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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

‘I have sold sheepdogs Ireland, the UK and America’

Sheepdog trainer: Shannon Conn

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with 20-year-old sheepdog trainer, Shannon Conn, in this week’s women in ag segment. We discuss following in her father’s footsteps, her passion for breeding and training sheepdogs and sealing sales worldwide.

“I am from the North of Ireland; Magilligan is the name of my homeland where I run Rockface Sheepdogs.

I come from a family farm, which was mainly a beef and sheep enterprise, but now we focus more on sheep and our border collies. We are currently the fourth generation on our farm.

After I completed my GCSEs, I went on to further education and studied ICT, 3D Art and Design and Travel and Tourism as my A-Levels.

Whilst I was completing my A-Levels, I wanted to study at night at Greenmount Agricultural College.

I studied a Level 2 in Business Operations in Agriculture; this course was a great way to start my education in agriculture.

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Currently, I am full-time helping out on the farm alongside my father, Loughlin and partner, Kieran.

I focus most of my time on training and competing with my sheepdogs. Also, I have recently become a new mum to Logan, which is a whole new experience. You could say Logan is always out and about with me when training my dogs.

On our family farm, we have sheep and a few beef cattle. As my father and I compete with our sheepdogs, we focus more on training, selling, breeding and competing with our sheepdogs.

Sheepdog trainer 

Currently, I have seven sheepdogs. Firstly, Harry is retired, but I compete with Yellowhill Chip, Joker and Ralph. Furthermore, I also have a few in training- Rockface Maise, Rockface Jen and Ash.

I try to breed a few litters every year. But recently, I have been serving breeding other people’s female dogs with my Yellowhill Chip dog as he has been doing extremely well at the competitions.

When you breed sheepdogs, you never know how the pups will turn out, but it is a great start to have great breeding behind them. As the saying goes, ‘a champion can come from anywhere.

I started sheepdog training when I was just 10-years-old. I started with a young dog, Dan. Just like people, dogs learn something new every day. Therefore, when I started with the sheepdog, I could say I was training with that dog, Dan.

I try to train and sell a few sheepdogs each year at the auctions such as CCM Auctions Skipton (England) and the Farmer’s Mart (Wales).

As I keep dogs to compete with and are still training them, I always try to have about 4 to 8 dogs per year to train and sell.

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A family tradition 

Working with sheepdogs is in my blood. My great-uncles have competed for most of their lives with collies, and my father got into it a few years before me. You could say he taught me everything I know.

When I started to compete with the dogs after I finished my run, my father would have come over to me and explain what I had done wrong and how to improve on it. This is what shaped me to become who I am today.

The moment you call your dog off from the sheep, and they run as fast as they can to get back and get a big hug, and a pet after doing so well, is enjoyable.

Titles and international sales

The main titles I currently hold are BBC One Man and His Dog Champion (Bill)  2015, Irish Young Handler Champion 2015 (Harry), International Young Handler Runner up (Harry), Hills of Donegal Young Handler Champion 2018 (Maggie)  & 2019 ( Harry), NISDS Nursery Final Champion 2022 (Yellowhill Chip), North vs South Nursery Challenge Champion 2022 (Yellowhill Chip), and Four Nations Nursery Final Reserve Champion 2022 (Yellowhill Chip).

I have sold sheepdogs Ireland, the UK and America. Today, we can ship dogs to most places in the world.

Training sheepdogs

When it comes to training, it depends on the dog; all dogs are different when it comes to learning.

You could train a dog in about three months, but like anything, a dog will gain experience on the job the more it is out. But it all depends on the dog.

Firstly, obedience is very important before you even take a sheepdog to sheep. After you have the basic commands, such as sit, stay, lie down, and call off, you can then take the dog to a round pen.

This means when the sheep are placed inside a circular pen and the dog is around the outside of the pen.

When the dog goes one direction, you say the command such as a-away (right) or come-by (left). Then you can start to get the dog to stop.

Once the dog is taking all its commands outside the pen, you can take them into a small field with a few sheep and keep practising the right and left and stop commands.

Therefore, once you have these basics, you can start training your dog how to do so much more.

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The best tip I would have for anybody who has a dog is the bond between you and your dog is one of the most important aspects of training.

If you think about it, if you were working for a company and they treated you great, you would put more time and effort into your job.

However, if that company did not treat you with respect, would you want to work for them? This is how dogs see their master as the person they work for.

I find that if I have purchased a new dog, it may take a while for that dog to form a bond with me as some of them are not used to a female handler, as a female handler has a higher-pitched voice. This can take a longer period to change over.

I do not believe in having regrets, as each choice I have made has led me to where I am today. There is no point in looking back; you should keep looking at the pathway ahead.

Shannon Conn (20) is a sheepdog trainer, breeder and triallist, beef farmer and mother-of-one from Northern Ireland.

The next generation 

In the future, I hope to have set up an area on our farm in which new/ young handlers can come with their dogs to help them improve their skills and knowledge.

When I was starting sheepdog competitions, I found that there was enough help from top handlers, and you had to learn it yourself unless you had someone else already into the sport.

Every day is different, which I love. The best way to see my typical day in my life is on my Instagram or Facebook under the handle: Rockface Sheepdogs.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

See more women in ag profiles.

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