STARTING THE STOCKDOG
An interview with Sherry Baker by Kay Spencer
For fifty years, Twin Oaks Australian Shepherds in Galt, California has provided ranchers and stockdog trialers with sound, stock-savvy using dogs. Although the founder of the kennel, Audrey Klarer, is still a large part of the operation, her daughter Sherry Baker has become one of the preemininent Aussie stockdog trainers in the country.
Sherry is the breeder, trainer, and handler of two ASCA Supreme Champion stockdogs, meaning a dog which won the National Stockdog Finals in all three categories of stock (cattle, sheep, and ducks) in the same year. One of these was Twin Oaks Kit Carson, who accumulated more finals championships in his career than any other dog in ASCA history. Twin Oaks has bred thirty-six Working Trial Champions, many of which were trained and titled by Sherry herself.
Sherry trains her own dogs, clients’ dogs, and gives herding lessons at her cattle and sheep ranch in Galt, California, as well as giving clinics all over the U.S. and in Europe. Over the years, she has developed an efficient system for training a stockdog, which maximizes both the dog’s working instincts and its responsiveness to the handler. She has found that, although her technique is designed for the upright, loose-eyed Aussie, it works very well for all stockdog breeds.
In this interview, Sherry focuses on the first year—selecting a puppy, exposing it correctly to stock, and when and how to start it.
I developed my style of starting dogs by having a lot of Aussies to learn on, and it really works for getting the most out of an Aussie—but it’s not just for Aussies. You can train all breeds with this technique. God created dogs to work on their feet, not on their bellies. If you develop their ability to control their own stock, but insist they do it in a manner that’s healthy for the stock, they’re going to retain their keenness to outthink their stock.
It’s kind of like the difference between a cutting horse and a reining horse. A reining horse has a lot of cow in him and make his turns on his own, but you’re helping him all the time with the use of the reins. With a cutting horse, he gets corrected if he isn’t making the decisions on his own. I train my dogs like cutting horses—if I have to step in and do their job, that’s a correction. But if I do need to step in and take control, I want him to be supple and easy to rein like the reining horse.
Now, there are dogs you have to help, kootchy-koo along and build their confidence—that isn’t the kind of dog I myself prefer, but I have handled other people’s dogs like that, people who need a somewhat slower-thinking dog that has to be nurtured along a bit, until he can think more sharply about his livestock.
An Aussie is not a hard dog to train. When you start a good, keen dog, you don’t have to do a lot of work. I don’t, anyhow. I can read the stock and the dog can read the stock, we can read them together just that quick—and you can see that (talent) in a young dog. There is the element of practical experience; as a trainer I’m exposing this young dog to something I’ve seen a thousand times over, seeing how he’s going to react to it. A keen young dog, he might make a mistake but he will self-correct and you can see this right off. If you’re in the right position and you know how to handle a dog, where to step so that his instincts click, those points come out.
I’m always gearing a dog to cattle; it’s the really smart dogs that can work cattle. Not every dog is a cow dog. He has to have courage, bite, and he has to have cow-sense, the bred-in instinct to not, say, run under a cow’s front end and get floor-matted. And how to read a cow, that’s a bred-in instinct. A really savvy dog, green or not, knows how to put the moves on a cow; you can see that from the beginning.
A dog that’s a little slower to think, maybe easier for a novice to handle, won’t be as ‘cow-doggy’, because a cow dog has to be a quick thinker. And the handler has to be up there too, thinking quick with the dog.
Most of my training ideas come out of training horses. I’ve been training horses since I was nine years old. That, and my mom (Audrey Klarer); I’ve learned so much about dog psychology from her. Horses learn the same way as dogs; it is all about timing. When you apply the positive and the negative to get your point across. A horse is a slave, he can’t reason, where a stockdog can reason. He can problem-solve. The better, smarter, keener the stockdog, the more he can reason. You show him one thing, and he’s got it, as long as you apply it to his job.
There are shortcuts in training. The easiest, quickest way to get your point across to a dog which is instinctive, is not let the mistakes happen. Let him have control of his stock, but in a situation you control. Build mileage and experience through stepping stones of gradually increasing difficulty, rather than let him do all the naughty stuff first, and then having to go back in and correct it, trying to undo bad habits.
PICKING A PUPPY
When I pick a puppy from a litter—if I get a chance to pick one—I’ve gotten a lot of leftovers and done quite well with them—I pick the one that picks me. If he picks me, we’ll get along, he’ll be willing to be biddable to me. The other way I pick is to take the frontrunner of the litter, the one who does everything first. Most of the time they will make the better cattle dogs, and I need a cattle dog first of all. Cattle are very smart and need a bold, courageous dog. All the other things are gambles.
EXPOSURE TO STOCK
At about four months my puppies start doing chores with me. I just want them big enough to where I don’t run over them with a tractor. They do the feeding with me and an older dog. They see the livestock from the other side of the fence, hang out watching other dogs being trained, until I see they’re wanting to do something with the stock.
At about five to six months, I will put them in the roundpen with some very gentle, pantleg-broke sheep. I never let a puppy just go in and play with the sheep. Instead, I’ll have the pup with me and start walking around the sheep with the pup to my outside. Usually I don’t have a lead on him at this age, I just try to get him to follow me, then get ahead of me. The first bounding spring he makes toward the stock, I want to be around it. I don’t ever want him to run to them, chase them and split them up. Dogs are creatures of habit. If the first time they are put to stock, the door straight to the stock is shut, and the door around them, left or right, is open, he’s going to start going in a circular motion.
So you are walking him around the stock until he gets courageous enough to want to get in front of them and turn them. The minute you feel that he is going to go around them, you start stepping back from the stock to encourage the puppy to circle all the way around the stock. As he circles I may back to the fence just to keep the sheep in front of me, or I’ll reach down with my hand and take hold of his face, and try to push him in the other direction. I don’t have a stick, just my hand. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just walk him in the other direction with him on the outside until he takes off and gets to head in that direction.
If he gets all the way around both ways once, that’s just great. If it lasts five minutes, that’s a miracle; usually I don’t even stay in that long. The idea is just to get a circle around each way. Then I don’t do anything for another month. I have never found training a puppy every day, or even every week, has gotten me any farther along than just waiting until he’s a year old and working him every day then, when he mentally can handle it. But I do play with them, and they keep doing the feeding with me.
So the next month I take him to the roundpen again. The pup will remember the last time, especially if I go about it just the same way as before, walking that circle around the stock with him on the outside. I might have a little drag rope on him at this point, so I can keep him by my side until I see he wants to circle past me and get to head; then I just let him go on and get to the head of the sheep. Then I change directions and go the other way. Next month I’ll bring him in again and I may apply the stick that time, if he’s more turned on.
A pup that is particularly mentally mature and well-focused for their age, it is possible to work them every week or two weeks. Some lines of any breed mature quicker—that’s a genetic trait that you can select for. Some dogs turn on later, but when they do, you have the whole dog, so to speak. Some dogs turn on so early that they are actually a nuisance. It doesn’t do any good to have a dog turn on really early; they’re too small to outrun most livestock anyhow. I do always breed from dogs that turn on pretty early, because you breed late ones to late ones, the pups will tend to turn on later too—you’ll start getting the dogs you sold guaranteed to work coming back, with the people saying ‘I’m still waiting!’
But all dogs go through puberty. I find that between eight and ten months, they can be really bitey. They don’t have enough confidence to get out wide and outrun their stock, so their idea is to run in tighter, grab and hold the sheep down like a cat does a mouse, for control. I see this in all breeds.
Four months to up to about seven months, that’s a good mental time for a pup. Nothing bothers them, they’re adventurous, they learn new things really well. Then, puberty sets in and things they’ve seen on a daily basis suddenly make them spooky. If they have a bad incident during this time, it will scar them for life. If you had a lack of patience on a day and take it out on your dog, he won’t ever forget it, because it happened at that sensitive stage, I call it the weenie stage. Usually this is somewhere around nine to eleven months old. That’s why I always require dogs I take in for training to be a year old. So I don’t have to worry about that. The year-old dog can be trained every day, and you can make a lot of progress quickly. You don’t get so many days like you do with a puppy where they’re just out to recess.
DUCKS AND PUPS
I never put young pups on ducks. Ducks die easily and they are pounced on easily. The pup has no training, doesn’t know anything about round circles. He looks cute running and chasing the ducks—he’s harmless, a little puppy who can’t possibly hurt them, but he’s learning all those bad habits like running straight at his stock, chasing not gathering, so when he gets fifty pounds older, he’s going to have those same habits but be a lot more dangerous. Then again, when a pup runs in on a duck and it flaps its wings, that stinging slap on a puppy’s nose can really freak him out.
I wait until the pup has at least sixty days of training on him before I take him to ducks. Then you have this nice, trained, round, supple dog. Ducks require finesse, and there is no way a pup is going to have that kind of finesse.
The first dog I ever trained with rights and lefts for trialing was Bear (Working Trial Champion and Hall of Fame Sire The Bear of Twin Oaks), and I did it with ducks, in a dog kennel! And the only way it was successful was that he was one great dog. He figured it out. But those ducks would hide in every little corner you could imagine. I don’t know how I ever managed it, now that I think back . . . it was an impossible task. I must have been really determined!
STARTING IN THE ROUNDPEN
A well-bred stockdog is like a petrified rock; they start off rough! With good training, it’s like polishing the rock: the dog learns to be in control, but you’ve labeled those natural tendencies, smoothed them out, then they become really polished and fancy. With a ranch dog, you may not worry about all those nice smooth round lines—but livestock like a circle! Circles control livestock. The dog circles until he’s got the heads pointed where you want them to go, and that’s where the dog pulls or pushes.
The purpose of the roundpen is to develop flexion, rate, and label the dog’s natural tendencies. If the dog decides he can outrun you, and not turn back, not stay on his side, you don’t have a five acre field to run across to stop him. A hard, pushy, bitey dog in an open area will learn he can get a certain distance from you and then dive in and take a hold, split, grab, and you won’t be able to get to him to correct him.
But the roundpen also keeps a softer dog in contact with their stock. A soft dog which won’t take pressure from you, can get so far out there in a big field, they lose all contact with their stock. With a soft dog which is not as turned on, instead of stepping forward around your stock and putting pressure on them, you have to back up and give ground, encouraging them to increase their own pressure on the stock. Any chance you can, step forward and get them to roll over their hocks, then back up again.
Harder dogs that want to go straight to the stock and grab and bite, you put a lot of pressure on them, building flexion to you and to the stock. When he puts too much pressure on the stock at the ‘top of the clock’, that is across from you, and pushing the stock through you, he gets a reaction—you come around the circle and push him out. Soon, he’ll start anticipating that and start squaring up his top and rating his stock.
If the handler’s always charging through the middle of the stock, instead of stepping to the side, left or right, depending on where the heads are going, then the dog never learns that it’s his responsibility to rate the stock. He’s just waiting for you to come through so he can dodge, come through to your side as you’re coming to his.
STAYING ON THEIR FEET
When you’re first starting young dogs, you’re dealing with a very intense, turned-on dog with a lot of adrenalin, who isn’t necessarily going to make the best decisions. They need to learn how to control that adrenalin, and you need to be in position to control the situation, to where he doesn’t learn to do bad habits. You should be pushing the dog out and around the heads of the stock, not downing him to control him. When you down a dog in the beginning all the time, he gets so wound up, he’s like a wound-up spring ready to uncoil; it’s hard to smooth him out. The Aussie is an upright, loose-eyed dog, so downing him for control is not the best way to start him. They will settle and gain more control of their stock by being on their feet and in motion.
You should never let him get behind you and ring the stock. You have to teach him that he has a side and you have a side, with the stock controlled between you. Same thing, if you charge through your stock at him—he gets to do a full circle, he’s not learning how to back off the stock and rate, and bring stock to you. Let the dog learn to read his stock—lighter stock take a bigger circle; with stickier, more difficult stock the dog will have to move in closer.
When he gets to a point of balance, instead of downing him, just change the focal point by pivoting and going the other way, whether you’re doing 45 degree turns or 180’s or 360’s. I use a long bamboo stick at the dog’s shoulder to push him out. The dog learns to be flexible to you, learns to roll over his hocks on his turns. You are just staying in balance with his natural working zone, which triggers his bred-in instincts, that tell him what is right to do. By staying in that zone, you don’t allow the development of flat spots, diving in and grabbing, and splitting and chasing stock. It lets him learn to rate the stock on his own, as they’re controlled between you and your dog.
It’s the dog’s job to control the livestock. It’s not my job to make that dog move with a bunch of commands. At the ranch I’ve got my own job to do! I don’t have time to tell him, oh, now you’re supposed to move and go get those head that are leaving. So if you stop a dog and drop him at a point of balance and let the stock drift off, you have to tell him to get up and go left or right, then stop him and let them drift again. The dog is being used in a mechanical way. I don’t drop and drift; I like my dogs on their feet and in contact with their stock.
GRADUATING FROM THE ROUNDPEN
There comes a time when you have all the pieces in place: he knows how to get out when you apply pressure, he knows that if he dives in and takes a hold there’ll be repercussions, he knows how to stop, rate, stay, and down, you’ve put all these commands on in the roundpen. Then, when you get out in the open, you have all these tools, and you can start adding lighter, more difficult stock, , harder jobs, and build distance on your young dog But you always have this understanding with the dog from your work in the roundpen. I usually stay in the roundpen twelve days.
Stockdog trialing has become a sport. Lots of people out there who don’t have ranches, who have a hobby group of stock in their yard, or no stock at all and go someplace else to work, they are really at a disadvantage. These dogs are bred to work, to do a job. A trial is not a job. Dogs know the difference between a job with a purpose and just going around doing the same obstacles over and over. When you train for a trial you’re always nitpicking your dog to be better. They never get done; they never get the carrot! Pretty soon the dog starts quitting on you because you’re always nitpicking him.
In ranch work, you have a days’ work to do. One job might not look pretty but it gets done and you go to the next one. The dog learns through his mistakes how to save making that mistake in the future, moving on to new things and not dwelling on what he did wrong.
USE OF “THERE”
I have taught the stay before I teach THERE. I have a precise way I apply the command THERE, starting in the roundpen, where the dog learns to turn in when he has gotten to head by turning the heads to you, and then pulling to you while rating the stock. It is important to first develop the sharp turn-in when getting to head, and then let the dog bring them after he/she is willing to rate the pull at a walk. This takes more squaring him up on the top, having him give ground on his side so that he is rating the circle on his side by doing lots of 45 degree (or bigger if needed) pivots till he is respecting the top. Then let him turn in on THERE and pull at a walk while you are walking backwards in a very straight line.
I don¹t introduce THERE for the first week or so, because I want to build the rate on the top first, and the understanding he has a side and I have a side. I want flexion before I ever ask him to bring the stock to me. Doesn¹t do any good to turn your dog in on THERE if he does a bugle charge, blasting the stock through you and taking off with your stock. Kind of hard to think of left and right in that situation. And most times, if you start running your stock, they’re going to start splitting up.
USE OF THE STICK
I use a stick all the time for training. But I don’t steer the dog with it. It’s there to keep the dog out, and when the dog flattens his corners it’s there to square them up, it’s there to block him if I ask him to go in a specific direction and he goes the wrong way, but it’s not used for ‘stick herding’. For instance, every time you want the dog to flank the other way you block them with the stick. All my training is constructed the same way: verbal first, then the stick to back it up if I need it. That way the dog never looks at you for directions.
I want my dogs always to be watching their stock, not looking at me. A lot of people use a stick wrong, using it as a reprimand, using it to guard their stock from the dog. That will get your dog barking at you, barking at the stick, charging the stock because they feel you’re guarding it. Never guard your stock. Dare and trust your dog, all in the same breath. You’ll find your dog’s attitude will change.
I use the stick just as a backup for my verbal commands. I say the command, and if I don’t get a reaction—I do give him a chance to be late and think, uh oh, I’m losing them—but then I’m following through on my verbal command, using my stick to get a sharp reaction.
Now a dog that’s soft, easy to turn off the stock, I don’t apply it that way. I’d give that dog lots of time, and build his confidence. Maybe a little ‘ah-ah’ is all he could take. But some dogs, the verbal and the stick are almost together, because they’re really tough, pushy dogs. You have to read your dog and adjust.
COMMON NOVICE ERRORS
The biggest mistake I see with novices is that they don’t understand that the point of the dog’s circle in the roundpen is to let the dog get to head and bring the stock. They just chop the dog off with the stick wherever, when they decide to go the other way, before the dog has gotten to head and gotten control. A heading dog will automatically switch directions when he knows he has gotten to head. It’s an instinct, to switch and go control the other side of the stock. Most green handlers, they think, okay, circle the dog around, the dog’s faster than they are, so they just stick their arm or their stick out and block the dog, tell him to go the other way, right while he’s in the act of trying to get to head. That right there will make a dog short or one-sided.
Another common novice mistake is to leave the roundpen way too soon, start backing up (in an open field) and letting the dog just run sheep at them, without first building flexion and rate at the top. So, with a dog that’s not been let to get to head, and not been taught to flex to the handler and rate, you’ve got a pretty pushy, wild, no-focal-point type dog, with flat spots, that’ll dive in and grab, or split the stock. Biting stock, barking at the handler, biting at the stick, are all signs of that kind of handling.
Dogs that lack instinct, that are soft, (that kind of handling will get them) eating poop, eating grass, being bored, lacking intent, because they don’t feel in control of their livestock.
A dog that hasn’t been taught to roll over on his hocks on his flanks, taking the pressure off, will start looping his turns, pushing the stock into you. Now you have a dog who’s pushing you around. Saying, ‘go on, back up, move faster!’ Instead, you want a dog which rates the stock to your pace.
And then the final thing green handlers lack is their dog’s respect. Without respect, the dog argues, and they run all over you. This isn’t an Aussie thing, it’s about the owner. A lot of dogs raised in the house don’t respect their handlers. A stockdog needs to be treated as a work partner, not like your mother. You’re the captain and he takes orders from you. That’s it. Otherwise he’s going to start giving you orders. When you’re away from stock and you tell your dog to do something, do you try to talk them into it, or is it: no, do it now? Like down, for instance, should be an absolute down, first time. Sure, puppies can be coaxed into it with a treat, but an older dog should be sharp and snappy at it.
TRAINING ON CATTLE
When you are starting a dog on cattle, if you don’t have sheep around, it’s nice to have some kind of handle on your dog, like a solid down, so you can keep him from diving in and getting clobbered right off the bat. It’s good to have a broke dog with you to move the cattle off the fence or out of corners, and control them while the young dog is learning. If you don’t have those things, use a feedlot area, maybe 100’ x 100’ is good—or whatever you can find. Young, feeder-size cattle are the best. Don’t use mama cows or bulls.
It would be nice too, to use gentle, slow-moving-type cattle that aren’t scared to death of you, the handler, if you’re on foot. If they’re on the fence line and you can’t get them off, you would use the stick (to get them off). No dragging rope, no chain collar on your young dog, it’s too dangerous. You don’t want anything to get tangled up in the cattle and break the dog’s neck.
Ideally you want dog-broke cattle, but some folks aren’t going to have that. But the idea is, you want to set things up so the fewest mistakes happen in the beginning as possible. If you send a green, unsure dog to fetch cattle that are splitting and trying to run through him, the dog is going to think he failed, that it’s not possible to do what you asked him because he couldn’t get the job done. Cattle don’t just turn because you tell them to turn. You have to make them turn. A dog doesn’t go up to cattle and ask them to move, he has to tell them to move. That’s what makes the Aussie such a good cow dog: he says move.
Try to do some half-moons on the fence. In other words, flanking the dog to the inside of the field and around you, and having him stop the stock as it runs down the fence line. Then, as he turns it around, flank him to the inside again, and send him on a half moon to the head and stop them the other way. So he gets a little used to you maneuvering him with a stick, that when you block him he goes around the other way. Having the fence helps him stop the stock.
If any time the stock decides to come off the fence, then you can let your dog get around them and bring them. But having a green dog try to get cattle off a fence can be dangerous or a wreck and he can get really mashed and kicked in there. That’s where working with an older, experienced dog can really help him pull them off fences and out of corners so he can get around them. Those are things I teach later.
If you can start with sheep in the roundpen, you can teach those fundamentals, and apply that on the cattle. I train dogs all the time that are just going to see cattle. I put about twenty days of sheep on them first thing. So when you go to cattle, you have enough handle that you can keep them out of trouble. You can keep them from getting mashed, crashed, crippled or run over, and you can keep building up his confidence, instead of him feeling oh, I can’t do it, they’re getting away, this is impossible.
But it depends on the dog, too. If he’s a real pushy, hard dog, I might do it differently. The least amount of time on sheep I ever put on a dog was four days in the roundpen. That was an extreme dog; he was very pushy and confident—he was only eight months old and he had so much force and power that I was constantly badgering him just to save the sheep, there wasn’t anything positive in it. So I went to the cattle, and that was positive, until he got too pushy and bitey with them too. So we went back to the sheep, to build flexion again. We went back and forth, flexion, negative, positive, until it balanced itself out.
But generally, I spend twelve days in the roundpen. I like to spend at least a week out of the roundpen in the field, with the sheep, and then I can go to the cattle. If that dog will not down-stay when I walk away to send him to something, I won’t put him on cattle. If he keeps running into the stick when I block him from going the wrong direction, I won’t put him on cattle. Because it’s too hard, when he’s still making those kind of mistakes, to fix things when he’s working cattle because you can’t get at the dog. It’s hard to run through the stock, the cattle get spooked, the dog is out of sight because he can’t see you over the cattle, and it teaches him that he can get away with things.
Some dogs are real flexible and biddable, and you can teach those things quickly. Other dogs are hard, and constantly keep trying you, so you leave them a little longer on sheep, so they have the good obedient habits of listening to you and minding you before you go to cattle.
Sometimes a dog that won’t get to head on sheep, it helps to put them on cattle. Because they really have to get to head on cattle; sheep kind of float as a group more.
The real working-bred Aussies do really well sharing between the two, sheep and cattle. Learning cattle will help them with sheep and vice-versa. Working cattle only, you can get a really pushy dog that doesn’t have finesse, doesn’t know how to break off his stock and get farther off. And sometimes with cattle in a big area it’s nice to have that—a dog that can kick way out and adjust things rather than always mashing them around.
This method works. It doesn’t just work for me. My sixty-day dogs don’t forget their training, because they know how to handle their livestock. They can get rusty for lack of work but will come right back to where they were left off. It’s not “obedience with stock”; you don’t have to have this great handling technique of controlling the dog.
My purpose in doing this interview is not so much to help the handlers. It’s that there are so many Aussies out there that could have been great dogs, if they had only been allowed to work the way an Aussie should be allowed to—in control of their stock themselves. So that’s why I’m doing this interview. I’m doing it for the dogs.
this article was first published in Stockdogs Magazine May/June 2005