5 Chores a Working Aussie Does on the Farm or Ranch, Plus 1 Thing They Excel at Other than Working
A working bred Australian Shepherd can be one of the most valuable assets on a farming or ranching operation. It doesn’t matter if you have 5 head or 5,000 head of livestock there are some chores where this little ball of fluff becomes your best hand and can even replace up to 5 cowboys.
If you are one of the thousands of Americans heading out of the city and building a sustainable farming operation, you just might find out you are missing an invaluable piece of the puzzle.
Most of us have grown up with dogs, you probably have a dog right now, but the idea of a dog having a job other than bed buddy is foreign to most people. Dogs used to be integral members of the farm. Back in the “olden days” dogs had to earn their keep on the farm and no farm was without one.
The thing about a working bred Aussie is that they go to sleep dreaming about working and they wake up enthusiastically ready to get to get the job done! They love working. It is their biggest joy in life- other than spending time with you.
I discovered the working Aussie when I was 14 and since then have always owned a working bred dog. I used my dog when I was a teenager to work cattle and hogs and sheep. My working bred Aussies are invaluable on my place. They help me in so many ways. I am going to share 5 of the most common chores my dogs perform around the place + 1 bonus task they shine at with you.
- Holding Stock off Feed! My stockdogs do this chore every single day. This chore is the most useful chore my dogs perform on a daily basis. This job allows me to feed safely without worrying about getting run over by sheep or cattle. Sheep and cattle can be very dangerous when they are hungry. Heck, I can’t even get to the feed trough without holding a bucket over my head and pushing through a sea of sheep crushed around my knees if Harley or Copper or Wyatt isn’t there keeping them back.
My dogs are trained to hold the sheep away from the feed bin so I can pour out feed and step away safely without getting trampled or tripped. Once the feed is poured out, I call the dog off or send them around back to gather them up, and then we watch the sheep make a run for the trough from a safe distance. While they are eating, we walk around and look them over to make sure everyone is healthy.
One of the things that amazes me every day is that those sheep will mind my dogs when they are holding them off and they won’t charge the trough because they are telling them there will be trouble if they do. But then my dogs can walk around amongst them when the sheep are eating or grazing and the dogs don’t bother them at all. It is an amazing communication that goes on between shepherd and flock. And the true shepherd here is the dog.
This works the same with cattle. My cows aren’t nearly as obnoxious as the sheep are, but they are huge animals that can hurt me if we are not careful. I have heard old cowboys say over and over again, that you need 100% attention when you are working cattle. They are just so big. You can’t daydream or turn your back on cattle. It’s just too risky. Having a dog that has your back changes the odds. You have a 45 pound partner that can stop and turn a 1000 pound bull should anything go wrong.
I was working my toughest dog, Harley in Montana at a clinic and she was working in a big arena where lots of other people were sitting watching in the arena. We all had our chairs in the arena watching as most of our work was being done in a side pen. Harley was the most advanced dog there and she was able to go work in the larger arena.
While she was working one of the cows took off back towards the pen, where all his buddies were hanging out, at a pretty good clip. He was headed towards the group of spectators and before I knew what was happening, Harley had him turned back before he could cause damage or injury. I didn’t see what happened, and everyone else told me she had the fiercest look of determination on her face when she went after that runaway cow. There was no way he was getting away. Other people have said she could stop a freight train if she wanted. That day though, she likely prevented something bad from happening.
- Moving Stock Around the Place– I use electric net fences and do rotational grazing. I use my dogs to gather stock and move them from site to site. I don’t have to chase my cows or my sheep. I can stand at the entrance and send the dog out to bring them to me. It saves tons of time and steps. Sometimes the livestock just don’t want to cooperate and having a dog that is well-trained encourages rapid cooperation. Work smarter- not harder is my motto around the ranch!
Sometimes you need to vaccinate or worm and performing those tasks in the electric net fencing is pretty much impossible. So I use my dog to gather the sheep or cattle to the working pens and chute. This way I have a way to safely treat my livestock without causing all kinds of stress and chaos. My dogs can move my stock anywhere I need them to go and I don’t have to worry about chasing stock around the place or anyone deciding to go off in their own direction. The dogs keep them gathered up in a group and any runners can easily and quickly be brought back to the group.
I live in Texas and the weather is pretty decent most of the year. My sheep have shade, but no barns. They just aren’t normally necessary in my neck of the woods. Once in the while, we have some bad weather like hail and such. My mentor always said, “Sheep can be cold and sheep can be wet, but it is really hard on them to be cold and wet.” So I will put them in a covered building if the weather is really bad or if they just need dry feet for a while.
This spring we had rain for weeks and it got really cold and rainy and of course that was during lambing. The temperature dropped and there was no place to be dry. The pasture was flooded temporarily by the torrential rain. Just to get perspective, last spring every time it rained, we got at least 2 inches. There were weeks where we got 10 inches in a week! It was a freak year and the ground just couldn’t absorb that much water in such a short amount of time.
Anyway, I decided that I would bring my sheep into the shop- NOT a barn. It had concrete floors and was not somewhere they had been before. It was dark, and I had brand new baby lambs. I picked Copper, my young dog to do the job. We went out, flashlight in hand, and started gathering the group to the shop’s rollup door. It was a painstaking journey as mamas with new babies don’t like to move and the babies don’t know about dogs and don’t move off the dogs. Copper used his chest and body to gently push the babies forward and we finally got the group to the door and of course, being sheep- they didn’t want to go in the building.
He made microscopic progress towards the building, and every inch was hard fought. He kept pressure on the back and grouped them up tightly so they would all move as one. Well, everytime we made an inch’s worth of progress, this one new ewe would shoot off into the dark. He would go and get her back, but the pressure was released on everyone else and we had to start over to get that inch of progress back. (Just for those of you who think I should have just gotten a bucket of feed to lure them in… Well, I did that as well. They had hay and feed in plain site just inside the door. Remember, they are sheep. When they don’t want to do something no amount of feed can coax them in. This situation is exactly why a dog is necessary on a sheep operation of any size.)
Copper ended up going back out into the darkness to get this same crazy ewe about 3 times. He finally had enough. The last time, he was out of sight for a while and I was wondering what was happening. I went out to check on him and here he comes round the corner of the barn, pulling the sheep by her wool. He had had enough. He dragged her all the way into the building and deposited her next to the hay without leaving a mark on her. He turned and looked at her and I know he was telling her- “Don’t you move. I am the SheepDog!” And she didn’t move a muscle. She wouldn’t work off of him properly because she was new and didn’t understand the program. He had to improvise and his improv is what makes him so brilliant. You can’t train that skill. His 50 pounds against her 150 plus pounds demonstrates the determination these dogs have to get the job done. With that distraction over the rest of the work was done in minutes. The sheep saw another sheep inside and he was able to keep the pressure on the back side and we had the job done.
I didn’t teach him to do that. He is my most instinctive dog and was born just knowing things. He is the perfect farm dog. His training was FAST and he just knows where to be and how to be to get the job done most efficiently. His work probably saved some of my brand new lambs. They were able to get into a dry safe place and there is no way I could have done it myself.
- Loading Trailers– When it is time to load up to take to market or the sale, my dogs make quick work of this as well. The dogs learn the trailer task and push the animals calmly and safely into the trailer. It is one of the more challenging tasks on this list. The animals are usually leary to get into a trailer and the dog has to really manage the group and understand where to put pressure to keep them moving.
I don’t slaughter my own animals. I don’t have the heart to do it, so I take them to someone else to do this. I also sell my extra animals to individuals and drop them off to the processor for them or take them to the sale.
When you are going to the sale or processor, you want to keep the stress as low as possible to prevent weight loss. An animal can lose up to 6% on a trip like that. That loss is money out of your pocket and less food on the table.
My stock have learned to trust my ranch dogs, so it is not a battle to get that trailer loaded. I don’t usually even need a chute. The animals walk in calmly because the dog they trust has told them to go. It is a beautiful relationship. I have witnessed total madness and chaos in the trailer loading scenario before, and it is dangerous to humans and animals to have them thrashing about and running scared. That doesn’t typically happen with my dogs and my stock.
- Gentling Livestock- The stockman term is Dog Breaking the livestock. I don’t like that term because it implies violence against the stock and properly dog breaking does not typically include violence and running the stock around. The reason you want “dog broke” stock is- it is simply safer. Dog gentled livestock are less flighty, and they are more trustworthy. You can never 100% trust your livestock to make the right choices, dog broke or not. However, they are so much more calm and easy to handle when the dog trains them how to behave.
Dog breaking cattle is imperative in my mind. Cattle have the potential to be much more dangerous than sheep and owning calm thinking animals helps every day. That calmer thinking can be accomplished by dog breaking.
Harley is excellent at dog breaking cattle, because her presence is so strong, that livestock respect her as soon as she walks in with them. She puts pressure on the head and if the cow doesn’t turn away and well placed nip, encourages them. When they move away from her, she takes pressure off.
We recently had a set of 700 pound cows “dog broke” in about 15 minutes. Now to make sure it sticks, Harley would need a few sessions with them. But in that first session, the cows were moving off her and she even had them fetching to me in that short amount of time. The ranch dog that lived there was having trouble with them because she had very little training. She was a good dog, but dog breaking cattle is an advanced skill. Inexperienced dogs and handlers have a harder time with this task.
Once Harley was done, the ranch dog was able to move them around easily. The cattle are more deliberate and less runny and kicky! And they learn to be calmer around humans. I move my cows around with my dogs on a regular basis to keep the dogs well trained and to keep the cows gentle. Note: I have a small enough group of cattle to be able to work them regularly. Big ranches are better off dog breaking their replacement heifers and integrating them into the herd.
- Working Cattle and Sheep– In the livestock world the term “working cattle” or “working sheep” refers to those times when you have to treat, worm or vaccinate your livestock. My dogs make this task so simple.
With my sheep, I will gather them from the electric net fencing to a corral or alley and since they are so gentle, it is simple. I don’t have a sheep table or head gate. I just have the dog bring the sheep to me in a corner. I prefer to do this in an alley. The dog packs the sheep up to me and keeps them pushed up to me tight. From this vantage point I can worm, vaccinate, give meds, dock tails or do whatever I need to with them. I put all the meds on a barrel on the other side of the fence from where I am working. All my tools are within reach, but can’t be jostled by the sheep. I just put my hand under their head and since they can’t move because they are packed in, the job is a breeze. I mark them so I know who has been worked and move on to the next one. My Aussies love this job.
Aussies are “loose eyed” dogs and their natural instinct is to work close. This is one thing that makes them really really good farm dogs. So packing sheep into a corner is just like breathing to them.
Working cattle must be done in a chute with a head gate- preferably a squeeze chute. There is no other safe way to work adult cattle, unless you can rope them from your horse and have a few hands to help hold them down. I don’t even know if this could be considered safe…I don’t prefer this method as it is really stressful for the animal, and I can’t swing a rope and don’t have manpower to throw them to the ground. Using a good strong dog and dog broke cattle makes this much less of a chore and much less dangerous. The dog pushes the cow into the chute and the cow is captured and restrained by the squeeze chute and the work is done quickly and less stressfully. Then they just simply walk out of the chute and life goes on.
If you have a long chute, sometimes the sheep or cattle won’t go down all the way. They inevitably get stopped up near the entrance of the squeeze chute. My dogs come along and put pressure on the appropriate animal alongside the alley or chute to keep them moving.
BONUS! Section. This is a non-stockdog task, where Aussies are king!
- Protection– Aussies are, contrary to their name, not from Australia. They were developed in the American west not that long ago. The breed is officially just over 60-70 years old. Many people who started in the breed back in the day will tell you they got their Aussie after seeing one at a rodeo. The dogs were brought to the rodeo, not to work stock, but to protect the truck, and gear while the cowboy was competing. There is an old legend that cowboys would put a $100 bill in the bed of their truck and tell anyone they could keep it if they could get it. To get it, they had to get past the Aussie in the bed of the truck. I don’t think many cowboys lost their $100.
Aussies were valued for their protectiveness. They were bred for it. Nowadays, that protective nature is not valued in mainstream pet Aussies. You will, however, find it in a lot of working bred Aussies. I sleep well at night knowing anyone coming to my place with ill intentions won’t leave with their face intact. I have to manage my dogs, so they are nice to the UPS man or people we want to visit us. But that isn’t too hard. My dogs are not fluffy pets that everyone is allowed to pet and play with. They are working dogs and they work for me. That being said, they are a sucker for my grandson and wandered around watching out for him when he was a toddler.
An Aussie’s loyalty is second to none. They don’t run away and they would die to protect their person or family. And if the zombie apocalypse happens at my place, there is no other partner I would rather have by my side.
One thing I need to make very clear is something I have gently been alluding to all along and that is: There is a difference between a working bred Aussie and a pet bred Aussie. If you want a working partner, you MUST get one from a reputable WORKING Aussie breeder. Click here to see a list of proven working Aussie Breeders.
Most breeds of dogs were bred to do a job. Terriers took care of rodents, Retrievers hunted, Aussies worked stock. However, since people have moved off the farms and into the cities, those working dogs became a nuisance, so breeders started breeding for color, size and low-drive temperament. And as the necessity of having a dog that could do a job decreased, so did the number of dogs that could do that job.
WARNING: Aussies are the cutest puppies in the world and most people cannot look at a litter and leave without one. So please don’t go look at puppies until you have vetted the breeder. I will be writing a blog on how to select a working puppy next week. Until then, stick with the breeders listed on this site…The Working Aussie Source. They have been vetted and have been proven to produce working dogs. All of the Aussies I have purchased have come from breeders on this site.
To learn more about the working Aussie, peruse this site. There are tons of great articles and resources. Check out the podcast, The Instinctive Australian Shepherd. I interview ranchers and farmers and trainers. The focus is on the working Aussie, but we also throw in some just for fun guests as well.