Cattle Dogs - It’s a Dog’s World

In this technologically advanced world, there is an area that is what I would call a “throwback” of sorts when it comes to handling cattle. Ask a cattleman who their most entrusted employee is and the response will often be this: my dog.

In this sophisticated world, a good herding dog remains an integral part of many cattle operations. That’s the belief of Steve Loy, a cattle herd manager, who works with Greig and Company, a large family-owned feeder cattle operation near Estherville, IA. Loy has worked with cattle operations for the past 40 years. When I asked if herding dogs were still a part of the cattle operations, he could only shake his head and chuckle. “You bet. I have had one ever since I began in this business. It is unbelievable how much human effort and manpower is saved with a good herding dog.”

When you look at it, who wouldn’t want an employee who never asked for a raise or a retirement fund, was always on time to work, never needed a break and always had one thing on its mind: herding, herding, herding! Yes, the herding breed is alive and well in the cattle world.

Of course, the herding group includes a wide variety of dogs. It really comes down to what type of herding dog you want and the work that it will be doing. Loy believes it is wise to go to a reputable breeder when purchasing your herding dog. "This is a working dog that will be expected to handle your cattle, so it is important that you get a dog bred to meet the demands. When you choose your dog, you need to look at what type of work you will be expecting of your dog. You have to take a look at your terrain and the demands you will be putting on the dog. In some instances, breeds are crossed to get the best traits of several breeds."

Loy has had a crossbred blue heeler, an Australian sheep dog and an Australian Shepard over the years, but the last two have been border collies. “They all have different personalities. The blue heeler was probably the most aggressive of my dogs and worked really fast. I’ve gone to the border collie because they seem to fit more with our type of operation.”

Loy notes that most of the work comes with the feeder cattle and moving them from pen to pen. In the summer, they might have 300 steers on pasture and rotate them once a week from paddock to paddock, but for the most part, the work is at the feedlot.

“The way we do things, I need to have a stalker, one that keeps the cattle calm while getting them moved. I don’t need a super aggressive dog. I want the cattle calm.”

With as many as 200 head of feeder cattle in a pen, Loy relies on Tess, his seven-year-old border collie to help make the move. “I don’t even need to go with her. If I want her to bring them up to the gate, I send her to the far end and meet her halfway. Then she starts to move them toward me. She is a stalker, so she keeps pushing the group and then doubles back to get the ones that are behind.”

Loy says the cattle respond much more calmly to her herding movements than they would if he were to try to get them to move. It’s such a natural thing for her. “All I need to do is give commands when I want her to move right (away to me), left (go by), stop (hold) and when she’s done (that will do). Loy adds that the first Border collie he had, he trained her himself. “It takes discipline and patience to train a herding dog. When I lost her (someone stole her), I thought I could do without one. That didn’t last long. In less than a month, I knew I had to have another dog. However, I didn’t have the time to get a pup and train it. I needed one that was ready to go, so Tess came as an adult dog already trained. Definitely worth the money!”

Although most of the herding is done with the feeder cattle, Loy says Tess really likes it when they move 300 or so steers in the summer from one paddock to another. “That’s a lot more area, and she just loves that-to cover ground.”

Loy says he also appreciates the fact that most of the herding breeds are people dogs. “It’s just amazing. Herding is their way of life.” However, he also notes that they are very active dogs, and he considers them to be outside dogs. “There’s no way that I could get Tess to be a house dog. She couldn’t take it. She has to be active and doing something all of the time.” He adds with a laugh, though, that around the yard she will continue to do what she does best: herd. “When our grandkids come and are out in the Morton building, for instance, she will do her thing. She will begin to herd them. Of course, the younger ones don’t understand what she is doing, but she’s working them and herding them!”

Thoughts from the Executive Field Representative for the American Kennel Club

Since January of 2000, Carol Delsman of Baker City, Oregon, has been in charge of the herding program of the American Kennel Club. She is on the road at least 120 days per year approving the qualifications of 150 judges, coordinating 650 events and overseeing 200 clubs across the country. It is her job to make sure that the working ability of the herding group is maintained. “For me personally, the ultimate goal would be for a person to be able to go to a trial and after observing the dogs, buy a dog on the spot that meets his/her needs.”

Delsman has been involved with the herding breeds since 1982, when she got her first dog, an Australian cattle dog. “So, I got a dog and when I got home, I thought, now what do I do with it” she says with a laugh. Since that time, she has had an ongoing “course” in how to choose, train, raise and breed herding dogs.

Delsman notes that there is no best breed, adding to what Loy said earlier. “It all depends on what you are doing. I often equate it to going shopping for a vehicle. It doesn’t do you any good to buy a car (because you like the color and style) when you need the power and clearance of a pickup. It’s the same when you choose one of the herding breeds. They all have their place. You need to research the breeds and then make your choice based on the need.”

As Loy mentioned earlier, herding dogs are active dogs. Delsman agrees. “They are not meant to be house dogs. That’s where some of the breeds get a bad reputation, when they are not purchased based on what they are bred to do. Herding dogs have three key qualities. They are extremely active, very athletic and problem solvers. They are not meant to just sit around. If they are not used as working dogs, they will find their own work. It’s kind of like trying to channel electricity. This is why I say you shouldn’t buy a dog based simply on its looks or the color of its eyes.”

Obviously, with 20 recognized breeds in the herding category, there are tremendous differences. Plus, even within a breed there are huge differences. “If you are planning on working cattle in the mountains and hills of Idaho or Colorado, you have different issues than if you are in the flatter country of the Midwest. The first requires great strength and stamina, while for the second that is not so important. Whatever your choice, the longer the dog works with the herd, the more they get used to each other. You can take the same dog to a new group of cattle, and things won’t work as well as it did with the other group. It takes time for them to get to know each other.”

Most cattle producers do not have the time to raise their own dogs, so they usually purchase their dogs. “I believe it’s all about going and looking at the parents. See what their activity level is, how they react to people, etc.”

Delsman also addressed the issue of cross breeding. Definitely, cross breeding has allowed breeders to draw on the best qualities of a certain dog and breed it to the best qualities of another dog and so on, and that is how some of the newly recognized breeds have become registered as a new breed. However, Delsman does share words of caution. “When you cross multiple breeds, you are not sure what you might get. It’s kind of luck of the draw what will come out. There is no guarantee what traits each puppy will have. I have found that potential dog owners are looking for predictability and that is more likely to come with one of the recognized herding breeds.”

If you are interested in learning more about the many herding breeds, go to the American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) homepage. One of the tabs is a list of breeds. It will lead you to a link that shows pictures of each dog. Click on the dog and a description of the dog is given, along with a look back at its breeding history and a short discussion on whether this might be the right dog for you.

Yes, the herding breed is alive and well in the cattle world. After all, who wouldn’t want an employee who never asked for a raise or a retirement fund, was always on time to work, never needed a break and always had one thing on its mind: doing its job!