Halter Training Show Lambs

Southdowns have a reputation for being stubborn. Well, we have had terriers for 14 years so I do stubborn! Fortunately, I have been able to use my experience and mistakes in dog training to train my lambs to walk and stand pretty for shows.

I use “positive reinforcement.” This means that if the lamb does what I want her to do, she gets a treat. If she does not, no treat. There is no punishment – just the lack of a treat.  It might take more time and patience at first but in the long run, but it’s easier for me and for the animal than struggling in the heat, pushing, pulling, slapping, and basically mutton bustin’.

How fast you go at first depends on how tame the lamb is to begin with. I will describe how to train one that is starting out on the skittish side.

Sometimes even if you use food, they throw a tantrum.

Sometimes even if you use food, they throw a tantrum.

Get your cup of treats ready – you want something that is easy and fast to eat. I just give little pinches of alfalfa flakes, others use Cheerios. Be sure to account for the additional calories in your lamb’s diet.

First, I don’t want to start off lessons by chasing the lamb around and getting everyone all keyed up.  The easiest thing is to get in the feeding pen with her, since she is in there already. I show her the halter, let her sniff it, give a treat.  If the lamb will eat out of your hand, feed her out of your hand, or have her eat out of the cup and gradually get her eating out of your hand.  The first few days, all I do is acclimate her to the halter until she is no longer startled by the sight of it.

Then, I gently put the halter on and see if she will eat with it on. Sometimes she won’t right away, so you have to put it on loose and just stay still, eventually she will be tempted by the food, either in her feed bucket, the cup, or your hand – whatever she is comfortable with.  Work up to eating out of your hand with the halter on.  I am not putting any pressure on the lamb.

In Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make us Human, she explains how a zoo got a wild African antelope to stand calmly to have its blood drawn. It took a very long time, but the critical point was that the keepers never pushed the animal past its flight zone.  The keepers would get just close enough, give some tasty fruit, and then leave the animal alone. As time went on they were able to get closer and closer and then eventually draw blood with no restraints. So, I follow this principle – I avoid startling the lamb or making her want to flee. If I mess up, I take a few steps back and start again.

Once she will eat out of my hand with the halter on, I hold the food just out of reach. She must take a step to get the food.  Some don’t even want to take one step and they pull their necks wayyyyy out to try to get it. But, no step, no food. Then two steps – food. Three steps – food.  Now, some of our lambs are so tame that they get it right away and follow the food in my outstretched hand.  Some lambs I have to do two steps at at time, and quit.

Now we are walking around with the halter on, following the food and giving a little nibble every few steps.

  • Give food in the position where her head is up, looking proud.
  • Only give food when in motion.
  • Don’t reinforce bad behavior – don’t give food when the lamb is screaming, thrashing her head around, or doing some other unwanted behavior.
  • Some lambs want to stop and eat the food which is a bad habit, but I minimize this by using smaller amounts of food that is easier to eat – you have to experiment to see what works.
  • No slapping, pinching, pulling, etc. Do not use physical force.
  • If the lamb puts on the brakes, eventually she is going to be overwhelmed with temptation and move on.  If she is stopping a lot, you may have gone past what she is able to do today and you might want to just do a few more steps, a reward and quit for the day. Or you may want to train -before- mealtime, when she is more hungry and therefore motivated.
  • Most lambs do better if they have a buddy who is tame or already trained to go around with them. It is difficult to train the lamb all by herself, with no pals around because her mind is on, “AUUUGHH!! Where is everyone!?”
  • I have noticed that lambs won’t cross the path of another sheep but will walk around the rear – this may be because they are afraid of being shoved by the other sheep.
  • Keep lessons short – a few minutes twice a day.  Work up to the typical length of time you would expect to have to handle the lamb in the show ring.
  • Work the lamb up to walking around all by herself because some judges will have the lamb walk individually instead of all together in a big circle.
  • Practice leading on both sides and going in different directions because you never know what you might be faced with at the show.

Now you might be wondering how this is all going to work when you are not allowed to use a halter or food in the ring.  Trainers use the principle of “fading” to get animals to perform without the food being in front of their face.  Think of a slot machine — we keep pulling that handle because one time we got a quarter out.  So, once the animal understands the concept of walking around nicely, I give the food less and less.  I start saving the food for when she is walking very nicely, with good focus. We work up to walking a longer and longer path, leaving the cup of food at the end of the route, where she hits the jackpot.

Of course we are fading out the halter at this point also, and have gotten the lamb used to having her head held in the proper show position with the halter on.  The halter is used during training as a back-up because we never want the lamb to discover she can just break away and run off.  I don’t remove the halter entirely until the training is solid and the lamb is calm – though I have had some lambs do better with no halter and in this case I remove it earlier.

We also use the food to practice being set up and having her feet handled. As with the walking, we reinforce the right behavior. If she stands still, she gets food.  When we are done, I take the halter off have her stand nicely and give a nice big mouthful and tell her “OK – go see your friends,” and let her go.  I only let the lamb go when she is in a calm state of mind, so that she does not get the idea that if she freaks out or throws a tantrum, then we get to quit.

A couple of weeks before the show, it is a good idea to have some friends and neighbors come over and serve as distractions.  The show will of course be a noisier and busier place than your yard. Practice having strangers touch the lamb as a judge would.

Southdowns are stubborn, but they also love to eat. Given enough time and patience, I believe that any lamb will work for food.

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