SO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT WANT A STOCKDOG
(A slightly different version of this was originally printed in the Ranch Dog Trainer in December 1994 with the title The Working Australian Shepherd “Reasonable Expectations“)
So you think you might want a stock dog? In today’s world of high wages, liabilities involved with hired help and the difficulty in even finding human help, the stock dog can be a wonderful investment. From the small farm with a few head of cattle and/or sheep to the large ranch, a good dog can provide much needed help and companionship too.
Just how many commands and directions does a good usable farm/ranch dog need? It often depends on how many commands the owner wants to learn! How much time do you want to spend “working the dog” and how much do you just need some chores done? So many ranchers have told me over the years that they just need a dog to stop or “down“ (that one is important), come back when called, go turn stock back and bring them toward him or stay behind with him when he wants the dog on the same side of the stock he is on. It doesn’t matter if the dog goes right or left to get the stock as long as he stops them and turns them back. Most of you don’t have time or the inclination to learn a bunch of signals and commands and want the dog to more or less work on his own. When we are working livestock, who has time to worry about where the “other guy” (in this case, the dog) is and what he is doing? We just want to depend on him not messing things up and that he will be in a position to help. Most of us need a very instinctive dog who you can control but not necessarily have to guide all the time.
Some people working stock dogs use a dog almost entirely as a fetch or gather dog. This is a dog who has strong instinct to go around stock to a balance point across the stock from the handler and then to bring them toward the handler. This dog is effective in stopping stock running off. He is usually naturally stronger on the head than the heels or equally as strong on heads. He is a good dog to park in a gate you want guarded because of his instinct to stop stock.
Others would rather use a dog who will work back with the handler between the handler and the stock. The dog here may be more of a drive dog, more likely to be stronger on the heels than the head or equally as strong. These dogs are useful when pushing stock for long distances, keeping stragglers moved up with the herd and also useful in chutes and pens to push stock down lanes and alleys.
It goes without saying that the ideal stock dog will both gather/fetch and drive and will be equally comfortable on heads or heels. The key to the whole thing is that you must have a dog who has the ability to handle livestock, wherever he is.
What is training? Serious training will produce a dog who will both drive and fetch, who will “down” quickly on command, call off immediately, go to stock either clockwise or counter-clockwise and still think for himself using inherited stock savvy. So are you a dog trainer? Do you want to be one? I have found most stockmen who need a dog will answer “no” to both questions. They just want the dog to help without a lot of fuss. I would say most ranch dogs learn their job by being yelled at when he does things wrong and by being praised or maybe even ignored but allowed to do what his instinct is telling him to do when he does it right. He learns because he develops a strong bond with his master and wants to please and also has a strong instinct to work livestock. In the dog world this is called trainability combined with natural working instinct. In a farm/ranch setting the “training” is not done in a strict sense because the dog is being “trained” by a “non dog trainer” and has to learn by repetition and by using his inherited instinct. If you take stock out of a barn every day and put them in a specific pasture and bring them in every night, the dog will “ become trained” to help or probably do it himself. However, without any commands, when you decide to put them in a different pasture one morning, you will wish you had a few commands to help him understand the task you can‘t explain to him.
When a stockman is looking for information to use in developing his dog he finds that a vast majority of the written material is directed toward the Border Collie sheep trial dog. Clinics are often for the benefit of the handler who wants to trial and use sheep. Cattlemen using other breeds wonder what they are into when reading about “clapping”, “sticky”, “square flanks” and using “dog broke sheep”. Since America is more of a cattle country than a sheep raising country, I am writing this more for someone who will need a dog to work cattle although the same dog can work both.
What do you want from an Australian Shepherd? If you were looking for a human partner and constant twelve year companion you would take time making the right decision. Choosing the right dog should be just as important. Devoting time to a weak dog is unfair to you and the dog. Before making the choice, think about what you are going to ask of him. Once you find him, be willing to give him the experience and development a long term working partner deserves to do the job. You wouldn’t turn your new human employee loose on your ranch the first week and expect him to do everything the way you want it done. A year’s training period is certainly not unusual in the job force. Don’t expect more of a dog than you would of a man! You don’t even speak the same language!
Just what do we expect? Think about your horse running hard over rocky ground after a cow breaking away from the herd and what it takes to stop her. You are keenly aware that the horse could fall or the cow could slam into the horse. If you are dedicated to the work and have made the mental decision to stop the cow no matter what, you will push your horse and rein it hard into the cow’s path. It takes a disregard for personal safety, dedication to the job, and courage. Cowboys do it all the time. The good cow dog, in addition to instinct, must possess intense desire, a commitment to winning, and courage.
You need to load some cows in a trailer and have them in the corral. You step in on foot to move them to the chute. The black F-1 has her head down and is throwing dirt over her shoulder with her eyes on you. The white one next to her has her head way up in the air with those long ears forward. You start forward and the long eared one shakes her head and takes a few steps in your direction. You want to walk right up there and take command?
So think about what you are going to ask a dog to do and what it takes to develop his mind and skills to control the situations you may put him in. A good Aussie can stop that cow, and can load those cows in a trailer. But he can only do it if you hold up your end of the bargain. How? First you must find the right dog. No amount of training or handling will give you the dog to handle either scenario if you didn’t have a courageous confident dog in the first place. And no courageous confident dog will handle the situation effectively if you did not help him develop the tools he needs to do his job.
His instinct must be enhanced by training. Training should never cover up the dog but instead should let him use his instinct to be useful.
A good dog possesses instincts that still have to be combined with experience. A dog who naturally will go in and grip cattle and wants to confront them without fear still has to learn about cattle. What he learns will be negative or positive and is your responsibility. He needs to learn about flight zones, just what a cow will do when challenged, how they kick and how they respond to his actions. This is not formal training as in teaching a down, left and right, but is far more important for the ranch dog. Call this developing the tools the dog will need to work. When you are training a ranch dog, the time you spend developing these tools is far more important than all the directions the dog will ever learn. If he can’t push and stop livestock, what difference does it make whether he goes to the right place or not? Without the tools to do the job when he gets there, he is useless. A finely trained but weak trial dog can make a beautiful run with dog-broke cattle and earn high scores. But what will he do with real cattle? The dog you want to depend on for ten or twelve years has his genetic foundation at birth, and you are building on that foundation.
When should your Aussie start showing interest in stock? The younger the better since it is unrealistic to have to wait a year to see if you have a working dog. However, dogs do “turn on” to stock at different ages and sometimes it seems to turn on like a light bulb. Often people don’t have appropriate stock to test a pup at an early age. The man with 300 head of mother cows can’t take his 12 week old pup out in the pasture to see if it wants to work. Or he certainly shouldn’t! Ducks are fun to test puppies on, but some good dogs never have an interest in ducks. Sheep are the safest for a young dog if you have access to them. You must use good judgment here.
A good Aussie pup should be confident in his approach to stock, but a puppy is still a puppy. For approximately the first year of his life, he is in varying stages mentally immature. He is also the product of his environment. The key is to never overmatch your pup until he has the chance to learn what it is to win confrontations with livestock. For example, putting a six month old pup on cows with calves is ridiculous. The pup may have all the power and confidence in the world, but he does not have the experience to know how far a cow will charge, the damage she can do, or even how to get out of the way. He does not have the athletic ability yet to use his body to avoid injury. If your pup is really aggressive, he does not even realize he can be hurt. Gentle cattle or calves should be the first cattle a dog of any age sees, and the handler should be in a position to back the dog up should a challenge occur. When this happens, the pup will think he influenced the stock to back down (even if you did it) which increases his confidence for the next confrontation. Young dogs are forming impressions they will carry for a lifetime. A cow running over them and pain is not the impression you want him to carry. Equally negative is his master screaming at him as the cow comes in. This leaves him with the impression you didn’t want him working in the first place. Your responsibility is to keep negative situations from happening.
One common error is to put the puppy on stock, and then when something happens, the handler starts yelling and calling him off. Why did you put him out there in that situation if you didn’t want him to do something? He has no idea why he is being yelled at, but in his mind you don’t want him working. Catch him and take him away if it is necessary. Let him think it was all okay even if things were getting out of control. At the very early stages of the pup’s development, if it was getting out of hand it is your fault for creating the situation.
A lot of pups show their first interest by nipping the noses of cattle trying to feed from the back of a truck. Feeding stock right next to a woven wire fence where the pup can get close and even nip them through the fence is good for his confidence. During the first year of a pup’s life, you can put him on sheep or gentle cattle from time to time if you have them available. If he gets to the point where he is biting a lot, chasing too hard or out of control, simply quit letting him have free access to stock. This creates no negative impression on him that you did not want him to work and leaves him with an intense desire to do more of it. Again, do not discipline him at this age for being too rough. Remember, the Australian Shepherd’s natural instinct is to work close. A good pup will rapidly progress to the point of gripping if you are using sheep. You can always back down an aggressive adult dog later, but there is little you can do to make him be aggressive if you have taken the desire out of him. You want to start your real training with a dog who is hot to work and has had no bad experiences from livestock or from you.
In all early work with your pup or young dog remember the kind of instinct an Aussie has. He is a “hands on” kind of worker and will be drawn to conflict. His ability to turn back that cow breaking away and his ability to take command of those cows in scenario #2 comes from this instinct. He has a desire to confront difficult situations, and until this instinct is refined with training and experience you will have a dog whose instinct draws him into situations he may not be ready to handle.
The ranch pup can be put on a lead and learn a lot about cattle by simply sitting with his master and watching them. Allow him to approach the head of gentle stock when on a line if he wants to, but don’t force him. If he bites a cow’s nose with you right there, praise him for it. The reason for the lead is so he won’t just run in under cattle and get hurt. Remember the best Aussie pup is the one most likely to get himself in trouble. Barking at this stage can be a sign of either aggression or a lack of confidence. Don’t let him run out and hit the end of the line! Keep slight pressure on it so he is always aware he is not free. This way he is more likely to stay calm and wait for a calf to approach him.
If your pup has shown little or no interest in stock and you are going to be busy, find a safe place to chain the pup on a very short chain. Let him watch you work stock. The short chain will keep him from running and getting frantic while having the opportunity to see what you are doing but to remain out of the action. You can also put him in a crate nearby. If he gets very excited simply take him away as your only purpose is to stir his interest in stock.
When you first start your dog on stock the sheer excitement of working may cause the dog to do some things that seem to make no sense to you. They probably don’t make sense to the dog either, because he does not understand stock yet nor what the instinct is telling him to do. He may run in circles around the stock and this is natural. His instinct to contain them is there but he doesn’t understand what to do with it. Often excitement will cause him to grip higher than he will later with experience. A dog who is going to work both heads and heels will usually begin preferring one over the other.
What you see the first dozen or so times on stock is not necessarily what you really have. That may be confusing, but the excitement of exposure to stock sometimes covers up the dog’s real instinct. You may be seeing more than is really there or a lot less. This is my main distaste for the so-called “instinct testing”. A canine’s natural instinct is to chase whatever runs, and many non-herding breeds will circle stock, fetch and appear to be “herding”. Sometimes a very aggressive dog on stock is totally turned off once he finds out he can’t rip and tear and ends up a very mediocre worker at best. Just as often the more timid dog at the beginning may turn out to be the most confident. So watch carefully but don’t draw too many conclusions until your dog has been on stock for awhile.
A dog will do things with another dog that he would never do alone. This is part of the ancient pack instinct. Your dog may never bother your cat or your chickens. But see if he will simply lie on the porch and watch while another dog chases them! Often a dog who will not grip on cattle will go in and bite when worked with another dog. Many ranch dogs are worked together as a very useful team while each dog is very mediocre alone. Usually one is more powerful than the other, but together it is hard to tell which is which.
If you're lucky enough to have another dog to work him with, you can use the other dog to help with your training. Never forget why you are using this other dog. Use the other dog just when you want the young dog to do a specific thing, like bite cattle on the face. Remember your goal. When your young dog does go in a few times to bite them in the company of theother dog, praise him for it. Don’t let it go so far he uses the other dog as a crutch. Your goal is not to have one of those teams of a strong and weak dog, but to turn the younger dog into a strong dog too. Don’t be training on the older dog while the pups is out there. He doesn’t understand which of them you are talking to/yelling at!
Very important! Do not let two things happen. Do not let the dog get hurt or scared. Do not discourage the dog with your own actions. Too often a really good pup is taken out around livestock and because he is really talented and courageous, he is allowed to do too much. The temptation to do too much too fast is much stronger with a really great young dog. If your goal is to have a working companion for many years, the time spent developing the tools he will need during the first couple of years of his life will be well spent. Again, think of the tasks you are going to ask of him. Think back about walking up on those cows. You want a confident dog who is sure of the power he has, is willing to use it, and knows how to avoid injury. We don’t always think about it, but we do ask a good cattle dog to lay his life on the line and are unfair to him if we don’t give him the tools to use in his job.
Heading a cow
Driving...dog between handler and stock.
A young Australian Shepherd, about 5 months old.