RANCH DOG DEVELOPMENT

by Terry Martin

There are many different opinions on developing and training a stockdog. Never underestimate how much the end result depends on the dog you had to begin with. My involvement in breeding and studying the genetic traits of working Australian Shepherds can hopefully give some insight into their development and training.

For many years we worked ranch dogs completely unaware of any established training methods, so I can identify with the stockman with his first dogs. In more recent years although I make no claim to be an established trainer or trialer, I have studied many pups as they mature and watched them go through more formal training. I know now how much this information would have helped make our ranch dogs even more valuable to us.

Working instinct tells the dog to go to stock, gives him savvy to read them and understand them. It gives him the desire to move them, and in some amazing way influences whether or not he will bite them, where he will bite, whether or not he will bark at them, and all the traits a stockdog exhibits. Isn’t it amazing that some Australian Shepherds will bark at strangers and disturbances but will never bark at livestock? Many such dogs exist, and why? Some instinct they were born with makes them never even feel the urge to bark at cattle or sheep.

What about the little dog who is afraid of strangers, spooky around people and strange surroundings, and then walks in like he/she is ten feet tall and bites a bull on the nose and takes command. The working instinct does not necessarily coincide with the other traits the dog inherited. This is another reason we have so much trouble choosing him when he is a puppy.

The ability to work with a human and take training is a trait that is separate from working instinct. A dog with style and working instinct who can not be trained is pretty to watch but certainly not very useful. On the other hand the easily trained dog who lacks the savvy to read the stock and think on his own will only be mechanical and of even less use.

To have a really great working Australian Shepherd you must have a dog with instinct to handle livestock, trainability, and a third characteristic, intense desire to work. The third scenario is the dog who has savvy and trainability, but would just as soon sniff the roses (or other things). All variations occur within these three traits.

Watch your dog so you can use your knowledge of these three traits when you work him and are making the decision whether he can do the job you will demand of him. It sounds harsh, but if he doesn’t have the genetic ability to do the job you need done, you would be far better off finding one that does. Developing a dog with or without formal training is time consuming, often frustrating, and can be very rewarding. The dog will make the difference.

You will hear talk about the pressure of training or whether a dog can take training. I know people sometimes have a vision of a harsh trainer yelling and abusing a dog. Of course, that is not what pressure means. The pressure is mental. The dog must enjoy working but it isn’t all going to be fun. Some dogs possess such an intense desire that nothing can dampen it including harsh handling. Others equally or more talented need to be eased along.

What is pressure? An example is when the handler starts to teach directions. Your dog wants to go left because his instinct tells him the stock are breaking that way. You tell him to go right and use your aids of crook, your body, voice or the fence to force him your way. At that moment it ceases to be fun any more for the dog. That wasn’t what his instinct told him to do, and it didn’t make sense to him. You obviously are displeased with what he wanted to do. Here is perhaps his first taste of “training”. Will he work through it with you? Will you work through it with him?

Many times in your training and real life work situations his instinct is going to tell him to do things that are contrary to what you want done. He can’t understand your intent all the time and will have to be ready to obey you. This is “pressure” and he will have to work his way through it if he is to be a useful dog. You will be more effective if you understand why he is defying you or being disobedient. It may be the very instinct you admire in him, and you will need to think about this. Don’t just decide he is “hardheaded” or stupid.

Some people have the impression that if a dog “quits” during the pressure of training that he is no good. If he quits, examine the situation. Were you fair to him? Were you really expecting him to do something he had no way of understanding? The instinct he has is intense if he is a good dog, and your job is to teach him to use it to be useful. He is not born with the knowledge of what is useful to you. Be willing to work through difficult times in training with him.

Although there is no way to explain it in an article, be prepared to put him up for a few minutes to a few weeks when you hit a snag in training. You are the one who has to figure out why he is responding as he is and what logical steps you can take to overcome the hurdle. Try to get into his mind and see more than just what you want done. Never underestimate the value during training of going back to basics and working back through things he already knows and understands. You may see clues to why he is having so much trouble with the present training, and you will regain his confidence again. He must believe in you to work for you. Don’t put him in situations you know he can’t yet handle if you want a confident working partner later.

Think again about what you expect of him. Have you ever worked livestock with someone on their place? Ever pushed cattle toward a pen with the owner and heard him yell, “Ease up and don’t push them so hard”? You stop and he immediately hollers with irritation in his voice, “watch out, they’re going to stop and if they do, they’ll break back.” You jump forward to keep them from stopping and he yells, “hey, slow down and give them time to see the gap.” By now you would like to pitch a rock in the direction of his head, but after all, he is in charge. After they break away a few times you know he is furious. This doesn’t help your ability to make the right decisions out there. If the helper happens to be his wife, she ends the task by stomping to the house never again to help someone who expects her to run around like crazy on a hot day listening to all that yelling. After all, screaming at someone doesn’t help them keep cool when things are going wrong. Think about the dog in the same situation. Ever wonder why the dog went to the porch? Think about it.

Before you begin training or working a ranch dog, you must decide what commands you want to use. At a minimum you will need to stop him, will need to tell him to push the stock and will need to send him to stop the stock or to get around to the opposite side. Many useful ranch dogs have no commands except a “get ’em” to send the dog and a “get around” or “get ahead” to send him to the other side. I would venture to say that many western ranch cattle dogs never get beyond these.

Often through repetition the dog will start going right or left fairly reliably because of observation of his handler’s “body english” or hand waving. The formal side commands have never been taught, and the stockman may not even realize he is using them. The dog actually works from “hand signals” without them ever being formally trained. A “Hey get back here!” used when driving cattle will be enough to keep a ranch dog working on the same general side of the herd as the stockman, because he had it yelled at him enough when he was young, exuberant and trying to run ahead.

In time, he has learned to be comfortable pushing the stock and not running to the front. Often when cattle are running off, the stockman is excited because he is losing his cattle or they are getting ready to go through the wrong gate. “Get around” or some such command is called out in an excited or loud tone. The dog picks up on the handler’s emotions anyway and sees that the cattle need to be turned back. Again, a hand signal may be given without it ever being part of a conscious training program. In these subtle ways, many ranch dogs become “trained.”

The dog who has the genetic potential to be great can become an outstanding stockdog with no more training than that I have described. The owner will proudly tell you, “He just trained himself.” But the dog who lacks the power to handle the stockman’s cattle or did not have the trainability or desire will never reach the potential he would reach with formal training. A lesser dog will need someone constantly evaluating what it takes to make him more effective.

Without even formal training, the stockman above could get a little more from his dog just by giving some thought to his commands. Start with deciding what commands you will use and then be consistent. Use whatever you want, but remember the dog does not understand words, just sounds. Make each command sound different.

For instance, “right” and “left” have instant meaning to English speaking humans but might sound very similar to a dog when shouted across a pasture. The historical commands for right and left are way to me and go by with the former actually meaning go counter clockwise and go by meaning to go clockwise (or the dog’s left). You can teach your dog to “down” or to “stay”. “Walk on” or “walk up” are common commands to drive or to go to the stock. Ranch dogs more often are used to “go get ’em”. Often a hissing sound is used for the dog to grip. You may want a command for the dog to look back for a head of stock he has left behind, a command to slow him down, and a command for him to just hesitate and go on from there.

You are the one to decide how simple or complex you want the training to be based on your use of the dog. Just be sure before you begin that you are sure of the commands you will use and are consistent in your use of them. If they don’t come easy to you, find something that does.

Australian Shepherds can be trained to do things that are contrary to their instinct and can become good at it. But in doing so, you may lose something of the instinct that made him a stockdog in the first place. If you are going to need him in a pinch, you will be able to depend on the dog whose instincts and your needs coincide.

Better to perfect his instinct after you have chosen a dog whose natural style is appropriate for your situation. A dog who really does not want to grip may refuse to do so in a pressure situation when you really need help. His instinct is contrary to your commands. By the same token, an aggressive dog whose instinct is to grip may do so right when you would like him to stay off. Remember the Australian Shepherd is naturally a close working dog. Constantly pushing him out wide can result in a confused or disinterested dog. Use of each dog as they were bred to be will produce the most effective worker.

When training an Australian Shepherd you need to always remember that if he has the potential to be a good cattle dog he will be drawn to conflict. If any one thing makes him difficult to train it is this trait. It is the same trait that makes him the confident cattle dog you bought him for. I have stated this several times, but it is important. In his early stages of development, he needs to win his confrontations with livestock. He will put himself in situations he is not yet ready to handle.

Facing a group of cattle, he will instinctively pick out the one or ones he senses a challenge from. His inexperience and excitement may make him charge in on the challenging one. You want that power and confidence, but you want the dog to learn control. Grip must be there, but you want to teach him to use it appropriately. Curious young calves are perfect for this lesson. You can walk the dog on a nylon line toward the calves and then let them come to him. Your line controls his desire to run in at them, and he has to study the situation as he stands there. You should continually talk to him telling him “steady” or whatever term you decide to use. When one approaches him, you allow or encourage him to nip it on the nose. Praise him as it turns away but prevent him from chasing it.

You will know your own stock, but a tame bull can work for this lesson. Often they will keep their head down and hardly react to the pup’s nip, and they are less likely to wheel and kick. If he bites repeatedly with no reaction, step in and back the bull up as you do want the pup to see he gets a reaction. Obviously, there are a lot of bulls you wouldn’t want to try this on! Goats and sheep are good for this, too, but dogs work sheep differently than cattle, so they should only be a beginning step.

You can also work on the dog’s self control in a pasture. This requires more control on your dog and belongs later in training, but makes a great training session. It also works well to dogbreak cattle, and I first saw it used by Tony Rohne. Lay the dog down out from a group of cattle out of their flight zone but close enough for them to be aware of him. One or two head will wander out to check out the dog (usually the most aggressive or curious of the herd). You stay close enough to be able to verbally control the dog and keep him on a down or stay until the cow gets up to him or makes an aggressive move toward him. The longer you keep the dog still the better.

Your goal here is to have him simply hold his ground on stock, not go move them. This is great training for guarding a gate. Only let him grip the stock if they challenge him. Once he answers the challenge with a bite to the nose or even the heel after it turns, lie him down again and wait for another cow to come out. Whenever putting a dog through a lesson like this, remember you are only teaching him to control his desire to go to stock when it is not necessary and to use force only when needed. A close working aggressive dog like the Australian Shepherd will greatly benefit from this exercise as an intelligent dog only needs to be shown how to use his instincts.

You will sometimes find an Australian Shepherd that just has absolutely no instinct to grip heels. Instinct is just that, and if it is not there you can no more train it than you could train a Poodle to heel. You may also find an individual dog who does not want to face a head situation and will fall in behind cattle running off rather than head them. Since this is not as specific as the act of biting a hind leg, it is more controllable or at least you can make the dog into one who will stop dog broke cattle. I won’t go into detail in this article, but remember; don’t let the dog lose confrontations with livestock early in his career!

This can rapidly make a heading problem worse, as the dog must be convinced he can win a head on confrontation. Either he is born with that conviction through his heredity or you can teach him to win. If you teach him he can lose, there usually is no going back. Some working traits are very specifically inherited while others can be perfected or lost depending on the dog’s genetic potential. The ranch dog must be a genetically strong sound dog who has inherited intense desire to work, stock savvy and trainability. Training need not be formal, but use of some basic understanding will result in a much more useful partner!
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine February/March 1995.