From the November 2023 issue of the Aussie Times
The Stockdog Corner by Terry Martin
Someone asked me recently to do a column on choosing a puppy and how to raise that puppy that is intended to be a stockdog. Keep in mind these are my opinions based on experience and my preferences, so they may not work for everyone. Other ideas are welcome!
Before one chooses a puppy, they definitely should choose the parents. That also involves choosing the breeder of the proposed litter. People need to realize just how illusive the genetics of desire and ability to control and move livestock actually is. The desire is absolutely necessary to have a usable working dog of any value, but working style varies a lot from dog to dog and bloodline to bloodline. It also does not breed completely true (very few things do other than color). Breed a heeling dog to a heeling dog and you are likely to get a heeling dog….or then again maybe not. Breed a strong fetch dog to a strong fetch dog and you will get a strong fetch dog. Right? Maybe. We do not understand the complexity of these genetic traits and probably never will. There is a certain amount of predictability in breeding like to like, but these are traits that can also be corrupted by environmental factors as the dog matures.
With this said, the predictability of getting the kind of working dog you want if both parents do not have the working style you are looking for is highly unlikely.
People in all endeavors involving genetics like to say, “like begets like”. Not necessarily. Two individuals with the same traits may have parents and grandparents with far different traits. Bottom line is that one must look at not only the parents, but the grandparents and great grandparents of a litter.
Checking out a prospective litter is not easy, and you will never have all the information. The breeder may not have known the dogs behind their breeding pair, and at times one tends to remember an old dog a little bit differently than it really was. With all of us who study these dogs, we may have seen a dog work, but perhaps on it’s best day or it’s worst day and formed our opinion. Not every part of the pedigree is going to be clear, but the more information the better. If the breeding pair has produced other offspring, a great deal can be learned by finding out what traits they inherited.
Talk a lot to your breeder about the dogs. I personally think one very important thing to do is to find out what the breeder and breeders behind the litter prefer in a dog. As a breeder goes from generation to generation in developing a line, they will be keeping back dogs that have traits they like, not only in regard to working style but dogs they like to live with. Find out if they like what you do!
Once you have found a breeder and decided on a cross that suits you, your choice of puppies is going to depend on how that breeder sells their dogs. You may have pick of the entire litter, be able to choose from two or three, or may not have a choice at all. If you have chosen the right breeder and the right pair, does it really matter? There is no way to know which puppy in that litter is going to be the best working puppy in your situation and which one might be a total dud (genes do produce duds from time to time). In a conformation show litter, there is usually a “pick” puppy or two, and it is fairly obvious that those puppies would win a conformation class between them and the rest of the litter. If that pick puppy is a show prospect, then the littermates are less show prospects at that age anyway. This is because even with puppies, you can see conformation. With a working litter, the calm puppy that sits back and watches, not much interested in playing, may be the best worker. The “in your face” puppy that grabs your pantleg and is all over you when you sit down may be the best worker. Maybe neither one of them is, and one that does not stand out is the one destined for greatness. I strongly believe that personality is not linked to the interest and ability to work livestock. Of course, a structurally unsound puppy is not a good choice, and everyone likes a good looking dog. In the end analysis though, none of these things will tell you what will go on in that dog’s brain when he is introduced to stock.
We have, when we had ducks, sometimes introduced puppies around eight weeks of age to ducks. Just my experience, but I found that a puppy that really made some serious moves to herd them (not just chase) did go on to work. It did not mean that this puppy was going to be any better than the puppy that had no interest at all at the same age. I have found that the instinct to work turns on at different stages of a puppy or dog’s mental development and simply may not be there yet.
Over the years I have known breeders who very strictly culled puppies that did not work by an arbitrary age like three months or six months (culled meaning taken out of a training or breeding program). My belief is that in doing this, they are selecting for dogs that turn on to stock at an early age but are not necessarily choosing for the most outstanding workers. I do believe the early onset of working desire is somewhat hereditary. I do not believe, based on observation, that it means the pups that turn on at an early age are better workers in the long run. I have known some dogs that had no interest in stock at all at eight months that one day just decided it was time and went on to become far above average workers. My son owned a dog that was well over a year old before he had any interest at all, and that dog was on a big cow outfit. Whatever it is that makes a dog go to stock and move, stop, and contain them, simply was not there until something just clicked.
It is debatable whether having puppy that is hot to work at 12 weeks is a good or a bad thing. He is far more likely to get hurt, and the trainer is far more likely to be tempted to train him when he isn’t ready for it than the pup that waits awhile. For the person who has livestock, it is frustrating to wait and wait to see if a young dog is going to be any good or not, but there are advantages and disadvantages to a pup taking it’s time to mature and to want to work. Just give them a chance to grow up.
Going back to the dog’s style, when you are deciding on a litter, just how do the parents and grandparents work? Have they been worked on sheep or cattle or both? Do they work close or wide, are they strong fetch dogs, do they grip heads or heels or both (if they grip sheep, that is training or lack of it), do they bark on stock, were they easy to control on stock? You probably have preferences so find out if the breeding pair fits your criteria. The ideal stockdog is useful on any kind of stock, but this sometimes requires training, and you are only buying potential instinct at this point. Some dogs are better suited for cattle than sheep and the other way around, so choose a litter that will most closely fits what you need and want.
Let’s jump ahead and you have chosen your puppy and have it at home. What do you need to teach this puppy to prepare him to be a working dog. Obviously, some owners will not have livestock of their own and others will. Puppies in both situations need to be taught to come when called every time and no matter what the circumstances. Needless to say, this pertains to any dog and not just stockdogs. However, it is a very common thing for the well-trained young dog to lose every memory he has of the words come and stay or down when he feels the adrenalin rushing from his first experiences on stock. The puppy should learn a very reliable stay, whether it is a down or a stop. You can practice this when going in and out of the door or a gate and teach the pup to stay and allow you to go through first and he does not move until you tell him to. These two things are the most important lessons he will ever learn.
It is extremely helpful if you can take your puppy around livestock on a leash at a young age or loose behind a fence he cannot get through. Even if he is just encouraged to look at them, it is a good experience for him as he will become comfortable in close proximity to livestock. If you don’t have stock, take advantage of a livestock event or a stockdog trial that will allow a dog on a leash and let him just stand by the fence and see them.
If you do have stock, we have many times fed calves or sheep right next to a fence and allowed pups to run loose across the fence from the stock. They sometimes will try to nip noses of the stock through the fence which is a good sign that they want to make something happen. The key here is to not let the puppy get hurt or have a bad experience. As he matures, he will become more agile, more mentally mature, and more capable of handling himself physically around stock. It is your responsibility not to let bad things happen to him. If you are on a farm or ranch, just make the puppy into your everyday companion. If the job you will be doing is not safe to let a pup be loose, crate him and let him watch. If you are doing chute work and the older pup can be involved without getting hurt or causing a wreck, let him help while you have things in a controlled situation.
Every puppy is a gamble. To turn the odds to your favor, do these things:
Research the bloodlines.
Be sure both parents of your prospective puppy work with the style and abilities you want in your dog.
Ask questions of the breeder.
Teach the puppy at the least basic commands to come and to stay and to do so with distractions.
Let the puppy be around stock if possible but always in a controlled environment.
Do not let the puppy get injured or frightened of livestock.
Remember that the puppy will bring everything his genetic background gave to him to you. It is up to you to mold him into whatever his potential allows. He may have inherited everything you wanted, and he may not have. If you have done your homework, you should have a useful working companion even if he has limitations that training could not overcome. Enhance the good things and concentrate on bringing out the best traits that were inherited from a good solid background.