THE WORKING AUSTRALIAN SHEPHERD:
What To Expect
by Terry Martin
What kind of a working dog is an Australian Shepherd? What should we expect of a good one? The Australian Shepherd is a “hands on” type of worker who wants to be part of the action. He works close to the stock in an upright position controlling his stock by gaining authority with confidence readily backed up by grip. Different working situations have prompted breeders to develop more variations in style than in some breeds. Lines have been selected to be heeling driving dogs, and this instinct has diluted the desire to head and to contain the stock. Others are very strong fetch dogs with an intense instinct to gather and keep the stock together. Understanding the style and instinct of your individual dog is the first step to using him effectively.
Variation in style of the good dogs is the result of breeding for specific needs. Variation in style of weak or inferior dogs in any breed is the result of indiscriminate breeding or the unfortunate unpredictability of hereditary traits or both. I can’t overemphasize the importance of researching bloodlines and talking to people who have actually seen the dogs work.
A good Australian Shepherd will work silently or may use bark for authority. A dog who barks and does not bite is of little use. The ideal Australian Shepherd will heel low and grip on the nose or face of cattle. A good dog will instinctively run to the head of cattle needing to be turned back and apply force. The dog will have the confidence to walk in on standing stock to move them. There are dogs who will effectively turn running stock but will not use force on stock when standing. In many ranch situations this dog is still useful, because power is needed when stock are running out of the handler’s control. The dog should be there to help. Just as you can use a man, horse or a four wheeler, the dog has things he can do for you. An Australian Shepherd’s power, agility and stock savvy give him an advantage over stock that is unequaled by man, horse or vehicle. The good Australian Shepherd is always eager for physical confrontation with the stock.
It is important to understand that the aggressive Australian Shepherd is not necessarily going to develop into a dog that is always biting stock. A good dog will learn through experience and training when to apply force and when his presence is sufficient to move or stop livestock. His early instinct to bite livestock will develop into an awareness of appropriate force as he learns about livestock’s response to his actions. A confident aggressive dog will convey his power to livestock in ways that we probably will never completely understand. You will see powerful dogs make a move toward a cow, turning her without even touching her. The same cow will run over a weaker dog in the same situation. Livestock can read a dog and sense their weakness or strength. The dog with the grip to back up his stand has learned he can hold his own in a confrontation. This confidence is seen as power by the stock. The dog who has been backed down by livestock will be the loser one too many times, and without confidence he becomes useless.
This is where his instinct is going to put him. As a comparison, imagine that the strong eyed dog is working an invisible circle drawn out around the stock. As long as he can put pressure on the side of that circle and the stock responds properly, he is content to stay outside the circle. His constant eye contact tells him he is in control. Only when the stock does not move to this subtle pressure does he move inside the circle to apply needed force.
For the strong eyed dog this circle may be ten, twenty or more feet outside the perimeter of the herd. The Australian Shepherd sees this invisible circle as drawn right against the animals. He is working the stock themselves, and therefore his instinct puts him closer before he is content that he has control. A good Australian Shepherd will be aware of all the stock in his vision and quickly correct one getting away or lagging while his instinct keeps him in close. This basic instinct to be close is one of the reasons the breed is likely to grip or be aggressive. The near proximity triggers the instinct to take hold.
The quiet courageous cattle dog who handles tough cattle with power and confidence, gaining their respect with grip and the sheep dog with the instinct to work wide off the stock both use power and confidence to be the best at what they do. But to be truly great they must use it in far different ways.
What kind of work is the Aussie effective for? We have used them in the mountainous west to get range cattle down off Federal BLM land. They are a dog who will go all day, range off in dense brush to push cattle on their own and find cattle that a rider can not see. A lot of cattle are moved long distances in the west, and these dogs wearing back and forth across the rear of the herd keep stragglers up with the herd. When cattle are to be trailed for many hours, they need encouragement to keep moving. The man on horseback loses his effectiveness with tired bulls and lagging calves.
Many of these ranchers do not want a dog to go to the head but instead want help back with the riders to push cattle. More than once I have heard a rancher say, “the dog ran ahead of me just about the time the cattle were going through the gate and turned them back, so I got rid of him” (or shot him – or sent him to the house). Obviously, he had a fetch/head dog, but he didn’t understand the dog’s instinct. Often these cattle are not the kind that are ever going to be fetched by any kind of dog nor does the rancher want them turned back toward him.
With the increase in rotational grazing and stocker setups, cattle are now moved more often than in the past. The Aussie is ideal for the stockman who rotates cattle. The man with a small herd to move on foot will have some stock reluctant to leave their pasture. The Aussie will quickly learn a routine and complete the daily work without a lot of commands. The larger herd being moved by riders requires ground to be covered that is easier for a dog than a horse. Once a good dog has gained the respect of the cattle he routinely works, his presence alone will normally move them. Using his experience and stock savvy, an experienced Aussie will work difficult cattle using grip and yet seldom be prompted to bite sheep, calves, or gentle cattle who are used to him.
The good fetch dog, or head dog, is used to contain the herd and to dogbreak or get the herd under control. A dog that will head and heel both is always the most effective, but a dog who will take control of the head will control cattle. At this point, a large percentage of working Aussies are bred to work the head. Fifteen or twenty years ago the demand was more for heeling driving dogs. A good head dog is necessary on cattle who want to break away or to keep a herd contained while they are being moved. A dog effective on the head will make the group easier to work even later by a man alone. This dog is useful in gathering herds for the stockman who has little help except his dog. Even a dog who does not want to heel but is tough on the head will earn the respect of the cattle so they will move from his presence when he is behind. The time will always come when you will need a dog to go to the head to stop stock.
The Aussie is an ideal corral and pen dog as well as very effective working a chute. He is comfortable in tight situations, small corrals with aggressive stock and in stockyard pens. The tight working area plays right into his natural instinct to keep control by working close to the stock and using force. A good pen dog will save a lot of steps and fence climbing while being much easier on the stock than whips, canes, and hot shots. Aggressive stock that can make pen work dangerous and time consuming are easily handled by a good Australian Shepherd.
This breed is often used around horses and show cattle. I am not an advocate of working dogs on horses as they are far more dangerous than cattle. However, we did have a training stable where the dogs were used in some situations. Because of a horse’s striking ability with their front legs, a dog who goes to the head can easily be killed by a horse. A horse’s kick is much deadlier than that of a cow, but a clever heeling dog can help load a horse in a trailer or move a balky colt who won’t lead. Many people use a heeling dog to help halter break show calves. While teaching a calf to lead a verbal command to the dog is also heard by the calf. Soon the calf will move after the command and before the grip.
The Australian Shepherd can also be used as a sheep dog. I have seen western flocks being moved by Aussies, mostly used as trail or drive dogs to keep the flock moving. When you need a dog to go out around a band of sheep and bring them to you, a wider working breed is considered more effective. The Aussie who works sheep in small pastures and certainly in corrals and pens can be very efficient. Most sheep trial courses are designed to showcase the wide working dog with the outrun as the premier test. The wide outrun is not the Aussie’s natural style, nor does he work in a crouch position using intense eye. He does not shine in competition on a course and program designed for another breed any more than a football star would look polished on the basketball court. The ASCA course utilizes fence lines and corners adding a test to insure the dog can handle stock in the open just as the cattleman utilizes the same. All breeds have been developed to fit the demand of specific work and living conditions.
The ASCA breed standard states: “The Australian Shepherd is intelligent, primarily a working dog of strong herding and guardian instincts. He is an exceptional companion. He is versatile and easily trained, performing his assigned tasks with great style and enthusiasm. He is reserved with strangers but does not exhibit shyness. Although an aggressive, authoritative worker, viciousness toward people or animals is intolerable.” The old time Aussie was just as the standard relates, and the good modern day working Aussie retains these traits. This is a dog who is devoted to his master or family, and not much interested in having anything to do with anyone else. They have a protective territorial nature over “their people” and home which often extends to their master’s truck. In describing his attraction to this breed, I once had an old timer say to me, “I wouldn’t have a dog who would let himself be stolen.”
These are the kind of dogs who make the wife and kids feel safe at home alone at night; not a small consideration in this day and age. They are also sensible enough to know when friends are around who the family is comfortable with. It is typical of the breed to be protective and devoted to those he considers his own.
I should follow this up with a few words about these dogs changing hands as adult dogs. An adult dog devoted to their trainer or owner will bond to another person given a period of time, usually within 30 days. This is a breed sensitive to the people around them. They will adjust to a new home or trainer but may need more time than a breed less inclined to be devoted to one person. The unique bond these dogs do develop has its rewards in a working partnership.
We need to recognize that in developing this breed some people have specialized in things other than working ability. For that reason, as in any breed bloodlines should be researched and pups should be expected to be guaranteed to work. A good working Australian Shepherd is unlike some of the other working breeds in that he normally is content when not working. Probably because of his devotion to a person or family, the dog fits into a home environment where he is not worked. This has, of course, led to their popularity as a pet. An Aussie in a working home where livestock work is seasonal or occasional will be a content member of the family.
There was a quote in the RDT June/July ’94 issue from John Holmes’ The Farmer’s Dog relating to the dog referred to as the old fashioned Scotch Collie. He wrote, “They were all easy-going, level-headed dogs, useful but not flashy workers, and quite willing to lie about the place when there was nothing better to do. Personally, I think it is a great pity that this type has been practically exterminated by the increasing popularity of ‘strong-eyed’ dogs. For all-round farm work they were often far more use than the classically bred [trials type] dog.” His description fits the Australian Shepherd perfectly. These dogs have a unique ability to be a working companion when their working instinct and their desire to be a part of your life are combined in daily routine.
I have attempted to give a highlight of what a working Australian Shepherd is all about, because we all should try to choose the breed best fitting our desires. Each of us has a need for a dog revolving around the physical stock work to be done and the kind of dog we would enjoy living with. Although the technicalities of training different breeds may be similar, their minds are not necessarily the same. Their instincts may differ as do their personalities. I will attempt in the next articles to help with understanding and using the Australian Shepherd if that is the breed you choose.
this article was first published in the October/November 1994 issue of Ranch Dog Trainer magazine