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by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor

hartnagle_lr_bonnykyleWorking cattle effectively requires an understanding of bovine behavior. Fifty years ago, the men and women who worked with stock still lived on the land. They were for the most part themselves a simple people familiar with the nature and behavior of animals. Today, most people come from urban, man-made environments. City people are often unfamiliar with farm animals and the land. Before the era of hobby herding, people acquired a dog to work their stock. Nowadays, people buy or lease stock to train their dog.

People who don’t have practical experience with livestock have a more difficult time reading them. Articles and books serve as a foundation of knowledge, but experiential learning is necessary for total comprehension.

Becoming Acquainted with Cows

To get a feel for cows, an understanding how they think and move takes a little practice. Work them on foot without your dog. First, work a single head in a round pen, then two or three. Walk behind the shoulder towards the cow’s hip to set the animal in motion. Move into the shoulder to observe how it drives the animal forward. When you step further towards the head you can see how it causes the animal to stop or change directions. Some cows may require a little more pressure (a closer working distance or bolder approach) before they budge.

You can also learn a lot about the social structure at feeding time. Dominance is determined by size and forcefulness. Cows higher in the pecking order eat first. The dominant or boss cows push subordinate herd members out of their way to get to feed and water.hartnagle_lr_loreal

When you are working a herd, perhaps trying to pen them or put them through a narrow opening, nudging low-ranking herd members at the rear of a bunch isn’t going to force the more dominant cows move ahead. What it will do is cause them to spill around the sides or break back.

The more you understand basic cow psychology, the better you’ll be able to recognize why cows do what they do. Something as insignificant as sun reflecting off a pair of sunglasses can spook cows or cause them to balk. When one cow balks, that influences the adjacent animals as well. This is known as allelomimetic behavior. In other words, they do the same thing as the neighboring animals do.

Types of Cattle

There are basically two species of cattle: Bos taurus, from which the British and continental European breeds were derived, also called Taurine cattle, and Bos indicus or Zebu, the ones with the hump over their shoulder, also known as ear cows because of their commonly longer droopier ears. Bos indicus breeds, such as Brahman and Brahman crosses, are more comfortable in hot weather, and do not seek shade as readily as the European breeds. British breeds tend to be calmer than either ear cattle or continental European breeds. The two basic species can be and often are interbred.

Breeds of cattle are further classified as either beef or dairy. The main difference between in working with beef cattle and dairy cows may be explained by differences in general handling practices. Dairy cows are handled frequently so they are fairly tame, however, they can become quite agitated if they aren’t handled quietly. Beef cattle are generally handled less often, so they have an increased flight distance (the closeness a dog or human can get to an animal before it moves away or turns to defend itself).

Cattle behavior

Understanding how bovines act in a natural environment is important to applying good stockmanship. Cows are herd animals. As herd animals, they graze and travel as a unit. Cows maintain visual contact with each other. They are also prey animals, so being in a group protects them from danger. A singled-out cow will tend to be agitated and want to get back to the safety of the group. Cattle are comfortable in familiar environments. When you change their location you alter their comfort level, so they will be more nervous.

Along with sheep and goats, cattle are ruminants, which means they digest their food in two stages. First, they eat raw plant matter, and then later, regurgitate the partially digested fodder, also known as cud, to further chew it. Normally, they graze in the early morning and again in the evening, while in the middle of the day they’ll mostly be resting and chewing their cud.

In rainy weather, cattle may seek shelter such as from a tree or lean- to. In cold weather, cattle usually bunch together for warmth. Cattle are more unpredictable in windy weather.

Flight distance and moving cattle

hartnagle_lr_christopheneThe herd’s movement is controlled by managing the flight distance— the animal’s individual space — through applying and releasing pressure. As the dog moves to the edge of the animal’s comfort zone the cows will generally turn and walk away. When the dog backs off they will slow down or stop. If the animals start to slow down and stop, pressure can be increased.

On the other hand, too much pressure on the flight zone causes the animals to run. Pressure without relief is stressful to stock which endangers the welfare of the animals. They need adequate space so they can calmly move away from the dog.

Flight distance changes in different situations. Cattle that are anxious have a broader flight distance than when they are calm. If cows become defensive or aggressive the handler needs to respond by placing the dog on the outside of the flight zone. The flight distance is also broader when the dog approaches from head on because of the wide angle of vision due to the cow’s eye placement. While cows can see to the rear of themselves without turning their heads, they do have a blind spot behind their rear end. You need to stay out of that blind spot. If the cow can’t see you she’s more likely to kick you.

Avoid sudden movements. Cows don’t like to be rushed. If a dog charges the group instead of approaching in an authoritative, deliberate manner, the animals may scatter or turn to face the dog (perceived threat). Defensive behavior is sometimes mistaken for aggression. Real aggression is not driven by fear.


hartnagle_lr_cornflowerCowdogs need to have courage. They also need to be tougher than the average sheepdog. Not harsher in their approach, but more determined in that they aren’t easily dissuaded from hard knocks that can come from working cattle. Close contact with cows is always potentially risky because of their size and strength. When a cow is standing still she can kick forward and out to the side with her hind legs. When a cow is moving forward she can kick backward. Not only can dogs get kicked, but they can get stepped on and gored as well. Grip is necessary in a good cowdog, but often overused. One of the misunderstandings many people often have about cowdogs is that they need to be aggressive and hard-hitting. Aggressive dogs aren’t necessarily more persuasive with stock than a dog with a deliberate, authoritative approach.

Cowdogs cannot be trained to low-heel (grip the heels), then duck low enough to avoid the resulting kick — any more than dogs with little or no natural eye can be made to use strong eye. Neither can they be taught to nip the heel of the cow’s weight-bearing leg. It is instinct, pure and mysterious.

Just as a sheepdog learns how to read and rate various types of sheep, cowdogs have to learn to handle different kinds of cattle. Dogs trained on quick, athletic Corrientes or Longhorn steers learn to dodge their kicks with lightning speed. I’ve seen those same dogs go in to nip the heels of a heavy cow and get clobbered. They haven’t yet learned to time their hits to the slower response of the cow.

Cattle Trials

The role of a handler is to position the dog, which uses its instinct, experience, and training to cause the cows to move to the desired location. Working cattle in a quiet, relaxed way is an important part of good herdsmanship. Not only does it reduce the stress level of the animals, but it is also safer for dogs and their handlers. Once cattle become agitated they can take 20 to 30 minutes to settle down. Excitable animals will be more difficult to control. If cattle are rushed, they are also more likely to charge past a chute, an open gate or other obstacles on the trial course.

At trials, cows are exposed to abnormal physical and psychological demands. For example, they are often sorted into small holding pens, and shuffled around for the better part of a day. This creates a certain amount of stress in the animals which can make them more difficult to work with. The regular hierarchy of the herd is also broken up, further increasing anxiety. When the animals are stressed they can become unpredictable. An animal singled off from the herd may become agitated and charge, thus increasing the potential for injuries to dogs and their handler. Cows will do what you ask them to do, but you need to give them a chance to respond to initial pressure before adding more force.

This article was simultaneously published in the September/October 2011 issue of the Aussie Times magazine, Stockdog Magazine, and the 2011 Aussie Annual. All photos ©Hartnagle Archive 2011.