Sheepballs Cues

by | Jul 19, 2021

Adding cues is cool

…when you really understand the process and are diligent in application.

It seems to be the goal that draws the most folk “to get the dog to do it”. It looks cool to onlookers when a dog does what you say, promptly. But for me not only promptly, but with a joy and confidence which is a reflection of the learning process.

Note I use “learning”, not “training”. It does not matter what you think you trained the dog to do, it is what they learned that we shall see.

Those critical cues

Sheepdog training was the first time I really learned what a cue was all about. Let’s refresh the centuries old, successful, proven process.

We teach the young dog how to respond and develop their skills through managing the sheep. To train a dog we need to be able to manage and predict the behaviour of sheep.

Firstly we set up situations for the dog to find the point of balance – holding the sheep to us at the 12 position: This is evidenced by the sheep facing away from the dog

sheepdog balance

I can then take a step or two backwards, and because sheep consider the power of a dog is much stronger than mine, the sheep will move away from the dog and step towards me. The dog will be attracted to follow the rear end of the sheep.

encouraging the walk on

I can then go walkabout, I walk backwards in a large figure of 8, knowing the sheep will continually turn to me, the dog will learn to move small distances, flanking, left and right to re-find their point of balance.

At any time I can bring the party to a stop.

I will then begin to increase the amount of flanking the dog will need to do, and give the sheep a rest, they can stand still and just turn to face me as the dog finds their power and re-balances. The right type of sheep is important. The dog will be rewarded (dopamine boost) from the controlling aspect of the sheep turning off their movements and position.

All the time the cues for the dog come from the sheep which I have engineered to demand a specific and predictable response. In the early days these responses will look a little ragged and rough, but as the dog gains confidence they will develop their style and subtleties of response.

This will be the time to begin adding the lifetime cues provided the responses are 90% as I predict.

Minimal cues

There are only the 5 working cues:

Turn left 90° and continue: this is often “come bye”

Turn right 90° and continue; this is often “away to me”

Come to a stop: “stand there, stand or down”

Walk on: “walk on, get up”

That’ll do – time for tea.

These cues are delivered both verbally and with a whistle. The verbal cue and whistle cue can be delivered with the same tone and pitch and the dog will transfer immediately. No shit sherlock, dogs hear tonal range delivered over phrases, not words. This is the traditional, successful method. This was surpassed by the obedience fraternity in favour of single, monotone words. Not an improvement.


The 4 working cues can then be modified through volume or pitch. You can have a soft stop or a hard stop, depending on how you deliver it, a Step-Careful to your left or right, or Get-Your-finger-out-we’re-in-trouble, left or right. The Welsh speakers are particularly good at this.

Most will add on a sssh, to ask for increased acceleration once moving in the right direction – a transition from walk to trot to gallop, go faster.

Ready for cues?

Add a cue too early, before the dog is consistent in the move or action, and you will have a lifelong inconsistent response to tidy up. The dog will also demonstrate some hesitancy or uncertainty whether this response will be the right one or not, or question whether a reward is forthcoming or not.

sheepdog balance

The behaviour we want the dog to respond or react to when hearing the cue is the turn, NOT the running alongside the sheep. It is the turn we teach, the dog is then travelled on the circle. 

The new cue: old cue, protocol will work very successfully on single movement, (turns, hard stop). Cues during the repetitive movement can be used when the action is repeating – running, slowing down, walk on, etc.

Changing the hierarchy

The working cue is the movement of the sheep, and to some small degree, you. But if you are too significant and dominate the responses, when you step out of the picture the dog will be at a loss.

There is a hierarchy, which often has to be changed.

We use it all the time when leaving the dog to choose what to do, where to go, and then we call them to us. As they run around freely they are responding to events and the environment, but when we cue the return to us, that cue becomes the dominant one.

On sheep, we will need to progress to change the sheep from being the dominant cue to the verbal/whistle being the dominant, NO MATTER WHAT THE SHEEP ARE DOING. The placement of the dog causes a response in the sheep which becomes the dog’s reward. This is one of the hardest transitions.

sheepdog balance

On the ball

I teach both directions for the circle cues, introducing the verbal cue, and minimising my body language at the same time. There are some limitations to this so you need to be clear and plan ahead. Here I cue “bye”, with a small head turn, he begins to go around and the ball is tossed out behind me.

Here the “wait” is cued firstly by me stopping, adding the verbal cue and reward in place with a catch.

I also teach the “come to a stop”, and later the hard stop. Two types of “wait”.

“Walk on” is secured by pulling the ball backwards with the base of my shoe.

Additionally because I work on more precision movement with the Cup on a Stick, I will have a lateral movement of left and right.

This is Time demonstrating this. I know you have all probably seen this, but look for the difference between a “soft” left or right” and the full run on your circle. 

Your choice

You can pretty much add a cue to anything that is a predictable action or change of movement.

“Swap” – change focus to the other ball. I ask the dog to stand in front of me, holding a toy in either hand outstretched about level with their ears. As they change from focussing on one to the other I add the cue. Success means that (focussed) ball will travel.

You can choose your left and right, but from traditional sheep dog training, the phrases travel better: “come bye” and “away to me”, obedience word-format is not easily heard over long distances.

The secret, and discipline, is not to add working cues until the behaviour is stable and consistent. Be sure what the existing cue is, as perceived by the dog (it may be your pivot turn, arm drawing backwards, change of balance to kick).

Plan to alter the hierarchy, and ask for your verbal/whistle to override the old cue by arranging the rewards.


If cues are critical to get your head around, I recommend my 35 min presentation on Cue Technology: 

Cue Technology



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Key Reading

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

50 years a student of sheepdogs

In recognition of my half-century of being a student of collies I want to celebrate their skills as masters of my learning.

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

Why add fun?

When an activity gives intrinsic pleasure we do not need to add fun.

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

No room for mechanics

If your ambition is to have good mechanics in communication to animals then you may find yourself blocked into a tight corner

Guidance is not dependence

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give you guidance.

The Spaces Between

At the heart of learner-centred education, the teacher acts as a guide whose role is to elicit rather than to impart, and learners quickly become empowered and equipped to transfer their knowledge and skills to new scenarios.

Top Training

Nose Target. No thanks

Nose target is a popular behaviour taught to many dogs, and other animals. It seems easy to teach and have practical application, but it is often not such a pleasant experience for all dogs. There are many other options available that give the same practical benefit, without the unpleasant extremes.

Stop doing that ….

Can we teach an effective Cease That Behaviour? Absolutely. We can teach that positively, without harm, and we should teach them the skills of stopping that and doing this instead.

Duration or is it Breakfast in Bed?

Teaching duration has become a very muddied understanding or what it is and how to teach it. This is partly due to how we use words that are the same but have entirely different meanings.

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

Duration: sustaining movement

Continuing and maintaining a specific movement

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Going Shopping

This is a joint travelling adventure. It completely resets the learning and can easily extend the reinforcement process.

Release cue or stay cue

Many of us begin with teaching sit or down, and this is one of the earliest experiences of training with reinforcement. Is the sit, or down, going to be a terminal behaviour, or a temporary position?

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.


  1. Karen

    Always a RED-LETTER day when I receive your emails! Cues. How is a dog supposed to understand their meaning when my own human (70-ish) can’t understand, “It’s in the cupboard.” Which one?
    ( ….same place the butter has been for the last 20 years….)

    Possibly your easiest question ever: Where do you purchase your sheep balls?

    I’m Stateside and have looked online six ways to Sunday. I’ve found balls with sheep on them for the drying machine, Kong balls, and other balls for fetching which are usually hard.

    My BC and I could both use a little plushness in our lives!

    All the best,

    • Kay Laurence

      Hah! Emails will be coming more frequently now …. Biscuits for Breakfast.

      The Balls are from IKEA


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