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How to Train Your Border Collie Dog to Herd Cattle

How to Train Your Border Collie Dog to Herd Cattle
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Time icon3-6 Months
Work training category iconWork

Introduction

Your Border Collie loves to work; this breed has been used as herding animals and working dogs since time immemorial. But, just because a certain breed has been bred to herd other animals, this doesn’t mean he is born automatically knowing the herding commands and how to obey them. He still must be properly trained before he truly knows what to do. It is up to you to train him properly.

In order to be a good herding dog, your pup must have the intelligence, agility, and drive to do so. Herding does take advantage of the Border Collie's natural instincts by enhancing them with the proper training. Just remember, especially with cattle, there is a very high potential for injury to your pup. Be sure to keep an eye on your dog until he is used to being around the cattle and has learned to master the herding commands. 

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Defining Tasks

A good herding dog can be of incredible value to your farm. He can help move the entire herd as needed or go out and bring a straggler or wandering cow back to the herd. However, you do need to know up front that it takes a long time to train the perfect herding dog. One that is not properly trained can be more of a liability than a benefit so be sure your pup has mastered at least the four basic herding commands before you turn him loose on the herd.

Your pup's safety is in your hands as it is very easy for him to get stepped on or head-butted by one or more of your cattle. Pay close attention to your pup's every move during the early stages of training, at least until he has mastered the commands and learned how to stay away from the cattle. Bear in mind, he does not need to get underfoot (under hoof?) to move the herd, but he will soon learn where his working position is with the herd. 

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Getting Started

The best age for your pup to be a master herder is between the ages of four and eight years. However, the younger he is when you start training him to herd your cattle, the better. The younger you start, the easier it will be for your pup to get used to being around the cattle. However, before you start the training, you should have your vet confirm your pup is physically capable of doing the job. Typically, you should be able to start training your pup around the age of 8 to 12 months. 

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The Scale Up Method

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Start with the basic commands

Work with your pup, to ensure he has a strong mastery of the four basic commands, 'sit', 'stay', 'come', and 'down'. You should also teach your dog the recall from a distance and down from a distance commands.

2

Teach the basic herding commands

Grab one of your pup's favorite toys and head out into the yard with him. Toss the toy directly out in front of you and, with your pup on his leash, give the 'walk up' command while walking him straight to the toy. Stop two feet away, give the 'sit' command and reward your pup with a treat and praise. When he masters this, try tossing the toy off to one side or the other and repeat the process above using the appropriate commands.

3

Time to solidify the commands

Spend several weeks working with your pup until he automatically goes exactly where you tell him to, without hesitation. This is important as he who hesitates is lost or in this case, may be run over by one of your cattle.

4

Bring in the cows

There has to be cows, but start out with a small herd at first to give your dog time to get used to moving live animals around. Give him plenty of time to get used to working with live cattle. Here again, you should work your pup with a small herd of cattle for several more weeks until he appears to be comfortable with his new job.

5

On to the herd

Only after you are sure that your pup can manage the small herd safely and accurately, should you move on to a larger herd. The rest is all about taking the time to work with your pup until he joins the rest of your farm as a successful working dog.

The Basics First Method

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Practice the basics

In order for your pup to learn how to herd, he must first have mastered the basic commands of 'come', 'stay', 'sit', and 'down'. He should have also mastered the distance recall. You can be working on these commands while you wait for your pup to physically mature enough to learn to herd.

2

Teach him the herding basics

The four basic herding commands are 'walk up' – approach the herd, 'to me' – push the herd to you from behind, 'away to me' – move the herd to the right, and 'come by' – move the herd to the left. The best way to do teach these is to put him on a leash and use them to have him move a big ball around the yard. Learning these is going to take a lot of practice and a fair amount of time, so be patient. Start with the left and right commands.

3

Approach the ball

Place the ball on the ground and give your pup both the 'sit' and 'stay' commands. Go to the opposite side of the ball and back off a few steps. Now encourage your pup to use his nose to push the ball towards you using the 'to me' command. You can use treats at first to help him get the idea and lots of praise when he gets it right.

4

Bring me the ball

Using the ball and the 'to me' command, work with your pup until he will push the ball to you. This one can be a bit harder to teach him so again be patient. Keep repeating this training until you can give your pup the 'to me' command and he pushes the ball to you every time.

5

Move the ball

The only thing left is to use the same method to teach your pup to move the ball to the right or left using the appropriate commands. You can use treats to encourage your dog to make the right moves. Once he can move the ball all around the yard using your verbal commands, you can take the next step.

6

Bring on the herd

Introduce your dog to a small herd of cattle at first and give him a little time to get used to them. Then use the commands your pup has just learned to move them around. Practice daily with a small herd until your dog will not only move them around but seems comfortable doing so. Then you can move him on to working with bigger herds.

The Small Herd, Small Pen Method

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Gather the herd

Start out by putting half a dozen cattle into a small training pen. You need one that has room for your pup to move the herd around in, but not so big that it makes it easy for your cattle to gather speed. If you have cattle that are used to being around dogs, use these.

2

Add one dog

Time to add your pup to the mix. Bring your pup into the pen on his leash and bring him to within a couple feet of the cattle. Give him the 'sit' command and the give him plenty of time to get used the sight, sound, and smell of the cattle.

3

Going in circles

With your pup on his leash, start walking him around the herd, about two feet from them. Each time you make a complete circle, stop, give the appropriate direction command and reverse directions. You may have to practice this for a few days before he gets the picture, but stick with it.

4

No more leash

Time to let your pup off the leash and put him through his paces, working the small herd by moving them around the pen.

5

The final test

The final test: take your pup out and start working him with larger herds until he can manage the herd by your command.

Written by PB Getz

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 01/18/2018, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Buddy

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Border Collie

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One Month

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Question

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Just a question, can a young border collie be ruined by letting it in the air conditioned house when not working?

July 2, 2023

Buddy's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, No. Most working sheep dogs live in the home when off duty their entire lives. Indeed many lines were specifically breed to be good with families and have an "off switch" while in the home so that they could peacefully live with the family also. Living inside with a family can actually help the dog create a stronger bond with their master/owner so that they are more willing to work with that person out in the field and have a desire to please them and take instruction better. If a dog doesn't show good herding aptitude when they are older that's either due to genetics or improper training methods, not because they lived inside. In contrast, a livestock guardian dog, who lives with the sheep and sees themselves as one of the sheep does need to live with the livestock generally - but that is a very different role on the farm than a herding dog's herding role, and herding breeds like Border Collies do not make good livestock guarding dogs, unlike Anatolian shepherds. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

July 10, 2023

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lee

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Border Collie

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Five Months

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my dog acts nervous or timid of me being petted etc. how do i correct this

April 6, 2023

lee's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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1133 Dog owners recommended

Hello, First, if you are using any methods that involve physical roughness with your hands, like spanking or training by physically moving pup into place, then I would switch to a different method. Also, work on getting puppy used to touch and handling. Use puppy’s daily meal kibble to do this. Gently touch an area of puppy's body while feeding a piece of food. Touch an ear and give a treat. Touch a paw and give a treat. Hold his collar and give a treat. Touch his tail gently and give a treat. Touch his belly, his other paws, his chest, shoulder, muzzle and every other area very gently and give a treat each time. Keep these times calm and fun for pup. If there is any aggression present, you will need to be extra patient, go slow, and get pup used to wearing a basket muzzle that you can pass treats through to desensitize pup carefully with treats. Spend the time using treats to help pup learn to put their face into the muzzle willingly over a couple of weeks time before moving onto the touching if pup is a fear biter. Don't rush that part either because the main goal in this type of training is trust building. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

April 10, 2023


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