Working with stock-herding dogs: Part 1

The following material is reprinted from The Ranch Dog Trainer magazine, December 1992 and January 1993. This magazine can be contacted at HC 69 Box 300, Oscar, OK 73569, 580.437.2215.

I was born on a farm in Oregon in 1932. My Dad's insistence that us kids be "Good Neighbors" has led me through a very interesting life. I have worked on ranches or with livestock most of my life. I always had good dogs, so I had lots of practice helping my neighbors get in "the tough ones."One thing led to another and I eventually found myself just working on livestock problems. Eunice, my wife of 40 years, and I have worked reindeer above the Arctic Circle, wild cattle in the Aleutian Islands that have never seen a human being, elk in Texas and Missouri, fallow deer in British Columbia, as well as bison, cattle, sheep, hogs, and goats in various parts of North America.

I have learned a lot of things about handling animals that make it easier on the person and much less stressful on the livestock. Many of these things were taught to me by observing the way a good, thinking ranch dog works. The past few years, I have been actively teaching my methods of Stockmanship by giving seminars around the country as well as conducting intensive three-day schools here in Alberta. I have always tried to avoid getting into "dog training" discussions because that is a full-time field in itself and there are a lot of people who are doing this. However, I get so many questions and so much interest from people who attend my seminars that I am relenting a bit.

I don't think there is anything I enjoy more than watching top-quality dogs at a stock-dog trial. I have many good friends who show stock dogs. I have even judged a few trials and haven't had any complaints, so I do understand that phase of the stock-dog business. But I have also seen many of these trial-winning dogs that haven't the faintest idea what to do once they are out of sight of their handler. It has been my experience that the art of training a ranch dog has been nearly lost. Ranchers wanting to start using dogs have no one to turn to except trial people for help, and in my opinion that is not the kind of help they need. It is way beyond my writing ability to try to tell someone "how to train a stock dog," but perhaps you can get a few ideas from the following notes.

Personally, I like to take a young dog out on stock before I teach him anything else. Most people would find it helpful if they could call the pup to them first, but for myself, I don't even do that.

I remember an incident when we were living in Northern California. Everyone in the country knew that I would take any dog of stock-dog breeding that was old enough to work, so instead of taking their rejects to the pound, they would bring them to me.

A rancher brought me this 2-year-old McNab bitch. They said she worked pretty well, but when it was time to load up and go home, no one could catch her. They usually wound up leaving the truck door open, and eventually since she liked to ride, she would get in. Anyway, when they unloaded her (on a leash, of course) they instructed us to keep her tied for at least a week so she would get to know us and give us a better chance of catching her when the time came, etc., etc. As they were driving off, Eunice said, "Are you going to let them get out of sight before you turn her loose?" We had a bunch of about 100 yearlings within sight of the house. As soon we were sure the previous owners were gone, I turned her loose and started walking toward the cattle. Lady soon saw them, went around and started bringing them toward me on the run. When the cattle went past she went for the lead and brought them back again. After a time or two she and the cattle had the edge off and Lady was content to work them toward me at a more sedate pace. She knew if she pushed them past me she was going to have to go stop them again. After about a half hour of her bringing the cattle along behind me, she came around the corner and gave every indication that she would come if I would just call her, but instead I told her to "get back" pretty gruffly. We worked for another 15 minutes or so with me telling her to "get back" every time she "asked" to come in. Finally, when she indicated to me that she really wanted to come I just said, "Come here, Lady," and she ran right to me. I made over her and told her how wonderful she was. From that day, anyone could work her and call her in at any time.

I must have a pretty perverse mindset, but I have had wonderful success with animals in correcting a problem by going directly opposite to the accepted way of doing things. I figure a well bred stock dog knows more about working livestock than I will ever know, so why should I suppose it would be better for me to see what needs to be done, convey my command to the dog, then have him do it, rather than let the dog learn to work the stock on his own and not have to go through a middle man?

One of the most difficult things I find is to get your pup to go a long way to get cattle and to stay with them until he can bring them to you. When I say a long way, I mean a mile or more. It has been my experience that if a dog has been taught too much obedience before being introduced to the stock, it is even more difficult. I especially don't like a pup to be taught to "down" until I have it well started on livestock (by then, I find that he knows when to push and when to back off so I don't need to down him).

When I am starting a pup I use one command: "Hey." And I want to teach him one thing; that is to bring the stock to me, or if he can't see me, to keep the stock going in the direction where he last saw me. I want this to be a totally positive experience for the pup.

Ideally, I like to start a cattle dog on a bunch of 30 or so well dog-broke dry cows or yearlings, in a good sized pasture. I want the pup to be old enough that he can take a fair amount of work before he gets tired, and that his coordination is good. If he is still a clumsy puppy, there is too much chance he will get hurt.

If a pup is ready to work it takes very little encouragement to get him to go to the lead of moving cattle. Often a pup will just want to "bay them up," that is, circle the herd and not let them go anywhere. If the pup goes completely around and is coming back the other side, I will step in front of him with my arms up and say "hey, hey, hey" in a slightly disapproving tone of voice. I don't want to take his mind off the stock, but just let his subconscious pick up on the fact that I am disapproving. A pup that is too well obedience-trained will immediately forget about the stock and his attention will turn to me. At this stage, this is NOT what I want. Remember that we are training a pup to react to the cattle, not to the handler. If he turns back, I don't say anything. The reason for this is I don't want to distract the pup from the stock. He is having a ball working the cattle, and the last thing he is interested in is praise from me. I am teaching him to "work cattle" not go through the motions for praise from me. If he keeps on coming, I stop saying "Hey" when he is past me and going up the other side, since at this point he is doing right. Often you would swear the pup isn't paying any attention to you at all, but it is amazing how soon they start to pick up on your disapproval and turn round and go back around the herd when they see you stepping toward them with your arms up making that disapproving sound.

It is important that you let the pup think things out. If you are throwing commands at him all the time, he can't concentrate on what he is doing. At this stage all I am trying to do is to teach the pup to stay on the opposite side of the stock from me. Often I will be the one that is moving to keep this position until the pup feels comfortable there. I don't worry about the pup pushing too much. If he pushes the stock past me, he has to run to the lead and stop it. He will soon get all the work he wants and start to think. If you call a pup off, or make him "down" when he is overworking, he is a bundle of nerves and as soon as he can he will "tear into them again" or he may decide that you don't want him to work at all! And what happens when he is over the hill?

When he is bringing the stock at the speed I want, I leave him alone. If he starts pushing too much, I will drop back, letting the stock go past me, and push the dog to the lead. Notice I said "push." I want the pup to be "on the stock" all the time and keep on the opposite side of the herd from me. This way, I never have to scold a pup, but I am not letting him abuse the stock. You can train a pretty rambunctious dog this way and the cattle will never get out of a walk. Soon I can position the pup anywhere I want, just by moving to the opposite position myself. Now, when the pup comes around to where he can see me, I will step toward him and say "get back" (you can use whatever term you want to use). I always teach the action first, then put a command to it, not the other way around. This way, I am never distracting the pup's attention from the stock, and learning is always a positive experience. He is never being scolded for doing something wrong; he is only encouraged to do things right.

By now, "HEY!" (said crisply) is an attention getter. He knows that I want him to do something different when he hears it. It is up to him to figure out what that is. For instance, the pup is on the opposite side of the stock and I say "HEY" and wave my arm and he starts going back around the stock but I immediately say "HEY" again. He says to himself, "That's not what I'm supposed to do." He will stop and look around and see the cow off by its self and go get it. This is what I mean by letting the dog figure things out for himself.

Say I want my pup to work a certain corner of the herd. I send the dog. When he gets to just past the spot I say "HEY." When he changes direction and comes back I say "HEY" again when he is at the other point. He will then work between those two points. I am very careful not to do this too much with a young dog. I think a ranch dog has to be foolproof at going to the lead and stopping stock, and bringing them back if he can, or at least hold them up until you can get there to help him.

I don't like to send a young dog out ahead of me to bring an animal from the side into the herd. In essence, this is teaching him not to go to the lead. Instead, I always wait until the herd is past that animal, then send the dog back to get it. In this way he is still bringing everything to me. The animal winds up where it belongs, but I haven't stopped the pup from going to the lead of the herd.

I was giving a seminar in New Mexico a few years ago (on livestock handling, not dogs, I have tried to stay away from getting into teaching my methods of stock-dog training since it is a complete field in itself and I have been kept pretty busy trying to teach my methods of livestock handling). A woman came up to me later and said "What would you do if every time you got your cattle going the right way your pup went up and stopped them?"

I said "I'd go up and pet him."

"No, no, I mean he just won't let the cattle go at all, and he has enough force to turn them around and bring them right back over the top of us."

Again I said, "I'd go up and pet him, then send him to the back and I'd stay up front and let him bring them." That explanation didn't suit the woman at all and she was determined to force me to tell her how to break this pup of that bad habit.

Finally, Eunice said "Would you like to sell that pup?" In my opinion, this kind of dog makes the absolute best kind of range dog. If you want to drive the stock yourself, don't send the dog. As your dog gets more experience you can ask him to work in various places, but be sure that the bulk of your work is with the dog bringing cattle to you. This is really hard for most people. They want to drive the cattle, and have the dog correct their mistakes. That's asking a lot. He doesn't know where you are going, but he is the master at moving the stock. Just think how difficult it would be for you to help someone gather stock in strange country if you didn't have any idea where they were trying to take them. I like to work the side or lead which shows the dog the direction I want to go and let him take care of getting the stock there.

For several years, Eunice and I would place yearling cattle on a mountain ranch in Northern California for fall and winter grazing. We could only haul them to the south border of the property, but we wanted them to start the season on the north slope. This meant a trail drive of about 20 miles. This was through the mountains from 1100 feet to 4100 feet elevation and back down to about 1000 feet. These were just auction yard calves in various stages of health. It seemed there would always be some that got down while on the truck or for some other reason were not in the best of shape, and always a few that wanted to take off and leave the country. We would take about 300 at a time, twice a week for five or six weeks until we had the 3,000 or 4,000 head they wanted for the season. We did this for three years in a row. The calves were counted out of the south pasture and counted into the north pasture. We never left one along the way. We would often not see the dog on the back end for an hour or more at a time, but he knew his job and he did it.

We would hold each bunch overnight in a pasture on the south side, then start out at daylight the next day. Eunice would go in the lead to check up the "fast ones." We would have a dog behind and I would have a dog or two with me working the side. One day a neighbor rode along with us. He said we had better haul a certain calf over in the pickup. "It will never make it all the way" he pointed out.

"No," I said "He will not only walk all the way, but I'll bet you he'll be the first calf through the gate." I must admit to a little trickery. When we got to the other side of the mountain I let the herd go past the gate. When our little straggler was just coming to the gate I sent the dogs ahead, opened the gate and that little guy was the first one through. I tell this story to illustrate that the dog on the back end is just bringing them along. He is not harassing them. If that were the case, those little droops would never make it all the way.

It was pretty interesting training dogs to work reindeer in the Arctic. We were hired by an Eskimo Corporation to gather their reindeer and gentle them down so they could herd them year round. In the winter, when everything was frozen, they could use snow machines to more or less keep the deer where they wanted them. As soon as things thawed in the spring they totally lost control of them. There were about 8,000 head of reindeer on 5 million unfenced acres. We took two barely started McNab dogs with us and arrived in February.

The folks who met us at the landing strip at the reindeer camp answered "19" when I asked them what the temperature was. When we got to our cabin and I saw a thermometer I realized that they meant 19 degrees below zero (it was a particularly nice, warm day, we have seen February days that were minus 60).

Wolves are a constant threat to the reindeer and as far as they were concerned, our McNabs were wolves. The first day I took Rowdy with me to one of the reindeer herds, he rode on my lap on the snow machine. About 1,500 deer were quietly feeding on top of an open ridge. As soon as the dog jumped off the snow machine they were gone! I took out after them and finally got them stopped in about five miles, then went back for the dog who was trying his best to keep up but was at least a mile behind. I loaded him back up on the snow machine. We went through the exact same procedure several more times before the deer calmed down enough to even let the dog start to do anything with them.

Rowdy came from Northern California where, because of the many deer on the cattle ranges, the first thing a rancher will do is break their dogs from chasing deer. When I finally got the deer calmed down enough that I could attempt to put the dog around them, I discovered another problem! When I sent Rowdy he went just perfect, but he was looking for cattle. When he couldn't find any he looked back at me for directions. When I indicated the deer, he couldn't believe it. He finally tucked his tail and came back to me as much as to say "You can't trick me into doing something I know I'll get in trouble for." I had to go back to camp and get a big, rambunctious pup I had that had never been to stock, and took him up with Rowdy. When Duke saw the reindeer he ran right through the middle of them, barking and having a lot of fun. I kept moving around the herd with Rowdy telling him "good-dog" until he finally got the idea that it was OK for him to go. I have often taken a trained dog with a pup to get the pup started working, but this was the first time I ever had to take a pup out to get the trained dog to work. I doubt if there is a stock dog alive that can outrun a reindeer. I've sent dogs to get ahead of what I thought were running reindeer. If the dogs do things right and swing out very wide they could stop them and bring them back with no trouble, but just let the dog start cutting in too soon and the reindeer will turn on the afterburners and leave them in the dust like the Roadrunner in the cartoons.

Of all the animals Eunice and I have worked, we both like reindeer the best. From totally wild unmanageable animals, I can gentle a herd down in a week or two so that you can walk up and touch many of them. As soon as they lose that initial fear, they handle very well for a dog.

I am often asked what breed of dog I think is the best. If all I had to go on was a breed, it would have to be a Border Collie, and we've had some good ones, but the best cow dog I've ever known was a houndy looking blue merle bitch that some guy gave me because she was digging the flowers up in the yard. The best dog I have ever seen for working wild sheep in brushy, mountain country was a big rough-looking black and tan dog that I bought as a pup from a kid for five dollars.

Scientists say that a dog can't reason, but I can tell you lots of instances of things my dogs have done in the course of a day's work that I am hard pressed to explain except that they reasoned the situation out, then did the right thing.

Part 2