Close to where I live is a man with his pet sheep, Popeye. The guy raised him from a lamb, and they have a strong bond. When Popeye was a lamb, he'd go everywhere with his daddy. He'd even sit in his backpack, head out, and go for a motorbike ride to the local pub. Popeye is now too big to fit in a bag, but occasionally you will see a newspaper article about this intriguing pair and their adventures.
Sheep are affectionate creatures and show love to their owners – if they deem their owners trustworthy. Sheep are instinctively skittish of potential threats, but these intelligent animals can learn to trust people. Depending on the strength of the bond, they will also show affection to a person.
Love is difficult to measure, but we can assume that if a sheep shows affection to its owner, it's a sign of love. So, let's learn more about how sheep show affection to their owners. You can also learn how to win the heart of your sheep and when it's best to avoid a sheep for your safety.
5 Ways In Which Sheep Show Love To Their Owners
Sheep are naturally gregarious animals, meaning they enjoy company. While their affection is most noticeable with other flock members, sheep can also develop a love for their owners or caregivers.
There are a few ways a sheep will show affection to its owner. We need to understand more about how sheep communicate through vocalization and behavior to know what is affection and what's not.
Next are some ways a sheep will exhibit love or affection to their owner or caregiver.
1. A Loving Sheep Will Be Confident Enough To Approach You
Since sheep are prey animals, they tend to be skittish and will run away if they feel endangered. However, if a sheep loves or trusts you and doesn't perceive you as a threat, it will be comfortable in your presence.
Initially, a sheep might not come all the way to you. But if it's happy with you nearby, it's an excellent foundation to strengthen trust and, hopefully, affection.
2. An Affectionate Sheep Will Appear Relaxed In Your Company
If a sheep is nervous, it will have a worried look, and its eyes will be wide open. So, if your sheep looks relaxed and calm in your presence, it communicates that it is comfortable with you. It might even extend its communication to be more expressive.
3. A Loving Sheep Will Rub Itself Against You
If a sheep loves and trusts you, it might rub itself against your legs or body, looking for attention or petting. Social creatures like sheep often use touch as a means of showing affection. So, if your sheep rubs against you, it probably sees you as one of the flock.
4. An Affectionate Sheep Will Want To Play With You
When animals play, they often hop, run around in circles, and chase each other. With the wrong kind of playmate, chasing a sheep will be perceived as hunting. So, sheep and lambs will usually only play with a safe playmate. If they choose you as a playmate, you can consider yourself trusted and probably loved by your sheep.
If your sheep want to play, allow them to chase you. You can chase them a little bit, but not excessively so that it scares them.
5. A Loving Sheep Will Follow You
If you remember the nursery rhyme, "Mary had a little lamb," you'll recall the lamb followed Mary "wherever she would go." Likewise, a sheep that loves you will follow you because you are part of its flock. Additionally, for sheep, there's safety in numbers. Sheep that follow you trust you enough to protect them and not hurt them.
What Does Science Say About Sheep Loving Their Owners?
A survey conducted in the USA from 2017 to 2018 researched the types of pets people have and the owner-pet relationships. The results indicated that about 84.6 million homes in the USA have a pet. This figure is equivalent to 68% of homes and includes all sorts of pets – even sheep.
YouTube has many videos of sheep who love their owners, but can that love be measured? Since love is an abstract emotion and sheep don't speak human languages, it's difficult to research if or how much sheep love their owners. However, scientists have studied how sheep respond to human affection by measuring the sheep's heart rate (HR) and behavioral changes during petting.
A study researching artificially weaned lambs that received consistent petting by a dedicated caregiver showed the following results:
- Petted lambs showed lower heart rates than those not petted by a caregiver in their pen.
- Behavioral responses, such as ear postures, showed the more the lambs were petted, the more relaxed their ears became.
- The lambs' physiological and behavioral responses supported the study's hypothesis that lambs perceive a caregiver's physical contact positively.
Based on their findings, a further hypothesis of the study was made. The assumption was that once the human-animal relationship was established, the following should occur:
- Stroking would trigger a more significant decrease in heart rate,
- The sheep would display more calm behavior, and
- Stronger activation of the parasympathetic system would occur.
The bond between humans and production animals can become quite strong and is directly linked to humans' capacity for empathy. Therefore, researchers and veterinarians continue to study animal welfare and health standards, looking for ways to optimize the relationships between humans and livestock.
How Do I Win The Love And Affection Of My Sheep?
It is easier to win the affection of a lamb than a fully-grown sheep. This is because lambs imprint on their mother and species when they are young. Therefore, if you hand-rear a lamb, the chances of it imprinting on you or thinking you're its mother are good. As a result, you will win your lamb's trust, love, and affection and have a loving relationship with it for its lifespan.
However, we don't always have the opportunity to introduce lambs to human interaction, so how do you win the affection of a grown sheep?
1) Spend Time Close To Your Sheep
If your mature sheep is apprehensive of you, they need to learn that you are not a threat. So, to gain their trust, you can spend time in their pen or working nearby them. They will become familiar with your presence while they rest or graze. Once your sheep become more comfortable, you can approach them and pet or scratch them.
It might take time, depending on the sheep's history – especially if it has a background of mishandling or abuse from its previous owners. However, your patience should pay off if you are willing to invest time.
2) Create A Routine For Your Sheep
For animals, the routine creates an understanding of a concept. When you repeat the same sheep-related activities at the same time every day, your sheep will get used to you being around and anticipate your arrival. Your daily routine can include feeding your sheep, sitting with them, walking, or working close to them.
3) Treat Your Sheep With Yummy Snacks
Food is an excellent motivation for animals and can be used for conditioning (training). Feeding your sheep and giving them added treats will create a positive association with you. You may notice that your sheep starts bleating for you and even approaching you. Excellent treats for sheep include lettuce, apple, pumpkin, oats, and carrots.
4) Touch Your Sheep Gently As Often As Possible
Getting your sheep used to gentle handling will help them learn that human touch can be good. Additionally, when it comes time to shear your sheep or for a vet visit, they will be used to being handled by humans.
The best way to get your sheep accustomed to human touch is by gently running your hand over their bodies, head, legs, and feet when relaxed. Do not attempt to do this with an irate sheep.
5) Talk To Your Sheep
As a part of forming a bond with your sheep, you should communicate with them by talking or vocalizing a gentle sound of your choice. Sheep are intelligent and can recognize faces, facial emotions, and voices. They also have excellent memories and can even be clicker-trained.
So, use your voice and petting sounds to communicate with your sheep. You will also learn to recognize their different calls as time goes by. You will notice that they express their emotions through vocalizations if you pay enough attention.
When To Leave A Sheep Alone: Precautions And Warning Signs
If you want a loving pet sheep, it might be better to steer away from an aggressive testosterone-loaded ram with horns. Instead, go for a castrated male or a ewe, preferably one that is polled (without horns).
Sometimes sheep will exhibit behavior that indicates they want to be left alone. If they display any of these signs, rather steer clear until they calm down:
- Loud vocalization when you approach them,
- Shaking their head,
- Pawing or stomping the ground,
- Horning, head butting, or biting you,
- Arching their body,
- Shaking or trembling, and
- Jumping away from you
Sheep can show love and affection to their owners if they trust them enough. It is easier to earn the love of a lamb because it will imprint on a person if the person feeds and cares for them. However, a mature sheep can learn to trust and then show love to their owner. Building a positive human-sheep relationship will take time, but it is entirely possible and rewarding.