Washington State University

Small Farms Team

Working Dogs

Does Your Farm need Working Dogs?

By Anne Schwartz. Reprinted from an original article in the Tilth Producers Quarterly, Spring 2004.

Photo of dogs bringing geese homeBringing them home

The idea of working dogs on our farm came in a rather unique way. In the mid 1980s I won a grant to study organic agriculture in the British Isles. Michael and I visited dozens of farms throughout Great Britain and Ireland and learned about their agricultural systems. We found that one of the biggest differences was that their farms tended to be more diverse and usually contained some pasture-based livestock systems. Virtually every farm had some working dogs.

Everywhere we went, we saw these remarkable animals doing amazing things, saving their farmers much time and greatly adding to their quality of life with their uncanny ability to put their stock right where they wanted them. Having always had varied species of two- and four-legged critters in my life, I was pretty much hooked on the idea of working dogs after the first few farms we visited. On our farm, we use geese for some weeding and grass control, and have long relied on ducks to keep the slugs under control in our 85 inch/year rainforest climate. So one morning after a pack of dogs went through the electric net protecting the geese in the raspberry field, the birds were scattered across a few hundred acres. I was completely spent by the time I got them all back into the fence and I knew then that I needed a working dog!!

As our aging dogs, who did have some standard and border collie genes in them died off, we acquired a 6 month old male purebred Border Collie, Mac, followed by Nell, an 11 month old rescue female Australian Shepherd. I went to a couple of stock dog trials organized by Julie Mathews, who then was raising sheep on Lopez Island and started my new education into the world of working dogs and the people who train, breed and trial these dogs. When I started bringing my dog to trainers in our area of western Washington, I was intrigued by new-to-me theories about applying and releasing pressure and really learning to think more like the animals we were training and using. Just as important, I learned, is the need to break the training goals into very small steps. A professional trainer can help you understand how to build the basic foundation skills so you always have a place to start.

There is a long way between a puppy from working lines that indeed wants to work, (not always a sure thing) and a smooth working dog that gets it right most of the time. Some dogs are easy to train, some are extraordinarily difficult. Some dogs might make great farm helpers but fall apart in a trial arena. There are several different working breeds, they all have different characteristics of temperament and working styles. There is a lot to learn so as to not make a mess of things.

Photo of Anne and friendAnne and friend. Photos by Nancy Allen

If you want to have a well-trained dog, I definitely recommend spending some time checking out a few different trainers and then sticking with a style that you are comfortable with. This is not something you want to take on with out some reading and watching. Not only do you need to learn how to train your dog, you need to learn to read the stock and understand how your body language and position affects what you are trying to do. It really is a 3-partner dance; you, the dog and the stock. There is a lot to pay attention to and it takes some practice to train yourself to focus on all three simultaneously.

If you have stock and don’t want to go the route of training the dog yourself, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a trained dog and learning how to work him from this trainer. For me, the trainings I bring my dogs to have become a very fun hobby but one with real farm benefits. One aspect that became evident over time is that this pursuit was a really healthful thing. It got me in touch with a new awareness in my relationship with animals. It fed my spirit with a whole new energy that has been somewhat drained by so many years of workaholic farming and sustainable agriculture advocacy work. It has put some play back into my life and it feels really good.

At different Tilth events over the years, I’ve met many farmers with working dogs and the conversation always quickly descends into a foreign language that causes eyes to glaze over among the non-dog people in the group. So here are some basics on training and some resources to follow up on.

Some things to consider

A controlled environment is the first requirement to create the right learning opportunity. For dogs a small pen with ‘dog broke’ sheep or ducks is the best place to start. By ‘dog broke’, I mean that the stock is used to dogs, having been worked by them so they want to get away, but they don’t panic at the site of the dog and they are used to being worked without fear of being slaughtered. This is very important.

Before you ever let your dog be around the stock you need to have basic obedience commands down– that means a reliable sit, come, and stay. You need to develop reliability in these commands in many types of situations and activities before you are ready to let your dog be off leash around the stock. If you have stock on your farm, you should not let your dogs “work” the stock on their own. The animals should be separated or your dog will teach himself the “right way to work” that will have little to do with what you might have imagined when you started.

The trainer that I work with starts with dogs on a leash in a small pen with 2 or 3 mature sheep. She uses a lightweight plastic leaf rake as a tool to apply pressure to the dog. The rake is a highly visible extension of your body that is used to reach out and become an obstacle to stop the dog from going in the wrong direction. There are a number of standard commands and through the timely and accurate use of the rake as a barrier you can teach your dog to do the right thing. Of course, one of the critical parts for you as the trainer is to learn to watch the livestock and learn to recognize the leader, to observe how they are moving and how they are responding to the pressure from your dog. Sometimes your dog gets it before you do and your corrections are wrong. That happens surprisingly often.

There is a whole language to learn, so it is good to do some reading before you visit many trainers. Without some knowledge of the terms used and about the skills they are teaching, it is easy to get lost. You can learn a lot by watching others, so spending time visiting classes and clinics is a valuable investment in this learning process.

Photo of woman commanding dogs to sit and staySit, Stay

….some terms:

  • Gather….means to go around the stock to bring them together
  • Fetch….means to bring the stock to you
  • Drive….means to drive the stock away from you
  • Pen….means to move the stock into a pen or enclosure

…..the basic commands:

  • Stop….stop is a very useful command. Eventually you will want your dog to stay standing, but in the beginning you will ask for a sit or down depending on the dog, but if you find yourself screaming “down” again and again, you haven’t trained your dog to lie down at a distance and once the livestock are there, they are far more interesting.
  • Get around ….means to gather and fetch the stock to you, in either a right or left circle– it sends the dog to work.
  • Go Bye ….means “go by the way of the clock” which means the animal makes a clockwise or right circle around the stock to bring them to you.
  • Away to me….means a counter clockwise or left circle
  • Walk up….means walk a straight line towards the stock
  • Back….means to back straight away from the stock
  • That’ll do….means stop what you are doing and come to me, it pulls the dog off the stock and ends the task.

Ideally, the fewer commands you give, the less you will confuse your dog and the more confidence your dog will gain in his work. Confident dogs think better and generally perform better and more calmly around the stock which makes the stock less stressed and easier to move. Confident dogs are a joy to watch and train, they make it look so easy and the livestock respond very differently than they do with dogs who have to be very tightly controlled because they want to run all over the stock. Another skill we practice is giving commands in soft voice; in the house and close by I even try and whisper. You can teach your dog to be sensitive to your commands or you can teach him that he can get away with not listening until you are screaming.

You also need to learn to watch the livestock. They tell you a lot about how your dog is working. You need to observe their flight distance which is different from dog to dog. Many of these working dogs are extremely sensitive even if they are acting like boneheads. You can destroy their confidence and willingness to work if they are always wrong and can’t figure out how to get their work done right. Some dogs have enormous natural talent and tend to do things right, other dogs really want to work, but are “looser”, meaning they don’t really care what the stock does as long as they get to keep them moving.

What is generally true among most working dogs is their genetic predisposition to please you and to keep the animals where you want them to be. That is why even dogs that have no future in a competitive trial situation, once they know the routine at home, will always be there to put the stock where you want them. My dogs, for example, know at the end of the day that the ducks go in one pen, the geese in another and the chickens are brought in from their grazing to the coop. They know where the gates are, and they are much better at running around our nursery area gathering up strays than I am. It makes their day to get to help.

Here are some good resources:

  1. Using your favorite Search engine, type in Herding Dogs and start wandering. For me it’s like getting lost in a good movie.
    *Herding on the Web (http://www.herdingontheweb.com/) Linda Rorem does a nice job of introducing herding information with good advice on finding a trainer and a great list of resources. Likewise, the trainer I use, Jan Wesen also has a great web site http://www.janwesen.com/
  2. There are border collie and herding dog rescue groups always looking for homes for dogs that don’t work out living in the suburbs or a city
  3. There are newsletters, though some are very trial or breeding oriented for the novice.
  4. There are some excellent books that you will refer to for years and many good videos to choose from, which can be ordered through bookstores, directly from the publisher, or from suppliers specializing in sheepdog items who advertise in herding magazines. In addition, herding books often are available at book booths at dog shows and herding trials. If titles are not in a local library, they can be borrowed through inter-library loan.
    • Anybody Can Do It. by Pope Robertson. Rovar Publ. Co., 522 East 2nd St., Elgin, TX 78621.
    • Australian Sheepdogs – Training and Handling, by Rod Cavanaugh. Stocklight, Whittlesea 57, Victoria, Australia. Available from Windrush Kelpies, Vern and Susan Thorp, 2625 Merino Ave., Oskaloosa, IA 52577, (515) 672-2049, e-mail NeverThorp@aol.com
    • The Farmer’s Dog by John Holmes. Popular Dogs Publ. Co. Ltd., 3 Fitzroy Square, London, WIP 6JD, U.K.
    • Herding Dogs: Progressive Training by Vergil Holland. Howell Book House, 15 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10023.
    • Lessons from a Stock Dog by Bruce Fogt. The Working Border Collie, Inc., 14933 , Kirkwood Rd., Sidney, OH 45365.
    • A Lifetime With the Working Collie, Their History and Training by Arthur Allen. Rt. 3, McLeansboro, IL 62859.
    • The Perfect Stockdog by Ben Means, 442154 E 140 Rd, Bluejacket, OK 74333, 918-784-2643.
    • RDT’s Puppy Book. Ranch Dog Trainer, HC 69 Box 300, Oscar, OK 73569
    • Selecting and Training a Stockdog by L. R. Alexander. Rt. #3, Box 145, Marshfield, MO 65706.
    • Sheepdogs at Work and One Man and His Dogs by Tony Iley. The Dalesman Publ. Co., Ltd., Clapham, via Lancaster LA1 8EB, U.K.
    • Sheepdog Training, an All-Breed Approach by Mari Taggart. Alpine Publications (see link below), P.O. Box 7027, Loveland, CO.
    • Talking Sheepdogs, by Derek Scrimgeour, available from Farming Books and Videos (UK)
    • Training and Working Dogs for Quiet, Confident Control of Stock by Scott Lithgow. Univ. of Queensland Press, Box 42, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia. (Available from Susan Thorp, see Australian Sheepdogs, above.)
    • A Way of Life: Sheepdog Training, Handling and Trialling H. Glyn Jones talks to Barbara C. Collins, Farming Press Ltd., Wharfdale Rd., Ipswich, Suffolk, UK.
    • Working Sheepdogs by John Templeton. U.K.

Anne Schwartz is a long-time advocate and activist for sustainable agriculture and is currently President of Tilth Producers, the statewide organization of organic and sustainable agricultural farmers.

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