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Webfooted Sheep Substitutes

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments


by Linda Rorem

Ducks display flocking behavior in a manner similar to sheep and can be used for training herding dogs in the maneuvers to be used with sheep and other larger stock. Ducks sometimes are used to test very young puppies for herding instinct. A big advantage of ducks is that several can be kept where it would be impossible to keep sheep. Ducks are hardy, fairly easy to keep, and easy to transport.


Adult ducks can be obtained from ads at feed stores, through newspaper ads, from some hatcheries, and other sources. Ducklings can be obtained from hatcheries, from feed stores or pet stores, or even ordered through the mail. Baby ducklings will need a draft-proof box with a heat lamp or brooder for several weeks. They grow quickly, so will be able to be acclimated to the outdoors after a few weeks, although they still will need shelter and warmth at night or in bad weather.

They will approach adult size and appearance by three or four months, although it may take a little longer for the full adult coloration of the drake to appear. Downy ducklings should be kept from deep water unless supervised, as they can become waterlogged and drown — very young ducklings have even drowned in dewy grass. Their drinking water should either prevent their entry, or have a means of getting out. If adult ducks are already present, the ducklings should be kept separate from them, as adults will not accept strange ducklings and may attack them.

The breeds usually recommended for herding are the lighter breeds developed for egg-laying such as the Indian Runner and Khaki Campbell. Many Mallards work well. These breeds are more active, faster, flock better, and are generally quieter than the heavier meat breeds such as the Pekin (the common white duck), the Mallard-colored Rouen, and the aggressive Muscovy, although individuals of these latter breeds can be acceptable. I have used Runners, Campbells, Mallards, and crosses of these. I prefer the moderately upright build of some Runners and mostly-Runner crosses to the extremely upright build of many purebred Runners. The small Call breed is also good, but may be a little noisier than some other breeds.

Five to seven ducks may be adequate for a small facility where only one or two dogs are being worked, but use by more dogs will require more ducks, and more ducks will of course require larger facilities.

When obtaining adult ducks for herding, they should come from the same flock if possible. Ducks from different flocks and/or breeds won’t readily associate with one another, but will split off and give an inexperienced dog discouraging difficulties. It usually is better to start out with a few more ducks than actually needed, then select for the desired number, because even in the more suitable breeds there will be individuals that have less stamina, develop more aggression, are noisier, or have some other quirk that makes them less suitable than their flockmates.

Drakes are quieter than hens and usually have more stamina (because they aren’t devoting energy to producing eggs). Drakes confined in small areas, however, sometimes may fight during mating season even if no hens are present and may injure and even kill one another. In the case of ducks that I have had, this has appeared to be more of a problem with the Campbells than with the Runners, but in any case the problem is diminished when there is sufficient room.

In any group of both hens and drakes, hens should outnumber the drakes at least three or four to one. When there are too many drakes, the drakes will fight with one another and will rough up the hens. Part of the mating ritual for ducks involves the drake grabbing the hen by the neck, leaving hens with feathers pulled out and sores on their necks, or worse. Some drakes are rougher with the hens that others, so in a mixed group an excessively aggressive drake should be removed.

Runners and Campbells are noted layers. Duck eggs can be used like chicken eggs and are especially well thought of for baking. They usually aren’t fried, however, because when fried they may have a stronger flavor and a somewhat rubbery texture compared to fried chicken eggs, although this can vary. I often hard-boiled the eggs and gave them to the dogs for a treat (whole raw eggs should never be given because a substance in raw whites binds up Vitamin B).

A hen may be left to set her eggs and raise ducklings. Several ducks may lay eggs in one nest, but it is best to confine any setting hen or hens separately. When several hens are kept in a small area, they may try to push eggs from one nest to another, and if after the disturbances the eggs do hatch, the hens may fight over the ducklings. Ducks are notoriously poor mothers. They may set 20 eggs, hatch only half, with only half of the hatched ducklings eventually surviving. Because of this, ducks eggs often are hatched in an incubator, or put under a setting chicken — leading to such sights as a frantic mother chicken running along the bank of a pond as “her” babies instinctively take to the water.

Many Runner and Runner-mix ducks show little inclination or ability for flying, the best they can manage being about 1-1/2 feet off the ground for about four feet on a downhill slope. Many ducks, however, especially those with Mallard admixture, can achieve varying degrees of flight, and for those, wings can be clipped by trimming back the long outer flight feathers of one wing by two to three inches. Regular scissors can be used, with care being taken to cut only the feathers, not too close to where the feather is set into the tip of the last wing joint.

Ducks are fairly easy to handle. They may occasionally attempt to nip with their beaks, flail with their wings, or scratch with their feet, but such efforts usually are weak and easily countered (an exception is the Muscovy). Ducks are best held by putting both hands around the body, enclosing the wings. They can also be held by grasping the upper wings in one hand, close to the body and over the back, or by holding the duck against your side with one arm around body and wings. It is best to avoid picking them up by the neck, but if a quick grab is required, the grasp should be well down the neck, at the shoulders, never close up to the head.

Ducks can be fed mixtures of layer feed for chickens and chicken scratch available from feed stores. Baby ducklings should not be given “chick starter,” however, as it is not formulated for them; instead, they should receive a food made for ducklings or for game birds. Ducks enjoy bread, tomatoes, lettuce leaves and vegetable scraps. They are very good at clearing an area of snails, slugs and insects. When ducks have plenty of opportunity for forage and aren’t being worked too much, chicken scratch may be adequate.

If more closely confined and especially if being worked, scratch is not sufficient — layer feed should be fed, or layer feed mixed with scratch (laying crumble is a more convenient and practical form of the food than laying mash). Ducks also can be given small-kibble commercial dry dog food with the occasional addition of some dry cat food. Plenty of drinking water is very important for ducks and it must be deep enough so they can submerge their heads. A child’s wading pool can be used if the enclosure is big enough. But while ducks appreciate being able to swim at will, this is not strictly necessary.

For drinking water, a low tub or bucket will work, but such containers will necessitate changing the water daily or every other day, as it soon gets silted and dirty because ducks swallow grit and wash their beaks and heads frequently. The water container should be set over gravel, a wire screen, bricks with slight spaces between, etc., to keep the area around the water from getting muddy. Dry flooring is important for ducks; confining ducks to a small pen with wet flooring will cause health problems. Pens can be bedded with straw, new straw being added as needed and the whole pen cleaned out occasionally (which provides excellent mulch and fertilizer for plants). This will not be necessary in a larger yard with only a few ducks.

Ducks can be allowed free range in large areas, being enclosed in a covered pen at night for their safety if there are predators. A pen of about 4 x 12 ft. is acceptable for five to seven ducks which are allowed regular access to a larger area. In larger areas a three-foot fence usually is adequate for keeping ducks confined, but four feet is better for a smaller area, and of course a higher, stronger fence may be needed to keep other animals out. If the duck enclosure is adjacent to any area to which dogs have access, the duck enclosure should have a vision screen to keep the dogs from disturbing them.

The pen should be located away from the owner’s house or any neighbor’s house, because with close confinement the ducks’ pen can become aromatic or attract flies. General cleanliness and proper care will keep this at a minimum. While ducks are fairly hardy, nevertheless there should be some kind of covered shelter available to them at all times. For more information on keeping ducks, see Raising the Home Duck Flock by David Holderread, Storey Communications, Inc., Schoolhouse Rd., RD#1, PownalVT 05261.


Ducks used for training must be fit, free-moving and cooperative. They should be fully adult or, if young, well-grown and adult in appearance (around four months or more in age). Ducks do not have a great deal of stamina and must be treated with care because of their small size and weak build. Young or new ducks shouldn’t be worked too long or hard at first, so that their stamina can be built up. Of poultry types, ducks
are the most suitable for herding. Chickens do not flock well and most breeds of geese, although they flock and can be worked, tend to be aggressive.

New ducks may panic the first few times they are worked with a dog, but if properly introduced to being worked will soon settle. They should be worked at first with an experienced dog, who in essence will teach them what the proper responses are to the movements of the dog. Experienced ducks will be less inclined to panic, flapping wildly and quacking, and will respond more appropriately even when worked by a less experienced dog. It is important to try to set up situations in as positive a way as possible for beginning dogs.

Ducks that are worked regularly soon become accustomed to the routine. They can almost become too accustomed to a routine, however — for instance, to a particular course with obstacles always arranged in the same way. Should this start to happen, the situation can be varied by arranging obstacles in a different way or by changing the appearance of the obstacles by tying small flags or even balloons to a familiar panel to make it look different.

Ducks, like other stock, may become too accustomed to the herding routine or become sour and aggressive, so may have to be replaced from time to time. During the mating season, drakes in particular may be more inclined to run at dogs with necks outstretched, attempting to pinch, especially when near the nesting area. One time during mating season I sent my Collie into the duck house to bring out the ducks, and the drake jumped at her and hung onto her ruff — she stood there looking nonplussed, while the drake was sure he was doing major damage! My Collie’s size and experience kept her from becoming upset at this behavior, but less experienced dogs or younger or smaller dogs could be intimidated in such circumstances or overreact and attack a duck.

Ducks sometimes are used for introducing puppies to stock, but this must be done with careful supervision because ducks can pinch with their beaks or frighten a young puppy with an aggressive display or by loud quacking and flapping. One way of providing the first introduction is to have the ducks in a small round pen (such as an exercise pen) with the puppies able to circle the pen on the outside. To stimulate a puppy’s interest, you might catch one duck and take it a short distance from the pen, allowing it to run back to the pen or run around the pen on the outside with the other ducks still inside, always being ready to intervene if the puppy attempts to grab or jump on the duck or the duck attempts to run at or peck at the puppy.

Older puppies can be directly introduced to docile ducks, under close supervision, in a larger area. Pups or grown dogs should never be left with ducks to chase and pull feathers at will.

When I first obtained ducks, I didn’t have enough room to work at home, so I took my ducks to school fields, parks or other open areas to work. Standard pet carriers such as airline kennels work well for transporting ducks. Find areas that are quiet, relatively free of people and, in particular, free of loose dogs. While many people are fascinated by the sight of a dog herding ducks, others may become concerned at what can appear to them to be a dog chasing ducks with intent to harm. The problems associated with loose dogs are obvious.

Also avoid areas with brush. The natural tendency of ducks is to seek safety in dense cover, and it can be difficult to find them and get them out should they manage to get into cover. They will flatten themselves on the ground and hold perfectly still, even if prodded. Long grass and rough surfaces are difficult for them to walk on and tire them out quickly.

For setting up various courses, I nailed together little four-rail “gates” or panels from strips of wood lath, about two feet high and three feet long, secured by small round metal posts pushed — or hammered, depending on the harness of the ground! — into the ground (later I put “feet” on the panels). For pens, standard exercise pens are handy. I have also set up larger fenced areas with a roll or two of 2-ft.-high chicken wire and more of the small metal posts. In some cases, to help make the wire more visible to people and dogs, I would run a white string along the top. My set of 20 posts cost around $25.00, obtained at a hardware store. Plastic insulators for electric fences (about $3.00 a package) were useful for securing the wire to the posts. These items can also be obtained through farm catalogs.

At the practice field, water should always be available for the ducks (and for dogs and people, too, of course). I would take along a small dishpan for the ducks’ water, which not only provided refreshment for the ducks, but could be used to help keep them in position at a distance when practicing outruns. The ducks would take turns dipping in their dishpan when there was a lull in the activities.

Ducks are small, practically defenseless, and aren’t really designed for a lot of walking or running. They must be protected from unruliness on the part of the dog such as trampling, bowling them over and nipping. Some dogs may be too strong for ducks and would best be started on sheep. After some training, such dogs may then work ducks safely. In all cases, first exposures should take place under the supervision of a knowledgeable person so that the best approach to training can be determined.

The book The Farmer’s Dog by John Holmes shows some approaches for beginning a dog’s work with ducks, including work with the ducks inside a small pen while the dog moves around the outside of the pen. As a general rule, because of their size and because they will not come to the handler in the same way experienced sheep will, ducks are not as suitable for starting a dog as appropriate sheep would be, especially for larger or more aggressive dogs. They are excellent, however, for intermediate-level work, fine-tuning and driving, because they respond to small movements on the part of the dog and readily move away from the handler in any direction.

I prefer to work ducks in as large an area as practical so the dog has plenty of room to get around them. Less experienced handlers, dogs and ducks may need to start with some work in smaller enclosures, with minimum sizes of approximately 60 ft. across for circular enclosures or 60 x 90 for rectangular areas. Corners of enclosures should always be rounded.

When working ducks in enclosed areas of any size, it is important to condition the ducks to stay out in the open, away from the fences. Often ducks will attempt to run to the fence, seeking shelter, whereupon the dog may become frustrated and trample or attempt to catch them. I conditioned my ducks by: 1) working them first with an experienced dog who could get around them and hold them out in the open whenever they attempted to go to a fence; 2) frequently, especially at first, placing the ducks where I wanted them by walking along the fence myself, tapping a pole and shooing them back out into the open whenever they attempted to go to the fence; and 3), an important factor, always keeping water and sometimes food in a container out in the center of any area where they were to be worked, and frequently letting them rest there. Whenever they went toward a fence, the experienced dog or I would bring or shoo them away from the fence, toward their water pan set out in the open, where they were allowed to settle.

Another factor in working ducks is being aware of the area toward which they want to go, their “draw” direction. There shouldn’t be any pens of other ducks near the working area, as the ducks being worked will repeatedly attempt to join the other ducks. The principal problems of working ducks at trials are fence-hugging behaviors and strong draws to the holding pens, and sometimes attempts to cling near an obstacle in an effort to hide. To handle these situations, a dog needs to keep a suitable distance, avoid overrunning the ducks, cover well from side to side with square flanks, and be experienced in properly and quietly moving in tight against a fence to move the ducks away from it.

A drawback of using ducks is that they are slower than sheep and tend to cause the dog to work closer to the stock than is ideal. However, this can be used as an opportunity to insist that the dog work slower and further off the stock, teaching the dog that every step taken is critical.

Ducks will need plenty of rest periods when working. They should only be worked for very short periods because they have relatively little stamina and stress easily without necessarily showing signs of how stressed they are. The warmer the weather, the longer and more frequent the rest periods will need to be. The nature of the dog will also play a part in how long a session should continue. Signs of stress in ducks are panting with open beaks, floundering along with chest low or touching the ground and wings flapping, or sitting down and refusing to move in otherwise cooperative ducks.

The session should be immediately halted at such signs of stress, even if the working period has been short. In hot weather, the ducks may not work at all, or work only in the shade. They deserve full consideration — after all, they didn’t volunteer!

Ducks may be a practical solution for someone who is interested in herding training but is not in a position to keep sheep. Work done on ducks will adapt to work with sheep. And aside from that, ducks can be appealing, interesting animals to have around.

this article was published in Ranch Dog Trainer June/July 2000 and also appears on Linda Rorem’s website Herding On The Web