Training Stock Dogs: Part 3

Part 3: Introduction to Livestock

Photo by Tom Reardon.

Continuing on from the article in the previous issue, a little more needs to be said regarding obedience and properly raising your pup before taking it to stock. With the long rope on your pup, as you are teaching him to “lie down”, “stay” and “come here”, you can also teach him what “get out” means. With the pup lying or standing in front of you, walk towards him and say “get out”. Use your foot or a stock cane to gently nudge him until he moves out of your way. This simply tells the pup that you are the boss and pack leader. When you invade his space, he must move. As always, the first few times do it gently, until he begins to understand what you want, and then demand a little quicker response.

When the pup is old enough to go to stock and he is anxious, eager and hot to work, the “get out” command will help keep him off the stock and find his way around them. If he is working too fast and too tight, you can give him a gruff “get out”; step in front of him and by using your body pressure, force him out wider. At least now he will have a little understanding of what you are asking.

As with any aspect of training a dog, they learn by making a mistake and being corrected for it. It sure helps when they know what they are being corrected for.

Another exercise you can do with a young dog is to teach him to follow you at your heels. This is very easy to do and takes little time. With the pup on about 6–8 ft. of rope, tell him to “keep behind”. Give him a tug on the rope to make him come behind you and/or use a stock cane to tap the ground in front of him to make him duck behind you. As you are standing holding him, take a step backwards: give him a tug behind you as you say “keep behind”. I only use the command “keep behind” and there is a reason for that. Later on when you are training your dog to drive stock ahead of you, he will be instinctively trying to get around them to turn them back. At this point you can give him the “keep” command and he will associate keeping behind the stock with keeping behind you. The word “keep” is easy to say in a demanding voice. It carries well and sounds nothing like any other command.

A word of caution — when teaching a dog to follow behind you, don’t overdo it! Give the pup some freedom to run out to the side or ahead of you. Do it just enough so that when you ask, he will fall in behind you. If you make him follow on your heels all the time, he may be reluctant to move away from you and go around the stock. As with any command or training exercise, if you overdo it, it could have an effect on another aspect of his work.

While still on the topic of obedience, I want to address the use of treats. Some people advocate the use of treats in teaching obedience. I do not use treats. They might work for other breeds and puppies for some things, but when a border collie’s instinct turns on, a treat will mean nothing to him. They would rather work livestock than do anything! They are obedient and they listen because you have instilled the habit for them to listen, and you have gotten their respect. I have always said there is a very thin line between fear and respect. By no means do you want a dog afraid of you, but you darn sure have to have their respect. How you get their respect is to be fair, be kind, be their friend, but be firm!

When your pup gets to the age where he’s showing interest in stock and he is mature enough physically, it’s time to start him on stock. It’s easier if you have just a handful of sheep — on both you and the dog. Sheep stay together better than cattle and you can see the dog on the other side of them, but this training can also be done with cattle. The first three dogs I trained were entirely done on cattle. Put three or four calves or small yearlings in a corral or round pen. Don’t expect a young dog to handle cows with baby calves on them. Although some might handle them you are risking getting the pup hurt or really set back. It would be like asking your 12-year-old to drive your semi-truck through the city. Some kids might be willing to try it, but the results will likely be scary.

Photo by Dawn Montgomery.

When you take the pup to stock the first time or first few times, depending on how keen he is, I recommend taking him in on the long rope. I know some trainers don’t believe in using the rope. They just get in front of the dog and do what it takes to keep him out and off the stock. But, I’m not writing these articles for the experienced dog handler. They are meant for the farmer or rancher who wants to get his young dog off on the right foot or improve an older dog. In most cases I don’t use the long rope either unless the dog is really “hot”. Your body position and timing is everything. If you don’t have the experience to know where to be, and how much pressure to put on or take off the dog, you could have a wreck! A dog only has to run through the stock or bite and chase and scatter them a few times and it could become a habit. Habits are formed by repetition, either good or bad. There is an old saying: Once is a mistake, twice is a trend, three times is a lifestyle. It’s meant for people but can also apply to dogs.

With the dog on the long rope, take him into the pen with a few head of stock. Just walk him around and through them, trying to keep him calm. Don’t let him drag and pull on you. Make him stay with you on a loose rope. Refresh his obedience training. Make him “lie down”, step away and call him off the stock; step in front of him and tell him to “get out” and make him move away from you. The dog may be very obedient and listen well out in the yard, but when he sees stock, he might forget everything you taught him. Use the rope with caution. If used to correct the dog too severely he may refuse to work with the rope on. Just use it to guide him and keep him under control. Depending on how keen and “hot” the dog is, you may have to repeat this for a few days.

The important thing is, don’t turn him loose until you are sure you have control of him.

Next Issue: Part Four — Starting on Stock