Starting stock dogs

When Bud starts a cow dog, the only thing he wants the pup's mind on is the cattle. He is very careful not to distract it from the stock. Even if the pup had been schooled with obedience commands, he never uses them the first few times he takes it around stock. By the time he feels it wouldn't be detrimental to the pup to use them, the pup knows what to do and doesn't need them.

Let me give you a little overview of how he starts a pup, and why. First off, he wants a dog that is old enough that he isn't a clumsy pup. Some dogs are nine months old and some are a year and a half. Ideally, he would like 20 to 100 dog-broke cattle in a large pasture. He will walk out to the cattle and watch the pup. If the cattle bunch up and move off, most pups will run for the lead. This is great. If he can turn the cattle, that kind of pup will usually run for the lead again and again and just keep them bayed up. Bud will position himself so that when the pup is coming around to double head, he can step in front of him with arms up and say "hey, hey, hey." Not too loud and not too threatening. At this point he doesn't want to do anything to take the pup's mind off the livestock. Just let his subconscious pick up on the disapproval. Our experience with pups that have had too much obedience training is that as soon as you try to influence what they are doing, they immediately forget all about the stock and put their attention on you. This is not what we want. It doesn't take any time at all to teach any dog to be obedient and to do what he is told, but if a pup's mind gets messed up it can be impossible to make the kind of cow dog we want out of him. If the pup turns back, great. Bud won't say another word. If not, as soon as the pup is past him and going up the other side, he is quiet, since at this time the pup is doing right (leaving you to go to the lead of the stock). Often you will swear the pup is not paying any attention at all to you, but you will be surprised at how soon he will change direction and go back when you step toward him and say "hey!" Sharper, now that he is working and you aren't concerned about distracting him from the stock.

If the pup is very aggressive, he will put the stock past you and he must run for the lead. Before he can do any damage to the animals by being too rough, you can step toward him and push him to the lead again. It doesn't take long before the pup is getting the edge off of his energy, and starts to think. The pup soon learns that if he pushes the stock past you, he will have to go stop them. He has never been scolded for using his force, so he will always be willing to use it when necessary. Any time the pup is overworking or is working in the wrong place, Bud will "push him" out of that spot. He never says a word, just rides his horse or walks toward the pup until it is forced to move away. This way you are never abusing your stock, the pup gets all the work he wants, and your training is totally positive. If a pup is overworking and you call him off, or "down" him, he is still a bundle of nerves and as soon as you release him he will tear into them again. Often harder than before because he wants to work so bad that he is trying to do all he can before he is called off again. Or you may convince him that he is not supposed to use force when it is needed. If the pup doesn't want to go to the lead of moving stock, but is interested in the cattle, Bud will just walk around a bit until the pup is busy and he can get on the other side of the stock from the pup. With this kind of pup Bud will often be the one that is moving to keep the pup in the right position, on the opposite side of the herd. It is amazing what a short period of time it takes for a pup to understand that they should be on the opposite side of the herd, and bring the stock to the person. Of course, if the pup doesn't show any interest in the stock at all, you might as well take him home and let him grow up a little, or find another home for him.

Bud says he uses three commands to work a dog. One to send him, one to call him back, and "hey" when the dog is wrong. Bud likes his dogs "on the stock" all the time so he doesn't usually have to send them. They usually know when the job is finished so they don't have to be called off, so actually "Hey" is all he needs.

Now stop and think . . . The dog knows to gather stock and bring them to the person. Pretty simple. Nothing complicated to cause any confusion. He has learned to respond to "hey." If he is going in one direction and he hears it he will turn back. He has learned to be "pushed." If he hears "Hey" and changes directions but immediately hears "Hey" again he will look to the handler. A step towards him will cause him to look back and see the animal off to the side that he has missed. Soon you can do the same thing to send him away from the herd he is working to go get stock that are out of sight. If the dog is bringing stock to you but you want them to go across in front of you instead, "Hey" said at the proper time will cause the dog to change direction. When he comes around as far as you want, "Hey" again will turn him back. From then on, the dog will work between these two points. Since our dogs are not working strictly to command, they quickly see the gate we are indicating, and from then on, no more commands are necessary. Though Bud starts a pup by having them bring stock to him, it is only a small step to teach them to keep the stock going in the same direction (or on the road or trail), no matter where the person is.

If the stock goes past the person, the dog has to go stop it. In a very short time the dog learns not to let the stock go past the person. The dog will actually run to the lead and check the stock up, then go back to the back to keep it coming along behind. If we are just standing around, not going anywhere, the dogs won't push the stock since that would just push them by us. If we are opening a gate, the dog naturally eases off and waits until we are ready before he pushes the stock through.

The first sheep dog trial I saw, I was amazed to see the handler downing his dog on the lift because the sheep were coming too fast. By the time our dogs had worked the sheep to us, working up the side to slow them down, moving to the back to bring them on, he had taught the sheep a lot about being handled, which should make putting the sheep through the obstacles a lot easier.

The first year we were in Canada, they put on a cow-dog trial here at Vee Tee Feeders. We furnished the cattle for the trial and a 30-acre field. All the dog was expected to do was to bring five calves from the "spot" and put them in a pen. These were calves we worked every day with the dogs, and as far as we were concerned, were dog broke. None of the dogs had any trouble starting the calves and driving them toward the handler. Since these cattle were healthy, frisky calves and they trotted right out, the handler would down his dog. Then the calves would stop and look back to see where the dog was. They would see the corral with the other calves in it and from then on, they wanted to go back. From this point on the handler told the dog what to do. Even if the handler was telling the dog the correct thing, there just isn't enough time for the man to see what needs to be done then tell the dog. I'm sure the dog handlers were disappointed in the cattle, but these were the same cattle that our dogs could put anywhere.

As long as I am started on "trials," I might as well "show my ignorance" and disagree with another trialling point of gospel, a wide outrun. A dog that has a naturally wide outrun is great. When we first started working the reindeer in the Arctic, we purposely purchased a "wide working dog." The reindeer can easily outrun any stock dog alive, so a dog that made a mistake while working too close was at a real disadvantage when working the wild ones. I read trial results every month in the Ranch Dog Trainer. Over and over they talk about a trial where the dog can see the livestock when they are sent, but because they have to cross a gully or through some brush before they get there, many of them never find the stock. When watching training videos it seems to me that "forcing" a wide outrun takes the dog's mind off the stock when they leave the handler. If they have to go a long ways, they seem to forget why they were sent. I don't know how many times at the Vee Tee trial that the dog would swing out to the fence on his outrun and then run right on by the calves. The handler would have to command the dog to come in and start them.

I bought Bud a "finished" cow dog last year. Of course, Bud won't "command" the dog to do the things he was taught. He took him out just like he would a pup. Even if 200 head of cattle were in a pretty tight bunch, Race would bring back about 20. Bud would send him back and he would bring back about 20 more. In order for him to ever learn to work cattle like we want, he had to open his mind up and see the whole picture. Of course Bud could have commanded him to go wide enough that he would have wound up behind the entire group, but he wouldn't have had any idea what or why he was doing it. Since most of our work is with the dog out of our sight a good deal of the time, this kind of dog is worthless to us. Have you ever been in a position where someone is trying to teach you to operate a piece of equipment? Before you can familiarize yourself with the controls and look things over, they are saying "pull the right lever . . . NO, NO, not so much . . . Push the left lever, push the right one, give it more throttle. No not that much." If this was a back hoe and you were trying to dig a hole, and you could clear your mind and just listen to the words and respond (like a trial dog) you could probably dig a hole. But you would have a hard time actually learning to run that piece of equipment with someone looking over your shoulder all the time. Especially if you were pretty good at that kind of thing, and you could see that often the guy hollering at you was wrong.

It took Race about three months before we were confident that he would gather "all" the cattle in a pasture. Even after he was getting pretty good at wanting to bring everything in the pasture, if, when he was first sent he came to a fence going in the same direction as he was, he would just run along side it and forget about the cattle. To me, the ideal outrun is for the dog to go directly toward the stock until just before he will influence the animals, then swing around and take up his position at the spot that will start them moving in the proper direction. A good dog learns to do this on his own. After making an error and spooking off reindeer they were sent after a time or two, every dog we had in the Arctic learned to work them wide enough that this didn't happen.

Buck was a big ugly black and tan dog of local "stock dog" breeding that was as good as ever lived at gathering wild sheep. When we first went to work on one ranch in Northern California, we brought in over 200 head of long-tailed woollies that were over two years old. We never counted the yearlings. When we would see a group of these sheep and tell Buck to go, he would look things all over, and maybe start out away from them. Perhaps he would use a draw or brush to hide himself until he could get into position. We would see him peek up over a hill and if he didn't think he was in the right place he would drop back and the next time we saw him he was in the right place. Then he would ease out just until the sheep saw him. He would wait until they ran together and calmed a bit, then he would start working them. I never saw sheep split up on him after he "grew up." If the sheep stopped, and he stopped, waiting for the right time to pressure, and you tried to encourage him to walk up, he would maybe stand up (he would often sit while working, but never lie down), or take a step towards them, if he didn't like the way they responded, and if you insisted that he "bring them on," he would back off, swing way around and come back to you as if to say, "I know they aren't ready to be pressured. If you want to split them up, you do it." I'm sure you don't know too many people that will brag about their dog disobeying. You see, our dogs are our partners. We are not their master. Our dogs are just as interested in getting the job done as we are. When they have been (I hesitate to say trained) worked this way and encouraged to let their mind develop, they are better at judging how to get the stock under control and how to get them to where you want them than the handler is. This is why we take such exception to the person who says there is no difference between a trial dog and a ranch dog. In a trial, you have a time limit. Even if you know that the chances are good that the animals will split up if they are pressured at a certain point, you are still forced to take that chance in order to complete the run in the allotted time. In real life, the most important thing is to handle the animals properly so you will not only get the job done, but that your livestock will learn and will work better for you the next time.

We have had many people tell us that because our dogs don't work to command, that we aren't getting the full benefit of what they are capable of doing. I say just the opposite. Most people today have no idea what a dog is capable of doing. They think they are a robot that needs to be told every move to make. On America's Funniest Videos they had a clip of someone herding sheep with a little remote control car. It really worked great, just like a trial dog.

When my Dad was a young man, he herded sheep in Idaho. He said the camptender who went out to take supplies to another herder that worked for the same outfit, found the herder had died over a week before. The dogs still had all the sheep under control. They brought them back to the wagon to bed them down at night, and took them out to graze in the daytime.

We have gotten up in the morning to see cow tracks in the middle of the road. The cattle were back in their pasture, and the dog was lying at the hole in the fence.