THE WORKING AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD: DEVELOPING HIS POWER
by Terry Martin
In the last article about using Australian Shepherds as cattle dogs, we discussed a few ways of introducing your pup or young dog to cattle. On a ranch there will be limited opportunities to do the things you would like to do with this dog. If your situation consists only of cows with calves out on large pastures you might want to wait until you wean some calves to start him. If you have access to young cattle in smaller areas you will have a better opportunity to do some constructive work with him.
Before you begin working the dog you should analyze your goals. You should at least have a good idea in your mind of what you want the dog to learn. As an example, there are several ways dogs will head cattle to turn them back. Our ideal is for the dog to complete an arc around the cow or cattle, coming back in directly in front to confront the stock. The cattle then have the choice of turning from the dog’s presence alone or meeting with a physical confrontation. The dog also has a few seconds to evaluate the actions he will take.
We want the dog to meet the cattle with quiet power and grip on the face. Some dogs will complete the arc and then begin barking to turn cattle rather than confront them with grip. Some will run in front of the cattle leaping at the face as they go across. Some will run beside the head or shoulder of the cattle either barking or attempting to grip. Any and all of these methods can be effective on some cattle and some people find them acceptable.
Only you can decide what you want your dog to do and what he is capable of doing. Your situation and experience will dictate your goals for the dog. Your training of the dog and his natural instinct will both influence what you finally end up with. Be sure you take the first step and determine just what you want before you begin to teach it to him!
I don’t intend these articles to be training articles and will just suggest some ways to develop your dog’s mind and the power he will need to work cattle. There are no right or wrong ways; just those that work and those that don’t for each individual.
If you have decided you want a dog who will confidently stop cattle and turn them around, your responsibility is to show him he can do this task. As I have stated so many times, you have to teach him to win! The confident, genetically sound young dog may do everything correctly and stop the toughest cattle from the beginning. However, if you let him get in situations he is physically unable to handle and let him get pushed around he will not keep that confidence. Your dog will start taking shortcuts to protect himself such as running along beside the head rather than making the move to go in front and stop the cattle. Your responsibility is to reinforce his instincts from the beginning so he can do his work effectively.
I will take a minute to discuss the natural driving dog or dog who fears or just dislikes going to the head. Your observation of the dog who does not want to head is important so you can determine just why he doesn’t like it. Is he afraid? Is his instinct to heel so strong he just keeps falling in behind from the pull of that instinct? Does he just lack the desire to work hard enough to turn stock? Is he physically not fast enough to get to the point of stopping them? These are questions you need to answer on this type of dog so you know whether or not you can work through it with him. Although you will never have an effective head dog with one of these dogs, you may be able to develop him to some degree of usefulness. Sometimes a dog like this will be useful when worked with another dog with a lot of power on the head. Remember no amount of training is a substitute for courage and instinct.
There are two important tools the dog needs to effectively work the head. One is the desire and ability to grip cattle when approaching them directly from the front. Second is an approach to the stock where he will complete an arc that ends in the correct position to confront the cow or group of cattle. For instance, if the dog caves in on the arc before he gets to a point in front of the cow/cattle, he will come in at an angle from the side. The cattle won’t see him as a threat to their forward progress and although they may turn from him, it won’t be a 180 degree turn. He also may be tempted to grip on the side or jump at the head from the side. If the cattle run through him, they are far ahead of him by the time he collects himself. He also shouldn’t cut his arc so close that he only confronts the cow closest to him and not the entire herd.
So how do you teach him how to do this correctly? Here we use a fence to work the dog against. I realize there are those trainers who will cry out against this, saying that the dog will always need a fence to work on. There are also those who believe the dog must be worked in an open area. The truth is the dog will not always need a fence any more than he will always need a nylon line if you use one on him or always need a crook to send him in a direction. The fence is a training aid only. This is a tool the rancher can use who does not have a flock of dog-broke gentle sheep to train his dog.
Unless he is instinctively entirely a heeling driving dog (unusual in an Australian Shepherd), the dog inherently works in a circle around the stock. This is why young dogs will run in circles around stock before their instinct is more refined by experience or training. Most training methods use this instinct by allowing the dog to circle around the stock to a point directly across the stock from the handler. The dog is trained to work from there to fetch the stock to the handler. This is very effective when using a flock of sheep or very dogbroke cattle.
Consider about what you can teach him when he is on the other side of the livestock from you if you do not have gentle dog-broke stock. Can you be sure he wins a confrontation with a cow if it goes after him? Can you be sure the cattle won’t turn away from you and run through or over him? Can you do anything to get him to walk up and take command of them if he just stands there unmoving? The answers are no because you are physically unable to be both with the dog and across the stock from him. The cattle most stockmen have to use are often neither dog-broke nor gentle enough to move toward a person.
What if you cut that circle in half by using a fence to block half the circle? The “circle” still exists in the dog’s mind yet you can easily control difficult situations which may occur. Start with your cattle up against a fence in a fairly small area. The dog will have to remain on the same side you are on. Can you back him up if he is challenged? Can you influence the stock to turn away from him if he doesn’t yet have the power to do it himself? Can you be close enough to him to encourage him to walk into the stock when he hesitates? The answer here is yes. Remember the purpose of this exercise is to develop the confidence and power in your dog.
Use of a crook or working stick here to guide the dog’s movement is very helpful although some people will just use their arm and body to influence the dog. You will want to put the stock on the fence and yourself between the stock and the dog. The exercise is called flanking and what you want to do is send the dog to turn the stock.
The dog should consider the stick, your arm or your body, as a stop sign and move away from it. You block his progress or turn him around in this way. By working on the fence the dog will easily be able to see the cattle stop, do a complete 180 turn, and move directly away from him. After he has turned them, you can immediately send him back around behind you to stop them from going , in the other direction along the fence. Use your presence to keep the stock on the fence. As you work on this exercise you can let him drive them a short distance up the fence, and this is called cross driving.
You are actually beside the cattle influencing them to stay against the fence and the dog is directly behind pushing them. With your stick and body you keep the dog from running to the head again until you send him. The fence keeps him from running up the other side of the cattle. He will soon learn and should be excited about running around to stop them again. Once he learns this maneuver, remember your intent. This is where a stick works effectively because you can push him out to keep his arc wide enough to put him in a position to come in well ahead of the cattle.
You can also step in if a cow puts too much of a challenge on him and praise him for helping you meet that challenge. Some ideal situations can develop allowing you to build on his confidence and power. For instance, you can send him around and use your influence on the cattle to keep pushing them toward him if you think he is ready to handle this. You can influence the cattle to stop to see if he has the confidence and grip to walk in on standing stock and move them. Because you are close and encouraging him, he will do things he would not do out in the open.
Once he has learned he can do these things he will quickly move to doing them on his own. Your goal is to develop the dog’s confidence by creating situations that are controlled by you. By using a fence to cut the circle in half, you are always in control of both the stock and the dog.
When the dog becomes calm enough to drive a ways up the fence, you can begin teaching him to drive and stay behind cattle. Use whatever command you are going to want to use when he drives and stays behind. With you walking beside the cattle to keep them on the fence, let him push them from behind.
This is a good place to begin teaching the dog to heel on command. Because the situation is completely controlled and you can hold the dog in position behind the stock between the fence and yourself, you have him in the position to think about heeling. He is not tempted to run to the head when you tell him to “get ’em”, hiss at him or whatever command you have decided on for him to grip. He is pinched into a position behind the stock, and if he is going to grip it will have to be heels. Praise him if he heels on your command. If you have a dog who doesn’t grip very much, you will want to work on this when he is fresh and still excited. At this point you can also allow the dog to bring the cattle off the fence and work the side opposite you. Evaluate his confidence and your cattle to see if he is ready for this.
With the stick you also want to be sure the dog always completes his arc when he goes around to stop the cattle.
Cattle will quickly learn to turn away from the dog if he has any power on the head, so he may think he really didn’t have to complete the arc to turn them Don’t let him cheat on it. Be sure to send him clear to the fence before you lei him come in to turn them. Although he doesn’t want to head, even a strong driving dog will get this idea . He at least will learn he can go around cattle and influence them to move away from him. A dog who is weak on the head will always need some back-up if the power just isn’t genetically there, but at least he can be taught to go to the position where you need his presence.
There are many exercises you can do with this basic concept to develop your dog. If you want a dog who will walk in on standing stock and move them quietly and calmly, use a corner. The corner cuts another quarter off the circle and you have even more control over the stock and the dog. You can keep the stock standing in the corner yourself and ask the dog to move them. You are close enough to him to use your body and stick to keep him in the position you want but to allow the cattle to move only when you feel he has completed his task. A dog who will go into a corner to move sticky stock will be confident in working pens and chutes because he has learned to handle close work. You can calm him if he wants to just stand and bark and can demand he move in and handle the situation.
The genetic potential of the dog you have to begin with will decide what you end up with. These exercises will help you to find out just what you have. Although it puts you in a situation to control things, it also gives you the opportunity to challenge the dog and find out just how strong or weak he really is.
You will have opportunities to see how your dog is learning when the cattle get off the fence. They will, of course, do this from time to time during these exercises. If you send the dog to turn them back and he lets them run through him or gets out of control, he isn’t ready yet to work them away from the controlled situation you had him in. If he handles them reasonably well, let him work them toward you in a fetch before you have him bring them back to the fence. A good Australian Shepherd will have a strong instinct to work the opposite side of cattle and bring them toward you and the exercises you have been working on will have increased his confidence.
These exercises are the best way we know to put the handler in a situation where he has control of the livestock and the dog without using a line on the dog or requiring gentle stock. If your goal is to have a dog who walks in confidently on the stock and doesn’t develop bad habits along the way, you will need, from time to time, to get him into situations you can control. This can also be used to work on bad habits the dog may develop out in the field such as allowing a head of stock to fall back and not picking it up.
By having complete control of the situation driving up the fence the handler can immediately give the dog a command to go back and pick up the dropped stock and force him to do so. By repetition of the command when he makes the error he can learn what he is doing wrong. Some habits like this develop in the ranch dog because you do not have time to correct him during real working situations.
A dog who has started habits like biting stock on the shoulder or side to turn them can be corrected by bringing him back and forcing him with your body and stick to go all the way to the head to turn stock. If he’s doing it wrong out in the pasture in the heat of battle, he probably doesn’t know what he is doing wrong. Again, you want to create a situation where you can completely control the stock and the dog, which is something you cannot do out in the field or when the cattle are between you and the dog.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1995.