How to Train Your Dog to Herd Cattle

Hard
6-12 Months
Work

Introduction

A farmer has a herd of 100 cows with their calves and 5 bulls grazing loose on a 160 acre parcel of land. That is 205 head of cattle. Some are near the dug out getting water, others are spread out grazing, still others are sleeping lazily in the shade of the trees in the far corner across a dry creek bed. Today, the farmer needs to bring them all in for handling and processing. Ear tags need to be replaced or fixed, vaccinations need to be given to prevent communicable disease, and medication to counteract worms and parasites the cattle have picked up over the summer needs to be administered. In addition, a few of the cattle look like they may have picked up infections in their feet,  a common cattle ailment called footrot, that needs to be treated with antibiotics.  What a chore this is going to be!  Fortunately, this farmer has a wonderful border collie named Trixie, who is going to help out and make this job a whole lot easier. Between the farmer on his quad, his kids on foot, and smart cattle herding dog, Trixie, the herd is gathered up in no time. Trixie runs to the right, and the left, on direction, gathering up the cattle into a herd, and then nipping at their heels and barking, to drive them back to the yard site, through the gate, and into a corral, where the cattle can then be moved into a handling system, and given important medical care to keep them healthy.

Defining Tasks

A cattle herding dog should be able to obey verbal commands from their handler, while off leash, to perform a variety of cattle handling activities. Cattle herding dogs gather and direct cattle, to bring them towards their handler or direct them along a path or through a gate. A good cattle herding dog obeys a number of off lead commands, including commands to go left or right of the herd, to stop, lie down, bark at, gather, hold and back off, from cattle, all of which the handler can use to direct the dog's behavior to move the herd of cattle where they need to go: out to pasture, in from pasture, or into corrals or handling systems. These activities may be required  for feeding cattle or to provide medicine or other care. For a farmer, a cattle dog can be an invaluable tool that allows them to handle their animals and get them moved easier and with less stress. A cattle dog needs to be aggressive enough to provide firm direction to the cattle, but should not get overexcited or overly aggressive, causing panic or injury and stress to the cattle being herded. Although young dogs may be introduced to cattle and may be present when working cattle to get them used to the sights and sound,  cattle herding dogs are not trained to herd and work directly with cattle until they are more mature and have mastered a variety of off-lead commands. A very young dog can be excited, unfocused and distracted, resulting in injury to themselves or livestock. Training a reliable cattle dog takes several months and a strong relationship between the dog and handler. Certain breeds are predominantly used for herding cattle as the aptitude for such work has been developed in them over years of careful breeding.  Not all dogs are appropriate for this type of work.

Getting Started

You should ensure you have a dog with the aptitude and ability to herd cattle before initiating training. Dogs used for herding cattle must be of a breed with a natural aptitude for herding. There are 25 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club as herding breeds. A cattle herding dog needs to be of sufficient size and physical and mental ability to work with cattle. Smaller dogs, timid dogs, or dogs with any physical impairment or orthopedic conditions may not be appropriate, as quick responses and movements to avoid injury working with cattle are required. Prior to work with cattle, herding dogs should know basic obedience commands such as come, sit, and stay. Herding dogs are often initially taught control around livestock with the use of a long lead line.

The Off Lead Commands Method

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Step
1
Retrieve toy on command
Put your dog on a long lead. Have an assistant throw a favorite toy out for your dog. Give the command for go around, then run out with the dog guiding him around the far side of the toy then allow him to pick up the toy. Call here, or come, and give your dog a treat for returning to you with the toy.
Step
2
Add directional commands
Add directional commands such as “come by” to move the dog to the left of the toy or “way to me” to move the dog to the right of the toy, guide the dog with the lead as you run beside him. Reward him for going in the correct direction and retrieving his toy.
Step
3
Add other herding commands
Using the toy, teach the dog to “stop”, “lay down” and “that will do” to leave off the toy, reward your dog for performing these actions.
Step
4
Take off lead
Take your dog off the lead and use the toy to perform the commands you will be using for herding cattle.
Step
5
Transfer to cattle
When your dog is old enough, and has a good understanding and response off leash to the commands, you can introduce the dog to working with cattle. Go back to the first step on lead and repeat the steps and commands, this time using cattle instead of the toy.
Step
6
Work off lead with cattle
Eventually, you can move to off lead work with the cattle. If the dog becomes over excited or confused, go back to on-lead work.
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The Natural Behavior Method

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Set up cattle
Use a round pen or corral that has had the corners blocked off with panels so that livestock can not get stuck in the corners. Start with cattle that have been worked with a dog before, and are used to herding techniques and more likely to be responsive.
Step
2
Introduce dog
Bring your dog into the corral with the stock on a long lead. If your dog tries to go into the middle of the herd, recall him, guide him back with the lead if necessary.
Step
3
Provide commands for herding
Let your dog get used to going around the stock on a lead, provide the correct command as the dogs goes right or left around the herd. Keep sessions short so the dog does not become overtired, over-excited, or nervous.
Step
4
Work off lead
As the dog shows confidence and does not bolt into the middle of the herd, you can remove the lead. Continue working with the dog in the controlled environment.
Step
5
Associate more commands
Provide other commands to back off, stop, bark, and hold when the dog exhibits them capturing the behavior. Say 'good' and praise the dog.
Step
6
Direct herding behavior
Start providing the commands that your dog has associated with his natural herding behavior. Recall the dog if he is does not perform appropriately. Do not punish the dog, but take him out of the situation. He will soon learn that he only gets to herd if he listens to and responds to your commands.
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The Modeling Method

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Step
1
Establish off-lead commands
Teach your dog off leash herding commands such as 'come by', 'way to me' and 'that’ll do' so your dog is familiar with these commands.
Step
2
Introduce model dog
Introduce an experienced cattle herding dog that knows and responds well.
Step
3
Expose
In a controlled environment, either a corral or small pasture, start working with the experienced dog, and cattle that are used to being herded. Keep you trainee on a lead by your side. Allow the new dog to become acclimatized to the sights and sounds of the cattle and the other herding dog working.
Step
4
Initiate on lead herding
When your trainee is accustomed and interested, but not over excited, take the trainee dog on a long lead around the cattle, providing the commands, "come by", "way to me", "stop", and "that’ll do".
Step
5
Allow work with model dog
When the trainee is comfortable performing these tasks on lead, take the trainee off lead and let him work with the experienced dog and the experienced cattle.
Step
6
Give basic commands
Start giving basic commands to the experienced dog, and your trainee. If the trainee does not follow the experienced dogs lead, recall him, and have him wait with you for a period of time before trying again.
Step
7
Reward
If the trainee dog follows the mature dog, praise him; say “good”. Keep sessions short and let your new dog end on a positive note.
Step
8
Initiate independent work
Eventually your new dog can start working independently, once he is responding well, understands what is required, and knows how to stay safe out from under the cattle's feet. The experienced dog modelling correct herding behavior provides an example.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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