an interview with Australian cattleman Tony McCallum
by the staff of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine
Working in different types of terrain, most of it heavy timber or mountains, means that Tony McCallum, New South Wales, Australia, sends his dogs for stock that can't be gotten to on horseback. Tony emphatically states, "In a lot of areas in Australia it's not '`do people use dogs there', rather, if they run stock in that country they have dogs. Because if you don't have, you just pack up and leave. There isn't an alternative. In a lot of that country you can't get in [to the stock]. There's no point in thinking, 'Oh, I'll do it helicopters; I'll do it on motorbikes'. And to run it with horseback, the amount of people you would need to employ would just make it unfeasible. With good dogs that are used to working on their own you can do a lot more work.”
Heading ability is a must for the dog that works in this rough region of Australia. When 300 steers are on the run and there's no fence for two miles the dogs must stop the herd. He looks for the dog that gets to the front and the ability to get stock back to him. McCallum describes this type of dog as with "work ethic" -- "he will do all at his disposal to arrive back at your with the stock." Too much heading instinct can be a disadvantage, though, because this type of dog will be going to the head of the stock even if they are coming toward the handler.
McCallum wants the dog to want to work. He breeds away from the dog that is too easily controlled. He uses this analogy: “When you use a sledge hammer, you work at control. Once enough strength is built up in the arm, you can tap in a thumb tack with a sledge hammer. However, if all you ever use is a thumb tack hammer, you could never drive in a railway spike. If you can educate a dog with stock sense, you can have everything. He'll handle a charging ram and knows to stop light sheep by staying off of them. No matter what you're working — cow, steer, lamb, wether — the dog can learn when to get in and when to stay out.
"It is hard enough to find a dog that naturally wants to dominate cattle. I don't mean chase them from here to kingdom come. I can get you any amount of those any day of the week. You can find anything that expresses aggression at the weak end of the stock. I like a dog that holds his ground under pressure, especially the one that when he's held his ground and he wins is not a bully and does not continue to punish the stock. A lot of people don't realize this: sometimes the best thing a dog can do when you're working stock is nothing. It's probably as important as when something makes a break and is definitely going to go and he's got to show all that grit and block up and say, 'no you're not going,' which is really important. But then there are other times where the ability in that dog just to ease right off the situation and say 'look they're going where we want them to go. Anything I do now is only going to cause trouble.' That's a real good dog."
Over the years McCallum has developed a training method which works particularly well for him. He says he'd picked up a tip here and an idea there, until a program evolved which he calls, "When, Where and How — I decide the when and where — the dog decides the how."
Part of this program is built on the premise that he is the pack leader. Studying behavior of wolf packs has helped McCallum learn how to become the dominant figure in his dogs' lives. "You must steady a pup straight away the minute he goes silly. Show him that 'no, that's not right.' Watch any documentary program about an old wolf — he will tolerate a lot, pups playing with his tail and such. But there will be a point, perhaps when those pups start jumping up and chewing on his ear, that he puts a stop to it. He doesn't say, while petting the pups, 'Now, don't chew.' We all know what he does and it happens quickly and cleanly. Bang! The pups go 'Ohh, Ohh, Ohh, Ohh,' and they tuck their little tails and go away and lie down. After three seconds, they'll come back and perhaps play with his tail like they did when they were getting away with it. They just learned, 'He doesn't want us scratching his eyeballs and pulling his ears."'
At a recent clinic someone showed McCallum an article condemning the pack approach to training dogs. "Every basic premise in that fellow's article is based on the fact that it's a brutal thing. This author thinks if someone's using the pack method he's brutalizing his dogs. He thinks everything is human. I said to the fellow that showed it to me, 'If you treat them as dogs, they are happy. Dogs don't bully — either you are above or below in the pack and once that's worked out, that's where you go.'
"I stress that training is not brutal if you adopt a cooperative training technique. All you're really doing is getting them to do what they want to do. Now, I just don't know of anything easier to train than stockdogs. I would sooner train a dog to work stock, than to teach a dog to sit. Because to get a dog to sit, you have to physically force him into a sit position. Now, if you're training a stockdog to bring stock back to you, to go around and head stock when they are leaving, you never have to lay a hand on him, never have to get near him. You don't have to teach him his name even. He wants to do all of that. He doesn't want to walk up to you and sit. So which is the easiest? It is easier to educate him to work stock, but people seem to want to make a hard job of it."
The other aspect of this training regime is that much of the training is done while the pup is young, without undue pressure, simply through association. "I don't want them on anything I don't think they can handle. Say, the pup is 16 weeks old. By then, I've seen him a couple of times on stock. If the instinct is there and is slowly building, I like to use it a little bit, not lock the pup away and have him vent those instincts on watching birds fly over or chasing rags. I want him to grow up to work stock.
"People say, `Oh! Well, you put your pup to work at four months. What about the pressure?' What pressure? Because he's getting his own reward it's what he's wanting to do. The pup doesn't even know what I'm saying. (I'm applying the word as quickly as I can to the action.) The minute you see that little foot start to come up and the stock starts to move, quickly say 'away' and he's off. When Pavlov rang that little bell he showed us that dogs don't make decisions they just react to an association. If people would only realize that.
It's not unusual that at the end of two five minute sessions a four or five month old pup will take off in the `away' direction when I say `away'. He's being programmed that 'away' is to move in that direction to stock. But, what's even better, is that we haven't made him do it just because he's told. This is opposed to someone who has a stick and blocks him and says, 'I said away.' I want to end up with a totally obedient stock dog who has the ability to work independently. There are always going to be times when you are going to have to step in and require obedience because you can see something that the dog doesn't. But I think you've succeeded when you get obedience that the dog believes is independent thinking. So they don't need the commands to do the work, but when you look up and think, 'Oh, goodness I've headed the cattle along that fence and three kangaroos have knocked a hole in there and those cows are going to go straight in with the bulls.'
Those dogs are working independently, but, I have to be able to direct them and when I blow that whistle they believe it's their decision to flank and stop the cows. And the best thing about it is that there is no resistance because ever since they were little they've only heard that command or whistle when they wanted to go that way. So they just wheel around and out they go. There is going to be a point when that dog says, 'You've made the wrong call. I'm second in charge; I'm going to have a go at the job.' But that's the day you can correct him. You need to say, `No, I'm still in charge,' and correct him. But wait until it goes wrong — you don't want to start correcting him at day one.
"I make no claims to have come on this [training method] easily, because this is trial and error and I did it the hard way for many years. I'd gone through a lot of dogs and I thought surely some of these dogs are better than they are turning out. I saw people who've taught dogs by just sheer aggression. 'You will do this now or I will poke you with a sharp stick and choke you with a spiked chain collar.' And I thought, `Well that doesn't appear to get you to where you want to go with some stock dogs. We're not winning with just making him mechanical; we're not winning by dominating.' Eventually I picked up a bit off of this person and a bit off that person, read a bit here and I thought, 'I've made hard work of this. I think there's an easier way.' Sometimes, a method came along that made me think, 'I'm never going to do that.' Even then, I'd discovered something.
Thomas Edison, after trying 2000 different filaments that didn't work for the electric light bulb was asked, `What does it feel like to have failed 2000 times?' He said, 'I haven't failed. I've discovered 2000 things that don't work.' And that is the way it is with training dogs. Because what's perfect for the temperament for one person, is not okay for the next.
"Occasionally, someone at a clinic will ask me, 'Couldn't I just have a rope and a collar on him if he runs amuck.' Well, you can, but it changes everything. You will too soon step in, to get him to do something, rather than worrying about settling up your stock. But if you go in there 'naked', you have to be worried about putting yourself right, you see. It's an active way of training dogs. I just couldn't get in there and say 'come by', 'away', 'come by over.' Sometimes it's only moving a little bit. Back off your stock, let them come this way. The pup starts to advance, I say, 'push up', 'push up'. Then he races in and grabs one. My movement might be as simple as stepping between that one and actually pushing him off. Not growling at him or anything. I just step through.
At times, if he's got a hold of a bit of wool hanging off the side of a sheep and he's five months old, I might actually say, 'Aaatt!' He'll be a bit annoyed. My movement breaks it [off of the sheep] and he runs around to the front. As he runs around to the front I say, 'come bye', and step back. You control your stock and make it ever so slightly uncomfortable to do that which you don't like and then just add the commands. If the pup happens to fly in and grab one on the nose, say, `get him'. When working cattle there are times when you want the dog to 'get him' and this is a good opportunity to train that.
"When the pup is eight weeks of age, I'll put him with gentle stock in a small area, about a 30 by 40 foot pen. I don't use anything much smaller than that size. The pen is not so big that if a pup chases one then I've got to actually physically bolt to get to it. Some people say, 'Oh, I might not be able to run fast enough.' But you don't need to do all of that chasing and dragging ropes and that sort of thing. The most I have to do is make a few little quick steps that block the stock; the goats go past and then I say 'come by' or 'away to me'."
During early training, McCallum looks for opportunities to train the pup maneuvers he'll need later on. For instance, Tony describes how his young pups learn to bring back the single animal that bolts from the herd: "I try to convince a pup that when he chases one over to a corner he's actually returning it to the mob. If he's just chasing one, I wouldn't be interested in the pup. But if I feel he's making an effort to turn it, that's different. Well, we know he's not going to [turn the single] because he's just ten weeks of age. He's not going to get to the lead. I quickly go over to where all the other goats are in the corner. When he finally gets to the corner at the other end, that little pup goes in and grabs the goat and he bolts out. He bolts straight to the group and when that little pup comes out of the dust behind and sees that one in with the mob, I can simply say when he pauses for a bit, 'steady, good pup.' Far better than running down and trying to catch the pup before he grabs the goat.
But people ask, 'Won't he get used to cutting one off?' I say, 'When you chased him, he's chasing that goat and you're making him run faster by chasing him, and there's a whole hullabaloo going on. When that happens he's forgotten completely about the mob. I give him five seconds of chasing one, put the rest of the mob in the corner, let the one goat run back with them, settle the dog and say, 'good pup'. For the pup, the biggest association is that one goat has just run back to the rest, he's heard '`good pup' and he's allowed to go back to work. Because one animal is always going to make a break, I actually want a pup that has the confidence to go and turn one and put it back in the mob.
"Don't limit yourself. People say to me, 'I've got a dog and I'm just having a bit of trouble. I've got him pretty good on the 'come by'. I started on the 'away'. Tomorrow I'm going to work on that 'away'.' You know, I've never taken a dog out of a cage to work stock and said, 'Alright, you're learning 'away' today. I mean, no come-bying or going too close, so help me. It's 'away, away' today.' If people would just work on not teaching their dog this or that, but, instead think, 'I've got a list of things to which I want my dog to associate.'
"Once they get into that way of thinking then all they have to do is say, for example, I would like to have my dog go and get a drink when I tell him because I'm working in dry country but sometimes he's not thirsty because it's early morning. We'll be passing a tank and I know we're not going to see water again for six hours, he doesn't. So I would like to say, 'drink' and whether or not he's thirsty, he'll go and jump in that water, get nice and soaked, have a good lap and off we go.' When I teach my dogs to drink, I want that to be a strong association. I can adopt one method, get him by the ear, stick his head in the water and say 'drink', pull him out, say, `good dog, drink,' and push him in again. But I decided there might be an easier way. I decided to work him one day near home until he's quite thirsty (I don't mean work him until he's dehydrated or anything. Just give him a little bit of work so that in the morning you know he'll be looking for a drink.) and then put him in his pen at night with no water. In the morning, I'd open the door to his cage and walk down to the water tank and say, 'drink'. In he goes and has a drink. Now, do that twice and when you say 'drink', he will dive through a foot of ice to drink because it's a strong association."
By employing ways of associating commands with actions and setting up situations which will reinforce the commands, there is no need for excessive force which causes fear, according to McCallum. Timing is extremely important, also. "If a dog's chewing something, say the garden hose, most people come in the yard and they say, 'Get out of that, Rover!' The dog leaves the hose, he hears the voice so he gets up, turns to the fellow and then the man runs over, grabs the dog, chokes him and bats him on the nose with the chewed bit of hose. It's too late.
"Now, if I really want to dissuade him from chewing the hose, this is what I do: When I walk over to the gate the dog looks up at me, he's no longer chewing the hose. I shut the gate. I actually walk over as if I see something in the yard somewhere. That dog may pay attention to me another couple of seconds and then goes back to chewing the hose. When he's chewing and forgotten all about me, I get hold of his neck, 'Ahhh!'. The hose is still there, in his mouth. If the correction is worth doing, you're going to need to do that [set up situations so the timing is just right]. Nine times out of ten, you're not harshly correcting the dog because you think it will teach the dog something, you're doing it because you're angry with what the dog's done and teaching the dog doesn't usually come into it. All you're teaching him is to be frightened. So I always consider what the dog is learning as a result of what I'm doing."
McCallum points out commands given at the wrong time can create an incorrect association: "If you chain a dog to a position you're not teaching it to stay there. I mean, it hits the end of the chain and you say, 'stay there'. At the time you say 'stay there' every muscle is tight and pushing against that chain. So then, one day you put him down, take the chain off and the minute you say, 'stay there', off he goes.
"The biggest mistake I see here and in Australia occurs when people are telling their dogs to 'steady'. Do you know when they tell them to steady? This dog, never taught anything in his life, comes charging up on the stock and flies and hits the first one he comes at. 'STEADY! STEADY!' yells the trainer. The dog thinks, 'I've got this,' and grabs another one, chomp! tips that one over. So, on another day when things are not going along too badly but the trainer thinks, 'Oh, he's getting a little bit fiery!' he commands, 'Steady!' and the dog says, 'I got it!' and rushes at the stock." McCallum's way of teaching 'steady' is to wait until the pup has paused, then tell him `steady, steady'. The pup associates the command with the pause. McCallum sums up his way of training: "I don't make him do it -- that's the trick. When it happens, give it a name. Set up the association."
part one of two parts
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine June/July 1993