Many years ago a good sheepdog was an asset to any farm and essential in mustering sheep. Dogs were bred appropriate to the needs of the individual, and good pups swapped around. Dogs were used mainly for paddock work before the advent of motorbikes, and sheep were not handled in the yard as much as they are now. In those days sheep were not jetted or treated for prevention of flystrike, struck sheep needed to be caught and treated in the paddock. A dog who could sniff out and catch a flystruck sheep was a valuable helper. There are dogs now who still do this but it is not needed as much as it was and the trait will be bred out.
Once motorbikes were invented and sheep numbers rose, management techniques changed. Sheep were drenched, jetted, backlined and crutched more often and this bought an increase of yard work. Dogs were selected for the ability to move sheep through the yards in a more forceful fashion, and unfortunately, some of the good paddock dogs were bred out. Motor bikes became the fastest way to bring sheep into the yards or the yard dogs were used and the sheep pushed along at a faster rate. The days of bringing sheep in at a leisurely manner seemed to be over. Work became stressful, sheep were brought in panting and stressed. But it did not seem to matter, time was important and there was a lot of work to do.
Sheep were bought in, drenched, crutched, etc and rushed out again to get the next mob in as quickly as possible.
With the advent of crutching cradles, the speed of this large job multiplied so that two to three thousand sheep could be done in one day, requiring mobs to be bought in at a rapid pace to keep up. This caused stress to sheep and farm workers alike, but made the job quicker. Yard dogs were a big help, but a lot of so called good yard dogs were dogs that had too much energy and no technique. Sheep were smashed into fences bitten and forced through gates with no thought to stock handling, or how stress might effect the animal. A good calm sheep dog can work sheep through yards without all this fuss. Barking when needed, laying down when the yards are full, backing to clear the fronts when the sheep have turned around and biting only when necessary or when threatened by a sheep.
Being in a yard where half a dozen dogs are racing around biting, barking and leaping all over the place is the height of stress for the animal and the workers.
Good stock handling has become a lost art and people now attend schools to instruct them in handling sheep in a stress free manner. See here for links on stock handling schools and info. These schools can be a revelation to some people while others will stubbornly continue to do it they way they have always done it, because their fathers etc have always done it that way as well. New research techniques have made it possible to measure stress levels in animal in certain situations and we have a benchmark to work with. Even a few hours of a stressful situation cause stock to lose condition, and cause a decrease in productivity. Research has shown that wool and/or meat growth can cease in a stressed animal for a period of days or even weeks after the event. So why don't we slow down a bit? Because we are ruled by deadlines most of the time, which does make it difficult. We can however try to make it little easier for the sheep by understanding a little about how they think and why they do what they do.
Working stock through the yards calmly and quietly can make yard work much more enjoyable for man and beast. The sheep are more relaxed and this can improve productivity. When bringing young sheep into the yards for the first time, if we make it as pleasant as possible for them they will yard easier in the future. Can you blame them for not wanting to go back into the yards after receiving rough handling?
Unfortunately, sheep are often labeled as stupid and stubborn, and trying their best to be difficult. Admittedly, sheep can be trying but in reality, they are a frightened animal doing their best to escape, from what to them is a terrifying experience.
Sheep are quite clever, as anyone who has raised pet lambs will know. They are easily trained and respond to routine quickly, especially when food is involved
Looking at things from the perspective of the animal can help us to understand why they act as they do. After spending a considerable time trying to unsuccessfully force them into a yard it can help to get down to their level, (yes on your hands and knees,) and try to work out why they will not go into that gate. Perhaps from their view all they can see is an obstruction not visible from your height. By doing this we can set up our yards and working areas more efficiently, thus saving time in the future.
Dogs too can be trained to move sheep without biting or smashing sheep into fences. Putting a young pup into a situation where older dogs are racing around barking and biting is exciting and stimulating and is not a good teaching environment. Train your pup when you have a easy job to do and are not under pressure, then you can focus on the pup and leave the older dogs in their kennel so he does not feed off the excitement. Also while working a pup with an older dog, if there is need to discipline the older dog the pup can take offense and become mistrustful of you.
I know it is difficult at times when deadlines are looming but try and plan ahead and allow a little more time to bring that mob in and take the time to keep things as calm as possible, your sheep and dogs and your own stress levels will thank you for it.
Angel calmly holding the stock.