Ranch and Farm

Teaching a dog sort out different species of stock

By February 17, 2015July 5th, 2017No Comments


answers by Steve & Judy Freeman, and Roger Stevens

QUESTION: When using my dogs I am often confronted with a large pasture (in excess of 50 acres) containing several separate groups/types of stock. How do I begin to teach my young dog that today “Get Around” means get the sheep, not the cows, without constantly having to call off and resend the dog – discouraging him and causing him to look back at me in confusion?


Steve and Judy Freeman, MO:
If sheep and cattle are interspersed in a 50 acre pasture, I do not know a dog that can go in among the herd and flock and separate them. However, it is possible to teach your dog to know the difference between the species and learn which group you wish to fetch. This is not a task for an inexperienced dog, he must respond quickly to command. Luckily, in large pastures, sheep and cattle tend to separate naturally and this tendency should be used by the farmer to teach the dog which group you want.

I set my dog in front of me and say “look” to get her to scan. When she sees the flock, I say “there – sheep” sharply. If she looks at the cows, I say “No – sheep” and will even block her view of the cattle until she locks onto the sheep. The dog is sent and hopefully just circles the sheep. Often, however, when the dog is young, it will want to break wide when it sees the cattle so you must be ready to drop the dog, position yourself closer and use “there” to cause the dog to walk up on just the sheep. Really, you often end up doing nothing more than a large shed with your young dog until he gets very used to this.

When we want the cattle and not the sheep, we have found it much easier to fetch the sheep first and hold them in a corner of the field with another dog or put them in another pasture and then resend the dog to fetch the cattle. The reason for this is that sheep, being such flocking animals, will see the cattle being moved and dive in with them whether we want them or not. This is primarily a problem if the groups are grazing close to one another.

Roger Stevens, Dothan, AL: First of all, before I take my young dogs out into a large pasture, I like to expose them to similar situations in smaller areas. As you have noticed, the young dog may become confused, and this may have a direct influence on his confidence.

We do successfully use our Australian Shepherds to sort various types of stock in large pastures. When my dogs are still very young, I begin their training by taking them with me as I do my daily chores in the smaller pens (one-half to five acres). As we feed, check, move, etc.. each different type of stock, I repeat the name of the stock to the dog. For example, if I use the pup to help bring some weaned lambs up to the feed trough, I tell him “Bring the sheep.” If we do nothing but walk around the stock, I still repeat the name, such as, “Let’s check the goats.” Sometimes I repeat the name as the dog is watching the stock (“Goats. Watch the goats.”)

When the dog appears to clearly understand the different types of stock, I may take one sheep or one goat and put it in with five or six weaned calves, then ask the dog to bring me the sheep, or goat, whichever the case is. If the dog appears confused, start all over again with the chores until he does understand the different types of stock when called by their names. If he successfully sorts out one head of stock that is different from the others, then the next time I’ll put in two that are different, and as the dog gains confidence in his ability to sort out the stock I want, I will increase the numbers (still working in small areas). When the dog recognizes the stock you want and attempts to sort it out, remember to praise him.

When my dog is experienced with the different stock in small areas, has an outrun, a “down” and knows his flanking commands, then I move to the large pastures with different groups of stock. If you have several different types of stock in a large pasture and they are undisturbed, their normal habit is for like kinds to group together, so there should be some space between the different groups when you start to work them.

If your dog knows his commands but does not know the different types of stock by name, you can help him learn, and get your work accomplished, by sending the dog out around the group of stock you want him to bring, or move. When the dog is behind the selected group, either “Down” him, or give a “There”, then a “Walk up” command, whatever is appropriate with your dog, and then call the name of the stock. When placed behind a group, most dogs will readily know that is the group you want them to work.

By the way, if you are running sheep with cattle and want to sort out the sheep, I have found it is easier if you flank the dog and send him out to a position that will place him between the sheep and the cattle when he begins his lift and fetch. The reason for this is that sheep seem to want to run to cattle and mix in with them for protection, and keeping your dog between the two groups will help prevent this.

It takes a really good, well-trained dog to sort out one particular type of stock when two or more types are mixed together (such as sorting out sheep and lambs from amongst cows and calves). The dog really has to know each kind of stock by name, and be able and willing to go into the group and just bring out the stock you ask for. It is usually a slow process but a patient, experienced dog can get the job done.

I’m sure there are other ways of solving the problem, but this is what works for us at Pincie Creek.

this article was first published in the February/March ’96 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer magazine