Life with a Cattle Dog

Cattle Dogs, Part 2

BY Charlie Trayer as told by Lindsey Howald Patton | | Comments (0)

I have met people all over the country who have had nothing but bad experiences with cattle dogs. People will say, “I don’t want dogs around because they chase the cattle, make them wild, run them through fences.”

But I think that’s because they’ve just never seen a good dog. With well-trained, retrieving-type dogs, all you have to do to pen cattle is send the dogs around the herd, then walk or ride back to the pens and open the gate. That’s it. The dogs will gather the cattle and bring them straight to you. Because of that, it is a different situation entirely from driving a herd with a heeling-type dog, a crew of cowboys, or by yourself. You’re not driving at all, in fact. The simplicity of it is hard for ranchers to understand unless they have seen it for themselves. But when they do, they’re amazed.

Who should own a cattle dog?

Owning a cattle dog isn’t a specialty thing; I recommend them to any rancher who is handling any number of cattle. Even better, if the individual is someone who simply enjoys dogs—working with them, spending time with them, training them—he’ll see a lot of success.

Still, stock dogs aren’t right for everybody. You have to know what you’re getting into, and be willing to put in the work and patience to learn about dog handling and to do it right. I’ve met too many people who just want to get their cattle penned, get them on a truck, and get their work over with; they don’t care how it gets done as long as it’s as fast as possible. A rancher shouldn’t be doing it that way anyway, but it’s especially not going to work with dogs.

How many cattle dogs do I need for my ranch?

People are always surprised at how many head of cattle a dog can handle alone, but there are several instances in which you want more than one. First, if the weather is hot. A dog will tire more quickly in the summer than in the winter and won’t be as effective alone. I also always recommend at least two, if not several, dogs when you are herding pairs—cows with calves on them—because it doesn’t matter how wild or gentle the cows are, they’ll fight the dogs if they have their young with them. Finally, if it’s a particularly flighty or large herd, keep in mind that a single dog can only do so much.

What kind of relationship can I cultivate with my cattle dog?

A well-bred cow dog is a wonderful companion—in fact, the more time you spend with them, the better. If they are socialized, they grow up to be incredibly loyal, friendly, and loveable, and good with kids and families.

However, they aren’t exactly like typical pets in the sense that they have a job to do. So when they aren’t supervised, they need to be confined, whether tied up or in a kennel. Even a well-trained dog can easily get into trouble running loose on the ranch—after all, they’re bred to work stock, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do; they’ll find some stock and go work it, whether it’s your own or your neighbor’s. So to keep them from forming bad habits, you can’t work them one day, let them loose the next, and then come back and say, “Today we’ve got some serious work to do. You’re going to have to mind me now.” To keep a dog in top shape, it needs to mind all of the time.

How do I learn how to handle my cattle dog?

As with most things, you become a good dog handler through practice and experience. When I first started years ago, I spent some time with Gary Ericsson, the breeder I bought my first cow dogs from. He taught me the basics, and, after that, I started working and using the dogs on a daily basis. Still, after hours and years, you never stop learning—if you want to. Many ranchers find that the basic commands are more than good enough. For those who want to get more advanced, there are clinics all over the nation that can teach you more techniques.

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