by Bud Williams
I hate to see so much emphasis being put on trying to prove that trial dogs are better than ranch dogs, or that ranch dogs would be better if we had more control on them. There is a huge difference between a good trial dog and a good ranch dog. There is practically no way to compare them. We have trials as a means of comparing one trial dog to another. The course for each dog is the same. The judge is the same. The number of animals are the same. A trainer has months or even years to teach and prepare a dog to go through this course. A working ranch dog will have a different course every day and may have many different numbers or even kinds of animals to work.
The trial dog has a certain time to complete the course. After that time has elapsed, the dog is finished. The worst that can happen is the dog doesn’t win. The working ranch dog must work until the job is done even if it takes all day.
If the trial dog gets confused or quits halfway through he just loses the trial and can go to another one later. He can win this next trial and get written up in a magazine about how good he is. If the ranch dog gets confused or quits when you’re part way through the job, you could have animals scattered and spend days getting them back together again. A good working ranch dog must work all day when asked. He must work large and small groups and under all conditions. Just having more control on the dog won’t help him to do this.
Over the years the trial course has been designed for spectator appeal and to test the ability of the handler to manipulate the dog through the course. Most of the time the trial is won more by the handler’s ability than the actual working ability of the dog.
I don’t mean to take anything away from trial dogs. They are just trained to do things that most working ranchers don’t need, or sometimes even want. It is very entertaining to watch trial dogs work. Also, the people working them enjoy their dogs, good or bad. But the working rancher has a job to do. And while he likes his dogs, they are not just for entertainment.
When talking about working dogs, there is something that we should be aware of. More commercial animals in the US. whether they be cattle, sheep, goats or pigs, are gathered and worked without dogs than with the help of dogs. While dogs can he a lot of help, most ranchers prefer not to have a dog around and they are able to do all the jobs without dogs. Most working ranchers who use dogs need them for jobs that are difficult for the rancher to do. Because of this, most of the things a trial dog is taught to do is of little or no value to a working rancher.
A trial dog must go wide on the outrun, must not cut in too soon, must never cross over and so on. Now, this really looks good and may take a long time to train the dog to do this. If the dog has a wide fast outrun, he or she will please the judge, the handler and the crowd.
If a working rancher is in rough mountain country and has a herd of animals going the wrong way at a run, it doesn’t matter to him if the dog goes wide, crosses over or goes right up the middle as long as the dog stops all the animals and maybe brings them back. But he must at least stops them all and holds them until the rancher can get there. No judge or crowd will see this. It might not be so pretty to watch, but I can tell you, the rancher will be pleased.
Next the lift. A trial dog goes to 12 o’clock then brings the animals in a straight line to the handier. When a ranch dog goes to get animals it really doesn’t matter what time they work at or if the animals are brought in a straight line. It only matters that all of the animals are gathered up and brought back in a reasonable length of time.
When we get to the panels, the trial dog must take the animals between the panels that are placed out in the arena. This requires skill by the dog and handler. Also, it is a way of judging one dog against another. If the dog succeeds, the crowd and handier are pleased and the dog scores points. I have worked with dogs on ranches for over 50 years. I have seen many good ranch dogs work and not once have I ever seen a ranch dog have to drive stock between two panels out in a field in order to get a job done.
I could go on and on, but by now you should understand that a trial is a contest. It is for people to get together, try their skills and their dog’s skill against one another. This is a very good thing. It allows people to work with a dog working animals that would otherwise not be possible. Most people will never have the opportunity to work a dog on a working ranch. A ranch dog has a job to do. A good ranch dog learns how to work the animals, not how to take commands and to go through a set course.
Some time ago I wrote about a problem someone here had with a dog in order to try and help someone else with a similar problem. The comment from one of your readers was “the dog was only half trained” because it didn’t know how to drive. I have never had a working dog that wouldn’t drive, but very seldom ask it to. We work large groups of animals. If we use the dogs to drive a lot, the dog would not be consistent in going to the lead and staying there. When working large groups of animals in open country the most important thing a dog can do for us is to be willing to go stop the animals, no matter what the conditions. It is much easier to get a dog to drive, go right or left, go to the lead and so on in an arena than it is out in the mountains or in brushy country where you can’t see the dog. We have worked in some areas where the only thing the ranchers wanted their dogs to do was to stop animals that were going the wrong way. These dogs had very strong instincts to go to the lead and were never used for anything else, but they were doing a job that very few, if any, trained trial dogs would do.
By encouraging the dog to think for himself instead of (as the wife of a trial dog handler put it) being an extension of the handler’s arm, I think you will be amazed at what a dog is capable of doing. One time we were helping load some lambs on a truck. A panel came loose. One lamb jumped out and started up through a large field that had 800 sheep in it. As soon as the lamb hit the ground, the ranch dog went to get it. The lamb ran up into the herd of sheep. The dog stayed with it, gradually slowing it down, then brought it back. While the dog was doing this, the rancher was getting the gates ready to put the lamb back on the truck. The dog brought this one lamb back and put it on the truck. It didn’t bother any of the other sheep. This was done with no direction from the rancher.
I have seen many dogs do things like this day after day, but now it is considered that the only way to have a good dog is to tell it every move to make. If you want a good ranch dog, learn where to position yourself and let your dog learn how to work stock with as little control from you as possible.
this article was originally published in the August/September 1994 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine
Bud Williams is the proprietor of the Bud Williams Stockmanship School