TRAINING A YOUNG AUSSIE TO RUN WIDE ON STOCK
“PLAYING THE GET BACK GAME”
by Mari Taggart Morrison
Probably the two biggest complaints I hear from Aussie owners at training clinics is that their dog works too close and too fast. These sound like separate problems — but in fact they are one problem, and they are not hard to correct if nipped in the bud early, or if the dog is properly started at the beginning. The most common reason Aussies work too close, chase and split stock or go to grabbing is that they were started too young.
It’s the fashion to take three month old pups out on ducks and let them chase the ducks to “build interest”. The problem with this is that it sets close-running in too many young dogs. At 3-8 months of age no dog has MATURE instinct or physical development and no pup has the speed or agility it takes to not just outrun the stock, but to take the LONG WAY AROUND. There is a persistent myth that Aussies must be started as wee pups to show herding instinct later.
If a pup is well-bred from top working parents, he will most likely work, regardless of when he’s started. Some of the best Aussies I’ve started were well over two years of age when they first saw stock, and one was eight years old! The greatest advantage of physical and mental maturity in your Aussie is that a fully mature dog can take the pressures (physical and mental) that go along with stockdog training. Putting hard pressure on young, still-forming joints may contribute to later joint and cartilage problems, some serious enough to lame the dog for life. In addition, few pups are emotionally and mentally mature to be able to handle extensive, rigorous training and the corrections that can go along with it.
It’s far better to do “ground-work” with a pup without stock present and teach him the basics before he ever sees stock, than to let him run in close and chase stock at an early age and then use all your efforts to try to get him back off the stock later. This early working can stunt a pup’s herding instinct in a very “young” developmental stage in the sense that if he’s allowed to run close and bite unnecessarily at six months he may always revert back to this under pressure. Chasing and herding have common elements but most pups are in a chasing stage of development when young, and mature developmentally into a true herding style.
So what do we need to do with a young dog that’s too young for stock? The first thing is to put time and love into him, let him see how great it is when he pleases you. Play games of ball and tug-of-war with him, teach him to walk on a leash and travel in the car. At about four months I teach a pup to lie down and only get up when he’s told. Once the pup understands the lie down command he can begin to play the “get back” game. This is a game that has profound implications for his early introduction to stock and makes the early months infinitely easier. I’ve used this game with Aussies, Border Collies, Beardies and Cattle Dogs and if the trainer keeps the game fun and plays it no more than ten minutes at a time the pups have a great time and don’t even know they’re learning important stuff!
Up until now the pup has been playing ball or tug-of-war and sees this as a fun game with no demands. At this point I begin to introduce the cane to the game. AT NO TIME MUST THE PUP BE STRUCK WITH THE CANE! The game must be fun and easy for the pup with no fear or stress attached to it. The trainer needs a light-hearted and playful attitude for the game to work.
This technique will NOT work if it is coupled with letting the pup chase stock. So the rule is, let him do groundwork till he shows you he is mature enough to work. Till then, don’t let him in with the stock at all, although you can tie him and let him watch older dogs work, providing he’s not in the line of fire.
The get-back game grows and develops a young dog’s desire to circle, run wide and stop for you on command, so that he’s familiar with the commands when you go to work stock. Watching older dogs work (but not being allowed to run with them) piques his interest and lets him know that “big dogs” get to do this. In Australia this game is commonly played with a rag tied to a stick. I like the ball best because it can be thrown easily. Many top Australian stockdogs learn all their commands such as stop, left, right, back and walk up on this game.
After playing with the ball a few minutes the pup should be keen to retrieve or chase it. At this time I place the ball under my foot (balls with squeakers are great) and place the cane in front of it. At first I will have the pup lie down and when he does, I will kick the ball to him as a reward. You may need to have patience at first if the pup doesn’t lie down right away. Just hold still, keep your foot on the ball and repeat the command. Let him learn he doesn’t get the ball until he goes down. Don’t try to intimidate the pup into downing, since the game must be fun to keep his unabashed interest. But by bringing the game to a halt (your foot is on the ball and he can’t have it) he’ll learn to go down and get the ball as a reward. Later this gives you a dog that goes down well even with sheep there.
Once he learns that if he lies down on command you kick the ball to him, the next step is to begin to use the cane to define. a perimeter around the ball. A regular tennis ball, squeaky ball or soccer ball works great for this. (If the pup likes a rag best, use the rag the same as a ball). The trainer progresses to moving toward the pup while swinging the cane like a pendulum and saying “back”. The pup should get up and circle around, to try to get the ball. As the pup gives ground, he should be praised extensively. After he goes back and around a few feet, the ball can be kicked to him or thrown to him. If the pup doesn’t give ground as the trainer approaches with a cane he should be allowed to go ahead and bump into the cane as its swinging. As he gives to this pressure he should be praised. Never chase or hit at the pup with the cane.
Remember to keep this a GAME that is fun for you both. Keep sessions short. Each day, ask for a few inches more “back” as the dog goes around. Most pups will run around the ball when you ask them to “back” and this is good. Make sure he’s several feet away “back” from the ball. If your pup tries to dive for the ball, swing the cane as a pendulum and let him run into it on his own. Few pups don’t learn from this. The minute he gets back out and away from the cane he should be praised. You are defining a circle around the ball of ever-growing dimensions. At first it might be a circle of seven feet around the ball, later ten feet around the ball, and so on. It doesn’t matter if it’s a full circle or half circle or if the dog just runs back, turns his head around and waits for you.
Now you can begin to incorporate the down into the circle. When he gives and runs out and around the ball, have him lie down when he’s on the other side from you (see photo). You see the implications for stock work. Your eventual goal and result will be a dog that runs wide in response to the word “back” and who lies down even when very excited about an object that arouses all their desire. You can attach a cord to the ball at this point and teach him to walk straight on, if you like. If the pup dives for the ball or rag, use the line and move it over your head. If he walks slowly’ up, let him catch it eventually.
Sometimes people ask —”doesn’t letting the dog grab the ball or rag make the dog grab stock later?” The answer is “No”, unless the game is played exactly the same on stock (which it isn’t). However, I do teach all pups to ” hit it” using a rag in the game of tug of war, and also to release with ” That’s enough!” and make them lie down. This is helpful for later when a ewe with lambs or an aggressive steer puts its head down at your pup and tries to drive him off. It’s easy to transfer this command over from the rag. This is also great if your dog likes to heel more than head, but you want him to nip a nose now and again on belligerent stock.
This method also works with adult Aussies who have a vague or undefined style. You can sometimes teach them to circle and gather with this method. Its also useful for very soft older dogs who have been overly corrected and don’t take corrections well on stock.
The dog is now learning some very basic and important commands — to lie down (even when his “prey drive” is activated, as in herding), and to “back” to the pressure of the handler and cane approaching. Your goal is to teach the pup that he gets a reward for downing on command, and that he swings back and around in response to the command “back” and the handler walking toward him with a cane.
A note about this .. too many “trainers” these days are beating up young dogs with canes as a substitute for a lack of basic groundwork and training with a pup. A good trainer need never beat a dog with a cane — to do so makes your dog afraid of the cane and you, can seriously injure the dog.
Such a dog is useless anytime you need to pen sheep with a cane in your hand, or move cattle down chutes with a cane or whip in your hand. If basic groundwork is done with a pup, the cane is used to define a perimeter around something (later, the stock), not to whack the dog. Take the time to teach the dog to give to the pressure of the cane without fear and you won’t have the need to use the cane to beat him off sheep!
You can use the game with a rag on a stick if your dog doesn’t care for balls or rags on the ground. You then tie the rag to a long piece of light bamboo, and use your regular cane with the other hand. The reason I prefer the ball is that I need to be less coordinated to do it!
At the point your young dog is truly mature enough (usually 10-12 months, later for some slow growers) you can begin to introduce the dog to stock in a controlled environment. I like to start all stockdog pups (including cowdogs) on sheep to teach the basic commands. Working sheep gives control and finesse and teaches them to gather a little wider.
Some people fear that starting a young dog on sheep will take the “grip” out of them. PREVENTING A DOG FROM GRIPPING IS DIFFERENT FROM CORRECTING THE DOG FOR GRIPPING. With Australian Cattle Dogs I will often substitute goats or baby Holstein calves (newly weaned size) so that the dog can heel a little bit if suitable sheep aren’t available, but with Aussies I really want them to work a variety of stock and so I use sheep for awhile before trying the dog on calves. By defining the perimeter wide around sheep the dog hopefully never gets the opportunity to bite and it doesn’t become an issue. Some dogs will try to nip a sheep’s heel on its straight approach but this rarely becomes an issue if dog-broke sheep are used at the start.
A well-bred Aussie should have plenty of natural grip, the big problem is getting them out wide and getting them to use their natural power wisely. Early work on sheep gives the dog manners and steadiness. I’ve never found an Aussie that didn’t use his grip on cattle when started this way.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine October/November 1997