by Red Oliver
After looking in several dictionaries and after discussing the issue with anyone who would agree, I have come to the conclusion that there is no single term that will satisfactorily describe what is required by each type of stock or each type of rancher, especially considering that each of us has our own peculiar idea on how to train a dog to enhance his inherited power. While these are my own opinions, you must recognize that an opinionated person has a duty to his reputation to ask questions in the positive—never trying to stump the person he is talking to by asking him what he thinks when it’s our question and we already know the answer.
Before one can seriously start talking about what the rancher/farmer requires in the way of power in a dog and how one trains a dog to enhance his inherited powers, whatever that might be, one has to dispose of the Zane Grey Cowboy syndrome with its pack of “catch and kill” Cowdogs, and the Lone Ranger on his own with only the vision of John Wayne dancing in his head, which permeates almost every conversation on power and force in gathering stock.
The Zane Grey cowboy was one who, if not racing across the prairie with two guns ablazin’ was racing across the prairie with one gun ablazin’. And so it is with today’s Cowdog Cowboy. He dreams of either having a flock of dogs that will chew and mutilate or he dreams of being alone, astride a line-back dun, lathered on the neck and shoulders with sweat rolling off both flanks. His hat is pulled down over his ears, brim turned up from the force of the wind. Mesquite and blackjack limbs, green briar and dewberry vines tearing at his face and arms, blood streaming from cuts on his face. If there is a 200-foot cliff in the county, he dreams of horse and rider sailing off it in order to head an old cow in the brush below. The dream ends after several hours of headlong pursuit, with the cow being roped, the horse thrown off its feet, the rope looped six times around the rider’s neck and twice around his throwin’ arm. They’re at the bottom of a 50 foot draw, the cow has hooked him in the back twice and in the ribs three times.
Then comes salvation in the form of the herding dog(s). Sometimes it’s ten and at other times it’s only one mean son-of-a-gun. The dog gets the cow by the nose and throws her over his left shoulder thereby saving the rider’s life. That is, if the cow is still goring the rider who is now down in the mud in mortal, hand-to-hand combat. If the cow is back off eight or ten inches, the dog grabs that mossyback by the flank and keeps flipping her around until the rider gets untangled from his rope. Taking command once again, he flips the cow on her side and in short order has her hog tied. If there is a pack of “cowdogs” involved, half the stock is in the trap on bended knee promising to never leave again and the other half is ascending to heaven to join the devil’s herd.
Now that we have determined what these so-called stockmen want in a good “catch or kill” dog (i.e., a gullible audience), let’s talk about herding dogs controlling stock in a sane manner. I do not mean to include every Cowboy who has what he considers to be a “Cowdog” as being in this crowd. There are many who own, train and use dogs on cattle in as reasonable a fashion as any other dog owner. The reason one word, “power” or “force”, won’t cut it is because the act of using the proper amount of force or power on the great variety of stock throughout the nation, ranging from moving a two-day-old calf in a manner that won’t overly excite the mamma (mamma will always go where her calf goes) down to moving just a herd of dog-trained stock in a pasture situation, varies with the situation.
Complicate this by the fact that every farmer/rancher is an entity unto himself, the subject gets so muddy that one must be a bit of a philosopher to even enter into the discussion! The Cowdog Cowboys require one thing. The Border Collie people most always bring eye into the formula. Bruce Nelson of Greenwood, Nebraska has a true working Aussie that has all the power any of this group could want, and has eye. Then, too, words in the dictionary do not differentiate between the junkyard dog and the herding dog. But, for what it is worth, let me put down some basic methods one might expect to see in a dog’s demonstration of power on cattle that won’t readily move away from the dog. This is not a definition or description of power, but rather what one might see and like in a given dog. Power and the proper training methods still need to be elucidated. (McCaig would call that a “big hat” word.)
HEAD: No matter whether the cow just stands her ground or whether she charges the dog, the sequence on ‘the head is the same except for the process by which the dog handles her while she is charging.
1. Let’s describe the quiet stand-off first. The dog approaches the head of the cow in a quiet, non-inflammatory (relaxed) manner. When he gets about two feet away, he hesitates. If the cow is still determined not to turn back, he may snap in her face and if that is not enough then he will nip her on the face (usually on the nose) and THEN, he will perform the ultimate in the herding dog world. He will take off all predatory pressure from the cow and allow her to turn away, enabling the cow to be unconcerned that her throat, belly and hams are vulnerable. She turns away because the dog has communicated to her that he is not going to play the role of the predator. She respects his dominance and turns back.
2. If perchance the cow was never dog broke in her maiden days and wants to chase the dog, the ultimate herding dog would face up to her, giving ground, but never running away. And at the moment when the cow feels insecure that far from the herd and up against an opponent that can deal out more misery than she can, the dog smiles and says, “That’s a good cow,” and lets her rejoin the crowd without any wild gyrations on the head or hitting the heels.
HEELS: We too often speak of a dog hitting the heels on command as though this were the ultimate. That is all well and good and a handy tool, but a dog with true heeling instinct and having had the opportunity to learn will, on his own initiative, drop down, pinch the heel of a laggard once, relax and then go on tending the rest of the herd without further thought of attack. Hitting low, medium or high is instinctive. Grabbing the tail is just a bad habit that can be cured if caught the first time.
While good herding dogs have the instinct to hit right on the ground, the foot they hit and the coolness to lay there and watch that foot go over their head without getting kicked is a learned behavior. Every pup that heels low will, too often, stand up and be susceptible to getting kicked. In fact, it is this learning experience that teaches a dog to watch the feet, then hit the one with the weight on it so that the cow must take a step with her other foot before the foot that was hit is free to kick. Do the job, relax and then follow through in a non-hyper manner is the answer
SUMMARY: For a dog to exhibit power in controlling belligerent stock, he must have instinct, courage and the training to stay relaxed; to think and to accept the responsibility of a herder, not a killer. It is also true that such a dog must have the ability to grip either end when necessary. The use of such force should always be tempered by what is actually required to control the stock. A bully is not one with internal personal power, whether he be canine or human.
I do not, and can not, accept the premise that eye, as in the Border Collie, in and of itself is “power”. I do believe that the right amount of eye and the correct use of that eye may very well enhance the ability of a dog in making proper use of his power. I also believe that a person who raises and trains a loose-eyed breed such as the Aussie, but has never raised and trained a Border Collie, cannot speak knowledgeably on the subject of eye and power in the strong-eyed breeds.
Likewise, I would say the same about the loose-eyed breeds and the Border Collie breeder/trainer who has never raised and trained one of the loose-eyed breeds. While this little monologue may not be overly comprehensive, it hopefully will stir up some interest in how to train the Border Collie, the Kelpie and the Aussie so that they make good use of whatever force, power, strength, presence, dominance or whatever it is that each dog has or has not, and that we all want to see in our mature dogs. I personally believe my old “sic ’em”, “eat em up” methods made bullies out of some dogs that might have been pretty good if they had been trained properly.
this article was first published in the October/November 1991 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer magazine