Working /Herding Dogs

Is There a Stockdog In Your Future?

by Esther Ekman

Using this subject as an opening article is a bit like trying to run a marathon through lion country at hunting time with only a rock in your hand.

Within the last several months there has been more than heated discussion on the merits of working dogs or lack of merit, the pros and cons of AKC registration, and whether anyone but ranchers/farmers should own a stockdog in many of the dog publications.

These are not new subjects of controversy. The same arguments have been going on, that I know of, for the last 30 years, but never being one to step back from controversy, I'll just jump in the fray with my lonely rock and hope to maintain a fair attitude. I've always felt that as long as people are honest in their beliefs, honest with what they put on the ground and open to learning, that there is value in everyone's opinion.

Although this article's main focus is selecting a stockdog for use on the reader's own place, it will address other uses also.

Long established ranch/farm families usually have a standing tradition whether they use stockdogs or not depending on the founding core of the family. (You notice I didn't say the "patriarch." Even though this very well may be a "good ole boys" area of life, I just hate the idea of leaving someone out of a general statement and I'm sure there are some very capable "matriarchs," now and in the past, out there doing their job as core. So bare with me on this.)

Every operation settles into a routine in a very short time and unless something new is introduced into the mix, the routine stays more or less the same. (If it isn't broke, don't fix it!) Of course there is always something happening to delay the routine, but over the flow of a year, the same jobs have to be done, give or take a day or two, each in their own season.

One of the first things to consider is whether a stockdog would make your routine easier or would it be more trouble than it's worth. This question's answer depends almost entirely on your attitude/feelings/passion toward dogs in general. Knowing yourself will be the basis for a solid working relationship between you and your dog. Not knowing yourself will make the whole project useless before you even start your search.

Some of the common attitudes are: liking the idea of owning a stockdog and not caring whether the dog would be helpful. This can be just the pure enjoyment of working with a dog or it can be ego based pride in having a dog other people will admire. Then there are those that will not enjoy or take pride in a dog unless it is useful and practical in their every day routine. Some people may use their dogs for sport only, trialing etc. and never use them to work on their own place. A few large operation owners like the idea of giving good dogs to their hired help for their job use and never own one of their own.

The next stage is to decide whether you have the time and skill to start with a pup or youngster and train him/her for your operation. Or lacking the skill, would you be willing to take training classes yourself in order to learn how to properly start your stockdog?

Make no mistake, no matter what anyone says, it does take TRAINING to have a proper stockdog. Instinct is only the raw material. Without instinct, your training will not make a sensible herding dog. Your dog could learn a rote pattern, but would be limited to those patterns only. With good instincts, your dog can learn the commands that will enable him/her to use his/her stock sense and will be a useful partner.

The mistake that many prospective owners make is believing that "old guy" on the porch, that almost everyone runs into, who says "I never trained that dog. He's just so smart he knows what needs doing and will bring in the milking herd when it's time, etc. NOT SO. The "old guy" has forgotten the months of letting the pup tag along with him or his old dog into the field or to the barn always at the same time, day in and day out.

It may be correct that he has never told the dog to fetch the herd, but it is also true that he didn't tell him not to do so. The dog has learned a habit pattern. If the guy wanted the herd at 5 PM instead of 4 PM, he'd still get them in the barn at four. If the herd was in a different field, it would be chancesy if the dog would look for the milk cows or just bring in whatever was in the normal field.

Once in a while a dog's instinct to move stock will coincidentally put the stock where you wanted them, but it is just as likely to be the wrong place and the wrong time to move them in that direction.

Two of a dog's innate traits are that they are habitual and young dogs will mimic an older dog that they are in close contact with daily. Both of these traits can be wonderful training tools or a heartbreaker, depending on the habit and the older dog's behavior. If you doubt these are ingrained into a dog's life, here are a couple of common scenes.

Because of your work schedule/or life style, you feed your dog at 6 PM every evening. Along comes daylight savings time in the fall. You put the dish down at 6 PM and your dog is disinterested or acts as if something is wrong. Or if he/she is one of those "real chow hounds", eats and an hour later is back in the kitchen for more. It takes weeks to convince the dog it really is 6PM. Then along comes spring and the dog is going bonkers because "you forgot to feed him/her," and again it takes weeks to rearrange the brain's time clock habit.

This can be funny, like my parent's terrier who would pick up her bowl off the bottom shelf and plant it into my Mom's lap or leg when she felt it was time. Or it can be a nuisance that could affect the dog's life, like an hour of furious barking.

A youngster's imitative behavior stems from pack life in the wild, learning to hunt etc. Again it comes in handy if the older dog has good habits, but is a doomsday if the older dog has a trait you don't want to repeat.

If you decide you want to invest the time into training a pup, there are many good training videos and books available, but I would strongly suggest finding a trainer for hands on training. Trainers are like doctors in one respect, you must have feel comfortable with them and value their opinions, but sometimes a second opinion is in order.

Before your pup is old enough to start serious training, go to seminars, workshops or dry work sessions with as many different trainers as possible. Better that you take the time to sort out who might mesh well with you and your dog's personality than confusing the dog bouncing around. Remember though, your trainer is not all seeing and knowing. If the method is not working well or if you need help at a different level, go to a different trainer, but don't bad mouth the former. Each trainer has value, but each dog is different. There is no problem getting that second opinion.

If your decision is that you don't want to spend the time investment into training, then the next question is do you want to buy a finished dog, a started dog or have a pro trainer train your pup. Whether you decide to do it yourself or any other type of training can affect the breed of stockdog you must pick.

Side by side with the above decisions is an evaluation of your routine, stock types, terrain, size of place, how many people work on the place and types of jobs to be done. The last factor is the most important -- you. I touched on this earlier, but I cannot stress this factor enough. How do you view a stockdog?

Don't laugh at that last question. I know it sounds like psychobabble, but I've met ranchers that use reined stock horses instead of cutting horses because they require control over every situation, even though a cutting horse may have made the job easier at times. Know your needs in this area. It can make or break a relationship with your stockdog that otherwise would be just fine.

Pure-bred dog or a cross-bred?

There are pros and cons on both sides, though you should know that this writer is in favor of purebreds. There are those that believe a cross-bred has hybrid vigor and less health problems than a purebred. Also that a cross-bred can have the best qualities of the breeds included in their background.

There is some medical basis for hybrid vigor, but only to revitalize a close bred line. It will only apply if the sire and dam are free from health problems to begin with and only if the two or more breeds used in the dog's background do not carry the same recessives for the same defect.

Cross-breds can sometimes pick up good qualities from both the sire and dam, but they are just as likely to have the worse traits or the mediocre qualities of both breeds. The only way this path is reliable is if the breeder has been doing the same combination for years and can weed out the pups that show the less desirable traits or if the breeder is breeding for a specific style of working and can weed out those that are not consistent. Either way, it is not reliable if the breeder isn't careful.

Weird thing about cross-breds is that world wide, unrestricted breeding of mongrel street dogs ends up producing a certain type of dog with the tail over the back, short haired, fairly long legged, semi-pricked or half masted ears with a moderately narrow head and moderately fine bone. Almost a breed unto itself.

Going with a purebred you are most likely to get the qualities you are looking for in the dog. It doesn't guarantee you will, but the percentages would he higher. That's the reason there are breeds of animals in this world. Us humans for thousands of years have been trying to mold certain animals to breed true for the qualities we want in that specific animal, be it a dog, horse, cow, goat or whatever. You are getting years of history producing a certain working style and temperament with a purebred.

Breeding dogs is an inexact science. What I just said about a breeder of cross-breds, applies just the same with purebred litters. Even if the line has been bred to reflect a certain working style, it is very rare that each pup in any given litter will work exactly as expected. There may be pups in the same litter that will not show any working instinct at all and some that will be winners in anyone's book. If it was easy or exact, everyone could order exactly what they needed in a dog and get it each and every time. That doesn't work in the real world, but your best bet is to find that breeder who is honest, knowledgeable and willing to work with you to get want you want.

One note on a personal opinion: Most bench show breeders do test their dogs hereditary health defects: hip and elbow X-rays to rule out dysplasia, Baer tests for deafness, eye tests for PRA, etc. Most ranch breeders do not. I believe they should if they intend to sell dogs to others. I know, I know... "All that's important is that they work!" Of course I also believe that each herding breed bench champion should be required to be two years of age and have to pass at least one herding instinct test before being awarded that championship certificate. But...you know how far anyone would get with that proposal! Six feet under, most likely. Or at least whipped out of the ring with mob brushes!

The question is how long can a dog work with HD or PRA? A totally deaf pup you can find and put down, but unilaterally deaf pups (deaf in one ear) do adapt well after a time, but they are genetically deaf and will pass the defect on if bred. (Unilaterals will have some problem locating the direction of the sound.)

All stockdog breeds can and do have these genetic faults and others. Way back when dogs were bred only on the home place for their own use, defective dogs were weeded out because all the pups were kept until they were old enough to see which ones were the best workers and the rest were culled. This did not rule out all defects because some do not show up until later in life, perhaps after the dog's working span was over and the dog was either retired or shot.

Most all genetic defects are recessive genes and even dogs that don't show the defect can be a carrier. If mated to another carrier, some of the pups will be affected. Just be aware that it can happen to your pup.

Another bone of controversy is the word CONFORMATION. Most working dog people throw up their hands, dashing over the hill, screaming "show people, show people!"

I think it's funny, but then again I have a warped sense of humor, because all the word means is the structure of the dog. It means the arrangement of the bones and muscles and the outward shape we see. Most written standards for a breed ask for basically, barring some details, the same structure. This is because the right arrangement of joint angles, the right shape of bone and the right form of muscle for that breed's job means the dog will move without wasted effort. Straight shoulders or straight stifles restrict leg extension, meaning the dog will cover less ground in one stride and use more energy and tire faster than a dog with proper angulation.

So... good CONFORMATION is a plus in a working dog, especially if you are working a large ranch and the dog has to travel distance. Flat feet are a fault in most breeds. Ever seen an old working dog with flat feet? Nobody likes them, show or working breeders alike.

Oh, by the way, many standards call for a "level topline" or "level back." This does not mean that the top is level from the neck to the tail. It means that the actual back behind the shoulders and in front of the loins should be level. A tabletop flat span would indicate that the dog has upright shoulder blades, no muscle in the loins, a high tail set and little slope of croup. All bad conformation faults.

Most stockdog breeds have a slight dip behind the shoulders and a slight rise over the loins, meaning their shoulders are well laid back and their loins are muscular. All good conformation traits because they aid in agility and turning skill. Enough said! Get a good book on dog movement and structure.

Once you have decided on the answers to all your questions and written a list of your needs, the best way to find the dog you want is to buy one from the breeder who uses their dogs in the manner you need. Your need may be an "eye" dog that works sheep and can travel distances. Then you wouldn't want to take a pup from a litter bred from a cattle working line or one from a line that excels in small yard work and might be too small to cover country.

If you need an obedience trial dog, you should go to a breeder that has molded a stockdog breed to fit that job and isn't as stock intensive as some. Most "eye" dogs would get run over by cattle or hogs, so you don't go to a sheep trial line. If you want a companion with working ability, you don't pick a really stock intensive line because most of those individuals want to work only and are not really interested in sitting at your feet. Most are too hyper unless they are "too pooped to pop." Of course these statements are generalizations, but as a whole these considerations up your chance of getting it right the first time.

If it is your first experience in buying a stockdog, it is best to buy from a breeder that has several years experience. There is no sense in taking a chance on a litter if the owners are only guessing what they may or may not produce.

Ask questions. A good breeder should be able to tell you what they are aiming for in the litter; what they would cull; what success rate they have had in former litters and what they expect from you in the form of contracts, etc. Ask about their failures, too. No one likes talking about them, but if a breeder is experienced there is always a hitch or two somewhere.

Most important is to see as many adults of the type you need as possible before you see a litter. All pups are cute and many are good sales people. Know what you want before getting there and don't let someone talk you into taking a pup that doesn't quite fit your bill. Don't expect a total guarantee that the pup will work exactly how you want from any breeder. How the pup will work depends on you or your trainer. Even the best worker can be messed up by bad training. Do expect good advice, help and support.

As to where to find these experienced breeders, start by looking in AgriHelp's Breeder Directory. Ask at your local feed store who in your area has the same type of operation as yours, drop in down the road and see if they have suggestions, go to a trial or two, go to an obedience ring and ask around. Check into dog clubs in your area, too. There are also several magazines that may have leads.

Good luck in your quest and let us know how things are going.


Breeds of Stockdogs

Although there are many breeds of stockdogs, the Border Collie, Australian Kelpie, Australian Shepherd and Australian Cattle Dog are the four best known in the USA. To find out about these different breeds click on Breeds and you will be taken to the article where you can learn about them.


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