Round Pen Sheepdog Training – Pro or Con?

I met Mr. Tony Rofe for the first time, when we traveled together to the European Nursery Championship in Holland in 2016. He in introduced me to the benefits of using a round pen as a tool for training very young sheepdogs or pups to work sheep. On my return from The Netherlands, the first thing i did was to buy gates from Buffalo Steel to use for a portable round pen for my training.

Sheepdog round pen trainingENC 2016 – Tony, Serge & Paddy

How can some people have a dog ready to run in trials at only 12 months of age?

Tony Rofe (from Devon, England) had been showing me some videos of dogs while we were attending the Llanfarian run event in Holland. He showed me videos of dogs that he was training that were only 7 and 8 months old yet, they were outrunning 150 yards for sheep, fetching and driving them, taking their ‘lie down’ and their flank commands really well. I could see that even though these dogs were what i considered still to be only pups, they really understood their verbal commands.

I said that I always wondered how people could have a dog running trials at 12 months old. To which Tony replied directly, ‘‘round pen Paddy, you need to get yourself a round pen.’’ Myself and Tony spent 4 days at the European Nursery Final (or the ENC as it’s known on the continent).

Over that 4 days Tony explained to me how he uses a round pen to start pups. Tony starts by teaching them their sides and their stop, while working them both inside and outside of the pen. He went on to explain that later, he uses it to teach them to drive and to shed sheep. Tony told me that he even uses the pen to begin teaching the principle of outrunning to the pups! I had been cynical about round pens and probably too arrogant to succumb to using one prior to this, but I don’t like feeling stupid either, so the week I got home I called Mark in Buffalo Steel  to see about buying some gates to make a pen. When i asked Mark what I should buy, he explained to me that he had 2 types of hurdle and that either would suit what I wanted to use them for. I settled for the slightly more expensive drop pin one as I allowed it would be more secure in undulating ground and easier to throw a leg over, hopping in and out.

Tony told me to get about 20 gates which I did, I think they cost about €600.00. He said I would be able to set them up in 15 minutes and move them if the ground got dirty or muddy.

You can see here how easy it is to relocate the pen if the ground gets muddy.Sheepdog round pen training

The round pen unfurled it’s countless benefits

When Tony began telling me how he used his pen, the first thing that became apparent to me was that I had no well dogged sheep to school on. This meant that i had nothing easy for starting a young dog with. It is very off putting to take out a young dog out to school on wild sheep, probably in a field that is too big, without even an older dog to hold the sheep in a corner. It inevitably results in having to spend a lot of time and energy running and managing the dog and the sheep and maybe having the young dog split off a sheep and chase it to the corner, thereby learning bad habits and wasting alot of training time.

Because of the ‘work’ of this system, I would let my young dogs get older so that they could take more pressure and do more general work and get common sense. All the while, fellows like Tony would have a young dog half trained by the time I was starting one. It also meant that because that because Tony was training them earlier, He could get a sense of their ability earlier and make decisions over whether to keep one for further training or sell it as a potential dog for someone else. So for Tony, if he had too many and needed to sell one for example, he had a nice young dog to show someone, whereas I only had a keen dog that barely knew it’s name at the same stage and that’s not very attractive if i need to sell him etc.

Now that i have a round pen, I can now use the wildest of sheep without any great effort or exertion on my part which means that I am bursting to get my young dogs early and get going on them.

Wild sheep quickly become quietSheepdog round pen training

It is a very natural way to train. I hardly even raise my voice.

Which leads on to the next thing I like about the round pen. I can let a young keen sheepdog work on the outside of the pen while I call the shots from the inside with the sheep near me.

So for a keen young dog that doesn’t want to come off sheep or that is working them too hard, I can do something I love to do with green sheepdogs, work the hell out of them. I flank them this way and that, outside the pen. Burn off all their excitement and tension without causing harm or stress to the sheep. And very importantly, without tiring myself. No running around for me. Not even raising my voice.

When the young dog starts to tire or lose interest I can ask them to stop or call them off quite easily. If I want to take them into the pen with me to let them feel the sheep more, I can, because most of the tension has been burned off.

I find it is a lovely natural way to train and i can set things up to allow the dog to choose for himself.

Another thing I like about the round pen is that neither me, nor the sheep, get tired. I can have the round pen near the road where my jeep is parked and work 3 or 4 young dogs without having to do a lot of walking or running myself. Before this, I would only train or work one or maybe two young dogs and i would have used up hour and a half. Now I can school four young dogs in 30 or 40 minutes. All that, and the sheep don’t even get tired because the dog is the one doing all the moving!

See below for list all the benefits on sheepdog round pen training. Tony Rofe talks about sheepdog round pen sheepdog training and he enjoys Sheepdog trialing.

But the real secret Tony explained to me, is to be able to take them out 3 or 4 times a day.

Tony told me that this really speeds up their education. He said that over the course of a 3 day weekend that he could give a young dog up to 12 lessons. Twelve short training sessions is almost like two weeks of sheepdog training condensed into 3 days and Tony said”you would be surprised how much they can learn in just a weekend!”.

3 time supreme winner, Gwyn Jones Penmacho, advised me to try and do the same thing with any young dogs I had, that had tension in them. Gwyn said that working them until they relaxed in a session and then working them a few more times in the  day would release the tension more and more so that they could get out of their own way.. and learn.

Speeding up the training process

Another principle of the round pen that Tony pointed out to me is that the pups and young dogs don’t get the opportunity to get it wrong. For example its not possible for the dog to split one off for itself and chase it down the field. The first time I started to think about this concept was when I watched the Aled Owen video ‘Time well spent’. While I was always never greatly concerned about a dog that was doing something incorrectly, (in fact I often buy started dogs that have faults) I am starting to now see the benefits of not letting the dog learn a wrong thing in the first place and how by doing that, the training process can proceed a lot faster.

Sheepdog round pen trainingRound Pen – A Controlled Training Environment

I find the round pen to be an invaluable training tool for these reasons and more. Right now I have the pen set up in the bottom of the garden at my house in Wicklow and I am using it to start some 12 and 16 week old ISDS registered Border Collie puppies in the early stages of sheepdog training. With the very young ones I want to tease them with the sheep at hand, to encourage out that herding instinct that is bred into them for generations.

Indeed, I use these hurdles from my round pen for other jobs too . For example, they are great when I need to set up lambing pens in a hurry, or a pen to hold sheep in for shearing, etc. The next job for it will be to set up a few 5 gate mini pens to hold some sheep for my son to release for me when I am training my dog Bruce for the upcoming sheepdog trialing event, The Irish National Sheepdog Trials

Buffalo Steel Products are in North Wicklow and kindly sponsored a lambing pen for the winner of our Hill Trial last year. They sell all kinds of gates not just sheep gates, in fact they sell everything from sheep weighing scales to hayracks and Mark is very helpful with nationwide delivery.

Sheepdog round pen training

Buffalo Steel Products – Hill Trials Sponsor

I love those things that I buy that end up being cheap no matter what the initial cost; the round pen certainly falls into that category and I am only looking for an excuse now to buy more panels.

Sheepdog round pen training