What Dog Behavior Doesn’t Teach You About Sheep

Written by Pat Tagg, M.Sc, CABC

Anna and I were standing at the back of a queue of woolly bottoms. Anna is my German shepherd dog, and the woolly bottoms belong to my 200 Poll Dorset sheep. We all work together on a small farm in Dorset, U.K., where we study traditional herding techniques, management, and its impact on the environment.

We were waiting patiently for the front sheep, Bernard, a dark-fleeced 2-year-old wether (a wether is a neutered male sheep) to decide to put his nose into the race (a short, metal-sided channel containing medicated foot baths, which connects a collecting area with the fields) and to lead his flock mates through.

Now, Bernard isn’t necessarily a natural leader among sheep — that’s a place more normally reserved for senior ewes — but he has experience leading in training exercises and, on the quietly spoken cue of “get on, Bernard,” is reasonably reliable at jumping into the foot wash, hopping into the foot treatment and then strolling off to the green fields ahead. His highly social flock mates, observing very closely, willingly follow the lead of demonstrators like Bernard.

This is Bernard. The film is a replication of the moment when someone spoke to him (featured in the story). In this example it is a known person speaking and the same vehicle. At first he jumps a little bit and is leaving, signs of discomfort (probably more due to the dog in the background making a noise/scent detected than the voice). Then he recognises the voice and stops to look. He regurgitates and stops to chew cud, signs of increasing relaxation. He is a regular participant in training events, one of the ‘demonstrators’ who learns new things and helps his flock mates to succeed with new tasks by literally ‘leading by example’.

Not today. Bernard went forward, turned around, and stood, backside firmly in the entrance to the race, and looked back at us. A number of females beside him decided that this looked like a good strategy and similarly planted themselves, “arse about face” as we unceremoniously refer to facing the wrong way (or were they…read on!).

Sheep don’t have obviously demonstrative facial expressions (more on that later), so we stood there: me looking toward Bernard and company, Bernard appearing to regard my general area from across a sea of sheep.

The sheep between us and the front line were interesting. They filled the little shade-protected collecting area, all facing the race. This flock has experience walking out of the back of the sheep building, crossing the collecting area, and then filing through the race according to a number of social parameters that dictate when they hop in the foot wash, who they follow and who they precede. These things change with time and maturity. But generally, it’s a well-known routine. Today, the members of the queue had very flappy ears. They weren’t outwardly panicked, pushing or shoving each other. They were relatively still and quiet, but they were definitely flappy in the ear department.

We waited, and we waited. And then we waited some more. “What the heck?” I muttered to myself, earning an upward glance from Anna. We don’t get het up around sheep (we don’t get excited around any animals). Being stressed or excited is the route to distressed animals; the effects of negative emotional contagion are particularly messy in agricultural livestock.

Sheep can’t see directly behind them so, in the presence of a predator (human or canine) who is showing signs of arousal or excitement, they begin panicking, shuffling about, jostling to be able to keep an eye on the source of the problem, at the same time trying to flee en masse, often crapping all over everyone. That’s a lot of (potential) emotional and manurial crap. It is not necessary to reduce welfare standards in order to move sheep, so het up is not a thing. Plus, I like to be barefoot in flip-flops at work (think about it).

This was weird, though. The dog was behaving normally. She usually attends to the line at the back of me, behind the flock, and she focuses on the task. She was no different on this day: no staring, no pushing, just waiting. No clues there, then.

I was absolutely sure I hadn’t introduced anything new or upsetting to the situation. We’d done this a thousand times. If I do need to move Anna to help unblock or thin out a “pile up” of sheep, I have taught her a “psssssh” cue (which means move left and right behind me).

Independent of the presence of the dog, I taught the sheep a “psssssh” cue (which means “follow on” once someone is in the race). “Psssssh” cannot be shouted or embellished with emotional intonation, which makes it helpful around sheep, it’s a kind of quiet whistle sound. Today though, no one was “pssssshed.” Nothing. No sheep or dog was moving or being asked to move.

The sheep know this dog. They will stand and sniff her and she them, a nose-to-nose sniff fest that serves to confirm their connection until such time as some person suggests the “tea break” is over and perhaps we could all psssssh, and we go about different but complementary tasks.

Today: nothing.

It finally dawned on me! I should turn around and look where Bernard and his front line were looking. It’s so obvious, right? Um, no, even after all these years of contact with sheep it took about 20 minutes for my three-pound human brain to finally catch up with the sensational collective brain of two 200 sheep. Pound for pound (not that that’s a very informative measure) as individuals, I out-brain them ten times over, but collectively, they out-brain me by a factor of 28. So, I looked, and I was embarrassed; there in the yard, talking quietly about 80 metres away, are two people who are unknown to the sheep.

My Spidey-sense had deserted me, I hadn’t heard them.

“Goodbye,” I said.

“Oops,” they said, before disappearing indoors.

As I turned back, Bernard was already gone, a sploshy, splashy, woolly line filing through the foot baths behind him before disappearing quietly out to the pasture beyond.

You would think that all those mobile ears and Bernard’s watchfulness might prompt me to realise that something wasn’t right. It got me thinking. I know what differences in the behaviour of sheep look like: the very subtle, almost imperceptible behaviour (and still I missed the big stuff). What about the times when people who don’t know what normal looks like and don’t recognise difference come into contact with sheep? The potential for distress from casual contact worries me. Of more pressing concern is the rise in dog trainer adverts proclaiming that “‘dog and livestock’ workshops are the thing and all livestock are protected because the dog practitioner is an expert.”

An expert in what though?

Domesticated farm ungulates are not dogs. They aren’t even “big dogs” as people sometimes declare. They’re not predators. They are prey species with adaptive survival ethologies that include lots of hiding, feigning, and social collective strategies for survival. Without specific species knowledge and experience, are dog trainers really equipped to ensure the welfare of (usually someone else’s) animals?

With this question in mind, we set out to investigate by conducting an informal experiment entitled “When Dog Trainers Tried to ‘Read’ sheep.”

Our sheep participants (200 of them) were in their familiar environment, one of the 20-acre fields that has an open gate at one end leading into another field. This ensured that they were free to leave at any time. These particular sheep are used to sheep-savvy people, and in fact regularly and voluntarily approach such people. For our purposes, sheep-savvy people includes folks who attend another programme onsite, learning how to move, how to speak, and how to watch sheep and dogs. These people learn about the impact of their own body language and visual, gestural cues for boosted communication skills with pet dogs. We call it Shepherd School.

This sample group of sheep are not used to non-sheep-savvy people. Rarely do people come on site who are not aware that the farm is basically run by the sheep, for the sheep. (They do have a butler. That’s my job.) I needed such non-savvy participants to test my theory. And so, we had a visit from invited dog and horse behaviourists. Three of the four participants had been assessed via academic or organisational processes designed to confirm standards in competence with named species for the implementation of therapeutic behavioural interventions. Also present was me, with 40 years of practical agricultural experience (pigs, cattle, and sheep) and academic qualifications in agriculture, psychology, and companion animal behaviour counselling.

All our visitors are skilled, experienced and respected in their field. Four joined us for a day that explores the interspecies relationships involved in traditional shepherding work. All the trimmings, including ecology, ethology, a discussion of what might be inherited versus learned. These non-sheep_savvy, generous people agreed to utilise their skills in an experimental attempt to engage with the sheep.

A morning of seminar material behind us, and with participants suitably informed (beware the classroom, apparently there are limitations to what can be learned!) we loaded into the smelly old farm 4×4 and bounced out to where the sheep were grazing. There are a number of things to note about the use of vehicles around sheep. In general sheep will acclimatise to the sound of a familiar engine, particularly if it predicts the delivery of a sheep-appropriate buffet.

When vehicles are involved in the moving of sheep from one place to another, the vehicle must only help with direction of travel, never the speed of travel. Better still, as in the case of this flock, the sheep are taught to follow the vehicle from place to place. This makes it likely that the sheep will be comfortable with the presence of the vehicle. Being comfortable that the vehicle was an unlikely confounding variable, we arrived, parked and waited.

The flock was there. Our intrepid experts alighted and waited beside the vehicle. They waited in the hope of some acclimation to their presence before deploying the best of skills honed within the canine and equine spheres. These competent people, authorised practitioners with their chosen species set about engagement with this particular sample of sheep using a variety of slow, careful, low movements; crouching down; speaking gently; outstretched hand for sniffing; move a little, wait a little; sideways approach; and so on.


The sheep politely, quietly, slowly, but very deliberately…left the field.

We asked our participants the following behavioural questions.

  1. At what point after you entered the field was the first sign of stress seen in the sheep?
  2. What was the first behavioural sign, after you got out of the vehicle, that the sheep were disturbed?
  3. Which sheep left first?
  4. What behavioural signal was given by one of the sheep that an interaction was possible?
  5. How do you think you could have approached them differently?

The intention of these questions is not to be conceited. Quite obviously our visitors couldn’t answer them. With respect to them, they had demonstrated that which was hypothesised, that human-dog and human-horse communication skills are not transferrable to sheep (at least not these sheep). It was never intended that they become expert ovine translators in a one-day visit.

Things had been noticed though. It was much harder than expected to get anywhere near the animals; in fact, attempting to close the gap was recognised as an invalid strategy, but what would be correct instead eluded everyone in that moment. Our friend Bernard had made friendly overtures to one participant, which had been recognised, but on receipt of a non-sheep savvy reply, he had melted away with the flock.

These results were all very curious given the plethora of photographic evidence of this mob surrounding Shepherd School people and demanding cuddles!

Now to look at my answers to the questions above:

Whilst our car occupants were looking at the still-grazing flock as we drove by. I was looking at the margins of the flock for movement, and there it was. Immediately as the vehicle came onto the field carrying unknown people, some 500 metres away a couple of animals were already leaving the field. This was significant. This was the first big stress signal.

Our olfactory presence preceded us, five enormous scent articles also known as human bodies, crammed into a warm, wheeled tin container, transported without care to the prevailing breeze and open wind tunnels (windows) at a convenient height for wafting.

Sheep were one of the first mammals studied with regard to olfaction, in particular how recognition of lambs by mothers occurs. One of the strange but true facts about sheep and pheromonal chemo-sensory communication is that, unlike most mammals, it occurs in the main olfactory epithelium as opposed to the vomeronasal organ.

Hide a human from a sheep? Think again. Humans are at the top of the list of predatory animals in the sheep little black book of predators. The very presence of an unknown person is known to be problematic for sheep. If we didn’t notice the first signs of stress, marginal flock movement, I don’t think we can claim to be expert at keeping sheep comfortable in our presence.

Looking at Question 2:

Humans pay attention to those things that are immediate and will save on brain power. It takes a lot of energy to run a human brain, so any shortcuts like “Well the sheep are still grazing, so they’ve got to be okay” will generally satisfy our ethological need for brevity. Plus, we’ve all been schooled to believe (to some extent) that if animals are eating they’re not under excessive stress. Would that even be true in predatory animals? A second look would have revealed that while the sheep were indeed still grazing, the flock as an entity had altered drastically. The individuals had formed a pattern; they were realigned, and the alignment was in the direction of the exit.

Why were they still eating? If you are a sheep, you are blessed with floating, rotating eyeballs that can roll about in your head like little globes. It means that you can keep your head down (like everyone else), blend in (like everyone else) and look around you to see where the problems are and how your flock mates are responding without being noticed. It might be a mistake to assume that because animals are still eating all is well. When the random pattern of pursuit of that delicious clump of greenery is abandoned for something more streamlined, we are probably dealing with a disturbed flock. When the streamlining points directly at the exit, it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? That’ll be a “no” — we missed that one too. Still think it’s okay for non-sheep-savvy individuals to claim to have skills to protect the well-being of livestock?

In this video the sheep are grazing. Initially the grazing appears random. They are already reacting to the presence of the camera person (someone known to them). Can you spot their tactic (it is behaviour related to flock safety)? Something you would need to know, the closest exit to where they are grazing is in the corner of the field where the camera pans left at the end of the film.

Let’s look at Question 3: What signal had occurred to elicit formation foraging?

The sheep that were leaving the field first, moving almost imperceptibly, but definitely faster, slipping past others, were the old sheep. These old girls are distinctive physically and behaviourally. Sheep societies are matriarchal, so when the old girls move, everyone takes note. Flock wide, eyes swiveled and the old ladies were observed. When critical distances were met, the entire flock melted away.

Social buffering has a profound effect on amelioration of fear responses in sheep. Sheep are highly social animals and flock life is complex. The proximity of conspecifics is critical to the well-being of sheep. They need to be in a group (the minimum number is debatable) to be able to exercise fear-reducing behaviour. How ewes and lambs stick together is revealing: When ewes begin to relax the need to keep their lambs very close for example, it can be taken as a sign that they feel safe. We have many stories of the antics of lambs, who are reliant on very experienced sheep for social guidance on everything from where is the shade to how to get from one field to another.

No one noticed the physical similarities between these larger, sway-backed, wide-girthed, experienced, older sheep, or that they were moving before and more purposefully than any of the others. No one noticed the orientation of everyone else as the flock turned inexorably toward them. A dog trainer once wrote and told me that social buffering was something that could not be considered as a real or valid entity in the training and welfare of sheep as a group or when dogs were being trained with sheep nearby. I suggest that it is a phenomenon that is crucial and, if we cannot identify it, we should not be within the distance that sheep can sniff us at all. And that may be farther away than we detect them visually.

So how about darling Bernard? He was the guy who indicated that an interaction was possible (Question 4). As someone approached him, he quit grazing, lifted his head and started sniffing toward the approaching person. Kudos to our expert, she did recognise his change in behaviour, realising that it was an invitation. In response she crouched down and tried various inducements to close the gap between them.

The thing is, when trying to understand and utilise species-specific ethology, you quickly learn to quit trying to control animals through control of what you think are reinforcers, and find out instead what is salient to them. It’s not always obvious. The sheep peeps would have stood still and waited and waited and waited… Bernard would have liked that. We know coercion isn’t going to work. And in this moment Bernard demonstrated that he didn’t care much for persuasion either. He left with his mob.

So, now you know the last question is a trick question, right? How do you think we could have approached them differently?

Seriously. You don’t approach them. Please don’t approach them. When they’ve rolled their rolly eyes and sniffed their sniffy noses, they will decide. They will approach you, or they will not. The countryside is their home. Like all of us, sheep need to feel safe in their own home: to approach, not to approach, is their choice.

Just for the record, my sheep-savvy group would have considered placing themselves in the best spot for the sheep to examine them via olfaction from a safe distance. That means knowing about the wind direction and how odour works, and how flocks judge “safe distance.” Hopefully some of the information here helps us all to realise that the privilege of deciding what constitutes a “safe distance” is not ours. That privilege belongs to old ovine ladies.

Fortunately our visiting group of expert dog people were immediately aware of the limitations of their knowledge and the impact of their presence on the sheep. It is imperative that organisations governing animal behaviourists and trainers examine in detail the impact of their members’ activities on agricultural livestock and investigate thoroughly concerns raised that members are stepping outside their sphere of expertise.

And finally, I mentioned earlier that I would come back to facial expression. Facial expression is a robust indicator of pain in sheep. Recently some pictures of my lamb Sick Note were posted on Dogtaggs social media page when she wasn’t feeling very well. A wider audience were asked if they could tell how she was feeling. A week later when she was feeling better, another picture was provided for comparison.

In the picture on the left, Sick Note was not feeling very well. In the picture on the right she was feeling well. In an informal, online challenge, people were shown only the photo on the left and were invited to tell us what emotional state the lamb was experiencing and why. The photo on the right was provided one week later for comparison alongside an explanation of SPEES (sheep pain grimace scale).

There were some fantastic guesses and descriptions. Not surprisingly, the sheep keepers who replied were spot on. I was comforted that lots of non-experts replied to say that they had no idea and were not prepared to assume any knowledge — although anecdotal, this is still further evidence that species specific knowledge about body language is not effectively transferable to other target species. Happily though, they were interested.

The main clue came from the shape of her nose.  A series of studies looking at sheep faces has come up with a measure: the acute angle of the V shape made between the nostrils and the philtrum is indicative of a sheep experiencing pain. In the absence of pain, the nose relaxes again.

Tricky to pick that one out of a group at a glance, eh?

One final thought: If you can’t avoid livestock on your walk, please keep your dog on a short lead. Sheep everywhere will thank you.