Developing a Thinking Dog…

A homesteader / farmer / small rancher came with his Aussie the other day. The dog was nice and talented. We talked about his goals and I learned he had 30 head of sheep and needed the dog to help him out. The lesson then changed very quickly. He has no intention of trialing. He needs help. His sheep have stopped adhering the the bucket method and things were getting real.

So knowing I had the opportunity to help train a working Aussie, not a trial dog, got me excited. I knew I had to accelerate our learning for 2 reasons: 1) The obvious, he needed help soon. 2) I only had 2 more days of training before summer break.

I wasn’t worried. This is where our dogs shine and things get to move more quickly when the need is real. I normally hold dogs off a little to get adrenaline control and mind right. This dog really clicked in and showed he was willing to work with us and not for himself. He was lower on the adrenaline scale, once we removed the leash (a conversation for another day). We worked out in the big arena straight away and got him to grouping and fetching. We didn’t have time to work on outruns, but that is on the schedule for next week.

Knowing I had to give him enough information to get him through the summer so he could start working his dog and getting him to help around the place made me choose my words wisely. Too many words and he wouldn’t retain them. Too much instruction and it wouldn’t stick. I thought about the most important things my dogs do for me every day. I had to boil it down to the imperatives. I thought about how I use my dogs the most and what they do the best and decided on this approach:

Two Commands

If I had only two commands I could use, I would use a stop command (down, sit, stand, etc) and “Get Back.” My “Get Back” means go and get behind the stock and bring them to me. That’s it. If I can get a dog reliably fetching to me, I have a very useful dog. If my dog will get behind the stock and bring them to me in a straight line without over flanking , with nice rate, I can do almost anything with them. I can then position myself to load a trailer, move down an alley, get stock in a pen, go through gates. A truly useful dog.

Sometimes we get so into adding commands that we don’t ever shut up. From the moment we start training until the moment we end, there is an endless volley of whistles and commands and yelling. The dogs develop terrible habits like looking back to the handler constantly, not covering their stock, and generally not thinking.

My most proud moments with my dog have all come because I encourage thinking. Even to winning cattle finals in 2022. I was very ill going into our final round, very ill. And when I walked in, I was talking to Copper. I told him, “It’s all on you buddy. You have nothing to prove to me.” And he ended up laying down a spectacular run, penning all 5 head of cattle mostly on his own. I was holding my side, but the cattle forced me to be far away from the pen. He knew the job. When we get close to a pen, my command is “Watch ‘Em” and then he takes over and does the job. I don’t do a lot of inputting most of the time.

We recently trialed on ducks and Copper laid down a nice FAST run. The ducks weren’t flying around the course, but they were moving quickly. I left the the course and asked about the time. Fifty-one seconds! That was our fastest course time to date. He is not known for being a fast trialing dog. But no way did I have time to give commands. Too fast for me. He knew the job. He was allowed to think and I helped him with my body language and positioning. He penned the duck so fast, all I had time to do was open the pen and move out of the way.

He has done some ingenious work in the pasture, figuring out ridiculous challenges on his own because his mind is freed up and he knows the job and his instinct was developed. There have been no witnesses besides myself to the most spectacular work he has done on the ranch.

Those of us who work Aussies all know their genius is the thinking game. I love the trial game, there’s no doubt about it. But our dogs love the ranching and farming game best of all. When you are really in sync with a good dog, commands cease to exist. The dog knows what we are doing. You know what you are doing and you both put it together like a well-oiled machine. I recently hired a farm hand. She was new and watched me and Copper sort and load out a couple of trailers of cattle. Her comment was, “He is worth at least two guys.” The other day she was putting out minerals for the sheep and they crammed her in the corner thinking she was feeding them. She called me, “Send Copper here to help please.” She learned pretty quickly who the best helper on the place ends up being.

I talk and write a lot about Copper, because he is very special to me, but Flynn and Ranger and even little Zip can do similar work here. The youngsters coming along are learning in this natural way as well. Bliss and Rose got to work pens the last session.

I learned from the best, Dana Mackenzie and the work she does with her dogs makes sense to them. They work as a team to get jobs done. Her dogs do phenomenal work on her ranch. They learn without much effort and that’s how I was raised up to train these guys.

When we are out of the arena, the most common command I use with my dogs is “Get Back.” They eagerly head out looking for their charges and I get the gates or pens or whatever we are doing ready. I will shape their out runs in this work as well. I just don’t add flank commands very early on.

My obsession is that the dogs become obsessed with controlling the livestock and holding them together.

My Prescription for a Thinking Dog

Lately, I have people coming with some micromanaged dogs. Trialing is the goal and the dogs know their inside flanks and they know their directions and they know how to drive, but they have other issues like:

  • They don’t know how to control the livestock / cover the heads
  • They look back to the handler for constant input
  • They can’t pen because they don’t really understand the movement of the stock
  • They lose one or cut one off and don’t feel the urgency to bring it back

This prescription can work for these dogs as well as beginners. Here’s the Game:

You are limited to Two Commands and a Correction. Only use a “Get Back” or “Bring ‘Em” or whatever. I don’t care what words you use, but the command means go to the back of the sheep or cattle or ducks or whatever and bring them back in a straight line at a reasonable pace. That means no over flanking. No pushing too hard. Stay off far enough to avoid splits and to be able to see the whole group.

The other command is the stop command. Down, Stand, Sit, Stop, whatever. Means simply stop moving.

You will make corrections, but not with a flank. The goal of this exercise is the teach the dog to take control and responsibility over the livestock. The dog needs to learn to read his stock WITHOUT your input. Use only correction words, like “Hey” or “UH-uh” or “eh” or a growl or the like. You don’t want to tell them every thing to do. They need to figure it out. If you are telling them everything they turn their brain over to you and then they lose.

You need to learn to stop making so many inputs and moving your body to help your dog. You will learn to read the livestock and figure out how to pen and work alleys and load trailers only using the Two Commands! Work panels and obstacles this way as well. Going back to a beginner stage and placements will help you remember the purity of this work.

You are allowed to make verbal or physical corrections (when I say physical- I mean, move your hands or the stick or the flag or simply change your position.

You are correcting for over flanking- use a stick or a flag or better yet your hands to start. Then just a corrective word or growl. You will correct for not rating and pushing too hard. You can still shape your outruns, but no flanks. Just “Get Back.” The goal is for the dog to understand fetching is a straight line at a reasonable speed.

You are correcting for incorrect rating. Use your body to slow them down. Walk through the stock to get the dog to back off.

You are correcting for splitting or as I call it “Drifting” where the stock drifts away and the dog doesn’t go get it and bring it back.

Make it a game. Once the fetching is coming along, make it harder. Send them around corners, don’t use flanks to correct them. Get the dog to thinking. Use your body to help them out. Increase the level of the challenge until the dog is really thinking and able to solve problems on their own. Here’s the link to one of those challenges. I sent him on a “Look Back” (which is what I use when he can’t see the stock and he has to go look for them. And it looks like he is going back and forth a bit, but that’s because there are several rows of pens back there and he was bringing them around through the maze. At one point one of the gate shut and he couldn’t get them to me, so I stopped the video and went to help him, but I had just rounded the corner and he figured out how to push open the gate and get them back. That is the kind of task I want you to try to accomplish with your thinking dog.

Don’t make it too hard right away. Get the mechanics of control of livestock down and then the straight lines and then add the challenges. It is kind of going back to the beginning, but once you get this figured out, you will go back to the driving and the flanking, but if you BOTH learned through this exercise you will have a much smarter dog- IF you choose to use it.

Challenge yourself for 30 days to build a thinking dog. Let me know how it goes! Keep it simple and pure. Embrace the experience and tell me what you learn. I think you will like it.