It looked so easy: All we had to do was move 30 sheep from the barn to a vegetable plot 100 yards away so they could graze the cover crop. The sheep calmly filed through the gate—until someone knocked over a bucket, and the sheep bolted.
Three sheep headed east around the machine shed. Four sheep darted around the west side of the barn toward a construction area. Another group took off toward the railroad tracks, and the remainder charged downhill toward the highway.
Managing livestock runs the gamut from the terror of situations like this to the joy of watching a newborn staggering to its feet. It was fun when you got those first few lambs, kids or calves. You knew each one by name. It wasn’t much trouble to feed, medicate or move them around the farm because they were pets and would follow a grain bucket anywhere. Now, you have too many to coddle.
Of course, working with livestock also has its risks. How many times have you been knocked down or smashed against a fence when the herd panics or crowds in to be fed?
You could take on a hired hand and all the expense and worry that’s included. But have you ever thought about a hired paw? Maybe what you need is a stock dog. A good stock dog, or working dog, comes from generations of carefully bred, proven bloodlines that have preserved a phenomenal instinct and ability to work livestock.
All herding dog breeds, like Border Collies, Corgis and German Shepherds, evolved out of our need for help with managing our grazing animals. As we’ve become less agrarian, most herding dogs have become companion animals and are bred to conform to breed-specific appearance. The vast majority does not work on a farm or ranch. As a result, the instinct to herd is being bred out of many breeding lines.
The Working Dog
Thankfully, there are people who still breed herding dogs based on their aptitude for work—it’s what exists in their brain and heart that matters. These dogs, like exhibit an amazing instinct—an inborn ability to read and react to livestock—and a work ethic that puts many humans to shame. Most herding dogs would rather work than eat, drink or sleep. They show up every day, ready and eager to work.
Anyone who has a good stock dog will tell you that it’s worth its weight in gold. A good herding dog can easily replace the efforts of multiple helpers when it comes to moving livestock. They’ll gather your entire flock, move them wherever they need to go, separate out individuals, hold them in place and protect your backside—all for a bowl of dog chow and a pat on the head. Farmers have used working dogs for hundreds of years as valued, if not essential, partners. Once you’ve seen a good dog work, you’ll wonder why you never thought of getting one before.
Before you decide on a specific dog breed, consider your livestock and how you manage them. The type of stock and its environment call for specific abilities.
All herding breeds do not work livestock the same way. This is not to say that each breed can only work one type of stock. It means that you should choose the breed suited for the work you need done.
If you want a dog that can go out hundreds of yards to bring in a large number of livestock, you’ll want one that has good gathering skills. Gathering means the dog will run out in a sweeping arc to end up behind the stock and fetch them toward you. Border Collies and Australian Kelpies are good choices for this kind of work.
If you work with your livestock in smaller areas and tight spaces, a driving dog might be best. Driving dogs push the stock along from behind and tend to work closer to the stock than a gathering breed. Most herding dogs can drive, but it comes more naturally to driving breeds, such as Australian Cattle Dogs and Australian Shepherds. Driving dogs need to be forceful to move animals—especially cattle—through chutes and crowded pens. Dogs that work cattle will dash in and give them a nip on the heels to get them moving, yet are wary and agile enough to leap out of the way before they get kicked. Some Border Collies can work cattle if they come from working lines that breed and train these dogs to be more forceful with the larger animals.