Stock dogs can be an incredible asset to a livestock producer or they can be cause for frustration. It has been a struggle to learn how to use stock dogs but it has been well worth the effort. The dogs save me thousands of steps and time, making all my work with stock easier and more enjoyable. Gone are the days of stock bumping into me, stampeding through a gate, and causing me worry when they escape the pasture. My dogs, always at the ready, enable me to manage stock any time of day or night with minimal facilities and no extra assistance from others.
With nearly two decades of experience working stock dogs I have learned that success hinges on three key elements; commitment, a relationship built on respect and trust, and natural herding instinct.
Stock dogs that are gifted at reading and reacting appropriately to stock are born, not made. Those instincts come pre-loaded like computer hardware. The talent comes from generations of dogs that have been selected for specific working traits. Abilities and behaviors are largely genetic. We recognize a livestock pedigree gives us an indication of potential and the probability of suiting our production system.
You wouldn’t choose a Holstein cow to run on the Wyoming range. In the same way, you need to choose a herding breed, then an individual dog, to suit the work you have and your personality. Simply getting a dog from ‘working lines’ may not be enough. Watching related dogs work stock will indicate where the pup’s strengths and challenges lie. Choosing dogs that naturally excel in tasks you feel are critical will go a long way in ensuring your success.
Respect and Trust
The second key element is a solid partnership between you and your dog built on respect and trust. Webster’s dictionary defines respect as admiration for or a sense of worth or excellence, and to hold in high esteem or honor. We recognize respect and trust are essential in human relationships, they are just as important when working with a stock dog. You can have the most talented dog in the world but you can’t make him want to work with and for you. That is where the relationship is crucial, every interaction needs to build trust and respect.
Respect and trust enables us to look to ourselves first when things go wrong. What did I do to cause that? The dog may have indeed made a mistake but why? Was it my tone, my position? Have I been clear and consistent with my training – words, expectations and corrections? Is the dog concerned about something? All these factors come into play. Looking at things objectively helps you figure out what might have happened instead of simply blaming the dog. Having an idea of why things happened enables you to be prepared to help your dog next time.
Obedience has little place in stock work. You need to raise and interact with the dog so he understands you say what you mean and mean what you say. You also have to allow him freedom to think using his instincts to work stock. Who am I to think I know more about stock than a dog that has generations of instinct bred into him? Giving the dog freedom; releasing control, enables the dog to contribute all his talent and skills to our partnership. When we hit a wall in our training, frustration naturally set in. Commitment will help us work through to the other side, gaining confidence not only in our ability but also in our dog.
When we hit a wall in our training, frustration naturally set in. Commitment will help us work through to the other side, gaining confidence not only in our ability but also in our dog.
Working dogs, when raised well, live for two things – working livestock and our approval. Our success depends not only on the relationship we build with the dog but our commitment to learning how best to train and use the dog. Training approaches vary widely. Obedience and control focused training expects the dog to only work how we deem correct. This approach puts the pressure on us to direct the dog’s every step and pressure on the dog to comply. Others simply turn the dog into the pasture and expect a positive outcome without training.
My training philosophy has evolved into allowing the dog exposure to stock in a controllable setting; correcting the wrong pieces, encouraging the right thoughts and moves while nurturing his instincts. This philosophy has made me aware that attempting to control the dog’s actions, while it made ME feel better, wasn’t in the dog’s best interest nor did it give long lasting positive results. When possible, I allow the stock to teach the dog where he is right and wrong. I step in when needed, hopefully with just a voice correction, making the dog aware his action was wrong. Many dogs when encouraged to think make adjustments for themselves resulting in long lasting solutions. Every dog learns and works differently, you have to allow for those individual variations. The stock always comes first therefor I begin working dogs in a small space, like a round pen, with stock that are predictable and accustomed to an inexperienced dog so I can minimize stress for everyone involved and help the dog when needed.
Commitment means setting aside time to build your relationship off stock and time to train. Training often requires travel to someone that has the knowledge and experience to help you. Finding a mentor who uses their dogs for similar tasks and emulates the relationship you hope to have with your dog will be invaluable. Even if you purchase a trained, experienced dog; you will need help learning to use him. If you bought guitar you wouldn’t expect to know how to play. There are stock dog training clinics across the country designed to help handlers train their dog.
Decades ago I remember hearing of Susan Butcher, the Iditarod sled dog racer. Being a woman in a man’s world, few expected her to last. Most said she was too ‘soft’ when she described the relationship and care of her dogs. Her dogs came inside, she spent hours just hanging out with them in addition to hours of grueling training. Traditionally huskies were kept chained outside. She went on to dominate the sport, the first to win 4 of 5 consecutive years. Butcher was well aware her very life depended on her team of sled dogs. She felt the time invested developing the best possible relationship with her dogs would result in the dogs giving her their all when she needed it the most.
Our pastures are a walk in the park compared to the Alaskan wilderness but I believe Susan Butcher was right on the money. All that happens inside the pasture begins outside the pasture gate and away from livestock. Time and commitment are required to develop a partnership rooted in trust and respect. Training perfects your communication and skills as a team. The dogs you choose must have the instincts and be capable of the skills needed for the job, born with the majority of needed talents. You will not find many grizzly’s in today’s pastures but a furious momma cow can end your life quickly. It may come down to your dog stepping in as mine have, putting himself in harms way for me. When you commit to a dog with the instincts to get the job done, develop a great partnership based on mutual respect and trust you will be in a position to benefit from many opportunities previously beyond your grasp.