DEVELOPING THE WHOLE CATTLEDOG PART SIX:
Side Commands

by Rusty Johnson

I will include this part of the series because this is what everyone wants. It seems like everyone is in such a hurry to tell their dog “Go right . . . Go left . . . down . . .”, but in all of their haste I really think people have overlooked the most important part.

Sure, you see all of these great handlers giving their dogs side commands and winning trials doing it. But are are things there that you don’t see. Mark and Mike (my best friends) and I were talking about great handlers the other day, and how they can shape a dog without you even seeing or hearing what they are doing. We all came up with an observation that I believe in wholeheartedly. If your dog is truly broke (by this I mean fully trained in the basics), you can accomplish any job set before you with body language, positioning and three simple signals:

Hiss = Go
Growl = Get Back
Dog’s Name = Come Here

If you don’t understand what I am saying, then you have probably never seen a dog that is truly broke. JUst like most people think they have “Old Sorrelly” broke but ask them to have him perform a simple sidepass and the rider and horse are both lost.

What I am saying . . . wait a minute, Doug Jordan, a cutting horse trainer I worked for, said it better: “Gain control of his mind and the body will follow.”

How do I know if a dog is broke? OK, I usually just take a long look at the dog and ask myself: is he supple? Can I push him out, pull him in, or fold him one way or the other without it being a big deal? You want to be able to do it without offending him. If you can, now you can insist on some mechanics (side commands).

To train side commands, I go back to a simple circle exercise as in Elvin Kopp’s video. You want to keep everything as simple as you can, so as to make it easy for the dog to learn what you want. Try to only work on one command each day. You can introduce more than that every day, but only insist on one each day.

Start out making it easy (introduction): just give the command as the dog is doing what you want. Then, gradually increase the difficulty. Buy this I mean you want to gradually ask the dog to run against his balance. Example: to start teaching ‘come by’, have the dog at six o’clock, you stand at five o’clock and ask the dog to ‘come by’. Of course it will work; his balance tells him to go to his left. Next time, stand in front of him. Now he has an equal choice. Ask him to ‘come by’. If he goes the wrong way, growl and step in front of him and stop him. Reposition yourself and start over.

If you give the command and the dog won’t move, probably out of confusion or apprehension, try giving the command in a more excited tone of voice, while raising your left hand to block the dog from going the wrong way.

If your hand is not enough you may have to take a step to your left, just to clarify in his mind what you want. As he gets better, try to minimize your body language. Practice this until he will take a come by every time without any body language! Then step around to seven o’clock, then eight, then nine, and so on, until he will let you stand at twelve o’clock and flank him around squarely, all the way around behind you. Now you have a broke dog, that is also a little mechanical.

One word of caution: be patient! A great rope horse trainer, Dick Yates, once said, “If you can improve one percent each day, then in 100 days you would have a trained horse.” I think the same is true of a dog.

this article was first published in Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine, February/March 1998