HERDING WITH DUCKS
by Terri Hardwick
Interest in herding training has been growing rapidly and many of the new people who want to get involved with the sport are not able to keep sheep in their backyard for daily practice. As we all know, regular training (hopefully daily training) is extremely important when starting a dog.
For those people who want to be involved in herding but have minimal or sporadic access to sheep, don’t despair! There is an alternative! Successful herding training can be done using ducks as a supplement to occasional training on sheep.
Ducks have certain characteristics that can make training with them much more difficult than using sheep.
The number one problem is that ducks are very fragile. They break when stepped on and one grip by a dog can be severely damaging or even fatal. A dog should never be allowed to pull feathers. Also, during laying season the females are carrying eggs. If these eggs are broken inside the female, she may very well die.
Other problems are that ducks can’t run very fast, the flapping wings tend to either scare the dog or encourage them to grip and that ducks prefer to move along the fenceline rather than out in the open area. Dogs trained heavily with ducks tend to develop the problem of working too close to their stock.
Using ducks alone can create bad work habits in the dog, so the most effective use of ducks is in addition to training on sheep. Most dogs progress much faster when worked on stock daily rather than once a week or less, even if the stock used daily is ducks and they only see sheep once a week.
The only breed of duck to get is the Indian Runner. These ducks have been developed as egg-laying ducks and are tall and skinny. They have a strong “pack” instinct, which keeps them grouped well and they move fast (for ducks!).
They also don’t have a strong tendency to fly or flutter (a flapping duck stimulates the dog’s desire to grip), and they don’t ever get tame, which means you can use them for a long time before you have to exchange them for new ones. Over time the ducks can get too dog-wise, standing up to unsure beginner dogs, refusing to move, or not grouping as well as they used to.
Indian Runners come in white, buff, fawn and white, and penciled. Don’t let anyone convince you to take “colored” Runners. These are runners that have been crossed with mallards or other breeds to get the pretty colors. Yes, they are very pretty, but they don’t have the best characteristics of the pure Runners. They usually don’t group well, they flutter a lot, and they will even fly for a short distance. Sometimes they’ll even attack the dogs. Other breeds of ducks can be even worse. You can use them for demonstrations with trained dogs, but they are not at all suitable for starting young dogs.
When you go to purchase ducks, here are some points you need to consider:
What age? You should be able to find some in the summer that are between two months and six months old – that year’s hatchlings. You need them to be old enough that you can start using them, but young enough that they adapt well to the dogs. The first ducks that I bought were adults from a farm, where I believe that they were chased by dogs at some time. When they first saw my dogs (who were on leash), they tried to run away as fast as they could, even though they were in a pen, running at full speed into the fence. One was severely damaged and later had to be put down.
Be sure the ducks are at least two months old so that you can be sure they are Indian Runners. They will have the shape and coloring of the adults by then. They are the same size as adults by about five months. A friend of mine went to the flea market in town to buy ducks. She walked up to the guy selling ducklings and said “Have you got any Indian Runners?” He said, “Sure I do!” Well, we’re not sure what they are, but they are definitely not Indian Runners – they even have topknots on their heads! Indian Runners are simply not a popular breed in the States, and they can be hard to find. I’m sure that some people selling ducks don’t even know what they are.
What sex? This is a very important question. You must have at least two females for every male or have all males or all females. Too many males during mating season can cause severe stress for the females. If you have all males, they will fight some during mating season, but it won’t be bad. Mating season (egg-laying season) lasts from March to August here in North Carolina . In colder areas the season may be shorter. Remember, too, that during this time the females are more fragile than the males because of the eggs they are carrying.
Care and feeding? Contact your local agricultural department. They should be able to send you a nice pamphlet to send you with some good information. In particular, it will have photographs of the different breeds of ducks.
I recommend using a pelleted feed made for laying hens which you can get at any feed store. It has more calcium and vitamins than the other feeds and the ducks seem to handle stress better, since herding stresses ducks more than other types of operations.
Weather is not a problem as long as they have some sort of shelter to get under. Of course, we rarely have snow in North Carolina .
How many? How much space do you have and how many dogs do you want to work? You should start a dog with a group of at least 5 ducks. It will take the ducks a while to build up some stamina, so at first you will only be able to work them about 10 minutes a day.
The Agriculture Department pamphlet says that ducks need about 40 square feet of space per duck. You can keep them in a slightly smaller space as long as they get let out in a larger grassy area to graze for a couple of hours every day. (They eat grass & insects.) Remember, the more crowded they are, the more they will fight among themselves.
Also be sure that the ducks and dogs can’t see each other when they are not being worked either by keeping the duck pen and the dog area separated, or at least putting up tarps on the fencing. The ducks will be able to relax, and the dogs won’t drive themselves crazy by running the fence.
What do I need for training? For a training area, you need a round pen about 60 feet in diameter, or a rectangular pen about 100 feet by 50 feet. Be sure to round off all the corners, or the ducks will get stuck there.
Also be sure there is no vegetation other than grass in the training area. Even the tiniest bush will seem like a safe haven to the ducks and you will have a very difficult time working them at all.
Training techniques are not very different between using sheep and using ducks. The biggest problem is that the ducks don’t like to move toward people like dog-broke sheep do and they tend to stick to the fence. It gives you a lot of opportunity to teach your dog how to take stock off the fence and how to really work to hold them to you. Driving is also much easier to teach.
Even if you don’t live on a sheep farm, you can still be a successful trainer. Be creative, take advantage of every opportunity you can find, and be willing to try a different approach – like training with ducks!
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1995