SO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT WANT A STOCK DOG
by Terry Martin
So you think you might want a stock dog? In today’s world of high wages, liabilities involved with hired help and the difficulty in even finding human help, the stock dog can be a wonderful investment. From the small farm with a few head of cattle and/or sheep to the large ranch, a good dog can provide much needed help and companionship too.
Just how many commands and directions does a good usable farm/ranch dog need? It often depends on how many commands the owner wants to learn! How much time do you want to spend “working the dog” and how much do you just need some chores done? So many ranchers have told me over the years that they just need a dog to stop or “down“ (that one is important), come back when called, go turn stock back and bring them toward him or stay behind with him when he wants the dog on the same side of the stock he is on. It doesn’t matter if the dog goes right or left to get the stock as long as he stops them and turns them back. Most of you don’t have time or the inclination to learn a bunch of signals and commands and want the dog to more or less work on his own. When we are working livestock, who has time to worry about where the “other guy” (in this case, the dog) is and what he is doing? We just want to depend on him not messing things up and that he will be in a position to help. Most of us need a very instinctive dog who you can control but not necessarily have to guide all the time.
Some people working stock dogs use a dog almost entirely as a fetch or gather dog. This is a dog who has strong instinct to go around stock to a balance point across the stock from the handler and then to bring them toward the handler. This dog is effective in stopping stock running off. He is usually naturally stronger on the head than the heels or equally as strong on heads. He is a good dog to park in a gate you want guarded because of his instinct to stop stock.
Others would rather use a dog who will work back with the handler between the handler and the stock. The dog here may be more of a drive dog, more likely to be stronger on the heels than the head or equally as strong. These dogs are useful when pushing stock for long distances, keeping stragglers moved up with the herd and also useful in chutes and pens to push stock down lanes and alleys.
It goes without saying that the ideal stock dog will both gather/fetch and drive and will be equally comfortable on heads or heels. The key to the whole thing is that you must have a dog who has the ability to handle livestock, wherever he is.
What is training? Serious training will produce a dog who will both drive and fetch, who will “down” quickly on command, call off immediately, go to stock either clockwise or counter-clockwise and still think for himself using inherited stock savvy. So are you a dog trainer? Do you want to be one? I have found most stockmen who need a dog will answer “no” to both questions. They just want the dog to help without a lot of fuss. I would say most ranch dogs learn their job by being yelled at when he does things wrong and by being praised or maybe even ignored but allowed to do what his instinct is telling him to do when he does it right. He learns because he develops a strong bond with his master and wants to please and also has a strong instinct to work livestock.
In the dog world this is called trainability combined with natural working instinct. In a farm/ranch setting the “training” is not done in a strict sense because the dog is being “trained” by a “non dog trainer” and has to learn by repetition and by using his inherited instinct. If you take stock out of a barn every day and put them in a specific pasture and bring them in every night, the dog will “ become trained” to help or probably do it himself. However, without any commands, when you decide to put them in a different pasture one morning, you will wish you had a few commands to help him understand the task you can‘t explain to him.
When a stockman is looking for information to use in developing his dog he finds that a vast majority of the written material is directed toward the Border Collie sheep trial dog. Clinics are often for the benefit of the handler who wants to trial and use sheep. Cattlemen using other breeds wonder what they are into when reading about “clapping”, “sticky”, “square flanks” and using “dog broke sheep”. Since America is more of a cattle country than a sheep raising country, I am writing this more for someone who will need a dog to work cattle although the same dog can work both.
What do you want from an Australian Shepherd? If you were looking for a human partner and constant twelve year companion you would take time making the right decision. Choosing the right dog should be just as important. Devoting time to a weak dog is unfair to you and the dog. Before making the choice, think about what you are going to ask of him. Once you find him, be willing to give him the experience and development a long term working partner deserves to do the job. You wouldn’t turn your new human employee loose on your ranch the first week and expect him to do everything the way you want it done. A year’s training period is certainly not unusual in the job force. Don’t expect more of a dog than you would of a man! You don’t even speak the same language!
Just what do we expect? Think about your horse running hard over rocky ground after a cow breaking away from the herd and what it takes to stop her. You are keenly aware that the horse could fall or the cow could slam into the horse. If you are dedicated to the work and have made the mental decision to stop the cow no matter what, you will push your horse and rein it hard into the cow’s path. It takes a disregard for personal safety, dedication to the job, and courage. Cowboys do it all the time. The good cow dog, in addition to instinct, must possess intense desire, a commitment to winning, and courage.
You need to load some cows in a trailer and have them in the corral. You step in on foot to move them to the chute. The black F-1 has her head down and is throwing dirt over her shoulder with her eyes on you. The white one next to her has her head way up in the air with those long ears forward. You start forward and the long eared one shakes her head and takes a few steps in your direction. You want to walk right up there and take command?
So think about what you are going to ask a dog to do and what it takes to develop his mind and skills to control the situations you may put him in. A good Aussie can stop that cow, and can load those cows in a trailer. But he can only do it if you hold up your end of the bargain. How? First you must find the right dog. No amount of training or handling will give you the dog to handle either scenario if you didn’t have a courageous confident dog in the first place. And no courageous confident dog will handle the situation effectively if you did not help him develop the tools he needs to do his job.
His instinct must be enhanced by training. Training should never cover up the dog but instead should let him use his instinct to be useful.
A good dog possesses instincts that still have to be combined with experience. A dog who naturally will go in and grip cattle and wants to confront them without fear still has to learn about cattle. What he learns will be negative or positive and is your responsibility. He needs to learn about flight zones, just what a cow will do when challenged, how they kick and how they respond to his actions. This is not formal training as in teaching a down, left and right, but is far more important for the ranch dog. Call this developing the tools the dog will need to work.
When you are training a ranch dog, the time you spend developing these tools is far more important than all the directions the dog will ever learn. If he can’t push and stop livestock, what difference does it make whether he goes to the right place or not? Without the tools to do the job when he gets there, he is useless. A finely trained but weak trial dog can make a beautiful run with dog-broke cattle and earn high scores. But what will he do with real cattle? The dog you want to depend on for ten or twelve years has his genetic foundation at birth, and you are building on that foundation.
When should your Aussie start showing interest in stock? The younger the better, since it is unrealistic to have to wait a year to see if you have a working dog. However, dogs do “turn on” to stock at different ages and sometimes it seems to turn on like a light bulb. Often people don’t have appropriate stock to test a pup at an early age. The man with 300 head of mother cows can’t take his 12 week old pup out in the pasture to see if it wants to work. Or he certainly shouldn’t! Ducks are fun to test puppies on, but some good dogs never have an interest in ducks. Sheep are the safest for a young dog if you have access to them. You must use good judgment here.
A slightly different version of this article was originally printed in the Ranch Dog Trainer in December 1994 with the title “The Working Australian Shepherd: Reasonable Expectations”.