Question and Answers: How to Start a Cowdog
(Working Aussie Source editor note: this Ranch Dog Trainer magazine format poses one reader question to several experienced stockmen, in this case, Lee Adams, Robin Nuffer, Finis Hallmark, Carl Larsen, and Les Walker)
QUESTION: (1) I have a dog I want to train as a cowdog. He is 2 years old and has a strong drive to herd cattle but all he knows how to do is chase them. I think I need to start by teaching him his flank commands but we don’t have anything close to a round pen. Does anyone have any advice for me on how to start him without this?
(2) One of the main things I want to teach him to do is sort one or two cows out of a big herd. Where do I start?
(3) When he does chase cattle, he is usually pretty rough and tough. Most of our cows need this, but we have a few that do better with quiet, gentle handling. Can I expect him to be rough with the tough ones and quiet with the gentle ones? If so how do I train him to get back and be more gentle when he needs to without making him not want to herd at all by correcting him too severely?
I would appreciate any advice and opinions I could get on these questions, as well as any tips in general on training a good cowdog.
First let me refer you to Ben Mean’s video, I think the title is “The Perfect Stock Dog Video”. He deals with just this kind of dog without a round pen.
I don’t know much about you or your relationship with the dog so I will start from the very beginning. You have to build a relationship with your dog and he must respect you as the Alpha. The first two things you need to teach him is to come to you on command and to stop and be still on command.
You can use whatever commands you like but `here’ and `down’ are the most common ones used. You can also teach your dog to move back on command with a rope and a pulley fastened to a fence post. These three commands can be taught away from livestock.
You need to think through what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it before you take your dog to cattle. You can use bottle-fed calves or bucket-broke calves. Whatever you start with needs to be broke, preferably dog broke. You can’t dog break cattle with a dog that only chases them. You will teach them and the dog all the wrong lessons.
You can use a small square or rectangular pen in your cow pens to start the dog. You might want to put a panel in the corners to round them out if your dog tends to hold cattle in the corners.
Next get a rope that is easy on your hands, about 10 feet long and attach one end of it to your dog. Take your dog to the stock and start taking him around the outside of the stock inside the corral pen. The dog’s desire to chase cattle could be derived from fear, so don’t be surprised if the dog is timid around the cattle when you take the chase out of the situation. Never punish the dog for being afraid. I have forced a dogs to do things they were afraid to do using intimidation and it always cost me more than it gained.
As you go around the cattle reinforce your commands and help your dog learn to feel comfortable around the cattle. Be two members of a team, not a task master and a slave. Spend 15 minutes a day doing this with your dog. Loosen up your hold on the rope. As you become more confident the dog will take his commands until you no longer need the rope. Force the dog to square his flanks as you go around the cattle. Practice a calm controlled walk up to the cattle and practice stopping and being still as close to the cattle as you can get.
This method requires the dog to have a natural desire to go around or to the other side of the stock and balance on you. If the dog lacks the desire to do this you are forced to go to the round pen method and start the dog circling the stock.
A dog can be a great help in sorting cattle, but that is a much more complicated thing to teach the dog. This maneuver is based on the dog coming to you when called. The better he is at recall, the better he will be at parting cattle. So for the present work on teaching or conditioning the dog to come to you when called. Don’t force him, find a way to make him want to come.
Can a dog be rough on some cattle and gentle with others? Some can. It depends on a number of things. One of which is how much courage the dog has while on stock. Another is how sensitive the dog is. And of course how much desire he has to work will also make a difference. The best cow dogs have a presence that allows them to be very quiet around cows, but have the ability to dish it out when necessary. The only way to teach this is to help the dog feel comfortable around the cows and to let him get years of experience.
Robin Nuffer (Broken Circle Border Collies):
I have been training dogs to work cattle most my life. Growing up on a cow/calf operation we needed good dogs. To start training a dog to work cattle, a round pen is nice but not necessary. If you can get sheep or calves to start off with this works best to lay down a foundation for your dog. If the main thing you want to do is sort cattle from a large herd, your dog needs to learn how to “shed”. I teach my dogs to shed cattle with the aid of a fence. This takes time and patience, because the dogs feel they are out of control.
Start with a group of calves – with the calves between you and your dog. Back up against the fence let the calves string out between you, use your cattle stick to make a break in the bunch, then call your dog in on the head of the calves you have sorted. Take these calves away, giving the dog a job. This makes it more like work and the dog understands better when he/she sees a job completed. Do this exercise until your dog starts feeling comfortable with splitting the cattle and taking them somewhere. This process may take from three days to three months depending on where your dog is in his/her maturity. As your dog figures out what you want and as they mature they will start to enjoy the pressure of the shed.
You should expect your dog to be more aggressive with rougher type cattle but on the other hand should learn to be gentler with quieter cattle. You may be correcting your dog too severely if he is not wanting to work. Your dog has a bubble and the livestock have a bubble. Your need to encourage your dog to find it, and when they do you will be able to move cows and calves as easy as dry cows that are dog broke. I always try to train my dog before taking them to work. It makes things happen so much easier, and the wrecks are fewer and farther between.
I . Most definitely a dog has to know his flank commands to work for the handler. A handler can purchase stock panels and t-posts for approximately $220.00 to build a round pen, then knock it down when he progresses out to a larger area. I would not recommend starting a dog on cattle or any flighty animals. I recommend sheep or ducks. I have had good results with big heavy roosters that won’t fly.
2. While he is in the round pen and he is taking commands, step between the sheep, ducks or roosters and call him to you, thus shedding the animals.
3. Again the dog must work on command. Train the dog to be aggressive or less aggressive with a different voice or whistle.
1. Round pens are very helpful in training a young dog, but they are not the only way to get the job done. You may have a pen that you can work your dog in already. A square pen will work if you can put a cattle panel up in each comer. The reason for this is to keep the stock from bunching up in a corner. Livestock are bad about doing this, thinking they are safer when in a bunch. We want to make it as easy as possible for the dog to go between the fences and the stock at all times. If you have a corner, you can rest assure they will bunch up there making it very risky for the dog to bring them out especially if you’re using unbroke cattle to start your dog.
Remember, if you are training a young dog, he must have some room to be backed off the stock. If your pen is too small or narrow, and you stay in it too long, you will make it harder to back the dog off the stock when the time comes. A round pen 90′ in diameter is what I use when starting my young dogs. A square pen this size, with panels in the corners, will work too. I find starting a dog with cattle is pretty tough. It is very hard for you to see the dog and what he is doing behind them. When starting a dog, it is very important that you establish dominance with the pup. If he can’t see you while behind the stock, it takes long for him to realize you are trying to show him how you want him to work.
Sheep and goats are smaller and the need for being rough isn’t so necessary, and you can see what he is doing; he can also see what you are doing. Remember, the dog is trained through correct repetition. Many folks are starting their dogs on cattle and end up with very good dogs. I’m just stating my preference.
2. Flanking commands make it possible to position the dog where you want him. It is very important the dog moves in the correct direction while sorting stock. Get these commands down pat, then position him where the sort is wanted, then ask him in with ‘there’, ‘that’ll do’ and ‘in here’. If the dog will obey each step of these commands, you can sort stock with ease. If he doesn’t understand these commands then go back and work on the ones he doesn’t respond to. Remember, the dog learns by correct repetition.
3. If your dog is chasing cattle and getting away with it long enough, he will not make much of a stock dog. If the dog is two years old and has been allowed to constantly chase the stock, now is the time to stop this and make things happen correctly. Remember, a young dog, if allowed to do things his way long enough, will never learn how you want things to happen. Some dogs are tougher on stock than others. Many times this just shows a lack of experience. Rome was not built in a day; and this dog, unless given the opportunity, won’t learn when to or when not to be rough. You are dealing with a juvenile. Give him time to learn. These questions can be answered also by purchasing good videos. Reading about training is great for some folks, but I have found reviewing a video helps me a lot more. I can see how a dog is made to respond as it happens, then go out with my dog and try to repeat it. The more time you spend with your dog trying to get him to understand you, the more you will
understand what he needs. Time and correct repetition.
In order to achieve the greatest success with your dog you need to have him on a solid “down” and “come”. If the dog has a good down he can be restricted from chasing cattle by simply stopping him. When it comes time to sort the stock you must stop the dog to be able to call him to you exactly where you want.
To put a down on the dog – put him on a rope. Either push him down to the ground and hold him in place while giving ONE command, “down”. As soon as the dog relaxes give him the “get up” command. At the beginning the dog will get up immediately when you release the pressure. With time, he will stay on the ground and possibly need to be bumped up with the leash to get him up on his feet.
Remember to give the command only once, then put the dog down. (A good method that will save a backache is to clip the leash to the dog, hold the end in your hand, catch the leash at the collar with the arch of your foot, pull out the slack, and step down on the leash – forcing the dog down. In the beginning you need to be careful to have the slack taken all of the way out and your foot all the way at the collar. A young dog will panic, wrap your leg and at times try to bite you.)
Once the dog is on a good lay down on a short lead – move to a longer lead. Then take him in a small area that he cannot get out of and work on the down again. From there you can go outside to a bigger area.
When you finally go to stock, lead the dog around in the pen and make him pay attention to you and your commands. Put him down a time or two on the lead. When things are going well let the rope out and ask the dog for a down while he is focusing on the stock. Once you are getting a good response from the dog – let him work. Leave the rope on for a while and catch hold of it immediately for a reprimand if he does not respond to your “Down”.
Back to your question. If your dog is chasing livestock – you can not get him trained. By putting a stop on your dog you can rate his distance from the stock.
Shedding should not be attempted until much later in your training. Your main focus should be on teaching the dog to learn how to keep the stock bunched in a herd. Not split them.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2000 issue of The Ranch Dog Trainer magazine