BUILDING STRENGTH IN A YOUNG DOG

by Rusty Johnson

Let me say first on this subject, that training a dog is like sculpting a beautiful statue. The statue was there all along. The artist simply chips away the stone that is not part of the statue. However, if there are too many serious faults in vital places or the hammer is used too much or too hard, when you chip away the unwanted portions, the whole thing will fall apart.

With that in mind, remember a dog can only be as strong as his genetics will allow. So pay attention to your dog’s state of mind. Preferably you don’t want to start anything your dog can’t finish. But sometimes a dog will fool your judgement. If this happens and your dog can’t finish what you have set out for him to do, you have three choices:

  1. You can get another dog to help
  2. You can back up and try something easier
  3. You can help the dog finish the job yourself, usually by driving the cattle.

Don’t let him fail! Try to always finish your training sessions on a positive note. That way you can really make a fuss over your dog and make him feel like he’s done something.

Many people will scoff at this and say “Oh I don’t need to tell my dog how good he is. I really am not concerned about his state of mind.” I would beg to differ with these people. Remember a dog can’t talk. However, he has feelings too. You are going to have to discipline a dog from time to time so if he doesn’t feel like he’s doing something right, he will lose confidence. If you don’t brag on him from time to time he will start to think “maybe I can’t get this right.” Keep in mind that we like these dogs for the very reasons that they are trainable and that they like to work for us. I am not saying baby them all their life but a “good boy” every once in a while never hurt. And next time they will want to go to work instead of dreading it.

So much for my psychological B.S. Here are some physical things I like to do to build strength in a young dog. There are three things you need to have to do this with a young dog:

  1. You need to have a good solid “down” command on your dog
  2. You need to use some small dog-broke calves
  3. You need to have a situation where you can control the stock.

I use a 20′ by 50′ square pen. On the other hand, I have used a trained dog to help me and the pup hold the stock in a corner of a large pasture.

I like to use corners and gateways to build a dog up. But, be careful, this is also the easiest place to tear a dog down and even get him hurt. Hence, the small, dog broke calves. As the dog gets tougher and more confident you want to move him up to a little tougher stock. This is the only way to build up any animal or human for that matter. Keep testing them. But at the end of the day, make sure your side comes out on top.

This is why I don’t use an electric collar, except as a last resort. I want to test and develop my mental capabilities and training techniques, not my trigger finger. I’ll leave that to professional marksman.

Anyway, I would stand in the corner and ask the dog to fetch the cattle to me. Then step around to one side and let the cattle pack into the corner. At this point, you can do one of several things. You can move around about halfway to your dog and ask him to bite. I do this by either slapping the cattle on the back or turning one calf out to the dog. All the while hissing and talking in an excited tone. I have even grabbed a calf by the ears and asked the pup to bite it on the head. (The calf was a small Holstein about 350 lbs. Who do you think I am — Hercules?)

Two words of caution: if your dog gets so excited that he gets out of control, stop and start over, slower and softer this time. If your dog refuses to bite, don’t ask again that day. If he doesn’t want to, you can’t make him (remember the statue).

You can step back up to the fence one way or the other and let your dog go between the cattle and the fence to continue to fetch to you. There are three things to remember here:

  1. Take it slow. This is the part where a dog can really get hurt
  2. Always leave a temporary escape route for the cattle
  3. Do not push a dog through a corner when he is apprehensive. If he refuses, try exciting him more while blocking his route to the other side. You can even move the cattle out yourself to give the dog a little more room to go through if need be. If you force the dog to do something like this, you will gradually kill his desire. Trust me! (Been there, done that.)

Another thing you can do in a corner is stay in the corner yourself and let the dog have the full 90 degrees of responsibility. If your dog is stale, you can spook the cattle out towards him. This will also develop their flanking eye if you have five or more calves. Be careful though, if your dog is especially strong you might end up having to climb up the corner post to keep from getting hurt yourself (ha ha).

I like to use a gateway to let a pup know he has accomplished what I wanted. Which is simply for him to pen the cattle. So I make a point every time he brings cattle through a gate to lay him down right in the gateway, let him sit for a moment, recall him and then really make a fuss over him. This gives him a sense of accomplishment and is not a bad habit to form. How many times have we penned cattle just to have the dog zip around to the other side and bring them out again? Sometimes I may even walk in and turn part of the calves towards the gate and ask the dog to get to his feet and block the gate.

These methods and theories work for me but this is not the only way to train a dog. These are my opinions. I hope that they will be able to help you in building strength in your young dog. But remember to make sure that your dog wins.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1997

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