Although this brand of tough love is not unique to our farm and flock, or even to sheep, these principles have allowed us to live comfortably with our rams for many years.
Many people believe that rams are inherently dangerous and shouldn’t be given attention, but some of them can be very affectionate for their whole lives.
Congenial, and even close, relationships with the shepherd are very possible as long as the ram understands, and wholeheartedly believes, that the shepherd is the “alpha ram”.
We would emphasize the importance of prevention: From the time that they are lambs, all rams need to be taught (and reminded) that they are subordinate to the shepherd, and that they must NEVER challenge that fact!
They have to understand (in the core of their being) that there are RULES that cannot be violated. To make matters more difficult, ram-lambs are often the most friendly and charming, but it is vital not to allow them to ever “demand” attention. However subtle, this can be the first stage to an undesirable shift in dominance.
* We should mention here that the behavior of an adult ram who is dangerously aggressive to people is unlikely to be corrected by any means, and unfortunately the best and safest course may be euthanasia.
• Rams (including lambs) must not ever butt or paw for attention, or press their heads against you, or push another sheep out of the way in order to dominate your attention.
• A ram must never approach a human with his head down, and should not “bob” his head. He must never back up, and feint a charge (as young ones do with the older rams).
• Jumping up on people is absolutely forbidden, no matter how cute a little ram-lamb might be at the time.
• A ram should always move away from you when asked to do so.
• Ideally, a ram should not enter the shepherd’s comfort zone without being invited. If he does approach the shepherd, the ram must stand quietly, and wait for a pat or a word.
It is in the genetic nature of every ram to understand the hierarchy of his living situation. Any ram who moves into a new farm needs to know immediately “who is in charge”. In some way or another, depending on his personality, he is going to test the situation to determine his authority. This applies to all other sheep in the flock, but also applies to his new shepherds.
Unfortunately many rams move to new homes in the fall, as breeding season approaches, and when their hormone levels are rising. Placing the ram with or near ewes, and/or feeding grain, only intensifies their stress, and desire to control their environment.
Although most well-brought-up rams will automatically be submissive to humans, in the stress of a new environment, some may test the shepherd. This would not usually be an aggressive attack, but head-bobbing or other warnings may be used to solicit a reaction.
Under any circumstances, it is critically important that the shepherd respond immediately, and confidently, to any threats or displays of dominance toward humans.
An inexperienced shepherd may not sense that they are being tested, and may inadvertently jeopardize their authority. For example, showing fear, backing away, avoiding the ram, or trying to ply the ram with treats can send the message to the ram that the human feels subordinate.
Once a ram believes that he is dominant over the shepherd, there is a serious potential for dangerous behavior. Once an adult ram is truly aggressive toward people, he may never be completely trustworthy again. It is vital to prevent this sort of escalation.
• UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD A RAM LIVE ALONE. In the boredom of isolation from other sheep, rams will find ways to take out their frustrations by bashing buildings, butting people or other animals, jumping over or destroying fences, etc. Wethers make excellent companions, but we recommend having more than one when keeping a single ram.
•We never feed grain to rams. This sort of high octane feed tends to make them more excitable. Shetland sheep as a group, really do not need grain feeds, but do best on a quality grass hay.
•We do not ever give food treats to rams. Once treats are expected, the ram’s eagerness to get them can lead to impatience with the giver...and he may respond with butting behavior.
• NEVER pet a ram on the top of his head....they can consider this a challenge and it tends to make them butty. Rams should always be “chin up”.
•Be aware of what the ram is doing at all times. When entering the ram’s pen or pasture, it is a good idea to keep him in your field of vision.
• Never strike a ram...he may consider this a provocation, especially if one hits them on or about the head. They think: "This human is fighting like a ram....and well, it doesn't hurt that much”...so the uppity ram becomes even more interested in the confrontation.
•In breeding season, never use just a single fence to separate rams from ewes, or from other rams. For breeding pens, the perimeter should be made of a solid material, so that the rams can’t see each other. But if there is no visual barrier, we feel that they should be separated by a distance of 50 feet or more, depending on their personalities.
•In the off-season, the spacing separating rams and ewes can be only a few feet, and at these times, see-through fences are fine. Some folks run rams and ewes together for a couple of months in summer, but we never have felt comfortable enough to do this.
EXPLANATIONS & DISCIPLINE
Those who violate “the RULES” (see above) can be disciplined more mildly than older rams, but never less definitely. The idea is that they learn immediately that they are not in charge.
For any undesirable behavior, push the lamb away with a firm “No”, even if you are smiling inside.
If “No” doesn’t get the idea across, pick the ram-lamb up in a way that is uncomfortable for him...allow him to dangle until he feels frightened...all the while, saying “no” or giving some other verbal reminder.
Alternatively....or if these methods don’t have an effect....you may move along to more serious dominance demonstrations. We flip the ram-lambs on their backs or sides, shouting “No!” This is physically easy while they are small, and one such treatment as a youngster often makes a lasting impression; that ram may not ever require another reminder!
These dominance demonstrations are the same as those that dog trainers use. We have found that they are extremely effective ways of managing rams....for mild threats to humans, or for various other bad behaviors, such as barn or fence bashing. The goal is the same as that for naughty ram-lambs: to get them on their sides or backs (helpless) with you holding them down. You establish yourself as “alpha ram” and teach the delinquent ram that he must never question his lesser position to humans, or the requirements of living in a flock situation.
Do not attempt to discipline a truly dangerous ram; by the time a ram is fully grown, he is large enough and strong enough to injure a human. Therefore the techniques that we describe should only be used by a shepherd who is confident and skilled in handling sheep. The disciplining shepherd should out-match the ram in strength and weight; for some shepherds, even a half-grown ram presents too much of a physical challenge.
For the majority of well-brought up rams, no discipline in adulthood should be necessary. But for those who misbehave in a minor way, these methods provide a way to effectively make your point. Most importantly, you are armed with the confidence of your dominance, and can repeat the lesson if needed.
1) You may use the classic shepherd’s maneuver for placing a sheep on its rump, but then move the ram to his side.
2) In the heat of the moment, you may grab the ram by whatever you can (a horn is easiest for some), but however you do it, be prepared to hold on. The horns can be used as a leverage point to flip the ram, but that is sometimes more difficult to do with the bigger boys.
3) As a point of interest, there is another method that may be easier on your body. After you have caught the ram, place him sideways to you (right against your thighs) and lean over his back, grab the far front leg and a handful of the skin in front of the far back leg and flip him as if you are shaking a rug, stepping back as you do it. He will go quickly onto his back. One wouldn't ever hold on to the skin or wool of a sheep otherwise, because it hurts them. But this is a lesson and need not be pleasant. This works especially well when one is irritated....adrenaline helps a lot!
After the ram is on his side/back, hold him with his head turned severely around to the side, and use a knee to hold him down, until he gives up struggling. If this is a first offense, the sense of helplessness may be all that is necessary. But if the ram has needed discipline more than once, also hold his nose for several seconds with one hand, with the other hand holding the head. Don’t hold their noses until they pass out...they lose enough brain cells on their own!
While the ram is down, shout at him! Shout something that you can use as a verbal reminder later. It may take more than one application of this treatment to make an impression, especially if the ram has decided that he can misbehave and still remain alive!
We should mention that it is very rare for one of our adult rams to ever need this dominance demonstration. The lambs tend to grow up with good attitudes; Shetlands are intelligent and we believe that they learn by seeing the occasional reprimand.
The rams in our flock are calm and respectful, their good behavior inspired by their shepherds' "alpha ram" confidence.
May you and your ram be friends for life.