THE AUSSIE STYLE AND OUTRUN
by Terry Martin
I have said the ideal Australian Shepherd is one who will grip both the head and the heels. Every ranch or farm has unique situations that the dog will encounter. When stock are refusing to move, the dog or man has to use some kind of force. If they are facing and challenging the dog, he is going to have to be able to handle a confrontational head situation or nothing is going to go anywhere. If they are standing in an alley refusing to go into a truck or facing a gate but will not go through, what must the dog do? Of course he must be willing to go in and grip the heels of the standing stock to convince them to proceed . The dog who will only grip heads is going to cause a wreck or force the man to do the job for the dog.
There are of course other times a dog must head and heel. When one head or more are starting to break away from a group, it is ideal if the dog immediately recognizes a potential split and nips a face to turn them back. If the stock actually run off, the ideal dog will get ahead and force the cows to turn back. I lived in the West for many years (Colorado and Utah) where we worked cattle on the open range and in the mountains. Most of the people I knew wanted a dog that would heel and did not care if he would head. I still hear this quite a bit.
A lot of work is done on horseback and the dogs are used in place of another man on a horse, supplying even more mobility and power. If a cow cuts away, the dogs simply goes after her until she tires and returns to the herd. This may not make any sense to those who haven’t worked large herds on open range, but these cattle soon return to the herd. Stress isn’t a major factor since chasing cattle with a horse and maybe losing control of the entire herd is the alternative. This was on a different kind of cattle than the Brahman crosses, more often seen in the Southeast.
There is no doubt that different cattle, different terrain, and different demands create a need for many different kinds of talents in a working stockdog. Some people think their personal situation is the only way to work dogs and never bother to find out why different types of dogs are considered more useful than perhaps the ones they prefer. One fact does remain, the dog who is comfortable and effective on both heads and heels will be able to fit into all of these different situations and is better equipped. The bottom line is that he is carrying all the tools he may need for any job.
Most people in the dog world think of an outrun as the beautiful wide sweep the Border Collie trial dog makes to go out around his sheep. He hits the balance point directly behind the sheep, often lays down on the ground and then comes in to fetch the sheep in a straight line to the handler. When the dog leaves the handler he is in a dead run, not toward the sheep but out in the direction he is sent and remains wide so as not to disturb the stock until he approaches them to begin the lift.
To be honest, the Australian Shepherd does not see the outrun this way. If you want to get inside your dog’s mind (and you must if you are going to train him) you must understand how he thinks. The typical Australian Shepherd sees the shortest distance between two points as a straight line. If you send him to stock, he goes straight to stock. If you have thoroughly trained him on his directions and send him on a “go-by” he will often look like he is going straight to the middle of the herd. He knows he is on a go-by and will go to the left of them, barely!
In the first article I wrote for the RDT, I attempted to explain the difference in the wide working dog and the close working dog for our human minds to understand. Think of it this way: the wide working, strong eye breeds sense an invisible circle drawn around the stock; they are working this circle and their instinct puts them outside that circle unless they have to move within it to move the stock. When you send a dog to the left, his instinct will usually keep him outside that imaginary circle or well off the stock. The typical Aussie does not see that circle because his instinct does not work that way. He is working the stock themselves and is drawn to them. He will show you an instinct similar to the wide working breeds as a young dog in circling the stock and fetching, but he will be closer to the herd. In a young, inexperienced dog this may create more problems than a dog naturally staying away from his stock.
I am not going to get into formal training of the outrun as much as I will explain what you are doing to the dog. There are many articles on training the outrun that give excellent techniques useful for any breed, but only if you understand the differences in your dog’s instincts! If you want your Aussie to do a beautiful wide outrun, remember that this is not his natural working style. If you want him to cast out and bring in cattle that are two miles away this also is not his natural style. He can do it, but you will need to use your knowledge of his instinct to train him. In every breed there will be dogs that are going to work closer or wider, while some are more willing to work a long distance from the handler.
We have all seen dogs sent on an outrun that looks mechanical with the dog having to be constantly reminded by commands to stay out wide. This is because you have taught him an action, but that action does not come naturally to him. When you begin teaching the dog to go out around stock, you need to watch carefully to see where he is most comfortable working. If you push him out 20 feet from the stock, does he still remain intent on working them or on focusing all his attention on them? If this is the case, you should try to push him out a little wider. If he seems distracted when he is too far from the stock you have probably pushed him out to the point that he is no longer focused on working.
Because the Aussie is not a strong eyed breed of dog, they need closer contact with the stock to remain in the game. If you watch the dog closely during his training you can determine where you lose your dog and where his work starts to become mechanical. When he is simply obeying your direction instead of using his instinct, you are losing your dog. Training should enhance instinct, not cover it up.
I drifted a little into trial training here and really wanted to remain on the subject of training a ranch cattle dog. The value of an outrun for ranch work is distance. If the stock is far out in a pasture, the rancher wants a dog who will take charge and bring them in or start them in one direction or another. I had one rancher who works both Border Collies and Aussies tell me their BC’s will look farther away for stock than their Aussie. This is partially because Aussies are a loose-eyed breed to begin with and also, because they have a strong desire to be with their masters. You must teach the dog to trust you. If you send him out, there must be stock for him to find.
Working is very rewarding to a working dog. All training has to start with small steps and work toward the final goal. If you want the dog to have a two mile outrun, you cannot start by sending him two miles. He must do a short outrun correctly and consistently before you begin to send him longer distances. The stock needs to be easily seen by the dog and the command be consistent. When you begin to send him for stock that is out of sight, the command must remain the same and the stock must be easily located. You may have to go part way toward the stock with him for encouragement until he learns that when you send him, the stock will be there.
Once you train your Aussie to go to stock a long distance away, it is very unlikely he will stay out wide on a long outrun. This breed is effective on range cattle because of their readiness to handle confrontation and their ability and desire to use force and work in close. As I have said before, good dogs learn with experience even more than from formal training about when they should use force and when they should not. The very fact that the Aussie is drawn to confrontation and works close makes him less than the ideal dog to do a picture perfect outrun. It is not impossible, but it is not what he was developed for. The same instincts also make him better at bringing home stubborn cattle you just wore your horse out trying to control.
Those who have trained different breeds to work cattle and are really successful with more than one breed, have learned to understand the differences and most of all, to respect these differences. Many training techniques can work as well with one breed as another, but only if the trainer is willing to modify the technique to fit the instinct of the breed.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine February/March 1997.