by L.R. Alexander
Just because a dog bites the nose and heels of an animal does not make him a cattle dog. He can have balance, speed, eye and concentration, and still not make a good tough farm dog. All of the above are great but if he doesn't have confidence when working cattle he is not the help he could be. I have said for many years lack of confidence or fear, which usually is the same thing, will overcome all training. I see it all the time in dogs that look real good on broke or gentle cattle but just don't have what it takes to stay hooked when the stock are rank. Some of these dogs will bite and start to bring the stock away from a fence or out of the brush. Then he will grab one on the nose that has started to come to you and the cattle are back where they were.
The point I am trying to make is the dog does not know how to hold what he has gained. Had these cattle been thirty yards off the fence, the dog would not have had any trouble. If this dog had been started on cattle and helped each time this problem arose, he would have the confidence to hold what he had gained. I am not saying a dog doesn't need to bite, but if he has the confidence he will tell the old cow to move or she will be bit. The first time she is worked the dog will more than likely have to bite. After that, if he has the confidence, he may not have to bite her again.
I like to start a dog on gentle calves at about one year old. A good solid stop is extremely important if you plan on getting his full potential. The stop is not good enough if the dog takes even one step after you have given the command. I sort cattle with my dogs and a three inch movement, after the stop command, can change the balance point. I hear a lot about natural balance and some dogs do have more than others but I want it directed toward me not a fence corner or an imaginary point in the dog's mind.
Natural balance must be molded to fit your operation. This type of training is not stressed enough. Time spent letting the dog follow you with cattle on foot, a four wheeler or horseback is never wasted. When you are working on balance learn to keep your mouth shut most of the time. I dislike hearing a handler talking to his dog on a gather and fetch. If he comes around a little too far, tell him to "Get back" and let him find his own balance point. Whatever you do, don't start giving him flanking commands.
A lot of my work is out of sight behind brush and hills. The flanking commands will make him mechanical and he will be lost when he can't see you. When working large numbers of cattle in the brush that you know have respect for your dog, pay more attention to the cattle and don't worry about the dog. If the stock are moving right the dog will be right. Only correct him when the cattle are wrong. He will gain much confidence when worked on balance and, when he learns the lay of the land, will be able to handle most any situation. A dog should take flanking commands at five hundred yards but it should seldom be used on a fetch. Save the flanks for driving and sorting and your dogs will be better for it.
One of the first things when working on confidence is never, I repeat never, let him fail at anything you start to do. If he starts backing down as a young dog and you don't help him, he will start thinking there are certain things he can't do. I have taught dogs to rate cattle, to understand what steady means and bite when the need arises. All this was done in the small pen and the dog is very comfortable working close to me. He must have confidence in you before you can help him. You must teach him it is okay to work close and, between the two of you, the job will get done.
Years ago I sold a young started male to a friend. I called him Pete. He was a good dog but started out a little short on confidence when working unbroken cattle. I worked very hard on making him understand there was nothing too tough for him. I helped my friend work his unbroken cattle, using Pete and helping him each time he started having trouble. He got real bold and appeared not to be afraid of anything. He was approximately one and one half years old.
About four months later my friend purchased a small herd of Brahman cross cows with calves. He put them in a forty acre field below the barn. A couple of days later, he sent Pete to bring them to the corral. They turned on Pete and the fight was on. My friend stayed at the corral. About thirty minutes later Pete came to the barn exhausted without the cattle. My friend thought, well, maybe tomorrow he could handle them. Two or three tries later it got worse. Pete didn't try nearly as hard and after a few days he didn't even try. My friend called me and I took an old dog and helped Pete put the cows in the corral. I think some help that first day would have been all that was necessary to have brought the cows in. As it turned out, Pete lost a lot of confidence and never was as bold as he could have been. An older dog, under the same circumstances, would probably have had no permanent affect.
If the dog has confidence in you, he will let you help him when he is having trouble. You can be on foot or horseback. If riding, make sure he is not afraid of the horse and get in there and help him if he needs it. If walking, have a cattle stick in your hand and use it if he is having trouble moving stock. Soon he will decide there is nothing he can't do because you have never let him fail. One thing that is very hard on a young dog is to have him fail to bring cattle to you or not get one turned if it runs off. This destroys some of his confidence each time this happens. Soon he will give up after the first try or not even try at all. Working close to him in his early training with encouragement and a cattle stick if necessary, will give him courage you never thought he had. As you start sending him farther out the confidence you have instilled in him will go to work for you and he will know the bite is there if he needs it.
Some people are very confused as to what to look for in a cattle dog. Some are still naive enough to say a cow dog doesn't need to bite and others want to see him biting all the time. A dog that will bite sheep or gentle cattle will take hold. However, without confidence the bite is nothing more than a cheap shot. I am always seeing pictures of supposedly tough cattle dogs in the act of chasing or biting stock. If these dogs don't have the confidence and guts to work with a purpose, they are just as worthless as the non-biter. When the dog first starts realizing the bite is only to enforce what he has been taught to do and has the guts to do it under tough conditions, you have a cattle dog.
I believe where the confusion comes from about the biting and non-biting issue is the handler not understanding cattle and how they differ from sheep. Ninety percent of the time sheep will move away from a dog's presence and that same percentage of fresh cattle will always take much more force. A strong cattle dog that has confidence and knows how to work, if you didn't know him, will make you think he can work cattle without biting. When he gets the respect of the cattle, he can. But remember his confidence and concentration is telling the old cow he has teeth and knows how to use them.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine February/March 1995