidently controlling his sheep, he can be moved to a bigger yard to balance up and finally into an open space. Once you are at the stage where you can walk around in the open doing turns in all directions' with the pup keeping reasonably calm and bringing the sheep behind you, he is probably ready to have some commands put on. The usual age for this is from 10 to 14 months. Some may be ready a little younger and others not ready until 15 months or so. I do not believe we should rush through this stage, it is important for the pup to be calm and confident with the sheep before we confuse him by putting commands on. During this stage, we can also introduce him to a few more sheep and allow him to work in sheep yards where he can bring sheep back and forth through gates. This will increase his confidence.
Many young pups are still a bit full on but don't worry too much about it, just keep calm and they will settle down eventually. Hyperactive dogs may not settle until they get a couple of years of experience under their belt. It is better to have a keen dog than one that is barely interested.
Pups are fascinating and starting one for the first time is always exciting, you never know what they are going to do.
They are such a clean slate and often work so naturally it is a real pleasure. It is only when we start putting commands on and inflicting our desire on them that problems can emerge.
Each pup can teach us something new.
It is important also to seek help if things are going wrong as a problem can be easily corrected if caught early.