SELECTING A PUP FOR STOCK WORK
by Tony Rohne with help from Red
Buying the right pup is the backbone of a good training program. Without the proper homework, just walking up to a pen full of pretty pups and picking the one that is the most aggressive, or the most curious, or the most intelligent acting won’t get you very far. There are many internal traits, as described below, that are totally hidden from the observer when the pups are only eight to ten weeks old.
Most of us start our search by looking around for people who use dogs the same way we intend to use them. A real “working dog” may have gone through many months of developing and many more months of seasoning in the pasture or trial arena. When a breeder who either trials or uses dogs in the pasture, tells me that a certain female is the best he has ever handled and that he is breeding her to his male that is the “best he has ever seen” for his uses, than I want one of those pups.
Unfortunately, many of our breeders have a big imagination when they describe their dogs. Recently a litter was described in a national magazine as “good working prospects.” In reality, the pups’ grandpa was the son of a good worker and had accidentally bred grandma. Dad had been tried in a duck trial once and had shown a lot of interest . . . These pups may work, but it would be a real roll of the dice. A good friend once said it is like adding water to good whiskey. You will always have some whiskey there no matter how much water you add, but it is hard to improve the whiskey that way. If you sell a dog, tell the truth. If you buy a dog, remember, seeing is believing, and there is a lot more to see than just a pen full of pretty pups.
The following is a checklist you may want to include in the selection and development of your young prospect.
HOW PREDICTABLE IS THE CROSS?
Each pup is a different bag of tricks. Linebreeding can give a more predictable bag then outcrossing, but if the cross is scrub to scrub you can expect a bagful of scrubs. Outcrossing unrelated bloodlines is supposed to pull the diamond from the rough, but anyone doing a lot of this had better have the nerve to be prepared to pull the weeds that are sure to spring up.
The only way to make an outcross a success is to have a breeding plan in mind; know what and why you are making this cross, explore the parentage of the mates, explore the results and pull the weeds and plant only good seed for several generations. There is a lot of difference between littermates. Some are hardly related to each other. The whole process is a lot easier if the breeder does his homework, breeds known to known and tests the results, AND if you know what you are looking for.
It is not difficult to determine if the parents of a pup you like have been tested for working quality. Ask the right questions and demand a proper answer. How much pasture time have they had? How many times have they been trialed and how many titles have they earned? Do they have force on the head? Do they hit the hock? Can they force cattle to start and stop? Don’t buy a snow job .
HOW MENTALLY SOUND IS THE DEVELOPING PUP?
Personal traits separate the top prospect from a marginal one. Herding cattle is an activity that involves a lot of physical and mental stress. A pup may be shy of people and aggressive on cattle. These are hard to work with. The mental strain of the handler is passed on to the dog. Words pass, rocks fly, and feelings are hurt. How well a dog rebounds to this stress determines whether he is a useful tool.
A plow that will stay in the soft ground and kick out in hard ground is not of much use. A dog is needed for good and bad times. Tender-hearted dogs are of little use to cattlemen. A dog has to be able to forgive and forget. A pup that is attached to his handler will rebound quicker. The handler that is attached to the pup is less likely to get rough with a pup for an innocent mistake. Neglect in handling a young pup can result in a “doggy” pup that would rather be by himself or another dog than with his handler.
HOW PHYSICALLY TOUGH IS THE DEVELOPING PUP?
Physical toughness is a mentally tough pup that is good physically. Dogs have to rebound well to injury. A cow can butt with her head, paw with her front feet and kick with her rear ones. Dogs get split foreheads, broken teeth, broken ribs and countless cuts and bruises. They have to be able to shake the hurt off and get back to work. To complicate all of this, a hot-headed rancher will run at them with his pickup (or horse), rope them, heave them over a fence, kick them, and worst of all, cuss them at the drop of a hat. A good using dog has to have some substance, or else he will wind up a house dog because the rancher’s wife likes him.
IS THE PUP BUILT TO HAVE A LONG WORKING LIFE?
Most of us who have looked at animals all of our life can tell good from bad even though we may have a hard time explaining why. Rather than try to fool anyone, here are some of the things I have seen in my own dogs that have been good or bad for my circumstances.The Aussie is used for so many things; sheep and cattle (both in the pasture and in close), show ring, protection, goats, hogs and many more. I use a utility farm dog on mostly cattle.
A pink nose will sunburn. Droopy cheeks will drool. The bottom set of front teeth should go right behind the top set. Eyes should dilate and contract properly to a flashlight. Lashes should not irritate the eye. Dogs with white hair in a non-trim area are more likely to go deaf or blind. Ears look better if they don’t break at the head like a hound, or stand straight up. The dog’s topline should be about level. I don’t like the shoulders higher than the hips because the ones I have had like that seemed to pull themselves along a little from the front. The ones that are a little taller in the rear seem to pivot and accelerate better. The body should be about as long from chest to hiney as the height at the hips (I guess).
I had one that was too long for her legs. She was always getting run over and kicked. She did not seem to come untracked well. Another couple have been a little short backed and did not seem to have the wind they should. They never were run over except when they were trapped or ran into another dog. Some seem to be easy movers. They are light on their feet and have an unencumbered stride. Their wind seems better. Good lung capacity from a deep chest with sprung out ribs may help wind.
Fat does nobody any good. Big bones don’t either. I have seen some that could not stand up on their feet because of weak pasterns. Some have bad hips because of poor hip sockets they inherited. A lot of dogs toe out a little in front. Some toe out a little in back. The acid test for a dog is how well he can dodge an Angus cow with a new calf. If he is not quick on his feet, he is in the dirt. In short, I like a dog with a: (1) good nose for scent, (2) good eyes, (3) strong feet, legs and back, (4) good hips, (5) long winded, (6) agile, (7) a glider at full speed rather than heavy on his feet, and (8) trim. They can’t be clumsy, heavy-boned, too hairy, or slow. Like I said, this is all pure opinion.
HOW WELL DOES THE DOG GO TO STOCK?
Most young dogs, when confronted with stock the first time, will test the water.
They create a buffer between themselves and the stock. Even brave pups use good sense. Few pups stand back and bark at ducks. Most will on sheep at first. Given a chance, the good ones will erase the buffer zone and go in even on cattle before they are a year old.
DOES THE DOG HAVE THE PHYSICAL TALENT TO HANDLE YOUR JOBS?
To be useful on cattle, a dog should be able to: (1) force an individual or group to move whenever and wherever they need to go, (2) break cattle from challenging and stay with the group, (3) steer an individual or group (I don’t mean neuter), (4) work a bunch as a group, and (5) stay healthy.
A good heel dog can bite low enough and time his bite to keep from getting kicked. If he doesn’t have that talent, he will probably quit trying to bite the hind leg and go after the tail or head instead. Some dogs won’t heel unless the stock are moving, which cuts down on their effectiveness. Cattle try to butt a dog to run him off. Dogs need enough force to break a cow from chasing him and turn her back in the bunch. Aussies as a rule have no more than moderate force on the head and it takes time for them to “dog break” a strange group of stock.
Some dogs will not face a cow at all. Since pasture work involves more need for a dog to work the “head” than the heel, dogs who “flip” off to the rear of the group rather then steering them in the right direction are of little use for the man on foot who can’t physically steer the group.
Dogs should not separate or miss stock. All of the cattle need to go. Leaving even one will cause the rest of the group to break back to her. Dogs that play the game of cutting out singles are a headache. Basically, cattle work involves gathering, dog breaking, and moving the group. If you have a horse and can steer the group, you may like a good heeler. If you need the dog to guide an easy-moving group, you may like a head dog. Most of us need a little of all of this. Add to this a wide field of vision and you have a useful dog.
HOW MUCH DESIRE TO WORK DOES THE DOG HAVE?
By far the most necessary part of a dog is his inner drive. Call it being “keen,” “hot,” “intense,” or just plain good. This motivation affects the attention span of a dog in training, reboundability from insult and injury of a mature dog, and the drive to keep on going until the job is done. All of the talent in the world is of no use if the dog does not have enough drive to keep going through thick and thin, fun and boring, hot or cold, easy or rough, etc . . .
In summary, a dog is like a 500 piece puzzle. Even the best have faults. The hard part of the process is weeding out the faults you can’t live with and doing the best you can with the rest while not blaming the dog for being what he is. In the pasture, faults like “bad ear set” seem insignificant as against the dog not listening to you. “Bad bite” in the pasture translates to the “the dog won’t apply enough force” to head or heel. A lot of things take on a different meaning when you have to depend on the dog to produce.
A GOOD RECIPE for those who are in ASCA, who don’t own a ranch, but who want to get started in the stockdog program might be the following:
1. Find out from those who have trained and trialed a dog those attributes that are a MUST for a dog to take training and to have the needed drive to win. You don’t want to put in two or more years of training and then find out the dog was worthless all that time.
2. Use this article as a basis for your search.
3. Ask questions of the top trialers who have dogs that catch your eye.
4. Write to people who are known to work dogs on the ranch and who have earned
a reputation in the ASCA trials. Don’t be afraid to admit your ignorance. It won’t make you any smarter or dumber. It will allow the breeder to question you in return about your desires, your wishes AND your needs.
5. When you have found the male and female that satisfy your requirements, and when you have found a breeder that understands the concepts described in this article and when the breeder will guarantee a sound working dog, both internally and externally, then you are ready to pick a pup.
6. There is a litter. It has the right background. The parents are proven. And you are going to make your choice. The best advice I can give is: PICK THE ONE YOU LIKE THE MOST. If you like it now it will have a chance of being great. If you pick one that you will probably grow to like, it doesn’t have much of a chance.
7. A good breeder will level with you and will replace a pup within reason. In these parts, Aussies have the reputation of being soft, weak, and ineffective in the pasture. There are plenty around that can disprove this contention; finding one of them can be a task.
this article was first published in November/December 1987 Aussie Times