Sheep look calm and approachable, they seem like the type of animal that would like to be around people and would enjoy being petted.
Do most farm sheep like being petted or is it only a few unusual sheep, like the sheep in petting zoos, that enjoy being petted?
Most sheep do not like to be petted, since that is not normal for them in their daily lives. Sheep that enjoy being petted have been conditioned to like being around people, a common example of this is a bottle lamb.
Most sheep do not like to be petted
Most sheep do not like to be petted. Most sheep are raised in a large group called a flock and they are rarely taken care of individually. This is normal for sheep, being in a flock makes them feel secure.
To the sheep, being around other sheep is normal but being close enough to people to be petted is not normal. This is the same for nearly any animal raised without direct daily contact with people.
Do Lambs Make Good Pets? is an article I wrote that gives you more details on getting a lamb for a pet and which type of lambs are likely to be your best option.
Just imagine if your cat was raised in a situation where a pack of cats came to eat once a day, but you never had her in the house with you or treated her like a pet, you gave them their food and let them be.
If this was how your cat was raised, there would be no need for it to be friendly to you or to want to be petted. We have a number of barn cats that act exactly like this, they do not want picked up or petted.
They watch for me to come to the barn and zoom over when I have extra milk for them, but to pet them during the rest of the day, good luck with that! It’s the same with sheep.
To our sheep, one of us bringing them food is normal. We feed them hay everyday in the winter, but even with seeing us this often, they still do not like to be petted.
If I were to try and pet them, it would make them nervous since it is out of their normal routine.
If one of the more friendly ewes comes up to me, sure I’ll give her a pet, but most would rather keep some distance because that makes them more comfortable.
The exception to the rule: bottle lambs
There is one type of sheep that will generally permit being petted, even as they grow up a bit and that’s a bottle lamb.
Bottle lambs have learned from their first few days of life that people bring food, which makes them happy to see you, rather than skitter off like most lambs that were raised by their mom tend to do.
My husband just took a pair of former bottle lambs to a live nativity scene that was being held at a neighbor’s house a week or so before Christmas.
Even though those lambs have not had a bottle in months, they were still friendly and seemed to like being petted by the kids. Lambs raised by their moms would have been scared rather than enjoy it.
The only difference between a bottle lamb and one of the other lambs that was raised by the ewe is that the bottle lamb learned to trust us since we fed them by hand multiple times a day for about 6 weeks.
That short time on the bottle when they are newborns makes them act differently toward people than the other lambs in the flock that were raised by their moms.
5 Reasons To Not Keep Bottle Lambs For Breeding Stock is my article that will help you understand why a sheep farmer would want to sell rather than keep the bottle lambs.
What about sheep at petting zoos?
Sheep at petting zoos have learned to accept people being close to them and their pen and even to take food or be petted by those visitors.
It takes some time for the sheep to learn to like being close to people and like being petted.
The thing to understand here is that not all sheep are petting zoo material, in fact, most sheep are not suited to be anywhere near a petting zoo!
It takes a calm sheep that has learned to like people being around it all of the time to make a good petting zoo type of sheep, most sheep are not naturally like this.
A petting zoo sheep is oddly accepting of people and far off of the normal as far as how it acts around anything other than it’s fellow sheep.
A few sheep are raised and sold as pets
There are a few farms around the country that raise and sell sheep for pets or lawnmowers rather than for meat or wool producers. While this is a much less common way to raise sheep on a farm, it is being done.
The sheep breed that I see commonly being bred and raised specifically for pets are Babydoll Southdowns.
Marquis Ranch of California is one example of a sheep operation that raises and sells Babydoll Southdowns for pets. This is a link to the Care and Use page which gives the basics on the breed.
Sheep do what benefits them
Sheep, like most animals, learn to do things that will benefit them.
If you can show the sheep that if it comes up to you, it will get snacks, then it may learn to come up to you on it’s own.
To be clear, what you are hoping the sheep will learn is that you provide snacks, you are not hoping the sheep will like to be petted, at least at first.
It’s more like the sheep will come up to you because it wants the snacks and is willing to put up with the petting to get more snacks!
This is a fun channel out of the U.K., Shepherd Ewan, that shows him petting sheep. He has been petting sheep for years and has built up considerable trust with the sheep so that they readily come up to him.
This channel is a wonderful example of how spending time with the sheep and being gentle around them builds trust and makes the sheep want to be handled and petted.
Sheep is used to what is normal for her
A sheep does things that are normal for her. This is why a bottle lamb will come up to you, even when it is older, but a lamb raised by a ewe will not.
For the bottle lamb, you are normal, for the ewe raised lamb, you are something that is not normal and sheep tend to interpret anything that is not normal as a threat and keep their distance.
You can start to shift how a sheep sees things by moving her normal schedule to include more time with you, that will eventually lead to her coming up to you on her own and hoping for snacks.
This will take time and work to build up the needed trust.
This is exactly why bottle lambs tend to be great for anyone who wants a petable sheep, the bottle lamb grew up wanting to see people, so her trust in you is already established.
Friendly sheep want snacks or attention
A friendly sheep normally wants snacks or attention, more likely it’s the snacks! This is habit. The sheep has learned that you are the one who brings snacks, so the sheep will come over and see what you have.
Like most any other behavior, if you continue to reward the sheep, she will continue to show up for that reward.
If you stop rewarding her, she may try a few more times, but she’ll quickly move on to something else that gets her something for her time.
Sheep will learn your normal behaviors and start to do something that gets them closer to getting the reward they want.
This is why the sheep may be out in the pasture grazing, but when they see the person with the snacks, they will walk on over.
In this case the person with the snacks is more important to the sheep than the grass, at least for now!
The funny thing is that sheep tend to know when their normal person shows up and when someone new shows up, so your friend who is new to the sheep may not be able to pet them, even with snack offerings.
Why Do Sheep Need A Shepherd? is my article that will give you a look at what the shepherd does for the flock everyday.