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Thoughts on Working Dogs

My friend and fellow sheep producer Lana Rowley posted an interesting perspective on working stock dogs on facebook recently:

"There is a giant disconnect between trial and ranch folks who use dogs...if I hear a ranch person bad mouth 'those trial dogs' I want to say they should maybe step to the post a time or two.... Trial folks who think any old dog can do ranch work (not chores) I wish to have them prove that by pulling 500 lambs out of the neighbor's alfalfa.  Same for cattle vs. sheepdogs - if they have not worked tough cattle/pairs then maybe they don't know what it takes.  Same if you think a cowdog is too "rough" for sheep - might just not be trained enough or not have any real power without teeth.  [I'd] like to see folks walk a few hundred miles in those shoes before they start name calling...."

Lana has some incredible dogs - dogs that are successful on the trial field and on the ranch.  I've had occasion over the last two days to observe some ranch trained dogs working with a Peruvian herder - with equally incredible results.

I'm helping manage a large grazing contract in the city of Lincoln.  At present, we have approximately 1500 sheep and 2200 goats within the city limits!  Yesterday, DiDi (one of the herders working on this contract) - along with his 4 dogs, moved 1600 goats (in two groups) about 2 miles onto fresh feed.  While yesterday's trek was mostly along the margins of farm fields and cow pastures, today's move (600 goats, more than 2 miles) was a bit more challenging.  Today, Juan and Robbie joined DiDi and me - along with 5 dogs.  Part of today's move was along Joiner Parkway - a main thoroughfare through Lincoln.

I'm an amateur dog trainer at best, but I do try to use pressure and release from pressure (mostly with my tone of voice) as a way to communicate with my dogs.  I've never competed in a sheepdog or cattle dog trial, but our dogs have been trained to that level (and my oldest daughter has trialed).  Observing DiDi, Juan and Robbie over the last 2 days, I realized that on the most basic level, they use the same techniques.

Traditional basic commands for border collies are "come bye" (to go around to the left), "away to me" (around to the right), "lie down" (stop by remain focused on the stock and await further instruction), "walk on" (obvious), and "that'll do" (come back to me).  The dogs that moved the goats over the last two days didn't know these commands, but they were extremely effective.  My new Peruvian friends used hand signals and a variety of harsh and kind commands to communicate with their dogs.  While these dogs might not (at least initially) succeed in a competitive trial, they got the goats moved safely and efficiently.

The common thread in all of this is our appreciation for the work of our dogs.  My respect for my dogs increases with every task they help me complete - our relationship is truly a partnership.  As I helped move goats over these last 2 days, I realized that DiDi, Juan and Robbie have a similar partnership with their dogs.  When we finished moving today's group of goats, I thanked DiDi, Juan and Robbie.  Robbie said "perros buenas" - good dogs! - making sure we thanked the dogs, as well! I couldn't agree more!


  1. Great story. I've learned a lot from you over the years starting with the huge chicken in your office freezer. Thank you for continuing to work in a sustainable fashion. I think I'm going to need some goats to tackle my blackberries this year. We have beehives (thanks to Alex) so don't want to get rid of them all, just the ones that are really in the way of enjoying our five acres.


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