Working with stock-herding dogs: Part 2

These articles were first published in Ranch Dog Trainer magazine. Part 1

I just got a phone call from a fellow I worked with a couple of years ago. He asked me if I could help him locate a dog with enough force to move cows. He has tried out several dogs lately, which handle yearlings fine, but he said he always has to go help them when he sends them on cows. It is certainly possible that the dogs he has tried just don't have enough natural force to handle cows, but it is also possible that he is at fault.

This brings to mind an incident that happened up here at Vee Tee Feeders. When I first became affiliated with this Canadian ranch and feedlot, they said they wanted to start using dogs. Sis, one of the Border Collies I purchased and trained for them, could really move cattle. She was the only dog we had that could gather a pasture of breeding-age bulls by herself and put them anywhere. I would regularly send her over half a mile to gather a pasture of 500 yearlings and bring them to me and through the gate. Training the dog was easy. Now came the hard part, teaching the people to use a dog effectively.

As you noticed in the last article, I teach my dogs to think for themselves. I tell the dog by my position where I want the stock to go, and it is up to the dog to put them there. Most people, including the people here that I have been teaching to use dogs, don't have enough faith in the dog to let him do his job. During the course of five or six different people learning to work the dogs, they have trained Sis not to push cattle at all.

This is how they did it. First they would send her properly but since they didn't have anything to do or the patience to let her get the stock gathered up and coming, they would start walking toward her to "help." The problem was, they didn't help, they took the job away from her. If Sis would respond to their position and move around the herd, they would call her off since she was working in the "wrong place." In effect, they taught her to go to the cattle, then wait for someone to come and drive them. These are all people who really like the dogs. They didn't scold her or abuse her in any way. They just took her job away from her. Her usual happy confident manner changed to one of spiritless disinterest, which indicated that she looked on this behavior in a very negative way.

If you don't think your dog can bring the cattle, don't send him. If you send him, give him time to bring the stock. If your dog can't move the stock and he needs help, move toward the cattle. Be as much between them and where you want them to go as you can without turning them around. The cattle will turn to look at you as you approach which helps your dog. You are pressuring them against your dog, but leaving an opening so they can go by you. Pressure into the front corner of the herd to get some movement going past you in the direction you want. This is usually all the help your dog will need to get them moving. You can keep your position on the front corner of the herd, stepping in toward the leaders to speed them up as necessary. Or as the stock goes on by and the dog comes even, you can call him off while praising him for a job well done. As far as your dog is concerned, he moved those cattle all by himself. This goes a long way toward building his confidence.

Another place people "break a dog from pushing" stock is at a gate. People are afraid the dog is going to push too much so they either "down" him or caution him too much. Many dogs think you are scolding them, so when you get up close to a gate and need them to push they lie down or back off.

I let my dogs push. I like to stay up toward the gate. If a pup is overworking I might even move into the middle of the cattle going through the gate to keep them from bumping the gatepost. Or I may even shear them away from the gate, but I let my dog keep bringing them. If he pushes them too much they will break back and he will have to go get them. He will soon learn to slow down on his own and give them time to go through the gate quietly, but he will still be willing to use all the force he has when it is necessary.

I guess the moral of this article is, Decide ahead of time what your dog is capable of doing, then give him time to do it. If you must help, do just that … help … don't take the job away from your dog.

(Here was printed a letter from an East Texas cattleman suggesting that Sis was trained to fetch but not to drive.)

When Red Oliver stated that our dog Sis is only partially trained he was being very kind, or very diplomatic since she isn't trained at all. None of the dogs I work are ever trained. They are just partners and friends that go along and help. My friends (dogs to most people) do almost anything that I could want them to do. I just Let them work right.

When I was young, almost every farm or ranch in our area had dogs. They would go get the milk cows when they saw someone head for the barn with the bucket. They would do this without being told and do it right. These dogs gathered cattle in rough mountain country, herded sheep, brought back escaped pigs or any other job that dogs were expected to do in those days. None of these dogs knew their right from their left, or most of the other things that well trained dogs of today know.

When Eunice and I first went to work on ranches we wanted to have well-trained dogs. They were going to do all the things that were important like go right, go left, down. walk-up, etc., etc. In those days, to keep a ranch job you worked seven days a week and these were long days, too. Well, needless to say, we didn't have the time, or the ability to do this. Also, we needed dogs to gather cattle in very rough country today, not two years from now. After one particularly discouraging day I decided that I would LET the dogs work, not MAKE them work. I have had good dogs ever since.

The reason I'm writing this, is while I think there is no prettier sight than a well-trained dog working stock under the guidance of a good handler, not everyone can do this. I would like people to realize that it is possible to have a good ranch dog with only learning how to LET the dog work properly.

Also, Red, dogs that work with me could stop those cows headed for the dense forest and bring them back. Sis included, even if she doesn't know how to drive.


Most people who work dogs would like to have one that could win a major trial. Some would be happy to win the local novice class, but most of us will never show a dog for many different reasons.

There are lots of very good dog trainers that show people how to train a trial dog. What I would like to write about is how to have a good ranch dog without needing to have such control over the dog. Most of us don't have the ability, desire, or maybe the time to teach a dog all of these things.

My way of working a dog is to position myself, in relation to the stock, in such a way that the dog and the stock will do what I want. It is much simpler for me to learn where to be than to force the dog to be where I think he should be. A good ranch dog, in my opinion, must be willing to work out of sight for long periods of time, and to be consistent. The dog should work stock with my help; not me work stock with his help.

I've watched lots of trial dogs work. Even judged a few. I find that most trial dogs are very inconsistent, winning one trial and maybe losing the next badly. If, while driving 300 yearling steers though the mountains, my dog decided to hide under a pickup or quit entirely I would have a real problem on my hands. Our dogs have to enjoy their work. They need to know exactly what is expected of them and then be allowed to do it their way, not the way we think it should be done. When the dog understands this and that you will do your part and not take his job away from him just because you can, this dog will then have confidence to do a good job and be happy while doing it.

Turning the herd

People who are familiar with my method of working livestock know my number one aim is to work my animals with the least amount of stress possible. In fact, I have found ways to work livestock that actually takes existing stress off of them. It is just a bonus to me that I can also get the job done faster and with less cost than conventional methods.

One thing that is very stressful for animals is to be in a herd situation where they are being bumped and crowded by other animals. Making turns is one place this can happen. This is also where a ewe can become separated from her lambs, or the cow lose her calf. My aim when driving stock is that mother and young one(s) are together from start to finish. If I wind up with over two unpaired animals on the back end of the herd, I feel I have failed, and I don't fail often (or gracefully).

This is how to use the movement of animals to help make a turn. When a herd of animals is moving it is almost perpetual motion. The lead animal draws the animal behind it. As this animal moves up it puts pressure on the lead animal to keep it going. It takes so little to keep this going, but it also takes very little to stop it. If the movement stops, it may take a lot to get it going again. If you get too much movement, it may be hard to stop.

When driving animals, the direction of the herd is important. However, the direction of individual animals within the herd is just as important. As you move to different positions, you should at all times be aware of any change of direction of individual animals, as this will tell if your position is right or wrong.

If an animal within the herd turns, this will stop or turn the animal behind it. It will also take the pressure off the animal ahead of it, thus letting it stop or turn. This can set off a chain reaction that may turn or stop the entire herd.

When working livestock with a dog, I try not to use the dog to get direction. I know where we are going. The dog may not. The dog can get movement, I will get direction. If you have good movement in the herd it is easier to get direction. Therefore, the dog should be on the opposite side from where you want to go. You then need to move along in a position in relation to the herd that will maintain the direction you want. This may be along the side or even in front of the herd.

In order to make a nice smooth turn, one side of the herd will need to move faster than the other side. If you are in front of the herd, move in the direction that you want to go. Your dog will see you sooner on that side. This will push him to the far corner, which will make that side of the herd move faster. This will result in a turn that does not cause undue churning to the animals in the herd.

For instance, if you are on the right side of the herd and want to turn to the right, move back along the right side of the herd. This will push the dog off the back-right side to the back-left side, speeding up the left corner. At the same time, you will be just ahead of the back-right corner slowing it down. The leaders will lose sight of you, which will tend to make them hook to the right to keep you in sight.

If you are on the right side and want to turn to the left, move up the side of the herd. Put pressure on the head of the lead animal on the right. Not too much, just enough to turn it slowly across. This will slow down the animals on the left. Also, as you move up, the dog will come further to the right, making that corner go faster.

If you send the dog up the side to change direction, he may turn them too far, or not far enough. Also the dog may go clear to the lead and stop all the animals. This might upset some people. If you send the dog up the side to turn the animals, you will need to be in a position to see the dog and tell him where to work. This will take the pressure off the herd causing the loss of good movement, which is essential in making a nice, smooth turn.

It is much easier for a dog to do its job if we are consistent in doing ours. I have been able to do some pretty difficult jobs with very green dogs by keeping things simple.

How to keep your dog driving in the same direction when you get out of sight or you go out to bring in more stock

This is what I do, you will need to adjust some as each dog is different, but the principle will be the same with any dog.

After your dog is doing a good job of bringing stock to you, watch closely and keep him from coming up the side too far. When the dog has come far enough I will say "Hey!" You can use any word you like, just so the dog understands it should turn back. You must pay attention and not let the stock get by you. As the dog is bringing the stock, keep having the dog turn back sooner and sooner until he is not coming around the corner at all, just going across the back. When he is doing this correctly, move toward the back of the animals, pushing the dog to the front to stop them, then take them the other way, doing the same thing again.

I'm going to digress for a moment and try to impress on you how important I feel it is to "push" your dog to the correct place instead of calling him in then sending him. As you know I want my dogs to be "on the stock" at all times. When he is doing something I don't like such as overworking I will ride (or walk) toward him and "push" him around until he settles down or is doing the right thing. Don't say anything. Just walk into him until he is forced to move on.

Now, back to the subject at hand--don't overdo this the first time or two. But soon you will be able to go farther each time until the dog will stay right behind without any directions from you. That is, the dog will keep the stock moving in the same direction unless you tell him otherwise. You can be anywhere. In front, along side, or at the back and the dog will keep the right direction.

Push your dog around stock when necessary. Use your command to stop the dog from going too far. When he starts back toward you, use the command to turn him back again. The dog will soon learn to work between these two points until you tell him differently.

You must learn what you can take care of and not have to keep calling your dog to come and help. If you keep doing this, the dog won't trust you and will keep leaving the back to see if you need him. If you push your dog around the stock, he will still go stop stock when you need him to. If you call your dog back, and send it, he may quit going and stopping stock when you need him to do this.

If you do these things, your dog will continue to drive stock while you go to gather other animals, or you can "push" the dog to go gather while you drive the herd.

It seems like the subject of stock dogs always comes up at some time during the schools and seminars we conduct around the country. People are proud of their dogs and like to tell about the wonderful things they can do. But sometimes, during these discussions someone will say, "my dog doesn't know how to do any of the things you are talking about, but he is still a big help to me."

Sometimes we get so hung up with perfection that we forget that man and dog are individuals and not everyone is interested or capable of being that perfect dog, or perfect handler. It's great if your dog will stop stock and bring them back to you, but even if it will only stop them and hold them until you get there, it is a big help. Maybe he just wants to stay with you but he will help you drive the stock and you enjoy his company. No matter what your neighbor says, if you think you have a good dog, then you have a good dog.

Working a dog should be pleasant for you and your dog. Know what your dog is capable of doing. Don't ask him to do things that he can't do. No matter how you try to hide it, he will know you are disappointed and both you and he will be unhappy.

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 numbers 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 you partway 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 U.S. whether they are cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs are gathered and worked without dogs than with the help of dogs. While dogs can be a lot of help, most ranchers prefer to not 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 are 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 either brings them back or at least stops them all and holds them until he 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 handler. 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 handler 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 livestock 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.

Sometime 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 I very seldom ask them 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 to 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 flock 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.