That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with sheepdog trainer, Tom O’Sullivan (38), Glebe, Kilcummin, Killarney, Co Kerry. We discuss his farming roots, passion for sheepdog training and local, national and international success.
“Both my mother and father’s families have farmed in the area, going back four generations.
From a young age, I have enjoyed working with animals. I recall helping out on the farm milking cows, helping with sheep and doing general day-to-day tasks on the farm.
I currently work in an office environment full-time as an architectural technician with an architectural firm in Kenmare, Co. Kerry. I have been working there since 2005 after graduating from CIT in Cork.
I try to help out on the farm as much as possible if needed in the evenings, but my brother, Donal, is the full-time farmer in the family. We have a dairy farm, a Simmental/continental-type suckler herd, some dry cattle, and a mixture of Suffolk/Texel/Charollais-cross sheep.
Training sheepdogs and helping out with sheep on the family farm have enabled me to keep in touch with my farming background.
I have recently set up Glebe Fort Sheepdogs and train and sell quite a number of sheepdogs during the calendar year.
I try to spend any spare time I have training and competing with my sheepdogs, and we try our best to balance our time with busy family life.
I have been training sheepdogs since I was twelve years old, but it was not until I was in my early twenties when I bought a registered female puppy from John Pope in Cork that I appreciated the value of a registered dog.
She was by John Brennan’s Irish National Champion Dunedin Gem and helped me get to the trial field and complete nationally and internationally.
I currently have 15 registered border collies in the kennels. They range from 5 fully trained dogs to some partly trained dogs we are training at present and some puppies we have bred for the future; fingers crossed!
I am a member of the International Sheepdog Society, and we try to breed some litters every year from top breeding lines. We generally retain at least one pup from a litter to keep the breeding lines going.
To breed a good one, it takes a bit of luck first and foremost, but sometimes with good breeding choices, you make your own luck.
We would generally make it our business to take some of our trained females to some of the top stud dogs in Ireland or the UK. I would not think twice about travelling to England, Scotland or Wales with a female if I liked the dog.
Generally, we would try to have at least one litter of pups a year to keep breeding lines going, however, have the dogs fit and ready for work on the farm, and competition takes precedence over breeding.
I could train up to six fully trained dogs per year and would have to make time to take most of the dogs in the kennel out every day for a training sessions/exercise and general farm work. The more often you take a dog out, the greater the reward on the training field.
Kerry sheepdog trainer
It can take anything up to a year to train a dog to trial standard, and once trained; you are constantly working on them, keeping them both mentally and physically fit for work and competition.
In reality, you are always working on a dog, training them, keeping them fit and alert for work and trials. The training never ends, I suppose, until we decide to retire a dog.
We start with socialising young pups, which is a critical part of a sheepdog’s early development. My wife, Mairead, and daughters, Aoibhe (14) and Kayleigh (11), are great at this, and it helps a puppy gain confidence at a young age.
Once the dog can keep up with sheep, quiet sheep initially, we introduce them to the sheep in a nice secure field/paddock, and it starts from there.
We train them in a small paddock at first with some quiet sheep. I don’t use the round pen generally.
I prefer to have quiet sheep at the initial stages of training and gradually advance the dog to wilder sheep, general farm tasks on the farm and eventually to areas where they may be up to 800-1,000 yards away from you.
Why we train sheepdogs
Always remember the main reason we train a sheepdog:
We train a dog to respect our sheep/cattle and help us move them where we want in a nice controlled manner.
If you train your dog with this in mind, you will have a great asset on the farm. A good dog is worth up to 8-10 men when sheep need to be moved from one place to the other or gathered off the hill, and you should be able to compete to a high standard at sheepdog trials if you ever wanted to.
An old Irish fib says that trial dogs do not make good farm dogs. I would say to any reader a good consistent trial dog is a brilliant farm dog, in my opinion.
Getting inside the head of a dog to bring out the best in them can be a challenge. All dogs are different, and as handlers, we often have to adapt our methods slightly to bring out the best in a dog during training.
Influence and assistance
I got great help from a man called John Evans in Keel, Castlemaine, and after that, when the ‘bug’ really kicked in, I read H Glyn Jones’ book, A Way of Life, which, in my opinion, is the sheepdog training bible.
All you need to know is in this book if you spend the time reading it. His trio of DVDs are also good, but I suppose the best way to learn is to get stuck in, learn from mistakes and watch the best handlers work their dogs.
I have learned a lot from discussions with sheepdog handlers from both Ireland and beyond over the years. I suppose I have taken all this information in and moulded it into my own methods that work for me.
There is great satisfaction in seeing a dog work well for you after spending months/years training it. It is like poetry in motion. For me, getting out in the evening and training a dog after a busy day in the office is a must.
Everyone has something they like doing, whether it be GAA, soccer, walking, cycling, running etc., but my passion is training a sheepdog.
I am out early in the morning, cleaning out the kennels and taking dogs for a quick walk before work.
I am predominantly working from home at present, so that helps to balance everything. Therefore, I am at the computer from 9 am-5.30 pm every day, so I usually get some time to train dogs in the evenings.
My first registered dog Jan, Peg, who was by Bobby Dalziel’s Joe, Mac in America, who made the USA World Trial Team 2014 and Northhill Tess, whom I bought from Kevin Evans in Wales as a young untrained sheepdog.
I have won numerous open trials around the country and in the UK. I represented Ireland in the young handler competition with my first registered female, Jan, at the International in Kelso, Scotland, in 2006.
Furthermore, I have been on the Irish team four times, in 2006 & 2011 with Jan and 2019 and 2021 with North-hill Tess.
Moreover, North-hill Tess has been my most successful trials dog to date. She won the Three Provinces Nursery Final in 2016 at one-year-old, the Four provinces Double Gather Championship in 2017 & 2018 and has been on the Irish team in 2019 & 2021.
Last year, we travelled to the International in Wales, and we won the International Supreme Championship 2021.
Over the years, we have bred some successful sheepdogs that now reside in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France, and Italy, to name a few.
Besides, from time to time, we provide sheepdog demonstrations to corporate events at Muckross House and Traditional Farms in Killarney. We enjoy this part of the business, and it is nice to share the skill of the working sheepdog with people from all over the world.
To be a successful sheepdog trainer, you need lots and Lots of time, perseverance, and dedication.
My advice to aspiring sheepdog trainers is this: Always ask questions, and if you are willing to learn, someone will be willing to help/advise. Try to go to some of the top handlers for training clinics/sessions.
My future plan is to just keep doing what we are doing really, keep progressing our breeding lines in the kennels and go from there. We desire to try to compete both nationally and internationally with our dogs.
My goal is to keep dogs to a standard where they are good work dogs and are consistently competitive on the trial field. Furthermore, we want to do what we can to help promote the registered sheepdog and sheepdog trials in our area.
The future of agriculture
Ireland is predominantly an agricultural country, so hopefully, the future is bright. You often hear people complain about this and that.
However, at the end of the day, someone engaged in farming is doing so because of a family tradition and a love of the land, so enjoy it is what I would say.
The asset of a sheepdog
From a sheepdog training point of view, I have always thought the skill of sheepdog training should be promoted more in Ireland.
I believe the asset of a sheepdog to a farmer should be promoted more and even form part of the Teagasc Green Cert syllabus. A move like this by a farming body of this nature is essential to educate the young farmers of today about the value of a working sheepdog.
It is a dying trade here in Ireland where the quad bike and a bag of nuts to herd sheep/cattle is more dominant.
The sheepdog is much more valued on the farm in the UK as they are, in essence, essential to the smooth day-to-day running of the farm. Anyone in Ireland with a good dog knows what I mean when I describe a working dog as an asset.
Ourselves, for example, our dairy cows, cross a public roadway daily. If we did not have a dog, we would have to have two to three people to get these cows across the road safely while protecting ourselves, the cows, and the road users.
When a dog is used, it is a one-person job. The dog gathers the cows and brings them to the gate. The cows are left to cross the road when it is safe to do so, and the dog quickly reprimands anyone who even thinks about straying off course.
A working dog is essential to any farm and will make life easier if they are well trained and on command.
Get in touch
Anyone interested in sheepdog training/trialling in Ireland, do not be afraid to reach out. Generally, someone in your area can offer advice/help or try to visit a handler for some training clinics/lessons.
You can contact me on 085-7451329 or email 0 [email protected]”
To share your story like this Kerry sheepdog trainer, email – [email protected]
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