WEB-FOOTED SHEEP SUBSTITUTES
by Linda Rorem



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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.

Keeping Ducks

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. 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. This is particularly the case with ducklings that aren't being raised by their mother, because they will lack the protective oils that ducklings being raised by their mother will acquire from her feathers (ducks preen themselves constantly to keep the oils spread over their feathers, which helps provide them with buoyancy). Ducklings' 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. Young ducks 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.  They should be fully mature before being worked to any extent, and the amount of time they are worked should be increased slowly.

Breeds commonly used for herding are the lighter breeds developed for egg-laying, such as Indian Runners, with their upright stance and fast gait, and Khaki Campbells. Call ducks are also good, although they tend to be slower. Also suitable are medium-weight dual-purpose breeds like the Blue Swedish, the domestic Mallard, and some lesser-known breeds like the Cayuga, Magpie, Ancona, and Welsh Harlequin, which tend to be calmer-natured than the high-strung Indian Runners. These breeds, and various crosses of them, are more active, flock better, move more smoothly, and, except for the Call females, are generally quieter than the heavier meat breeds such as the Pekin (the common white duck) and the Mallard-colored Rouen. Muscovy ducks can be aggressive, tend not to flock as well, and the larger, heavier individuals may not have a great deal of stamina. I have used Runners, Campbells, crosses of these, and Calls. With regard to Runners, I prefer the more moderate body type over the extremely upright type.  

Rough Collie gathering Runner and Runner-mix ducks

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. 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. Females carrying eggs are additionally vulnerable because eggs may break inside them and they may die as a result. Drakes confined in small areas, however, may fight during mating season even if no hens are present and may injure and even kill one another. In my experience this appeared to be more of a problem with Campbells than with Runners, and in any case the problem is diminished when there is sufficient room. In any group that includes 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. 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 tend to have a stronger flavor and a somewhat rubbery texture compared to fried chicken eggs. I often hard-boiled the eggs and gave them to the dogs for a treat (whole raw eggs shouldn't 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, or one mother duck may attack the ducklings that do not belong to her. 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, managing a distance of maybe four or five feet, a couple of feet off the ground, 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, not close up to the head.

Ducks can be fed a mixture of chicken scratch and laying feed for hens available from feed stores. Chicken scratch alone isn't nutritious enough and laying feed alone can be too rich, but in combination these feeds work well. When ducks have plenty of opportunity for forage and aren't being worked too much, chicken scratch alone may be sufficient, but if more closely confined or being worked, then laying feed should be added. Laying crumble is a more convenient and practical form of the food than laying mash. They also do well on an inexpensive brand of small-kibble dog food. Ducks enjoy vegetable scraps. They are very good at clearing an area of snails, slugs and insects. 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 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. 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 Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks by David Holderread, available from Storey Publishing.

Working Ducks

Ducks used for training must be fit, free-moving and cooperative. 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 do not have a great deal of stamina and must be treated with care because of their small size and weak build.

Of poultry types, ducks generally are the most suitable for herding training. Chickens do not flock well. Geese will flock and the better-tempered breeds such as the Roman, Pilgrim and Buff can be very good to work for a well-started dog, being sturdier than ducks, but geese may behave in a threatening manner if they feel pressured and breeds such as the common white Emden 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. It is important to work them at first with an experienced dog, who in essence will teach them what the proper responses are to the movements of the dog. Their stamina should be built up gradually by working them for only short periods at first, then slowly increasing the amount of time. Consideration should be used in introducing the ducks to dogs and in handling them in their day-to-day work.

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 also important to try to set up situations in as positive a way as possible, even if it takes a little longer; for instance, if you are working with a less experienced dog and the ducks run into a corner while you are attempting to set them up for the dog to go around them, you should have the dog while while you take the ducks out of the corner again and reset them; an inexperienced dog shouldn't be sent into the corner after them. This extra time is well worth it in the long run, as it will help keep the ducks from becoming sour as would soon be the case if they were constantly being pressured inappropriately and pushed into or along fences. During the course of its, training, the dog will learn how to properly bring ducks out of corners.

 Australian Shepherd moving Call ducks through an obstacle

With suitable experience, the ducks soon will begin to move more or less in the direction of the handler with the dog walking up behind them, changing direction according to the dog's position as directed by the handler. Ducks do not tend to so readily come to people as is the case with experienced school sheep, something which contributes to their suitability for fine-tuning a dog's work. Experienced ducks being worked by experienced dogs may eventually show some tendency to come to the handler's feet - in which case you have to watch your step! - but for the most part, the handler will need to expect that the ducks will avoid coming toward the handler. There will be cross-driving and driving, and fetches will be slightly indirect. The handler may need to stand back a little from the entrance to an obstacle so as not to cause the ducks to turn back or to go off to the other side in the case of a free-standing obstacle.

After the ducks become accustomed to moving around a course set-up, they may start to head through the gates or into a pen practically on their own. Be sure to change the course layout periodically to avoid this, or alter the obstacles (for instance, a towel or balloon can be tied to a familiar panel to make it look different). Ducks, like other stock, can become too habituated to the herding routine or become sour and obstreperous, 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, or a large, bold puppy may attempt to grab or bowl over a duck. 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. Puppies can be directly introduced to docile, experienced 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.  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. Flapping, quacking ducks can be overstimulating to an inexperienced dog.  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 (which can be set up by using a couple of exercise pens joined together) while the dog moves around the outside of the pen. As a general rule, because of their size and because they will not orient 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 pushier dogs, but in the right circumstances a dog may be started on ducks. Ducks are excellent 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. 

An important 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.

For the most part, I prefer to work ducks in as large an area as practical so the dog has plenty of room to get around them and move them throughout the area. There will also be some work in tight spaces so the dog can learn to handle those situations. Less experienced handlers, dogs and ducks may need to start with some work in moderate-sized 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 helpful to condition them 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.

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. The problems associated with loose dogs are obvious, and 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. 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 used 1x2- inch wood strips to make some little four-rail "gates" or panels, about two feet high and three to four 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 so they were self-standing). Obstacles can be made fairly easily from PVC pipe and plastic lattice or PVC pipe framing wire or netting. 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 thick white string along the top. With the smooth metal posts, I used clip-on plastic insulators to secure the wire to the posts. There are sturdy but light plastic garden posts with a long metal tip that have clips incorporated in the post design for securing wire. 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.

Shetland Sheepdog with Call and Call-mix ducks

Ducks will need plenty of rest periods when working. The hotter 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. In very 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.

 


 

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