Here are the essential things new or prospective cattle dog owners can do to ensure success, from buying your first dog to breaking your herd to continuing your handling education.
Do your research. Spend a lot of time researching which dog breed is best for your purposes. Then, start asking people who already use cattle dogs for references, because you’ll want to be sure the dog you purchase comes from a reliable source. There are breeders all over the United States who have a lot to say about the benefits of a particular dog or its backgrounding, but it’s essential that you trust these breeders, either personally or through someone else. Basically, when you buy that dog, you want to know that what it’s represented to be is exactly what you are getting.
Start with a well-trained dog. A seasoned dog may cost a lot of money, but especially for those new to stock dogs, one good dog is worth everything. The more experienced the dog is, the more it can actually end up teaching you about working stock. New and inexperienced handlers are best paired with experienced and well-trained dogs.
Introduce your dog to the ranch. Start simply by making friends with your new dog. Spend about a week walking around with it on the land, showing it the kennel and letting it get used to the food and routine on your ranch. Don’t work it. Just spend that time bonding and letting the dog get to know you as its new master. Help it grow familiar with the sound of your voice, which is different than that of the breeder or trainer it’s used to. Do something simple, like call the dog to you, and then heap praise on. During this stage and every single one to follow, there is no such thing as too much praise and encouragement.
Set yourself up for success. New handlers should think of this process as starting in kindergarten and patiently working up from there. The best way to begin is to pen four or five head of lightweight cattle in a small area—say, a roping arena or a paddock—and start working the dog with them. This isn’t as much about teaching the dog as it is about teaching you to work with it. Practice various commands on just a few head, which is a better guarantee of a successful first time than it is to turn yourself and the dog loose on the pasture and have a discouraging experience trying to get 200 head of cattle together and failing. After several days, you’ll get better at working the dog among these few head, and then you can add a few more head. Then a few more. (This is also, by the way, a good way to gradually dog-break your herd.) Finally, you can get more advanced and start working on horseback or a four-wheeler, whatever you usually use in the pasture.
Break your cattle young. The best way to dog-break your cattle is to start with the ones that have never been worked. At the Kansas ranch where I worked, we would keep up to 100 replacement heifers every year. After these heifers were weaned, we’d move them out to some pasture, and every day I would just head up there with a couple of dogs with me. The dogs will head straight out and try to hold the herd together, and, at first, the heifers want to run away. But the dogs stop them and turn them back. Pretty soon, the cows get the idea that the best place for them is in the herd, and they quit trying to run. They learn to respect the dogs and the boundaries they set, and they’ll never forget it for the rest of their lives. With good dogs, you’ll be surprised at how short a time it takes until the cattle are so gentle they’ll tolerate you walking around in the herd without running away—maybe 30 minutes.
Be wary of pairs. If your cows are older, the best time to dog-break them is when they’re dry and their calves are weaned off. If they’re still in pairs, they’ll do nothing but fight the dogs. I’ve done it successfully plenty of times throughout the years, but it takes a few strong dogs and an experienced handler to deal with a herd of mothers.
Attend clinics. There are stock dog clinics all around the country that offer training and tips for people in handling their stock dogs, and you can learn a lot of invaluable information there. Besides learning how to handle your own dog, it’s the perfect place to meet other stock dog owners and learn from them and ask how they have solved problems in the past. The breeder from whom you purchased the dog is also a valuable resource.
I’m seeing more and more interest in cattle dogs all of the time, and it’s easy to see why. You don’t have to pay a dog to show up. He never takes a personal day when you don’t want him to. He’s good at his job—particularly when you’re handling a large herd, I think one good dog can replace five cowboys. He’s a loyal friend and companion for life, and he’ll be there for you 24 hours a day, every day of the week. Out in the pasture, he’ll give you everything he’s got. It’s been a gratifying experience for me to work with these dogs, and I hope you enjoy yours as much as I have.