What are the benefits of round pen sheepdog training?

I first met sheepdog trainer and handler, Mr. Tony Rofe, when we traveled together on a trip to the European Nursery Championship in Holland. The ENC is a sheepdog trial where Border Collies from all over Europe, the UK and Ireland can go to compete. In this interview, Tony tells us of the benefits to round pen sheepdog training.

The one thing that most impressed me most with Tony Rofe, is just how much he can squeeze into a training session with a young dog. Tony thinks about what he is doing before he ever puts a lead on a pup, and from the moment it goes on, that pup is in training.

Check out our video of Ralf training with a round pen.

The Churchmount interview series is in part sponsored by Away With Dogs, a Sheepdog Trial YouTube series.

If you enjoy the interviews and would like to hear more, I’d appreciate your support by becoming a Patron, or by donating to Churchmount.

Paddy Fanning: I had a blog post on my website a while back about round pen training. And it got quite a good response. So I decided to ask Tony Rofe for an interview. Tony basically gave me any ideas I had to do with using a round pen. The following is an interviewer Tony but just like to say in Ireland we have a we have a phrase and it calls ‘every cripple has his own way of walking’. So you know, maybe youre round pen fan maybe or a square pen fan maybe like starting in the big field or like fellows used to say to me years ago, tie the young dogs to the old dog and the old dog will teach the dog how to work. Whatever idea you have. This this is just about round pen training. And it’s Tony’s ideas and I hope you find something useful.

Paddy Fanning: I see you with some very young dogs. You showed me videos in Holland originally there and like I was amazed at the kind of, I don’t know the sort of work you can get out of dogs. 6, 7 or 8 months old. I saw you doing lovely bits of outruns and driving and things like that. And you explained to me that you started with a round pen and like, I didn’t know, how would use a round pen for teaching outruns and driving and all these kind of things. Can you tell us? Like, what sort of what what age do you strats training these pups Tony that you get them so quick like?

Tony Rofe: Well, I’d sort of started off at about 16 weeks of age, I tend to take them out in front or when on the long line, get them to stand or lie down both commands really, and then call them into me get them down. so that by the time they go into the round, and this is never before they’ve gone into a round pen, and so they just know this, then they lie down in there recall, I probably do this. It usually only takes 20 minutes, half an hour, but I’ll probably do it three or four times in that first day. And then I’ll give them a day off and then just just carry it on. Then I take them to a round pen.

Paddy Fanning: What age do pups typically start working? like I’ve been thinking, you know, doesn’t help they’re sure you might take around with the sheep. And sure I’m thinking that’d crazy work we’ll leave them there for six or nine months. Like, when do you find that they start getting really interested in doing something?

Tony Rofe: Well, I mean, it always depends on the pup. But I mean, the thing is, he’s got to make these first experiences on a round thing fun that the pup are really enjoying. And sometimes I’ll take an older dog with me, send them around the sheep and encourage them just to run around the sheep just to run around the pen. I’m in the pen, just pushing the sheep around. And you’ll find in no time at all those pups suddenly realize, Oh, this is a good time. You know, when when you start these puppies off, it is all about making it fun for you know, they’ve got a lot of energy, pup, you know, it’s just putting it to a good use, really.

Paddy Fanning: Do you let them into the pen or outside the pen?

Tony Rofe: Well, I keep the pups on the outside of the pen. The idea of that is, you know the very small you know they’re very very young they’re very impressionable and what you’re really trying to what I’m really trying to create is just getting that pup to a you know, there’s no pressure on it whatsoever at any time. Just to learn to balance the sheep to me in on the outside of the pen. I don’t want to pup in the pen I don’t want to injured I don’t want it stressed. You know and I don’t want the sheep being attacked, you know even by pup, you know, I mean, it’s one of those things that you just let that pup play until it until it starts to understand instead it starts to bounce and you would be surprised just how quick that is. Usually within a week or two. And, and the thing is Paddy is is when you go out with those its recognizing, instantly when it pups had enough, the fact that it wants to keep going, that’s good. But take it away. I mean, 5 or 10 minutes to start off with these absolutely fine just playing. Yeah, when they start to balance, just keep that going a little bit longer. No more than 20 minutes max. Yes. And then you know, and then I take them away.

Paddy Fanning:
Sounds like you’re, you’re teasing them into making them into little drug addicts. They’re getting them keen for walking when they’re when they’re enjoying it there. Before you overcook them there you take them away and leave them hungry to come back for more.

Tony Rofe: That’s exactly the point that he’s just what you want. You want them keen. So when I open that pen they bolt by me to get to the pen. And, you know that’s just what I’m asking for.

Paddy Fanning: And so, it all starts off lovely and positive and the pup is calling the shots and he’s The boss and he’s the man. How do you this is a bit you don’t really understand how do you start to introduce, like, you know, this training? So how did you start to introduce a bit of discipline? And you know, corrections or whatever we like to call it, how do you start to bring that into the fun and games?

Tony Rofe:  All right, well, once that balance, you know that and that’s all I’m asking. So it’s just a balance to me. From when I had them out on the lawn, and I taught them to stand and lie down and recall, oh, yes, that’s when I reintroduce the stop. Yes, please just stop. move yourself to one side away, let them go. Don’t try and put a stop back on them. As soon as they’ve reached the point of balance, just stand on the other way. These are really young pups. You got to be very, very careful with them. Not careful because they’re, you know, it’s just that they’re impressionable. They soak up information. And so it’s just a stop and then gradually I just put the sides to it. Yeah, and you’ll find you know, that you know, within week two, you know, you really learn and, you know this, this this to two thoughts on it. One is, if I’ve got a lot of pups to train, I can put those sheep in the paddock I can leave them in the pen. They can be there, you know, with a bucket of water, they can be there. They’re the best part of the day to be honest. And you know, I do change them over, but I mean, you can use it many, many pups on those same chain. Yes. So, you know, you’re not tiring the sheep out. They’re not stressed at all. You’re taking the pups away at the correct time. They’re not stressed. So everyone’s keen. And that way I can have these pups out three, four times a day.

Paddy Fanning: You told me Tony that was the secret. And a few people have told me you take them out in the morning you take him out at lunchtime, maybe you take him out at four o’clock and he was retired. And I’m taking him out for lots of short intervals that really seems to be really saying, well, you told me that’s the secret there that they just absorb and absorb?

Tony Rofe: Well, they do, they do and you know, you you, you know, you got to remember you must not put any pressure on. That’s one of the secrets is you don’t need to put pressure on them they’re doing nothing wrong, they can’t get into any trouble. All they got to learn to do is to stand still. And then you know as you drift around the pen and just to put their sights on, you know, and as I become but it’s a little bit older, within a few weeks you know, they’re all on their sides and you know, I’m quite happy to that then I’ll sort of, not put pressure them, but I just ask a little bit more of them.

Paddy Fanning: They just ask for a little bit more, you want a little bit more for your money. But all this time, they’re on the outside of the pen up to this point are they?

Tony Rofe: Well, I mean, you know, so many people that have come around here and they see, you know, these pups you know, really performing well. Some people do it. And after a while the pups seem to be doing what they’re told. And they think that’s it. Yeah, I’ll do it until it becomes second nature. Yeah. When I give them an I train for word and whistle at the same time. Yes. And you know, I got a straight for it. Word and whistle and I’ve never had a pup have a problem with that. Yeah. So, you know, one session, I’ll just use word, next session I’ll just use whistle. Yes. But I keep it there until it becomes second nature now, as these perhaps, you know, obviously, they’re growing all the time. There was a time that you know, you’ve had them out there for a month probably ready now to go on the inside of the pen. They’ll know their stop. They’ll know their whistles and they’ll know their sides completely. Then I’ll have them in the pen, because they’ll be that much stronger. They may also understand what you’re asking them now. Yes. And then it’s a question of just pushing them off. Another thing that I really like about training young dogs in a round pen – there are no corners. Yes, they always have got to go round things. So you’ll find later on. When you start going into field you rarely see these pups holding sheep up against the fence. Yes, you see it so many times you know, where a young dog, a very, very good dog doesn’t know how to go around the back. With round pen training, they seem to have no problem with it. So even in the corner, they go straight round the back because that’s what they’ve done all their life.

Paddy Fanning: Yes, yes. You impressed very much to me about just continually sticking to the pattern and doing things consistently and repetitively and it just becomes ingrained in the dog. And like you said, not to let them learn how to do it wrong in the first place.

Tony Rofe: No, I mean, the other thing, Paddy is when you know when you taking a dog into into a round pen, I put them on the lead. And right from the word guide ‘go’ they’re learning. Yes, I’ll have the dog facing the round pen, I’ll be 6 to 10 foot away from it. Dog on the right hand side. Off it goes around the back to the point of balance. That’s all I ask. Next time I’ll go I’ll send it come by. So right from the word go they’re automatically, and they don’t even know they’re doing, they just go to the right or they go to the left because they’ve been set up on that side for me. And you know, they take it really well. And as the dog gets older, you know I go further back, but I do insist then that they stay to that side. Yes, I might even put a you know, a small line on them. Just if I found one will cross just to pull them out and let them go round back and you’ll find that when you come off the round pen, they rarely just cast out because that’s all they’ve ever done, they’ve never known anything different. So you know, it’s, it’s what I say. It becomes second nature to them.

Paddy Fanning: Well let me interrupt you for a second. One thing I love is that round pen or no round pen you’re always getting value for your money. So when you’re walking out, you’re you’re always, I don’t know, you’re always training. And so when you’re walking out to the round pen, you’re already setting the dog up to get him into that pattern of which way he’s gonna leave you on his outrun. And so you’re already getting something out of it on the way to the round pen. That’s one of the things I really like, from the time you take the dog out of the pen or out of the Jeep, he’s in training.

Tony Rofe: It is just one of those in thing, it’s just repetitive and you know people do poo poo the idea of it. And that’s good. You know, I mean, we all do our own thing. I mean, you know, I think people would have just bought one dog. I mean most people only train a dog when they want one for themselves.

Paddy Fanning: Yes.

Tony Rofe: Yes. And you know, unlike me, you know, I might have five or six pups pet year at different ages that I want to move on, you know, in their training. So I find this for me, you know, there’s no sheep tearing off across the field with a dog hanging on it. You know, I mean, I’ve been there you know, I’ve been there you know, I saw a round pen many many years ago, you know, and older dogs on and I thought you know, you could you could do more with this. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but for me, I’ve trained hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of dogs on these round pens and you know, the other good side about it is as these pups get older and you start to introduce respect and discipline. Yes. And it’s not a question, you know, these pups have done nothing wrong, they’ve never been scolded or anything.

Paddy Fanning: You’ve never had a fight. Yeah.

Tony Rofe: Yeah. So you’ve never fallen out with a dog, you know, by telling it off, so you start to get this respect and discipline and the other things is, you know, you start to see a dog’s ability. Yes, you know, at a very young age, yes. You know, yes, you would be surprised some, you know, that, you know, some dogs are going to make, you know, great dog. Others are going to be good dog. Yes. You know, and so you you get to see this as this pups grows. It’s brilliant. Yeah.

Paddy Fanning: Just let me interrupt you there. Now one thing, and we’ll just get back to the round pen for a second. Like, when I met you, first of all, and you explained to me about round pen I was kind of I was, as you say, poo pooing the idea a little bit. I just train them my way. But obviously, after talking to you for a couple of days, I soon saw the benefits. But one thing that stuck out to me that I just never even thought about is that, that we could train outruns and driving and shedding and everything you’d want to put into a dog we can start to put the principles in you just quickly explained to people they’re like, because I was counting How the hell did teach them to drive a round pen. Can you just quickly explain how you get that principle into a dog?

Tony Rofe: Right, when a dog is on its side it’s on, word and whistle, it’s been in the pen. It knows to keep off the pen. Sometimes I make the pen a little bit larger but I don’t like them too big. The dog’s lying down or standing on command and then your just walking around the pen, you’re asking the dog to keep the sheep to you. And then I’ll stop the dog. So when I want him to learn to drive, that first experience of driving, needs to be a good one. Yeah, you really, you know, you really don’t want to be offending any dog on his first experience of driving, especially when they’re so young. Yes. So what I usually do is I’ll put three or four sheep in a pen and a couple on the outside. And you’ll find that the two on the outside really want to stay close to the, to the two in the pen. I set the dog up on the outside, and I’ll just say stand and let it walk around the sheep. Round and round on the outside of the circle. I’m in the pen, and the dog will walk on word and whistle at the same time. Then I’ll stop the dog and then ask it to go right way around the outside of the pen, which is why so you don’t want it too large. And then pick the sheep back up. I’ll do that for probably a week. And you will find that his first experiences of driving, is a good thing. What I like is that quite often see dogs when people are handling them and their dogs are looking over their shoulder.

Paddy Fanning: There’s nothing worse than that.

Tony Rofe: Well, you’re in eyesight of this dog all the time. And then when I go from here into a field, the same principle stands. I teach the dog to drive in a circle before I teach it to drive away from me, and I make the circle bigger and bigger and bigger. That dog can see you all the time. There’s no need for it to look out for you. It becomes nature.

Paddy Fanning: I have to credit you with all those ideas about round pen training.

Tony Rofe: It’s just a jigsaw. And what you’re doing is you’re starting these dogs off and it’s a jigsaw. Don’t overcrowd the pup trying to get it to do too much at one time. Stick with one job until it does it properly. Yes. If you know and it’s most important, you know, as I say, people get bored with it. I don’t Yeah, people get bored with it and think oh, this pup’s doing it fine. It is. But he could do it better. Yes. Once it’s done when it’s doing it to your complete satisfaction, then move on to the next element. And don’t be afraid to take the pup back. If you feel that it’s perhaps a little out of his depth go back, just go back to what she was doing before. And you know, really, you know, really bring that energy and an understanding back to it. It’s not rocket science, or I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Paddy Fanning: At the same time. Tony, I think there’s an important thing there. Like you said, there you know if the dog is not doing it, right. Don’t be afraid to go back to the round pen. Like you might say it’s it’s not rocket science or you couldn’t do it. But the other side of it i think is important is that not for every handler but some people have ego that is gettingi in their way and they think I should be further along with this dog and we should be better. Don’t ever let your ego interfere with you because it’s only costing you.

Tony Rofe: Absolutely right. And the other thing is, don’t get stress. You know, if it’s a bad session, or if you think that the pup has had enough or is tired. Never let them go that long, that they’re getting bored with it. As soon as you see anything that’s not quite right. And you get to recognize after a while, but that pup away. Yeah, get another one. So when it comes back is always good. And, you know, rest away from it is always good. And still let them play, let him go out and play with the other pups. And, you know, mature.

Paddy Fanning: I think that’s good advice for anybody with a dog at any stage when well, any stage of training. And I often think yhat if things go a little bit wrong, just give a little break and come back to it.

Tony Rofe: I found that dogs that I’ve trained it, perhaps aren’t going to make, you know, say, quality trial dogs. You know, when farmers handed them off of me, they kept me out. Sometimes they see a pup thats six or seven months old and I’ll send it around the field and bring the sheep up. But it is important that you don’t push the pup too hard. Just work to its abilities. And that’s one of the secrets is there’s no pressure that for the pup it all becomes second nature. And you really no time do you need to put that pup under pressure. Yeah, you know, they, once they reach 10or 11 months old, it’s all in there. everything’s happening. They’re working loose out in the field with the pub, probably from about six months old. And you will have a lot of fun. Because these dogs have had no pressure put on them. everything that you’re doing on a round pen all becomes natural ability.

Paddy Fanning: Yes.

Tony Rofe: And you know, I mean, all you’re doing is bringing out that natural ability. But if you’re if you’re going to stand there and you’re going to keep reprimanding the dog. i would want respect from the dog not fear. Yes. And you know these puppies are not fearful at all. Yes. Because, you know, they don’t need to be when I take these pups out they’re not push button dogs. They had fun. Yeah, and now that’s the time. That’s the time I allow that, you know, to really bring out their own abilities in them because you got to remember these, these perhaps are at six, seven or eight months old. A lot of people we know wouldn’t even bother to start In a puppy until it was 14 or 15 months old. Well, my opinion is why waste all that time?

Paddy Fanning: Is there any one idea that you’d like to impart on people? To a good aspiring trainer or somebody who’s very enthusiastic about trainining dogs, if you could impart one idea what would it be?

Tony Rofe: Let the dogs have fun. Let these pups enjoy their training. Don’t make it hard work. You know, in introducing a dog she’d go sheepdog training, it’s got to be fun. It’s got to be fun for you. You know, and it’s got to be more fun for the pup. And once that pup is really enjoying this job. They just soak up information and just really enjoy it. Some people are fearful of training. Don’t be, it can be so much fun and something like the round pen may not be for everybody. But if you’re new into it, always go to somebody you know, for advice. Never think that you know at all. I certainly don’t. But you know, getting good advice from good people. Using that ability of the pup, and just enjoy yourself.

Paddy Fanning: Thanks very much, Tony. It’s been lovely talking to you this Sunday morning. And I really hope people will find that helpful. It really helped me now and it’s totally transformed the way I train with dogs and I started in a lot younger and I get a lot more out of them now. So it’s been great to be able to hook up with you. Thanks very much Tony for us.

Tony Rofe: You’re very welcome. All the best.