If all you have heard about sheep is “how stupid they are,” it may surprise you to know it is my experience that sheep learn rather quickly. In fact, I’ve found it far easier to train my sheep as to what to expect, than any dog I’ve ever known.
When I have to change the schedule of my flock: feed them in a new pasture, move them in a different pattern, or take them to a new place, etc, it seems to take them about three times through the new routine, before they know to expect it.
Last year, there was a time when instead of feeding them extra hay or alfalfa pellets in the barn, I started letting them into the back yard where I had fenced off about two acres, so they could eat some new clover growing there, a high source of protein. For the sheep to get to the clover in the “new pasture” I’d made for them, they had to come to the pasture gate, and pass between me and the fence post as I held open the gate for them to pass thru into the new area.
The first day, they were a little confused. I called them, and shook some alfalfa pellets in a bucket to make a rattling sound they already equated with “food”. They all eventually came toward me, but they moved slowly, unsure why I was calling them at such an odd time of day, wondering what would happen next. I used the alfalfa bucket to bait them around the fence post, into the newly fenced yard. This was a very new experience for them. They had never left the pasture thru the big gate before together as a herd. They had to also learn to turn the corner around the fence post. Some hesitated when they had to pass between me and the post, unsure of what might happen to them when they did. I let them have the familiar alfalfa food once they all had passed thru from the pasture. Once there, they soon discovered the large mounds of freshly sprouted Spring clover, and were glad they were there!
The second day I did this routine, they all moved a little faster toward me and the pasture gate when I called them and rattled the alfalfa pellets in the feed bucket. They hesitated less having to take the corner around the fence post. They seemed to be thinking, “This is what we did yesterday…..is this going to happen every day now?”
The third day, I walked out around the same time of day to move the flock into the back-yard clover pasture. This time I didn’t have to get the bucket to put alfalfa pellets in it first. Most of the flock was already waiting for me at the gate! This time, even the stragglers were thinking, “Oh I get it, this IS going to happen every day now.”
To be fair, there are many people today who shepherd sheep, who would still call them “stupid”. Some of this is frustration from working with animals who think differently and have a different point of view than humans do. Some breeds are smarter than others, and likewise, some are dumber than others. Over all, when one comes to understand sheep’s point of view and priorities, most of what they do makes sense, even if it isn’t always convenient for those trying to work with them.
In spite of what has been taught in many well-meaning Christian circles for the past 25 years, I firmly disagree with the idea that God’s Word compares us to sheep because He meant to communicate, “we are stupid, like sheep”. God did not choose this rich imagery to tell you how “stupid” He thinks you are! He chose it because it communicates like nothing else on Earth, the best picture of the relationship God wants us to have with Him: one of faith, trust, protection and provision we can only experience as we follow Him.
I considered my sheep “smart”, because they were able to quickly learn what I wanted them to do, in order for me to be able to provide for them. They were able to trust me, and follow me, which made my trying to provide for them less frustrating for the flock and I both! Similarly, God considers us “wise” when are faithful to follow (obey) Him.
Psalm 37:30 “The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just.31 The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip.”
Psalm 51:6 “Yet you [God] desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.”
To read more about sheep intelligence, check out:
Both links include interesting examples of tests done on sheep intelligence, and smart things sheep can do.