Training Stock Dogs: Part 5

Part 5: Teaching Your Dog to Drive

Photo by Terri Mason.

About 25 years ago at a Stock Growers banquet, I heard cowboy poet and humourist, Baxter Black say; “Giving a Border Collie to a cowboy is like giving a 32-piece socket set to a cave man.” Everybody had a good laugh except for a few cowboys looking down at their plate, thinking, “Huh?”

I don’t mean to poke fun at cowboys because I used to be one, but I have evolved some. I’ve become what Baxter calls a mutant; changing from a cowman to a sheep man.

Years ago, it was really hard for a lot of cattle people, and still is for some, to understand the concept of a Border Collie’s style of working, and its instincts. For 150 years, cowboys have been behind cattle, chasing and driving them to take them to where they are going.

Border Collies were bred and developed along the Highland borders of Scotland and England (hence the name). They were sent huge distances to gather and bring large numbers of sheep down off the hills. They had to be reliable and trustworthy with a great amount of natural ability and ‘stock sense’.

A Border Collie’s instinct is to go around stock and fetch them back to you. A cowboy’s instinct is to go around the stock and drive them in themselves. And that’s where the two instincts collide.

Although Border Collies weren’t bred to be driving dogs, once they are properly trained they are the best driving dog there is in my opinion. The reason I say this is because if it is a good-quality dog and properly trained, it will have a natural ability to read and feel stock to keep them moving in a straight line. If a cow wants to drift off to the side, say out a gate or into the bush, the dog will work the heavy side and not let it get away.

Some other breeds of dogs that were bred to chase and drive cattle and bite heels will take the cow where she wants to go, only faster (out the gate or into the bush).

There are very few Border Collies that can’t be trained to drive. Out of the hundreds of dogs I’ve trained, there were only about three that absolutely would not drive at all, and they weren’t much good at anything, so they went to a pet home.

Some dogs take to driving like a duck to water while others may take a fair bit of time to understand what you are asking of them.

Remember, at the start of the dog’s training you are working on and perfecting his balance and natural instinct, making him stay at 12 o’clock, bringing the stock to you in a calm manner. Now, as you ask him to drive, you want him to stay in behind the stock with you and push them away. This is completely opposite to his natural instinct and opposite to his early training. So you can see why it can be fairly confusing to him.

I start introducing driving to the dog as soon as he is going around and balancing properly. Have the dog bring the stock to you, then you stop, letting the stock drift by you. As they go by you, call the dog to you with a “come in here”. As the dog comes to you, turn and walk behind the stock for a few steps making sure the dog stays with you. You may have to lie him down to keep control of him. Keep calling the dog to you. When he gets to where you want him, say, “there” and maybe a “steady” or even a “lie down”. If he is responding pretty good to you, give him a “walk up”. If he is willing to stay in behind with you, don’t lie him down unless necessary. Just keep calling the dog to you, saying “there”, “steady” and “walk up”.

Remember the instant the stock goes by you putting you between the stock and the dog, the dog will automatically think he has to get around them. After all, this is what you have taught him so far. This is why you MUST have a good stop and recall on him. This is the same scenario described in the last article, when the dog brought the cows back out the gate they were supposed to go through.

As you turn and walk behind the stock, calling the dog in to you and walking him up, stay up beside the dog or just slightly behind and to the side of him. Don’t try to go too far the first few times. At this point you are just getting the dog to feel comfortable and to tolerate being on the same side of the stock as you. In his mind, he is completely out of position and will try like the dickens to get around them.

When you and the dog have driven the stock a few steps and if the dog starts getting confused, or you decide you’ve gone far enough, call the dog off and walk away. What you don’t want to do, is when you have decided you’ve driven far enough, don’t send the dog around the stock right away to do it again because that is what he’ll be trying to do all the while.

Pause for a few seconds, then walk away calling the dog with you. Then you can send the dog around them again to repeat the exercise or, when you have walked a fair distance away, say about 100 feet, you could walk him up from that point. By having a fairly large distance between the dog and the stock, the dog will feel less pressure from the stock and be more willing to walk up in a straight line. In fact, this should be done quite often. It will help develop a steady, calm, straight walk up on your dog.

As the dog starts to understand what you’re asking and is walking up pretty good, you can start falling back more and let him go on ahead on his own.

As the dog gets better, start doing some cross driving. Flank him to 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock, say “there” and “walk up”. It’s important the dog understands what the command ‘there’ means. It means pull up wherever he is and walk into the stock.

Photo by Terri Mason.

To teach the “there” command, simply say “there” when he gets to the point you want him. He likely won’t stop, so give a “lie down”, followed by a “walk up”. You need to communicate with the dog, making sure he understands each command. After lying him down a few times, which you might have to, he might think “there” means lie down. So the instant he goes to lie down give a quick “walk up”. Soon he will understand that “there” doesn’t mean lie down, but to just pull up and walk into the stock at that point.

While you are training your dog to drive, be sure to mix in some gathering and fetching exercises. When working on one portion of his training too much it can have a detrimental effect on another part of his work. That is why I start driving as early as possible, or as soon as I feel he is under control enough and balancing properly.

I have had dogs come to be trained that the owners had started somewhat. They had done a lot of circles and balancing and didn’t call the dog in to them or attempt any driving until the circling was actually over engrained in the dog. It took quite a lot of work for these dogs to pick it up.

Most farmers and ranchers that I know don’t ever get their dogs trained to their full potential, mainly because they don’t take the time to understand and learn about the dog’s nature and instincts. Or, they don’t put the effort into learning more about dog training or putting into practice what they do know.

A fully trained dog can be a tremendous help whether you are gathering a field, driving cows down a trail or sorting cattle in a feedlot. When I say fully trained, I don’t mean trained up to trial standard. To be really useful they don’t need to have the polish and finesse that a trial dog has.

I have had many calls from people looking for started dogs. They say; “They don’t need to be that well trained; just one I can send out to gather a field; or keep cattle away from a feed trough when they’re feeding, etc.” In other words I tell them, what you are looking for is a fully trained dog.

All I can say is, if you have work for a dog it is well worth the time and effort to get it trained right. By the time the dog is 1 1/2 to 2 years old, it can be pretty well trained with not that many total hours invested. Then, you can get 8-12 years of the cheapest and most loyal help you will ever have.

Besides, there is no such thing as having a dog too well trained. That’s like having too much money or a girlfriend too pretty — no such thing.

Next Issue: Part 6 — Whistles, Commands & Polishing Your Dog