Interview with Gary Ericsson from Salmon, Idaho


This interview took place in 1988.  At the time of the CenTex Futurity in Richmond, Texas.  Gary, with his two blue merle dogs, Blue and Lady, won top money in sheep and cattle as well as high combined.  His dogs worked with a gentle, wide-sweeping motion.  That along with instant obedience was an unbeatable combination and a pleasure to watch. – Dana Mackenzie

From Gary:

I have raised Australian Shepherds for 26 years.  However, serious training started a little over two years ago following my attendance at a Border Collie Field Trial.  The trial made me realize we had just scratched the surface (maybe .01%) of our dogs’ capabilities.  About all most ranchers do with their dogs is drive or send them out to the side of the herd after a break-away.  The dog then runs and nips the animal until it returns to the group.  I now know one good stock dog can easily take the place of three men in gathering, holding and sorting stock.  Anyway, after that first trial three and a half years ago, I got my first Border Collies to go with my Aussies.  Of course the “How To Train” question came up.  I then attended numerous Border Collie clinics picking up training tips from Scottish and Irish experts etc.

I believe Aussies are probably the best all around breed in the world.  They aren’t as stylish as the Border Collie and may never be, but we’re working to get it that way.  An Aussie will guard your place, play with the kids, take care of your family and darn sure work your stock if you breed them right.  We raise and train stock dogs for a living and the Australian Shepherd has earned his place with us.

I work my Aussies the same way I work my Border Collies, expecting them to get out wide and make an outrun just as good as my Borders.  When I tell them to “get back out” I expect them to get back out and and right now.  The only thing I don’t demand from my Aussies is that they “down” with their heads flat on the ground.  An Aussie is built different.  That move is very difficult for him to make.  He must get his feet and legs back to get his head flat

Many people think there is an Aussie style and a Border style and that the same training should not be used for both.  In my opinion that is a mistake.  a stock dog is a stock dog.  No dog will function effectively if he overcrowds the stock.  A dog is not a stock dog if he is out wetting on the fence instead of paying attention to his stock.  It doesn’t matter if the dog is a Poodle, Great Dane, Aussie or Border Collie.  He must pay attention to his stock to be a stock dog.  We will not end up with a poor imitation of a Border Collie.  The Aussie will still retain his desirable characteristics and be a better working dog to boot.

The dog Blue I am working today is for sale (asking price $3,500).  I have a better one at home a littermate.  He isn’t trained as well yet but I believe his potential is greater and he works lower.  But you can only keep so many male dogs.  I don’t sell until I have a better replacement.

We never keep a pup for breeding purposes if it doesn’t go to work by the time it is three months old.  Most dogs will go to work sometime in their life but who wants to wait two years to find out if he has something or not?  You really can’t do much training on a young pup at this age.  We might let them in around gentle sheep when we feed or let them play with the ducks.  We only insist on the presence of “desire” at that early age.  I do sell pups to people who have them fetching sheep and taking directions at four months, but that’s awfully young.  You waste a lot of time training on a puppy because one day they remember and the next day forget etc.  Pups must be played with when they are young and we’ve hit on the perfect solution.  I try to farm out my pups which we are keeping with families when they are young, then get them back when they are ready to train.  Scouting kids working on merit badges are ideal.  I furnish the feed and kennel and the kid teaches the pup to down, lead etc.  It is hard for the kids to give up the puppy when the time comes but lots of them have to as they live where they can’t keep an adult dog.  The system does work out well for all concerned.  It doesn’t cost the kid anything, they have fun and depending on how well they do, I give them 20 or 30 dollars when I pick up the pup.  The ideal time to get the pup back is at five or six months of age.   I started my Futurity pups then but had to lay off because of outside dogs and to concentrate on the dog that was high in trial with a sheep run at the Nationals.   It was my first Nationals and I wanted to do good.  I started training My Futurity dogs in October along with Roy Sage’s two dogs.  Roy took his over for the last two months.  Concentrated training began the last three or four weeks and luckily it paid off.

I usually have 8 to 10 outside dogs to train plus two of my own.  A dog requires different training than a horse,  Ten to fifteen minutes two or three times a day is enough training for a dog.  When you are finished you can put him in a run and not worry about cooling him off etc.  Around our place most of the posts have chains and swivels attached.  Sometimes we have 18 to 20 dogs tied up along the fence.  We don’t believe in letting our dogs bark.  You can imagine the bedlam of 40 dogs barking at once.  The neighbors dogs run up and down the fence barking, ours don’t.  Visitors are also expected to keep their dogs quiet.  To train our dogs not to bark we use a BB gun which we use to shoot the side of their dog kennels, sometimes the dog.  A noise or sting does the job, then all it takes to stop the barking is the sight of the gun or noise the BBs make.  Not a powerful gun, of course, we want no injuries and only use it on adult dogs.

My training fee is $250 for the first month then $200 for each additional month.  We only take your dog for two weeks for $125 to start.  If he goes to work we’ll keep him.  If not, there is no sense in wasting your money or my time.  I do the training and limit myself to no more that 12 dogs at a time, which is 10 outside dogs and 2 of mine.  Outside dogs always get worked.  Sometimes my own get pushed aside for a few days.  We’re up early and try to get the pens cleaned and the dogs fed and watered before the kids go to school.  We’ll chain 6 to 8 dogs (Starting) along the fence then take the more advanced dogs to sort out the stock and pen them separately.  Cull ewes are ideal for our purposes.  I then take a pup and move the sheep to the field we’re going to work in.  That might be enough training for that pup for that day.  Older dogs are worked once a day.  Pups are worked two or three up to four or five times a day depending on if I’m trying to get something across to them.  My training methods are not “The” training methods.  They are a composite of many books, people and experiences.  So far these methods have worked very well for me.  I’m always ready to modify and change as better ideas come along.  Every person I see trial teaches me something.  Anyway, in training the most important first step is keeping the dog on the opposite side of the stock from yourself.  Tap the cane on the ground to stop him from coming around to your side of the stock.  We want the dog to understand that the STOCK BELONGS TO US not him.  If the dog gets between us and the stock the stock belongs to the dog.  He can take them and do anything with them he wants-run them, bite them, get in among them etc.  The dog must understand the concept of the stock belonging to the handler.  He must understand that he is only permitted to work the stock when it pleases us.  If the dog is real hard headed and won’t go to the other side of the stock, kick up some dust and move him around.  I occasionally touch one with a cane pole, especially when they come and grab ahold.  I never tell the dog “No”, using instead a “Ah, Ah” sound and pushing him back out.  Always follow this through with praise, “Good Dog, Good Dog”.  Remember give TWICE AS MUCH PRASE AS CUSSING.  No is an absolute and is used, for example, when a dog goes for a horse (Something that is never permitted).  Imagine what would happen if your dog heeled your saddle horse with you on board!

I only start using the “Down” after the dog is hooked on the stock.  “Down” is taught away from the stock.  Use the command “Down” then pull the dog down and forward with your foot on the leash.  If he tries to get up I use a rolled up newspaper to tap him on the top of his head again saying “Down”.  It doesn’t hurt him but really gets his attention.  This is taught away from stock because everything concerning stock should be pleasant.  The exception to this is discipline for grabbing.  I am now working on a whisper “Down”.

Now you have your dog on the opposite side of the stock from yourself.  Push him out away from the stock.  Always praise him as soon as he gets back out so that he understands that the scolding was for being too close or unnecessarily gripping, not for working the stock.  This gives the stock breathing room.  To move a pup out drag a cane between the stock and the dog.  I throw a piece of rubber hose at an older dog to move him out.  If the dog refuses to back out, leave the stock and back him around the arena.  Remember to give lots of praise when he does what you ask even if it is only in little pieces.  Just work stock at this point.  To stop the dog when he is real eager to work get between the dog and the stock.  Use your “Down” if you have one on your dog.  Walk through your stock letting them drift into a corner.  Let the dog drag a 30 or 40 foot string so you can stop him at any time.  I want to be standing on the string when I say “That’ll Do, Come to Me” because I don’t want to give the dog an opportunity to refuse.

I teach the drive when the pup is fetching good and taking side commands.  Here’s how:  Start fetching on a fence line.  Gradually move out toward the center keeping your dog in position behind the stock by “Downing” him when he tries to bring the stock off the fence to you.  Your commands are “Come, Come-Come, Come By or Come Away To Me”.  It sometimes helps to have a long line on your pup.  One hundred feet isn’t too much when teaching the drive.  That way when something breaks away and he runs to get ahead of the stock I can get an instant “Down”.  I usually use 3 to 20 head of sheep.  Sheep are better to use than cattle because you can see your dog.  You also can’t walk as close to cattle safely.  Sometimes the dog just can’t stand being off balance behind the stock and swings between the stock and fence.  I use the release command “That’ll Do” then “Come” to bring him toward me in the center of the pen and off of the fence.  “That’ll Do” is also used for example, after I’ve asked him to “Get Ahold”, for an instant release.  You can say “Down” then “Stay” when the dog is behind the stock on the fence and you are in the middle of the practice arena.  But when you are driving to your left along a fence only say “Come By” just imaging what your dog is thinking, “Surely he means ‘Away To Me’ to hit the balance point!  That’s only three steps away on the fence.  Surely he doesn’t want me to go all………. the way around!”  This is where “That’ll Do” comes in handy.  “That’ll Do-Come, Come By” releases then requests motion.  When the correct position is reached “There” is the command to stop and face the stock.  If your dog just can’t stand the off balance position and whips between the stock and fence, don’t scold him.  He thinks he’s done something great.  Calmly start over.

The command “There” sets the boundaries.  I use it in early puppy training.  The pup will zig zag after his sheep at first due to over wearing.  If you want him to narrow his wear pattern use “There” at the outer limits of his wear.  You can place his pattern as you wish.  If the pup comes on to his stock too fast to fetch or drive just “Down” him.  The word “Easy” doesn’t work well on dogs for some reason.  “Steady” is much better.  Use “Steady-Down” then “Walk on, Steady-Down”.  If “Down” always follows “Steady” your dog will learn to just creep along in anticipation of the “Down”.  Take a pup and by the time you get from one end of the arena to the other he will be creeping along, one foot down every 20 seconds or so!  You can keep your dog off stock this way.  Barking dogs create pressure and only cause a fight.  It is the slow, wide going dog that is usually successful.

Remember somedays training is good and somedays bad.  Ben Means says, “one thing he’s learned after 20 years of training is to never pack a gun”!  I try to never get on to a puppy  If he’s driving me nuts I pet him and go put him up.   an older dog that knows what I want is different.  I might pick him up and shake him.  I never throw or hit a dog.  Also, I always put my hands on a dog before I let him go after punishment.  That way he doesn’t think he’s run off and escaped punishment.  It’s the same with kids.  If you spank one you don’t throw him out and tell him you never want to see him again.  You hold him and tell him you love him and explain that you can’t tolerate that particular behavior.  You have to Praise-Praise to keep your puppy happy and wanting to work.  Talk to your dog.  If you don’t when you give a signal or command, the dog will have his mind elsewhere and the command won’t yield an instant response.  You must keep your pup’s attention and the lines of communication open.

When I finish a dog out, I remove all wings from the chute and narrow the opening to two feet.  A six by six foot box with a two foot opening to move sheep and cattle through works well.  The dog learns to take minor position adjustments such as “Away To Me” then “Down” moving only one or two feet.  Any dog can learn the “Back Out” command.

Dogs can be taught almost anything.  Blue loads and unloads a trailer in the pasture.  I even know a guy who has his dogs trained to open and close gates, even the trailer gate.  They also go and get his saddle horse.  The more new things you teach, the better the dog will get on the old things.  It all improves communication.

If a dog is timid, take it into the house.  A pup that’s been picked on by all the other pups can change overnight with house treatment.  He thinks, “Boy, I’ve got BIG support behind me”.  A pup that is a little bit timid or shy with me gets house and petting treatments.  The next day he’ll work his heart out for you.

There’s another iron clad rule of training and working stock dogs, ALWAYS GO IN AND HELP YOUR DOG WHEN HE’S AFRAID OR IN TROUBLE.

We have a strain of dogs going out of a couple of bitches that are just fantastic.  By the time they are four months old they are taking side commands, doing a “walk up”. “Steady” and “Down”.  I never put a pup on rough cattle until  it can outrun them.  My Futurity bitch, Lady, is expecting her second litter next month.  She’s a little tender and has some trouble with rough stock.  She fell out of the dog trailer as a pup and was missing for several days.  She was a tough pup before hand but when I got her back she was really traumatized.  I bred her young hoping it would help her and it did.  As she was, I couldn’t have worked with her.  Lady had some tremendous pups in her first litter.  She still slinks around when we’re working and I have to be extra kind to her.  If she had started out that way she would have never  made our brood band.

I charge $300 for a weanling pup and currently have an 108 dog waiting list for pups, started and trained dogs.  That’s pretty good.  We keep seven Border Collie  bitches and four or five Aussie bitches bred all the time.  My wife and kids help with the pups.

As I said before I really like my Aussies.  They’ve earned their way with us.  They are a wonderful, all around breed. I would like to have a hand in improving and training our trainers and breed.   Personally I want to reach the stage where I can be competitive in Border Collie trials with our Australian Shepherds not to the sneak-by point but to the consistent winners spot.

From Dana Mackenzie:  

I spoke to Gary again after he had won the Futurity and this was his comment, “We lucked out.  It was the best bunch of dogs I’ve ever competed against at any trial.  It was fun.  And I so much enjoyed meeting all you nice stock dog people down here in Texas.  We want to thank you for your great hospitality!”