JACK, THE HANDIEST DOG I EVER TRAINED

by Cyn-Dee Cooper

This year I had the honor of training a really good Australian Shepherd named Jack for sixty days. Jack was bred by Elree Horton, of Buena Vista, Tennessee who has Flapper Hill Kennels. Jack is out of Flapper Hill Blossom and by Flapper Hill Sandy River. Both of these dogs go back to Lookaway Luke who is by Judd’s Chickasaw Dan. He was about 14 months old when he came here and had been neutered.

Jack had never been kept in a pen. He was friendly, knew his name, and had good manners. My main concern was that he would be desensitized to the stock since he had been in constant contact with them since he was a pup. The owners said that he showed minimal interest at home.

The first factor to consider when training someone else’s dog is to determine how the dog is to be used on the livestock. Do they want the dog to be sent out to gather? Will they be on foot or horseback? Will they work alongside of the dog and drive stock? How big of an area does the dog have to cover alone? And finally, what kind of commands will the owner be comfortable with giving to a dog?

Jack was to be used in the open to help drive cattle from pasture to pasture or pasture to pens. He would not be cast out into a field to gather. Most of the time the owner would be on a four-wheeler. The dog would be required to work yearlings, bulls, cows with calves and heifers. Commands needed to be at a minimum since the owner, Roger Brookshire, from Rolla, Missouri, had never owned a trained dog and was unfamiliar with the commands.

Let me start by saying that the dogs I train are never allowed to jump out of the kennel or go through a gate without command. They are to wait until they are asked through. When I approach a gate I step on the leash, close to the collar, and ask the dog to down. Often times, in the beginning, this takes a few minutes for the dog to stay still while I unlatch and open the gate. Once I walk through the gate I tell the dog to “comeon”, downing them as soon as they enter the pen. Keeping my foot on the rope while I close and relatch the gate. In time the dog will lay until you ask him through and then immediately lay down once he is inside. This gives you a chance to get in position to begin your work with some semblance of order.

The first few sessions in the training pen were a wreck, as they usually are. In the beginning he would crash into the stock and was hard to block around to the back of the stock. He wanted to quit whenever I blocked him or tried to keep him from biting. I was forced to let him have a little more “fun” than I usually allow a dog in order to keep his interest.

I decided during these initial evaluations that this dog would not do well with a down command. The more you knuckled down on him the more he would try to quit. If needed he could always be taught to down in the later stages of his training.

I moved him to a smaller pen where he could become accustomed to being in fairly tight with the stock. If he would run in, all I was able to do was growl at him, since a stronger punishment would discourage him altogether. Once he realized that I was not going to hurt him, and he began to calm himself while close to the stock, I advanced him to the next stage.

In the larger pen I put Jack on a rope and kept him back behind the stock with me. As we were pushing the stock around and around the pen I would tell him to “walkup”. After a few sessions I could move my stick toward the dog (sometimes I would have to stomp a foot or slap my leg with a feed sack) and tell him “get-over”, thereby pushing him from close beside me out to one side or the other. (You need to be aware that some dogs get more excited and will charge in to the stock when you start making motions like slapping your leg.)

Once he was in the position where I wanted him I would tug on his rope and say “hey” to stop him from going any further around the herd. This would hold him to that particular spot. Then I would start walking toward the herd. Unless he did not start walking I would remain quiet. Only giving him the command if he did not start on his own. In the beginning, I had to keep the feed sack extended out toward him to keep him from coming back over to me.

In doing this exercise the dog also needs to learn how to cover both sides. To begin teaching this, the dog cannot be on a rope, and the stock need to be in a corner. You stand on one side, the dog on the other. Once the dog is settled to this position you need to step over in front of him. Do not push him over into the fence but rather cut in front of the dog. Most dogs will automatically take the open side (or the side which does not have your pressure). Do not stand too close to the stock. Always be in a position to block the dog with your body or stick if it tries to come into the stock or get between the stock and the fence.

Move back and forth in front of the dog. When you cross directly in front of the dog and he is off to your side a little tell him to “get over” so that he moves far enough away to cover the back corner of the herd. When the dog is far enough over, preferably the fence, stop him by saying “Hey”.
This process is fairly simple but takes quite a bit of time. It allows the dog to learn how to hold stock together while penning and is the initial concept to helping you drive the herd.

When it came time to drench my bar-b-doe sheep I used Jack to hold them in the corner of the barn while I pulled the ewes and lambs out one by one. If at any time he acted like he wanted to crowd in I was still in a position, between him and the stock, to growl at him and keep him back. Short of the growl, no commands were given. This dog was going to have to learn how to handle the stock on his own since that was how he was to be worked at home.

Now to the bigger pen. Once he had learned to be patient with the stock, learn when to push and when not to push, we moved out to a fence-line in a larger lot. Jack had a fairly strong desire to head. At times it would be necessary for Jack to go to the front of a herd to stop them. Putting him on the fence and walking with him driving the stock I would move over in front of him (towards the fence) and command him to “get ahead”.

In the beginning he did not understand that I wanted him to go all the way to the front causing him to stall-out at the back flank of the herd. With a little shushing and blocking he would move on around to the front. Once there I would start walking back the other way up the fence and let him fetch the stock to me a short distance. Initially he would want to charge into the stock since he was not quite accustomed to being let on his own side, absent of my presence. I would growl at him and lift my arm/stick/feedsack up where he could see it. This would make him check (slow) himself realizing I was still in the picture.

Before I got to the corner I would walk back along the fence-line through the stock toward Jack and command him to “get ahead”. This would push him back around the outside of the herd to the other side once again. Repeating the process I would growl to check the dog and start walking back down the fence the other way.

Once I could get him out around the stock while they were out in the middle and had him fetching the stock to me, I went back to reinforce his driving WITH me. At this point he had learned four commands; get over; hey; walk up; and get ahead.

In this advanced stage of driving we needed to get off of the fence. No help there. At first we tried this without the rope but the desire to go to the head had become too strong. So we backed up to the basics of our training. While on the rope I would ask him to “get over”. When he would get to the back flank of the herd I would tug him pretty hard and say “Hey”. Then let him move up on the stock as he saw fit. If at any time he wanted to move up too hard he would hear a “growl”. Once he got the idea, I removed the rope.

Forward with the herd we would go. Me crossing in front of Jack. Telling him to “get over” when I needed him to be further away. Saying “Hey” when he got to the back flank.
If at anytime while out in the open the flock would break to the right or left I would take his spot and let him move around to line them back out. If he needed to go to the front to actually stop the bunch from breaking away the command would be “Get Ahead, Get Ahead”. If he needed to go half way I would shut him down there with a “Hey”. In order to bring him back around to the backside with me I would call him, “Jack, in here”.

Now the test would come. We went to work 40 head of sour roping steers. The cattle were grazed on five acres with a pond in the middle. The first time we went I was on foot and the cattle were scattered throughout grazing. I started out with Jack on a leash in order to reinforce my control of him.
We started off around the field and after a few tugs on the line and a few growls I let him go and commanded him to “Get over”.

He went all the way to the fence and started those cattle back toward me. Once they were lined out and I was driving them I moved over in front of him and sent him the other way to gather up the cattle scattered out to my other side by giving the command to “Get Over”. He went far enough around the outside steer to start them all toward me and the bunch that I had. Then we started pushing them all in front of us as we went. As we got out in the open the cattle in the front were starting to trot to the far corner so I asked Jack to “Get Ahead”. This took telling him a few times to get him all the way to the head of the herd but once there and the cattle slowed and he flipped back around the herd to get back with me to drive. I thought he did exceptionally well for the first trip to the pasture on a bigger bunch of cattle.

One day while working him in an indoor arena I realized that horses intimidated him. So, for the next few “training sessions” we went for long trips in the pasture to get him accustomed to a horse moving alongside him. Then we went back to work the steers off of the horse. It went much better than I had ever anticipated. He understood that the horse was merely an extension of my legs and would accept me crossing in front of him in order to change his position on the herd. It was time for Jack to go home and make his living.

When I took this dog in for training I agreed to show him at the owners’ place on their stock. Pretty brave. This dog was basically fresh out of the training pen and here we were trying to show off.
When we got down to Rolla, it was beyond hot. The heifers were in a creek under a bunch of trees. The pasture grass was almost knee high. I took off on foot with Jack and we went under the trees to push the cattle out of the water. I was very proud that he would run in and bite a nose to turn a cow around. Once in the open we followed the fence line to the corner and turned them down another fence to the gate which led to the pasture where the cattle were being moved.

All was going pretty well but I really had no idea where the corner was with the gate. The cattle stopped again at a spring and while we were fighting the back end out of the spring and the gully, the front end got away from us leading them all back across the pasture. The cattle were running too hard and fast for me to even attempt to send him to the head. They were not broke to the dog and it would have been a senseless wreck. Not to mention that they would only go about 100 yards back to the trees.

We loaded Jack in the truck and went back to the far corner to try again. At this point I was still pretty pleased. What could a person expect from a dog that had always worked in a controlled situation?
This time the owner asked if he could take the dog. “I ain’t scared” is what I think I said …

Out of the creek, out of the trees, down the fence they go. Jack just working along like an old hand. The owner riding the four-wheeler. The cows stop in the creek again but this time I am in a better position to help. The dog kept the pressure on a heifer with her nose in the spring and got her head up turning her back around to the herd. When they are almost there one heifer broke back but this time with the “Get Ahead” command Jack got to her quick enough to convince her to turn back to the herd. We took the time to let the cattle take a look a the gate and they started through.

Job Done.

I was so proud of this handy dog with his four commands. Since then he has been a great help to the owner who told me that he finally understands what I meant when I told him that this dog “had a great work ethic”. He stays until the job is done. Never harasses needlessly. Works at a nice steady pace. Understands the job.

Jack works for both Roger and his ranch hand moving cattle from place to place. He has saved them many hours of work. Jack is in the process of teaching his kennelmate Howley, how to handle stock the proper way. Roger calls me with reports from time to time and always brings a smile to my face.
In the beginning I said “I can teach this dog to take commands or I can let him learn how to handle livestock”. What a great student he was as he learned how to handle livestock. He may never win a trial but he passes the daily test of ranch life.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine October/November 2001