Work like a dog
What you need to know if you’re gearing up to use stock dogs on the ranch
Rancher Justin Hozack uses multiple dogs at a time to help him with daily work near Marwayne, Alta.
Many people say a good cattle dog can be helpful when working cattle yet for someone new to the idea, there may be a few stumbling blocks to overcome. However, everyone — and every dog — has to start somewhere.
Peter Gonnet from Outlook, Sask., is a well-known stock dog trainer, breeder and clinician. While Gonnet says he always had a collie dog around, it took an unexpected detour on a road trip to open his eyes to their true potential.
“One time we went on a little holiday into the States and went by a sign that said ‘dog trial.’ We pulled in there to watch and we ended up staying all weekend,” Gonnet recalls. “That’s probably when I really got interested in making these dogs work for me.”
Since then Gonnet has judged many events including the prestigious United States Border Collie Handling Association trials.
A former community pasture manager, Gonnet relied on dogs to move herds through grazing rotations.
“I would say it’s much lower stress on the animals. I was able to move bigger herds of livestock with less help,” Gonnet explains. Since he retired to his nearby ranch, he now uses dogs to help his family on their large backgrounding operation.
Justin Hozack, a cow-calf rancher from Marwayne, Alta., was always curi- ous about cattle dogs, but it wasn’t until he lived in New Zealand that his interest really piqued.
“They use dogs for everything,” he says, adding he would observe one person and three dogs move thousands of sheep efficiently. “I thought, ‘These guys can get a pile more work done than I can by myself,’” Hozack says. He practices intensive grazing on his ever-growing family operation and uses stock dogs for daily moves.
For people new to stock dogs, Hozack suggests starting with an older dog. When he returned to Canada, he invested in a trained working dog and never looked back. “He came home and was instantly a work hand,” he says. Hozack says learning from others was also key. “Go to some clinics, reach out as much as possible and don’t be afraid to ask crazy questions,” he suggests. Gonnet agrees it is important to find a mentor. There are a lot of resources and associations that provide information, but Gonnet says having a person to lean on for advice is valuable.
“There are a lot of situations that come up that you don’t read in books or deal with in clinics,” he says and adds this is particularly true when trying to adjust a cow herd to working dogs.
Gonnet suggests waiting until a pup is at least eight months old before starting them to work, but that lead time can be useful.
“Right from little puppies, you can take them on a leash and expose them to a calf,” he says. He also teaches manners and simple lessons like jumping in the truck or following on a horse.
“The biggest thing is patience and to go slow,” Gonnet says. “Don’t start them on cows with calves on them,” he adds and says younger stock like replacement heifers can be a nice group to start with.
“I like to have a little bit of control before I start them on cattle so I can call them off,” he says. “Don’t put that dog in situations where cows feel really threatened and want to fight.”
Hozack agrees. “I don’t put them into situations where it’s dicey and this could get them beat up,” he says, because pushing a young dog can be hard on their confidence. An inexperienced dog may not know they can walk into a sheep’s space or cow’s space so Hozack will trot over on his horse or on foot to help the dogs move cattle at first.
“Make it a good experience for them.”
Pressure and release
Adjusting a cow herd to working dogs is important.
“If that dog comes in too quickly, the cows will go on the fight because they think it’s a predator,” Gonnet says. The idea is to allow the dog to walk into those cows so the cows learn to give to the dog’s pressure, he says.
Hozack works with his breeding heifers so they get used to dogs. “We bring them in and we break them down into groups of 10 and ‘dog break’ them so they know to turn away from the dog.”
He puts a smaller group of heifers in a pen and starts them walking down the fence line, then sends his dog to the front to stop them. Hozack’s goal is to get the heifers to turn their head and give way to the pressure of the dog.
Gonnet says it’s necessary that a working dog has the authority to tell the cows where to move and the strength to accomplish the task but he cautions that power is not aggression. Biting can be an indication of fear, Gonnet explains.
“Yet if a cow refuses to go, that dog has to apply enough pressure to get that cow to give. That might be a bite on the nose or heel, but in doing that you want it done correctly,” Gonnet says.
You want the dog to calmly walk forward and purposely grab that cow and then release that pressure, Gonnet explains. “That’s where a lot of people get confused.”
Gonnet says the handler has a responsibility to understand why their dogs are doing what they do. “The dog has got to trust you,” he says.
“If you’re yelling commands and scold- ing and the dog is doing his job properly, he’s going to be frustrated and lose confidence in you.”
Common canine misconceptions
Gonnet says a lot of people seem surprised that working dogs should be kennelled. “People want a dog but not one they have to keep tied up,”he says, but adds that work is a border collie’s reward so they will get themselves into trouble working independently.
Hozack agrees and also says dogs that run loose are less receptive to commands. “If you’re asking them to change the way they’re working, (a dog left loose) will wait to do what they want,” he says. “They can’t take a correction very well.”
Hozack says another misconception is that it is hard to train dogs.
“If you put the time in and work a dog three days a week for fifteen minutes, you will be shocked at what you can get done,” he says. He adds the investment in time is minuscule compared to the amount of time a dog will save you.
Gonnet says a common stumbling block for ranchers is getting a proper, well-bred dog that can accomplish the work that needs to be done. Not every dog comes from working bloodlines, even if they may be excellent at trial events, he explains.
“I tell people to learn to work multiple dogs, maybe two or three at a time,” says Gonnet, especially when working a big herd of cows. “A good team with different sets of commands — one to the left and one to the right — is really fun too.
“If one dog has trouble with a cow but there’s another dog to provide backup, you can get things done with less stress and the cows won’t fight as much.”
Overall, stock dogs have been a critical part of stockmanship for both ranchers.
Hozack says with dogs, he can accomplish more with fewer people. “If I can get help, that’s great,” he says but adds that with extra people comes higher intensity and different momentum.
“With dogs, it’s a lot more relaxed,” he says, adding dogs are always willing helpers. “If it’s snowing and raining, a horse might be cold-backed. But dogs always want to go to work.”
“I don’t know how you could ever operate without them,” says Gonnet.
Author: Tara Mulhern Davidson
Original Article: Canadian Cattlemen