Reading Livestock

By February 17, 2015January 11th, 2018No Comments


by Orin Barnes

Many articles have been written about training dogs but no one has mentioned that the more knowledgeable stock person will become the better handler. Understanding the stock you are working will always give you the advantage of knowing where to put your dog to be more effective.

It is important to view the world in the livestock’s perspective. Having eyes on the sides of their head gives cattle and sheep 360 degrees of wide-angled vision without having to turn their head. Wide-angled vision is a survival tool for livestock. However, they have a blind spot directly behind them, and they have faulty depth perception. For example, cattle or sheep approaching a mud puddle will often slow down and put their head down to investigate what it is. If they can’t determine what’s in their way, their natural instinct is to either stop or turn away from it.

Understanding animal behavior is very important when working with livestock. Good handlers use angles and the distance between dog and animal to move them. If animals are used to range conditions, it takes less action by the dog and more distance between animal and dog to move livestock.

By being consciously aware of an animal’s flight zone, which is the distance between a dog and an animal before an animal will move, you might be pleasantly surprised at how easily animals can be moved and with a minimal amount of prodding. Placing your dog at the edge of the flight zone can determine in which direction the animal will move. If you take your dog out of the flight zone, the animal will stop.barnes_flightzoneimage

Flight zones encompass all of the animal (see illustration). With the animal’s shoulder being the point of balance, you can change the animal’s direction by moving the dog from the front to the shoulder point. This is the ideal way of moving livestock.
A good way to get animals moving down an alley or out of a pen is by allowing livestock to play follow the leader. There are always a couple of natural leaders in a group of cattle, sheep or hogs. Handlers should have the dog work on moving the leaders and letting the rest of the herd follow.

Another thing handlers should bear in mind is that livestock have a “herd mentality” and it’s common for an animal to become excited when they are alone, away from its herd. In this case, the animal’s flight zone is very small.

Some animals are generally stubborn by nature and won’t move without a little prodding, but by taking advantage of the flight zone, natural point of balance and follow the leader tactics, moving livestock can be less of a chore.
It’s easier to work stock by using their natural instincts to let them do anything they want to do – your way.

this article was first published in the October/November 1995 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine