SheepDog Trial Demonstrations
That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with FJ Cunningham (43) from Malinbeg, Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal. He discusses his sheep farming roots, Away to Me SheepDog Trial Demonstrations, and sheepdog training.
“My family has been farming for more generations than we can remember. I am a part-time farmer, with a flock of Cheviots, Swaledales, Perth, and Herdwicks, running a sheepdog demonstration business, and working in construction.
A primary part of my farming is training sheepdogs and running sheepdog demonstrations through one of my primary businesses, Away to Me SheepDog Trial Demonstrations.
All in all, making our family business, Away to Me Sheepdog Trial Demonstrations, a success even in spite of two years of Covid-19 restrictions has been my greatest achievement.
Covid-19 put the brakes on a lot of our business plans, but, in the end, we held on and made it through, and we are busier than ever this year. It took a lot of time and effort to get to this point, but it has all been worth it.
We breed sheepdogs, but not commercially, only when we have to replace a dog at the house who is getting too old for work.
I look for a great brain for following direction but also for critical thinking; the seacliffs we farm on can be treacherous.
It is important that a dog is sensible, trustworthy, and able to think on its feet for itself if I lose sight of them. I also look for a good temperament, a bit of height, good stamina and strength for working those hills and seacliffs.
When I was ten-years-old, my uncle, Hugh, gifted me six Perth ewe lambs, and a week later, he landed back to the house with a brown and white border collie pup bred from his own bloodline, and it all started there.
I still have that same bloodline at the house, and I hope never to lose it. It is purely personal preference, but I would prefer our own breeding, which we have improved over generations to be exactly what we are looking for, over a registered dog any day.
I train five or six at a time and about ten-twelve dogs a year. In reality, I am always training my dogs since, even for the good dogs and for myself, as I improve my handling skills, every day is a school day.
Like people, every dog is different and learns at its own pace. In the first year of its training, it learns the basic commands and learns to follow my instructions.
After that, they are learning on the job every day by working in different environments. A dog will only ever be as good as the variety and amount of work it has faced – experience matters – the same as for ourselves.
Satisfaction and success
Although I have had the honour of winning some local sheepdog trials, the most rewarding successes are often personal and happen without an audience.
When a dog I have worked to train and have built trust with helps us to take sheep out of a tricky situation up on the seacliffs, or on the mountain, and you see the natural intelligence of the dog and the hard work you have put in with them paying off, it is incredibly rewarding.
This is particularly true if I have had a hunch about that particular dog since they were a pup.
I typically give young dogs I am just starting out with 15-minute training sessions. Like children, I find they learn a lot more if the lessons are shorter but often; too much pressure right from the start, and they shut down and get burnt out.
For safety, I start in a controlled environment like a circle pen or a very small section of a field where I can control the sheep as well as the dog.
Then as they learn, they graduate to larger fields and eventually to the hill and the last of all the seacliffs.
You may start off with an idea of how you want to train a dog, but I also modify training to suit each dog’s own instinctive working style and pace of learning so they enjoy working from the beginning.
I try to harness their natural ability rather than going against their nature and possibly frustrating them and burning them out. Once they learn the basics, I fine-tune them to a standard that I, as the handler, would prefer.
Start teaching your dog basic manners from the time they are a puppy. Long before they ever enter a field with sheep in it, they should be able to sit, stay, lie down and be recalled to you easily; this is as much for safety as it is for their education.
It is also important to make sure they are well socialised from the time they are puppies so that they are used to a variety of people and have a good temperament, especially around children.
When I started off first, my uncle Hugh taught me how to train a dog. Over time, you develop your own techniques learned from experience, and you learn from other handlers who are good enough to give you pointers and gentle correction.
I am always open to constructive criticism as I feel every handler, especially very experienced ones, have something worthwhile to teach.
If you are open to it, you can really improve your handling. Always be willing to learn and accept that there is always someone out there who will know more than you do.
To be honest, it is the buzz and satisfaction I get from seeing a dog I trained from the time it was a pup work well that I enjoy most.
Seeing something in a pup and believing they will be special and then seeing it come to fruition is incredibly rewarding, especially if it is one of my own breed of dogs.
Nell, my 14-year-old main sheepdog, has been a brilliant all-rounder for years. In addition to winning local trials, she will work for absolutely anybody, will work absolutely any sheep put in front of her and always gives 100%.
She is the mother of Terry and Darkie, two other dogs of exceptional ability, in fact, I won the Glencolmcille intermediate trial with Darkie and the local with Terry (Nell at 11-years-old placed second) back in 2019.
The most challenging time in a dog’s training is what I call ‘the teenage phase’ when a part-trained dog has all its commands off by heart and has had enough practical work to know all the basics.
The dog begins to think it knows everything and starts challenging your commands and contradicting your training, preferring to do what it wants or what it thinks needs to be done.
I think it’s in this phase of training that a lot of people give up, decide a dog is not as good as they thought it was, and end up losing out on a brilliant dog.
If you have the time and patience to persevere through this phase, at least in my experience, you end up with a really good finished dog.
I was introduced to sheepdog trials by my uncle Hugh who I spent my summers with, and we used to watch recordings of One Man and His Dog in the evenings.
The first trials I ever ran in were local trials in Glencolmcille and the neighbouring parish of Kilcar. More recently, I participated in the ISDS nursery trials, which was a fantastic learning experience for my dogs and for me.
We are lucky to have many great handlers in Donegal and in the local area who were willing to share their wisdom and who also set a really good standard for those of us who are learning.
Stubbornness, or more appropriately put, patience and perseverance are required to become a successful trainer.
If you see something in a dog and your gut is telling you a dog is going to be good, you have to be willing to follow it through, in spite of the days when it is challenging.
With all these commitments, I currently spend 8-10 hours on a construction site, followed by a long evening of farming and training dogs.
In the summer, it is lights out until 11 pm or so, and in the winter, you put on your headlamp and carry on after dark. Livestock cannot wait until you have time to see to their needs, so you just have to make time.
My advice to aspiring sheepdog trainers is this: Do not expect it to be easy. Be kind to yourself and your dog and realise it is a journey.
Be willing to learn from other people but be willing to be flexible enough to adapt your training technique to suit individual dogs.
Sheepdogs are not like a quad bike that you just switch on, and away you go from day one; sheepdogs take time and patience, so do not expect them to work as if they are fully trained unless you, yourself, have put in the time and effort first.
I would love to be able to make farming profitable enough to pay for itself and allow us a reasonable household income without having to also work off-farm jobs.
Growing up in Malinbeg and being a part of the traditional farming and fishing methods practiced by every family in our village has always been the best possible foundation I could have imagined.
From saving our own hay in tramcocks to growing our own straw to thatch our house by hand every year to milking our own cows for milk and homemade butter, it has all shaped who I am as a person and my view of farming.
People are starting to truly understand the value of small family farms and the care that people, for who farming is deeply personal, take to provide the best produce and livestock.
When you are someone who has grown up on a farm that has been in your family for generations and that you intend to pass on to future generations, you come to realise that you are only ever a caretaker of the land and just doing your part to leave it better than you got it so that it is healthier and more productive for the next generation.
In my opinion, small family farms working together in cooperatives to get a fair price for their produce and livestock is definitely the way of the future over big factory farms.
In our village, as in many other rural coastal communities, farming and fishing happened in tandem in most houses until relatively recently.
Politicians are not doing enough to protect and promote small family farms, particularly hill farms, which have a less environmental impact, and small-scale local fishermen.
As a result, communities are suffering and losing their centuries-old ways of life in favour of big factory farms and huge commercial fishing concerns – that has to change if we are to return to a truly sustainable way of life.”
To share your story like the owner of Away to Me SheepDog Trial Demonstrations,, email – [email protected]
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