The Wrong Sheep

by | Learning About Collies

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The Border Collie or Working Sheepdogs have been bred to assist with sheep management. Primarily their role is to provide a moving boundary with highly perceptive skills that can anticipate and block movement.

If an ambitious sheep makes a break for it, the dog is not encouraged to “run it down” but leave on a tangent anticipating the direction of the escapee and re-appear to stop and head the sheep back.

These skills when not shaped, trained and controlled can become wild and frustrating for the dog and anyone who lives with them.

Walking along a busy street with traffic can cause the dog to lunge out. Any uncontrolled movement such as joggers, bikes, other dogs doing agility will trigger the reflex to control the movement. The is a need, their purpose in life. We cannot just take it away or wish it gone. It will vary in strength in individual dogs. When the movement comes to a stop the dog will stop and take up a watchful stance ready to prevent further movement.

There are three main approaches:

1. MANAGEMENT: the dog should not be visually exposed to fast movement. This may need to be for several weeks until the skills are developed.

2. ACTIVE LEARNING: Successful games with sheep balls / discs that carefully engineer the dog to block movement, NOT chase after. No mindless chucking or continual retrieving. Games should include the skills of swopping between “flocks”, learning to focus on the in-play ball and give up other balls. Duration of the activity is built slowly from 5 -15 minutes.

3. PASSIVE LEARNING: Sheepballs introduced at a safe distance from fast movements. The dog should be able to play for several sessions and then gradually the other movements can draw closer. At no time should the Wrong Sheep overwhelm the Right Sheep (Balls). The game encourages inward focus and strong connection to the person.

Once these steps are in place graduated exposure can be used. I recommend expansive car parks, such as those around superstores, on a quiet day. The dog in a car should be taken to the furthest point from any traffic and parked.

At each change of exposure the dog should be monitored for increasing arousal: fast eye movements, restlessness, increase in breath rate or panting: any indication of this and no further exposure should take place. 


1. The dog can rest in the parked car and observe the environment with no escalation of arousal. (Take a good book).

2. The dog can get out of the car, on the side furthest away from any movement. This is to become The Refuge. The dog will need to be able to return to this quickly.

3. Walk from the car and let the dog visually see movement for 5 second exposure and then return to the Refuge.

4. The dog can circuit the car for longer exposure always returning to the Refuge.

5. What we are seeking is a dog that is alert to the environment, sufficiently in control to respond to a verbal (pre-trained) cue, able to disengage from the environment and engage – connect with the person.

6. The car can be parked among other car and steps 1, 2, 3 carried out.

7. The dog can be walked around stationary cars, with occasional glimpse between the cars of slow moving traffic. The Refuge in or beside the car should be easily accessed for frequent down time or if arousal looks imminent.

Only two of these stages should occur in the same session. Food is not needed and unlikely to be welcomed by the dog. Affection, safety, connection, balance and absence of frustration are your reward avenues.


The ball games with the Right Sheep will give the dog satisfaction and activate the reward systems. This is the opportunity for re-balancing the stresses in their lives and is the core of their point of living. Even farm working dogs without several weeks of work will begin to work the wrong sheep. Sheepballs are excellent activities for people living with collies to learn about their inherited skills and build a strong and enjoyable relationship.

In an ideal situation a young dog showing any sign of being triggered by the movement of the wrong sheep, should be taken out of that opportunity for several months. The dog may be over a year old before they have the skills to ignore one situation in favour of another.

early days at the road side

I think you can guess which of these pups did not see traffic for another year ?

Courses and individual tuition to feed your passion for Sheepdogs:

Individual tuition and coaching with the Sheepballs activities or for specialised help and support with your collie.



  1. Nancy Frensley

    While this is aimed at the working sheep dog (I’m an Aussie person), it is a terrific formula for reducing overall reactivity in pet dogs and would be easy for pet dog owners to do. In my area we have an epidemic of reactivity to everything due to pet owners not properly conditioning dogs from the beginning and adopting dogs with reactivity already developed.

    As a behavior counselor, I find this to be useful for far more than working the wrong sheep. Thank you

    By sheep balls, I think you mean the big exercise balls used in Trieball?

    • Kay Laurence

      Thanks for the feedback Nancy – car parks, with some thoughtfulness, can make great training environments.

      Treiball is suited for the “continental herding” breeds that are bred to slam into and barge the stock. Border Collies often find that quite distasteful and only as the last resort. They use “eye” to threaten.

      More about Sheepballs HERE:

  2. Chris Bond

    “Food is not needed and unlikely to be welcomed by the dog. Affection, safety, connection, balance and absence of frustration are your reward avenues.” ? I see how strong a reinforcer affection and connection are with my youngster. As well as calming.

    • Kay Laurence

      I was sent a video of a young collie being given treats at the corner of a busy junction. Most of the treats ended up being squashed under the passing traffic as the dog vomitted the treats when he lunged. (cyclist not amused). Rewards should be chosen to suit the situation, and be desired by the dog.

  3. Sue A McGuire

    Tricky. That balance point between observing without tipping into “that which is prompting too much interest. ” I guess I would expect a youngster to turn the head and look at something novel. It’s the length of time they look that would decide.
    In your photo, was there something of greater intensity that prompted concern? Just curious because we have all seen that handler that panics when they see another dog (with their dog)
    then inadvertently empower the presence of that other dog with handler reaction.

    • Kay Laurence

      I think it is also intensity of the observation, the increase in alertness. But we also have to learn how to “be cool” and not reflect that response ourselves … “huh…. whatever”.

  4. Helen

    Do you also recommend sheep balls for rough collies?

    • Kay Laurence

      You can play with any type of dog – we have Poodle Balls, and Cocker balls, but I do not think they are regarding the balls as sheep substitutes.


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