ENHANCING HEELING INSTINCT
by Terry Martin
I certainly appreciate the contact I have had from the readership with ranch dogs. Several of you asked for ideas about how to get a dog to heel who will not do so or seldom bites heels in daily work. I also had an interesting conversation with a man whose cows are, in his words, “death on a dog”.
In the last issue, I included suggestions on developing the power of your dog by using stock against a fence. The exercise on cross-driving and encouraging the dog to heel apparently caught the attention of a few readers. Heeling is an inherited trait, but all dogs have inherited traits that are never developed and may never be used. Remember your dog may not have inherited this trait either!
I won’t pretend to understand what makes one dog grip cattle down low on the leg from the first day and others bite high, grab tails or not heel at all. There has been quite a bit of discussion on why some dogs will start out gripping high and then end up low heelers. Many believe it is because they get kicked and learn the most effective way to heel is down low. This is probably part of it as a dog gets to the point when he isn’t working so much off just excitement and adrenaline and he begins to learn from his actions.
Grabbing up high sometimes is just from excitement and the dog needs more time to become deliberate about his actions. You will always get more out of your dog if you try to understand why he is doing what he does. Tail biting or tail riding is undesirable because of possible damage to the cattle if they lose the brush on their tail. It also is hard to call a dog off who is hanging on to a tail!
I have often heard it said tail biting is dangerous for the dog but really disagree here. I have known several ranch dogs who had the habit and never got kicked. A man I met at a stockyard in Utah had a real old dog who had worked chutes and run cattle into the next pen every day for years. His owner told me he had never seen the dog kicked and yet he had hung onto the tail of thousands of steers.
I believe it can be hereditary just as low heeling is, but also can be started by accident. When a young dog is behind cattle and wants to bite, that tail is just dangling there right in his face tempting him. Also sometimes they will grab it by accident when they go to heel. They obviously think it is fun to be jerked by that tail, so it’s something you want to discourage immediately. It is another one of those things that is hard to discipline because you must make him understand grabbing the tail is wrong but working and heeling is right. Stop it, before it becomes a habit or you won’t get it stopped!
Many years ago a trainer with an otherwise good trial dog dipped their training cattle’s tails in Tabasco, and that didn’t work. Then the brushes were shaved off and that worked great. For months the dog never grabbed a tail and would heel the cattle. The first time she saw real cattle she immediately grabbed a tail!
Back to heeling. In the last issue, I discussed cross driving and encouraging the dog to heel during that exercise. The good part about this exercise is that you can hold the dog in a position behind the cattle so if he wants to grip it must be heels. You want to hype him up as much as possible and get him excited while keeping him behind. If he grips the heels one time praise him even if he comes to you for reward. Make it a big deal that he did something you want.
If he won’t heel at all when behind, send him around to head. Using his excitement of running to the head, as soon as the cattle turn, keep hissing him on and keep him excited. If he is strong on the head sometimes you can use that enthusiasm to get him to bite a heel without thinking. The main goal is to get him to do it a few times and hope he likes it.
If it isn’t real strong in his genetic makeup, he probably hasn’t had anything yet to trigger him to heel. The strong instinctive heeling dog is probably prompted to bite heels by the sight or movement of the legs. The dog who does not heel in his early work either does not have the instinct at all or nothing yet has brought it out. If he likes the reaction when he heels, he will want to do more of it and develop it into his working style. You want to hype him up as much as possible and get him excited while keeping him behind.
There are other ways to work the dog on heeling. If you have an alley to work stock down which is narrow enough so the dog can’t get by the stock, you can use the same principle. This is much easier because you don’t have to keep your position to hold the stock against the fence.
So many of us don’t have the alley to use and so the cross-driving is the next best bet. What you need is some method to keep the dog behind the stock. You and the dog can push the stock down the alley with you getting the dog excited and encouraged. You may want to have a helper in front of the cattle to keep them from being equally excited! It won’t accomplish anything to have cattle tearing down the alley a million miles an hour! You want the dog to have the desire to push them. Dogs reluctant to heel are more likely to grip moving stock than those standing still.
A nylon line can be used to keep the dog behind also. This may be the least effective method for a couple of reasons. First, the dog can be distracted by the line or put off balance. You are asking him to deal with the business end of those hind legs and don’t need to be doing anything to get him injured. If you put pressure on the line or he gets to the end of it at the wrong time, you can get the dog hurt. You also are creating a very artificial situation where the dog realizes he is on a line and only the line is keeping him behind the stock.
While working on these exercises you also want to be teaching him to stay behind stock when you put him there. When you take the line off the dog you may find you haven’t taught him as much as you would if he had been working free.
Sometimes it helps to work the dog with another good heeling dog. You need a dog who heels without a lot of hard gripping. The young dog needs to have time to get into position and see what happened to make the stock move. If the older dog is well controlled, you can use a corner for this. Put your cattle in a corner and send the dogs in to move them. The older dog will heel and the cattle will move out of the corner giving the young dog a chance to see what caused the action.
A lot can be done with an older dog but only if the older dog is well trained. If you have to yell at the older dog all the time, the pup will only become discouraged or confused. More harm can be done than anything positive if you are training on the older dog the same time as the pup.
Chute work is excellent to get a dog started heeling if you have a set up where you can work a dog. Chutes with enough space for the dog to bite legs will really turn on a hesitant dog. Sometimes with a young dog who won’t heel you wish you could get down and show him where to grip. In a chute you have that luxury as
you can point to and slap the part of the cattle you want him to be working. I have seen dogs heel here who never heeled out in the open. Of course that is not your goal, but you do need a situation where the dog will begin to bite legs. His instinct will have to take over some time once you trigger the action you want.
Never forget you cannot create some of the traits you want in a dog if they are not genetically there to bring out. There do exist dogs who have no instinct at all to heel. There are also dogs who begin to heel later on in their working life for no apparent reason. This is another trait which can develop as the dog becomes more confident and thinks more about his task than just working on excitement coupled with instinct.
Another common problem is the dog who begins heeling but gets kicked or injured and will no longer heel. It is easy to see what happened and to understand it, but the question is how to overcome his fear. During this crucial time, he may begin to like other aspects of work better than he did initially and become a better head dog. Or he may have lost confidence to the point where he isn’t interested in working or barks rather than using force.
This is a very crucial time in developing your dog. His confidence is what makes him an effective cattle dog. This is partly a test of just how good a dog you have and just how much he wants to be a cattle dog. He deserves a chance to overcome his hesitation, and if possible should be worked on some dog broke stock to get him back to where you want him. Many good dogs will only become more aggressive with an injury, and this is the sign of a very confident dog who really wants to work. A dog with a lot of instinct to head and little to heel can easily be convinced the head is where he should be after a bad kick. All the above suggestions can be used with the dog who has had his confidence shaken just as well as with the dog who doesn’t at first want to heel.
You can also use these exercises to teach your dog to heel on command. This is something you want in a trial dog or a ranch dog that may need to go in to move stock that are reluctant to move. Praise him when he heels on command but keep him pushed back the rest of the time when working on this. There are strong heeling driving Aussies who live to heel but lose track of the purpose of the task. When you are cross-driving and flanking you can send this dog around to the head to turn the stock. As soon as they turn, down or stop him before he gets a chance to heel. Let him know there is more to this than heeling every time he takes action. Walk him up keeping him far enough off the stock so he can’t grip. After he is doing this in a controlled manner, give him your command to heel and praise him when he does it. He will begin to understand there is more to working than just gripping heels and he must look at the big picture.
The dogs who love to heel can cause you problems when sent to turn cattle and the heeling instinct takes over. They begin to go around to turn the cattle but instinct overcomes training. All of a sudden they fall in behind to heel, and where do your cattle go? And how fast? The strong heeling dog must be taught to do the entire job. If he has a good amount of fetching instinct, he will learn this as soon as you let him know working is more than just biting heels. Most Aussies who do heel have a good amount of instinct to fetch, so you just need to remind them of this.
Referring back to the last article, you must impress on the young dog the importance of completing an arc around the stock. He must learn to automatically get to a position to stop their forward movement when you ask for it. A good Australian Shepherd likes to work the stock toward the handler, and if you have given him the tools to handle cattle you will have a useful dog.
A reader called me who had bought a young dog and had mother cows out in large pastures. He didn’t think the cows had ever seen a dog, and they ran the dog out of the pasture at first sight. He didn’t have any cattle up in a corral to work on. I admit he has a problem! The best way to use a cattle dog effectively is to dog break your cattle. This is not a task for a young dog who has not worked cattle before. Ideally, you should attempt to find someone in your area with some good dogs who can help you with the task, leaving your young dog home.
Using a good dog on the perimeters of your herd to confront the most aggressive cattle is a good first step to dog breaking the herd. The dog can be kept on a down or stay far enough away so only the most aggressive cows will come forward to confront him. You can gradually work into a situation of moving them using the dog. If you do find someone with that good dog, they should be able to help with this better than I can write it.
If that neighbor isn’t available you may have to go about this over a period of time. You will have to take advantage of every situation when cows are penned to work the dog with you there to back him up if they are too aggressive toward him. In a cow-calf situation, the best and easiest way to work your operation into one where a dog is used effectively is to start with your replacement heifers. Whether they are bought or raised they probably will be kept separate from older cows.
Start as early as possible which ideally is right after weaning. Introduce the dog to the heifers then and get them to respect the dog before they are turned out in large pastures. Except for cows with calves. and some older range cows, cattle do dog break fast. Those trainers who have bought a few head to practice training dogs on are usually disappointed in how fast they will dog break and no longer present a challenge to the dog. If you have a good corral, flanking them along the fence will dog break them rapidly. They learn along with the dog to be stopped and to be turned around by a dog and to be pushed by him.
Those dog broke heifers will turn into cows respectful of a dog when it comes time to have a calf. Dogs are seldom effective on cows with new calves but cows with older ones who have been worked with a dog are fairly easily handled.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine October/November 1995.