19 May 1995

More than just

a helping hand

Efficient livestock handling can save on time and labour. We kick off this special report by talking to a Lancashire handling expert who shows how a well trained sheepdog can work wonders. Edited by

Rebecca Austin

THOMAS Longton, one of the countrys top sheepdog handling experts, urges farmers to take on a sheepdog because it will be more of a friend than a worker – and he says that having a dog means there is always someone out there to help if things start to go wrong.

Mr Longton farms 40ha (100 acres) in Lancashires Quernmore Valley. Alongside 40 dairy cows with their 60 followers he also runs 150 Swaledales which are crossed with a Bluefaced Leicester ram.

But the eight Border Collies dotted around the farm yard soon reveal where Mr Longtons interest truly lies. Although football was his fascination when he was younger, he has always been interested in dogs. His late father Tots name is synonymous with sheepdog trials.

His own personal track record includes winning the English Brace seven times, the English Singles in 1985 and 1992, One Man and his Dog in 1980, and the international supreme championship in 1986.

Even though Mr Longton admits it takes a special dog to compete in trials, the other half of the equation is equally important. "I have developed my own style, which is a very personal thing," he says. "I like my dogs to be very enthusiastic and keen to go after the sheep. They mustnt lie down too much, but flow behind the sheep."

His dogs must also have good movement around the sheep. "A smoothness that doesnt go too wide or straight. The dog must feel the sheep," he explains, adding that once a dog has the capability to hold the sheep towards you it is ready for serious trial work.

For shepherds who merely want to work a dog at home, Mr Longton recommends they seek out one which has a good nature and is not easily frightened. He also suggests it shouldnt be too big, because those dogs are not so nimble. When it comes to choosing the dogs sex, Mr Longton prefers bitches because "they are more loyal and keen to please. They might not be so relaxed, but the enthusiasm makes up for that."

A well bred puppy should cost around £100, although those from exceptional families can change hands for as much as £1000. "Farmers are beginning to realise good working dogs are scarce and are therefore prepared to pay for them now. Compare the price with a £20,000 tractor and it is nothing," says Mr Longton.

Mr Longton takes his own dogs out at four months old to see if they have an interest in the sheep. Then they are introduced to a small group of penned sheep every month until they are keen to work. Only then does he start the tuition. "At this point I teach them to lie down and come back. The tone of the voice is very important," he says.

"A good handler will train a dog one step at a time – as if using building blocks. That way the dogs confidence is built up. You have to remember you are training a thinking animal which is concentrating on you and the sheep. Once you have built up trust with a dog you should be able to put it anywhere around the field and the dog will run half a mile in the opposite direction even though it doesnt think there are any sheep."

But not everyone has time to train a young dog and many farmers buy pre-trained dogs at auction or privately. "Dont expect it to work for you immediately," warns Mr Longton. "Spend a week getting to know it. The first time you take it out to the sheep put it on a long line in case it tries to run off. It will be a month before there is a proper rapport between the two of you; to help get there try and think what the dog is thinking.

Dogs of five years old and more may find it more difficult to adjust. "It is possible to train some of them, but those that have had their own way for a long time are more difficult," he says. Some bitches become keener once they have had a litter of puppies. "It brings out the protective instinct in them."