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Using Herding Dogs on the Farm

Dogs make wonderful farm companions and invaluable farm workers, especially when it comes to managing livestock.

By Nan Roberts

(Page 2 of 2)

A Dog Breed for Your Need

Herding dogs are great pets as well as workers
Photo by Isabelle Francais/BowTie, Inc.
Despite their strong work skills, herding dogs can also make wonderful family companions.

Research herding breeds to determine the best fit for your situation. Approximately 20 herding breeds exist in the U.S. and more exist worldwide. Four commonly used breeds in the U.S. are the Australian Cattle Dog, Australian Kelpie, Australian Shepherd and Border Collie. According to the American Herding Breed Association records, these are the breeds that most frequently achieve the championship level in competitions. Other breeds, such as the McNab in California and the English Shepherd in the Midwest, West and South are also easy to find. Of course, anyone you talk to is going to be adamant that their dog breed is the best, so take that into consideration.

A Border Collie bringing down 800 sheep from the Scottish Highlands with little human assistance has very different skills than that of a Corgi moving milk cows to pasture as it trots next to its owner. Australian Cattle Dogs are great at driving livestock through alleys and chutes. Australian Shepherds have been used to work livestock in the U.S. for more than a century and have become a multipurpose stock dog. Australian Kelpies have the stamina and heat tolerance to work on huge Australian stations in the outback.
When researching  dog breeds, learn about the characteristics of each—not only their herding abilities but factors such as temperament, energy level, compatibility with children, ease of training and special grooming needs. Many herding dogs are high energy, but you won’t necessarily end up with a hyped-up maniac.

Get to know the breeders. Herding dogs that come from more mellow bloodlines would be a good choice for a dog that helps with chores but spends most of its time as a pet. Competitive trial dogs tend to have more energy than those from other working lines. On the other hand, a dog that didn’t make the grade or has retired from trialing might be a wonderful farm dog—plus it would already be trained.

Some dog breeds that have strong-willed, aggressive or territorial natures are not for an inexperienced owner. Look for breeders who are candid not only about the talents but the drawbacks of their breed. A respectable breeder will not sell a dog that’s not the best for your needs and will take the dog back if there are health or genetic problems.

As an alternative to breeders, you can get some fine dogs through rescue operations. These dogs are less expensive than those that come from a breeder, are spayed or neutered, have had thorough health exams, and are up-to-date on all vaccinations. Many of the dogs are living in foster homes, where the dog’s behavior is observed and conveyed to the potential adopter, but you won’t know the dog’s true past, so you won’t always know exactly what you’re getting, how the dog will react in a new environment or if the dog has working ability.

Talk to farmers who use dogs on their farms. Are there trainers in your area who work with breeds you’re considering?

Don’t fall for the first cute, furry face you find! You’re looking for a partner that will be by your side day in and day out and probably in your kitchen and underfoot the rest of the time.

Herding Dog Training
The more you expect from your dog, the more you’ll need help choosing the right dog and training it properly. How do you want to begin using a working dog? Do you want to start with a puppy and train it to meet your needs? Do you want a professionally trained dog, knowing that you’ll have to pay a much higher price? Or do you want a “started dog” that has been taught the basics but will need continued training?

If you think you’re going to train your herding dog without help, be aware that it’s very easy to unknowingly put a young dog in a situation it can’t handle. Many of us begin training our dogs not knowing what we don’t know, and our dogs pay the price. One wrong decision—especially with a sensitive dog—could result in injury or trauma, which can lead to a loss of confidence, bad habits or refusal to work. A great deal of patience is needed to train a stock dog, and not all of us have what it takes. Even just a few professional training sessions early on can make a difference in a dog’s performance.

When I first began working with herding dogs, I made a lot of mistakes. My biggest error was not doing enough research on the trainers I selected, and my first dog was turned off forever from herding by a heavy-handed one. Find a trainer that has a philosophy and style that you respect. Talk to people who work with the breed you’ve chosen. Find organizations affiliated with the breed and make inquiries. Find herding trials in your area, and watch what a talented stock dog can do. Some of the most knowledgeable breeders and trainers can be found at trial competitions. Observe how the trainers work and how they treat their dogs. Are they patient and humane, or do they shout and handle dogs harshly? Remember, this person is also going to be training you, so the two of you must be able to communicate effectively. The best dog in the world won’t help you on the farm if you don’t know how to work with it.

The Herding Dog Difference
I’ve helped shear sheep without dogs and struggled so much I had more bruises than a hockey player at the end of the day. I’ve also helped shear with a minimum of drama and exertion: Dogs gathered the sheep from the pasture, moved them in and out of pens, through the chute where they were medicated and drenched, and then dispensed one by one to the shearer. Each shorn sheep was escorted to pasture by a dog, and not one was able to bolt back into the barn. We humans opened the gates, broke up sheep jams, administered treatments and gathered the fleece, while energetic kids jumped the fleece down in the bag. We had quiet interludes to chat and enjoy a cup of coffee. It was all very civilized.

It’s magic when you and your herding dog become a team and can depend on each other to get a job done. It’s uncanny the way these dogs learn to interpret our moods, body language and intentions. I’m constantly amazed how they anticipate what is required to achieve the correct movement of the stock and how much pressure is needed for each stage of work. Last but not least, they know when to ignore us when we give them the wrong command for the situation.

Working dogs put heart and soul into their work. They’ll run all day in thunderstorms, blizzards, heat waves and across impossible terrain. Humble heroes, they don’t ask for much—a dry bed, some kibble and a chance to work. They face each day with a joyful leap and a lick on the cheek. Try getting that from a hired hand!

About the Author: Nan Roberts became interested in working stock dogs when she watched Jack Knox herd sheep with his Border Collies amid the chaos of a large audience, vendor tents, pipe band and dance competitions in the middle of the city at the Macalester Scottish Country Fair in St. Paul, Minn. Nan has been a stock dog owner since 1996 and now trains her Border Collies on sheep. 

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Using Herding Dogs on the Farm

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Reader Comments
Can you train 3 year old border collies to herd, or is it to late.
CW, Cobden, IL
Posted: 9/5/2011 11:05:06 PM
It sounds like your article is very narrow minded and one sided. Youve left out a breed that is a huge part of the herding world. The Catahoula! Ask a group of livestock owners and I garuntee you one or more will have and use catahoulas and atest to there skill in herding and just working in general. Sorry to be blunt but this is how your article spoke to me.
Ryan, Elkhart, IN
Posted: 11/30/2010 6:03:24 PM
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