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Success with Stock Dogs

By   /  September 11, 2017  /  17 Comments

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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.

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.

Commitment

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.

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About the author

Denice Rackley's life seems to have always been connected to animals. Degreed in biology and veterinary technology she has owned her own dog grooming business, worked as a obedience trainer and veterinary technician. Denice added freelance writer to her list of occupations a couple years ago. She is a regular contributor to ACRES USA and SHEEP! and has written for other publications, web sites and blogs. She has run a commercial sheep operation since the mid-1990's. Her flock has included many breeds but is predominately a grass based program with North Country Cheviot ewes managed with the help of her Border Collies. She purchased her first dog as a pup in 2000 to assist with her growing flock. Her passion has become educating livestock producers to the vast benefits of stockdogs, teaching them how to use and incorporate dogs into their operations. Denice raises and trains working Border Collies and organizes clinics, gives lessons and demonstrations. She feels there is no better partner for livestock management than a natural, thoughtful working dog. More info at www.clearfieldstockdogs.com

17 Comments

  1. Frank Egan says:

    G’day, here is a link to a short clip of my young Kelpie “Max” working ewes and lambs for the very first time.He inherited his skills from his sire and dam and so few words are spoken when he is working.
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/SHEEP-Farmer/489540237795665

    Note the way he gets control of the little lab and by just using “eye” persuades it to go back to mum.Frank.

    • Frank

      Max looks good. I find the with really talented dogs the less I talk the better. I am not kidding anybody, the dogs are way better than I will ever be. It is learning what and how to ask for what you need and building that partnership with a dog that is naturally talented that makes it all possible.
      There are not many Kelpies here, some on ranches out west and in Canada for sure. I have contemplated trying my hand with one just to have the experience.
      Denice

    • Geralyn Devereaux says:

      His “eye” might be the thing that works but the whole stance of Max is predator like to me. I had no idea how willful a little lamb can be even in the face of all it’s elders respecting that dog! Yay for workin’ dogs and thanks for the video!

      • Frank Egan says:

        G’day and thanks for the comment,here is some more you may enjoy (although not my dogs).
        http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-22/the-hard-yards:-the-ultimate-test-of-canine-and/8734608
        In the reply post on FB there is a pic of my two old dogs ,Jack now retired and Ruby.In Ruby’s past an ancestor of hers was mated to a wild Dingo(this was common among “old bushies” as it improved endurance in the pups) and the pups were bred back to pure Kelpies,she carries the Yellow gene and when she “pups”there is always at least one yellow one.Unlike many farmers I work the stock from the rear using the prey instinct of the flock.The dog guides the mob towards the objective with little help or stress on the flock or farmer.Frank

    • Frank

      Max is lookin’ good. I don’t get to see many Kelpies here. They are more popular out west with range cattle folks.
      Been thinking about trying my hand with one…

  2. Grant
    I would be happy to point you in a direction depending on your goals and livestock.
    Having a clinic here in NOV – check out my web site or face book group page Success with Stockdogs
    If Indiana does not work have friends I trust in MO, WY, WA
    Feel free to give me a call
    Denice

  3. Grant says:

    I would really like to use stockdogs the way you describe. Are there any particular trainers, and/or breeders that you would suggest? I have no ability to have stockdogs now, but I know that anything I can do to prepare will help in the long run.

    • Charles Taplin says:

      It’s been a long time but when you found a dog that suits you and you him or her the breeder may be able to help you. I trained my pups to react to simple commands of obedience and the new owners would teach the hearding part. BC’s need to mind a then heard which mostly comes naturally.

    • Grant,
      I know of folks across the country that I could suggest depending on your location and your goals. There are herding clinics held around the country. Most are set up to help those folks that compete in herding venues with their dogs. As herding has become more of a ‘sport’ the people and dogs that are involved in herding has changed. Even the dogs are bred with different goals resulting in different selection of individuals. The training is very similar but the goals are different so the focus of training is very different.
      Harder to locate True stockman who use dogs for help with livestock management. That is why I have put together workshops at my place for those producers wanting to learn about stockdogs. I have a clinic scheduled in Nov that will include Demonstrations of dogs helping with chores, training progression from a pup to finished dog and then an hands on skill training portion so folks can get help with their own dog.
      There will be two clinics designed like this one next year also. There is always new skills to learn and each dog has it’s own unique challenges. Learning to use and train dogs is a steady progression, the more you see, the more dogs and stock you work the more you learn.
      More info can be found on my web site http://www.clearfieldstockdogs.com or my face book group page Success with Stockdogs.
      If you would more info or have specific questions give me a call

    • Grant
      I typed a reply but will try again…I know of a few folks I trust that I could refer you to depending on your location. There are clinics help across the country for folks wanting to train herding dogs but most of those are focused on the Sport of herding and competitions rather than livestock management. The goals are different so the training focus is not the same although the training is similar for the dogs.

      There are few true stockman that use and train dogs and are able to educate and help others. Teaching someone to use a dog is much tougher than simply training the dog. Even after 17 years using dogs I still mess up more than the dogs do.

      I have three upcoming clinics in the next year to help livestock producers learn to use stockdogs. the clinics will include demonstrations of dogs helping with chores, training progression using dogs at different stages and then a hands on portion where participants work with a clinician and their dog to improve skills.

      More info on my web site http://www.clearfieldstockdogs or face book group page Success with Stockdogs. Feel free to contact me with questions, give me a call if I can help.

      Denice

    • Grant
      I would happily recommend avenues to pursue with more info – location, what your goals are, stock…
      There are herding clinics across the country to help folks train herding dogs, unfortunately most are focused on herding competitions. Stockmen that use and train dogs are few, fewer still delve into educating other producers more than 1 on 1 assistance.
      I have always opened up my place for producers wanting to learn about stockdogs because I see a real need for practical hands on education. The Success with Stockdogs Workshops will address this very thing. There will be Demonstrations of dogs helping with chores, training progression will be shown from pups just starting to finished dogs. Then a hands on portion where participants work with a clinician and their dog to improve skills and efficiency or foundation needed skills. First clinic is in Nov, second one next April. Third clinic next fall. More info at Success with Stockdogs face book group page or my web site http://www.clearfieldstockdogs.com

      These workshops will get you headed in the right direction and lay a solid foundation that is built on each day.
      As Charles alluded to the right dog for the job that suits you is critical – the workshops allow you to see lots of dogs work giving you an idea of what to look for in a dog. Not just every herding dog is really bred to help in livestock production. Herding instinct can be lost in 3/4 generations if it is not used as the primary selection criteria.
      I have friends in WY, MO and WA if any of those are closer
      Feel free to give me a call if I can help or answer questions
      Denice

    • Patrick Tobola says:

      Go to stockmanship.com and read what they have under the stock dogs tab. There is a lot of free information there that Bud and Eunice Williams has published over the years.

      • I have read Mr Williams website. I wish I had known him, a wealth of knowledge and experience some of which is recorded on the web site.

        It is interesting to me that those who take the time and opportunity to listen and learn from their animals often draw similar conclusions. Watching my dogs work sheep has taught me an immense amount about livestock, herding dogs and myself. I think to be a good team member/trainer you have to willing to set aside ego and learn lessons the animals are trying to show you. As Bud said – “Asking WHY” will lead to answers and help you become a better stockman.

  4. Charles Taplin says:

    Raised and trained Border Collies “way back when” with dairy cows in the hills of Vermont. They were a tremendous asset to me with a 100 or more on pasture. Many of my female’s pups went on to herd sheep some out West and Canada.

    • Charles

      The amount of work my dogs help me amazes me to this day. They assist with gathering stock, medicating, hoof trimming, vaccinations, pasture rotation, watching gates, moving stock off feed bunks so I can safely put feed in, watching gates, hold a ewe for me to pull a lamb….I have yet to find a job that is easier to do by myself. Having a dog that is very natural, has tons of instinct and having that great relationship makes all the difference.
      Denice

    • Charles
      I am continually amazed by my dogs, even after using them for years. There is nothing I do with them. Yes they gather and move stock. They also move stock away from feed bunks and gates. Hold sheep so I can medicate, trim feet, pull lambs…I can take one ewe from a pasture or 10 or everyone. I have yet to run across a situation where a dog and I can not get it done.

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