DOG-BREAKING CATTLE

A Ranch Dog Trainer staff interview with L.R. Alexander

Imagine breaking cattle with dogs — a chaotic scene of cattle bawling; dust swirling in the air; dogs biting noses and heels; calves slamming into corral panels. If this is the scene that comes to your mind, you need to watch cattlemen who make their living buying and selling cattle. When a good dog handler breaks cattle with dogs, control is the order of the day, not chaos.

Missourian L.R. Alexander buys light-weight calves and pastures them in an intensive rotational grazing program until they are ready to go to the feedlot. There is a steady stream of fresh cattle coming into his operation which he conditions to being worked by dogs before they are turned out to pasture. Using the dogs has enabled him to have an efficient operation when it comes time to move cattle from one pasture to another, or across the road from one farm to another.

How long does it take you to dog break new cattle?

It doesn’t take as long as you think. Say I bring in 25 steers weighing 500 pounds, maybe mixed in are two or three eared [Brahma cross] cattle. I just let the dogs move the cattle a bit. They might bite most of the calves at one time or other while I’ve got them in the corral. A lot of times I turn the cattle loose the next day. Dog breaking the cattle with a pair of reasonably good cattle dogs is not a big deal.

I usually use one dog. But if I have cows or cows with calves or, if I’m trying to get it [breaking the cattle] done quicker, I’ll use two dogs. An old cow doesn’t seem to know what to do if one dog grabs hold of that nose and then, when she spins around, another dog will get hold of that heel. That’s where you need your control. Put on all the pressure you can and then take it off completely.

When dog breaking the cattle, are you trying to do anything specific with the cattle?

Before I quit, I’ll usually move the cattle out of the corral into another holding pen. Then, as soon as they go into that area, I’ll just call the dogs off and that’s it.

When I get a bunch of feeders in, I’ll get them up and I’ll work them just a little with the dogs. Then the next day I’ll run them through the squeeze chute — I’ve got a crowding tub and I’ll crowd them into the head gate — and we’ll brand them, vaccinate them, whatever needs to be done. I’ve just never had any trouble with these cattle by handling them with dogs. I don’t get in there and allow the dogs to unnecessarily chew on them. But if a calf gets out and away, I’ll let the dogs bite him.

If you have a dog with a certain amount of power and bite to him it’s not really that big of a deal to handle cattle. The first time I just more or less do whatever I can. Even at that, I can do a lot of work with them the first day. The second time I work the cattle I want to be able to do it pretty efficiently. By taking the time to dog break the cattle, what I’m trying to do is get it where it’s real easy when they need to be worked. Anything other than momma cows, I expect to be able to work the first day.

I think with a pair of good dogs you can put out 35 to 40 head of steers on a pasture and there shouldn’t be any reason in the world why you couldn’t bring them up and put them in the corral, even if they’d never seen a dog.

While you’re breaking cattle with a dog, where should you be? In the corral helping move the cattle? Out of the way? Backing up the dog?

That’s a good question. With feeders, I’m in there on foot. I would definitely be helping the dog if I thought it needed any help at all. Normally, I try to be on horseback if it’s cows and calves. I like breaking momma cows off a horse because I can see so much better and I feel secure up there. If an old cow comes up, I figure she’ll get the horse before she does me.

I would suggest helping the dog especially if you have a new dog and you don’t know how to go about starting him. If he has a good drive on him the first thing to do is for you and the dog both to sort of push the cattle around a little bit, keep them moving.

If you were bringing in a big bunch would you break them up into smaller groups?

I wouldn’t. I’d leave them as a group. You take a potload (roughly 100 head) and you’d be surprised at how quickly you can break them. After you break them and you start turning them that group will hold together real tight. When you turn them out and you start gathering them again, it’s about the same type of deal. But if you take and break them up, you’d be surprised how much harder it can be. Eared cattle especially become a bit of a problem because they get so bonded to each other.

If you’re wanting to break cattle so that they are really dog broke, I would break them down, maybe five at a time. But keeping them as a group is more efficient. In other words, I wouldn’t take the time to break them all down. Now, if we were having a trial or something, then that’s what I would do — I’d break them up and work them so that they would be more uniform.

Once the stock are broke, do they stay broke?

I honestly believe I could dog break a bunch of three-fifty to four weight heifers and five years later they would cause you very little trouble as long as they were previously conditioned to the dogs. I don’t think time would mean that much.

Are some breeds more difficult to deal with than others?

Angus definitely are — seems like Angus like to fight. Brahmas, they’ll make a run and try to get over something and maybe you’ve not even hassled them that much with a dog. Overall, though, I like to work eared cattle — once they’ve gotten respect for a dog, you’ve got it (they remember that). There’s another thing I like about eared cattle — if you can stop your dog when one splits and takes off pretty soon that old calf will come running back to the group. They seem to have a lot more herding instinct. I just like to work them.

Some of these spoiled Holstein calves that have been raised on a bucket can be tough to work. You turn them out on a 40 acre field and they’ll go off in every direction. They have no natural herding instinct. They’ll start to drift all over that field and they don’t care if they ever get back together.

I don’t have much trouble with the Longhorns. They’re pretty nice cattle to work, really. They don’t seem to be as mean as the Brahmas. Now an old Brahma cow will “eat you up” if she has a baby out there. No matter what the breed, however, I’ve found if the cattle are fighting the dogs and you’re not getting anywhere, it’s a good idea to quit for awhile. You’ll be surprised how well things will go when you go back a couple of hours later. The cattle will be in a completely different frame of mind and much more cooperative.

For example, during one demonstration, I’d spent a long time trying to load calves in a trailer. No amount of bite or force would convince them to load. I was just about ready to give up and decided to take a break for lunch. When the dogs and I went back to the calves about an hour later, they acted completely different and loaded in the trailer without a bit of trouble.

Is it possible to dog break cattle with an unfinished dog? What minimal training would you have to have on a dog to be able to use it to break cattle?

Well, you know, that would depend on the dog, and how much training he has had and what type of dog he is. You can help your dog by getting in there with him and breaking the calves three or four at a time. If you have a good stop on the dog and he’ll bite a little when they kick at him and don’t run him out, I’d say you could take your time and break your cattle. At a minimum you need a dog that will hold his ground, come in when he needs to and will stop.

What would your advice be to the person that buys a young dog for a cow/calf operation where the cows have never been worked by a dog?

If someone buys a young dog from me and I’m close enough, I’ll take a couple of older dogs and break the cattle for him. If you’ve got a good young dog and you’re not familiar with working dogs, what you get into is that you’re out there trying to break the cattle and you can set the dog back and cause him a lot of problems due to your inability to handle the dog at that time. I try to tell people if you’re going to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for a dog, go to a little trouble, get help from the man that sold you the dog. If he sold you the dog for a cattle dog, surely he’s got some dogs capable of breaking these cattle. If you’re close enough to him, he could break the cattle for you.

I feel like a lot of young dogs have been ruined if they get hurt just as they are doing real good. You need to keep building their confidence. Confidence is a critical thing. I believe you can do wonders with it. Or you can destroy it, either way. I feel like I can take a dog and I believe I can give a lot of confidence through me because I’ll try not to give him any bad experiences. If I give him a command that will get him hurt, then that’s my responsibility if I send him into a place that he couldn’t handle. Then he loses confidence in me.

You can ruin his confidence when dealing with the bite. If you take the bite away from the pup, back him off and get pretty rough doing that I really think you can almost totally take the bite away from the dog. He may never bite when he needs to because it was trained out of him. If every time he bites he gets hurt doing it he learns that biting is a bad thing and he may completely quit. I’ve seen some dogs walk up to an old ewe’s face and the ewe will batter him a little and he’ll pull his head down to the side because he’s been taught not to bite.

Building confidence is one of the most under-played aspects of training. I have noticed so many dogs that at a year old looked like they were lacking power. I have seen a lot of these dogs change from one to two years of age — there was no comparison. Their confidence got built up and they turned into good dogs.

What attributes does a good cattle dog need?

I don’t like a dog that gives a lot of ground. If he gives ground and a cow chases him — there’s not anything wrong with that a lot of times because eventually he’s going to retaliate.

But if he retaliates and only does it without using any force, the next time the charge is going to be a lot harder and longer and he hasn’t taught that cow anything. The minute he retaliates, that’s when I like the hard bite. I want him to come in one time hard so that it is usually enough. Then, if he runs in and grabs that heel when the cow turns from him and grabs it hard, and then he stops, the old cow is whipped. But if he keeps on going, if he keeps on lunging into her and you don’t have control, then it becomes do or die.

I sometimes get cattle from people who have rough, uncontrolled dogs and those are the meanest old cows I have ever seen. It just seems to me that those kind of people have dogs that have bite but they don’t have any control on the dog. The cow thinks it doesn’t matter what happens, she’s still going to be bit. People don’t understand when I have a young dog and a cow breaks and runs and I’ll try to whistle that dog down as soon as he turns her. I don’t want him to get into the habit of thinking he can shotgun her two or three times. And a lot of dogs will try to do that — they’ll try to heel her two or three more times.

They can say what they want to about the biting dogs but I’d rather have dogs that didn’t have to bite at all if I thought that was possible. Everyone would rather have that. You’d rather have the kind of dog you could send out after 100 momma cows and calves and never have to bite them — just walk them in. We’d all like that. But it’s seldom really possible.

As far as concentration and eye — there’s always going to be a debate on concentration and eye! I’ve had some dogs that I didn’t feel had hardly any eye but they had a lot of concentration, as far as concentrating on what they were trying to do. The way I look at eye is this: if the dog goes around in front of an old cow and stares at the cow and starts moving toward her and she turns and moves, the reason she turns and moves is because the dog made direct contact with the cow by looking straight at her and telling her “if you don’t turn around, I’m going to grab you by the nose.” He’s conveyed that message to the cow.

When training dogs to work cattle, do you do anything special?

I do dogs differently than a lot of people. What I do differently is that I start the dog in a rather small pen. Rather than teach him to keep off the stock, I’ll start him in there and let him be confident to move the cattle around. I’ll try to take some of that bite out of him, even while we’re in the pen but I still want him close and every once in awhile I’ll let him take ahold. He learns in the small pen to go around in a tight corner and bring those cattle out to me. Then, when I go to the field, I know he’ll swing into the corner and bring the cattle out and he’ll bite if he needs to and I want him to start thinking about that. If the cattle hesitate, I want him to reach in there bite and make them move. If he doesn’t, I’ll tell him to. From then on, I’ll train just like anyone else. I’ll kick him out [off the cattle]. I’ll make him run all the way around the cattle because I know I can call him and he will bite if he needs to. It’s about the same thing, just a little different order.

Putting theory into practice, L.R. demonstrated breaking a group of new cattle. He had about 25 Holstein and three Brahma-cross steers in a working corral. He took two dogs, Sue and Ben, and moved the cattle just enough so that occasionally one or two would try to break away from the group. The dogs would head them and turn them back into the bunch.

After a short time, he opened the gate leading into a small pen which, in turn, led into the squeeze chute. Using the dogs, he put the cattle into this small pen, allowing the dogs to heel only when necessary. Once in the small pen, he let the cattle settle down before opening the gate to the chute. Normally, he said, at this point the cattle would be worked (vaccinated, etc..) but this time he simply let them through the chute.

Next, he allowed the Holsteins to go out into an adjoining pasture, using the gate and the dogs to keep back the Brahma crosses. He used the same techniques one would use if shedding sheep, calling the dogs in whenever a Holstein tried to turn back into the pen or if a Brahma would try to go out into the pasture. Other than commanding the dogs, he only needed to be opening and closing the gate when necessary. To sort the cattle took just a few minutes.

The cattle in the pasture were allowed to spread out and graze for a bit. Then the dogs were sent to bring the cattle back into the pen. Normally, the cattle would be out on the pasture for several hours before being brought in, to enable them to get used to the electric fence. The only water supply is in the working corral so the cattle are more willing to go back into the corral when the dogs are sent to gather them.

“Take the easy way out, whenever possible,” advises Alexander. It’s obvious that taking the time needed to properly dog break cattle enables you to do just that, whenever the cattle need to be handled!

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine June/July 1994