Almost 10 years ago the UK was in fits of laughter as Fenton the Labrador was caught on camera chasing deer across Richmond Park whilst his exasperated owner was left running after him, screaming his name (and other expletives) at the top of his voice. Whilst the video clip was amusing in itself, the story sadly isn’t. Daryl Cook, owner of Devon Dog Training, explains why - and what the responsible dog owner can do about it.
This summer farmers have reported a rise in the number of incidents where dogs have chased, attacked and in some cases, killed their livestock. It has, in part, been put down to ‘pandemic puppies’ whose owners have struggled to cope with training their dog in lockdown.
Rural insurer NFU Mutual has warned that the cost of dog attacks on farm animals rose by an estimated 50 per cent during the first quarter of 2021. Meanwhile, a survey by the National Sheep Association (NSA) suggests 67 per cent of sheep farmers are dealing with an increase in dog attacks on their livestock during the pandemic. On average, each respondent experienced seven cases of sheep-worrying during the past year, resulting in five sheep injured and two sheep killed per attack.
Dogs that are unable to be let off the lead are a huge part of my client base. It’s either that they cannot be trusted around other animals or in most cases, that they don’t recall. I can confirm that the number of these issues has risen since lockdown as have the number of puppy behavioural correction sessions that I run.
Many years ago an effective treatment for dogs that chased sheep was to put them into a pen with a ram and hope that an inevitable battering from the ram and subsequent PTSD was enough to teach them a lesson. That isn’t the way we do it nowadays - and I’m not sure it was ever a guaranteed way to train your dog!
The main problem with dog owners nowadays is that we have all (at times myself included) ‘humanised’ our dogs. We speak to them as if they were our grandchildren, we expect them to understand a subtle change in tone-of-voice. We allow them to sleep in fluffy blankets, accept them into our own beds and feed them from our table.
In reality, this is blurring the lines between the human and the animal. Dogs respond to pack hierarchy and authority. To sleep in our bed and eat from our table is to allow them to think that they are one of us - and even that they are equal to the alpha in the pack. They are not.
We need to develop our dominant voice and teach them to respect the words that we train them with; down, sit, stay, come, drop, fetch…etc. Positive reinforcement of these words is imperative. Then when you ask them to recall when you see a sheep, they don’t question your authority for one moment. Giving them a clear understanding of where they are in your pack hierarchy by eating before they do, making them wait until you have been through a gate or style, and sleeping in their own bed or crate is not ‘cruel’ but following the behaviour and boundaries that they expect to live by.
Sheep worrying is an incredibly expensive mistake to make! In May, Scotland passed a law that means dog owners face prison sentences of 12 months and a maximum fine of £40,000 if their dog is caught worrying livestock. Last week a man from Helensburgh was ordered to pay more than £1,000 in compensation for failing to control a dog which attacked and killed livestock in a field near the town. Two ewes died as a result of their injuries following the incident, while nine unborn lambs had to be aborted due to the distress caused to pregnant ewes.
Farmers already have the right to shoot a dog and MPs are considering rules that would give police greater powers to investigate livestock-worrying and seize dogs. The National Sheep Association is calling for laws to require all non-working dogs to be kept on a lead when near livestock.
My dog will happily walk through a field of sheep off the lead and barely give them a glance. That’s because I have trained her that way. I didn’t have her from a puppy, I took her on at the age of six as a ‘problem’ dog that had a history of chasing sheep and other animals. It took me a couple of days to stop that behaviour. Whilst I don’t advise everyone to be able to walk their dogs through fields of livestock off the lead - I know that it can be done. A lead is always a safer bet if you’re unsure of course.
Here are five ways that you can begin to take control of your relationship with your dog:
1. Take your dog off a harness and introduce a slip lead. Train them to walk on it properly - you won’t believe how much happier they are. This is lesson one with almost every dog I meet and I cannot tell you the difference it makes. I’ve had some owners refer to them as ‘choke leads’ until they learn how they work. It’s one of those ‘lightbulb moments’ I get to witness on almost a daily basis.
2. Be the alpha. You own your dog - not the other way round. If you’re walking through a gate or a style, teach your dog to sit and wait so that you can go through and they then follow. It also means that you can check for livestock before they do.
3. Teach your dog to walk to heel. My dog understands that if I say ‘close’ she immediately returns from where she may be running or walking ahead of me and comes to heel. There she stays until I give her the command to be released to run ahead. This is how I walk her through a field of sheep. I have every confidence that she will do it every time. More than that, if she stumbles across a sheep on the other side of a gorse bush, she comes to heel of her own volition because she is, what I call, a ‘thinking’ dog and knows the difference between right and wrong.
4. Master your vocal chords. Find the ‘command’ voice within yourself and use it. Let your dog become familiar with the ‘friendly and fun’ voice and the ‘do as you are told’ voice - just like you do with your children! If you have a naturally quiet voice and are uncomfortable with shouting, then you can use a whistle. They are inexpensive and very effective with some training.
5. Study and understand your dog’s behaviour and the signals that they send so that you can diffuse them at times when you need to. Examples of this would be play bowing, tail positions, pricked ears and general body language. These would all give you an idea of your dog’s state of mind.