Four Legged Ranch Hand
BY AMANDA HERAUF
Farming and ranching is hard work, there’s no doubt about it. Even with all of today’s technological marvels, taking care of a wide expanse of land and any number of livestock that live upon it can be a real challenge.
That’s why so many ranchers turn to a tried and true helping hand (or paw, as the case may be) to help them be successful. Man’s best friend can also be man’s best employee.
Moving several head of any type of livestock from one place to another, without any wandering away, can be a tedious task. With the help of an experienced herding dog or two, the process can be made much smoother and be done with less manpower, saving time and labor costs. How exactly a dog herds a group of animals varies widely depending on what kind of livestock they are working with, the breed of dog, the individual dog’s style, and the rancher’s needs.
It is widely believed that a good herding dog is born with an innate desire for the job and that heredity plays a part in this. Most herders have long family lines of herding parents and grandparents. Even with extensive training and time, a dog without the desire to work or be around livestock will not be a helpful ranch hand. Some dogs are completely disinterested while others would rather chase and play with the livestock than be helpful. Though there are stereotypical styles attributed to different breeds (think Border Collie versus Heeler), there are differing styles within each breed and even within each bloodline. The most successful herding dog is one who gets to work with, rather than against, his individual inclinations.
Some dogs prefer to maintain a bit of distance from the livestock, keeping their focus on a single individual or small group. These dogs are said to have a “strong eye” and usually keep low to the ground when they move. Other dogs keep a more upright posture and maintain their gaze on the entire herd or flock, scanning for any stragglers or escapees. These are referred to as having a “loose eye.” Some dogs rarely, if ever, use their barking to influence livestock while others use it frequently, especially in areas where visibility is low. Their barks not only encourage movement of the stock, but alert their human partner to their position. Some dogs are quite gentle, using only light grabs with their mouths if necessary to turn a wayward animal back. Others are more forceful, often nipping above the hooves of reluctant stock or grabbing a nose if they need to use more forceful persuasion to turn an animal around. These latter dogs are more often used with cattle, who are more hearty than sheep or poultry.
When it comes to moving the livestock, dogs follow the commands of their human partner, which can be given with the voice, hand, or a whistle. Some prefer being between the rancher and the livestock, driving them forward and keeping them together. Others are better at going ahead of the group or gathering a spread out bunch and “fetching,” or bringing them back toward their handler. Many operations employ more than one herding dog who work in tandem or take turns depending on their individual styles and the situation.
Most of a herding dog’s education takes place on the job. If starting with a pup, it is wise to begin with basic commands, and, once they know them fairly well, begin to practice them around livestock so that they learn to follow instructions in the midst of distractions. It’s important that the dogs are exposed to livestock and obedience early, but not allowed to develop bad habits like chasing for fun or working too hard before their bodies are developed. Much of a herding dog’s ability and proficiency is gained through the experiences of learning how the livestock act and how they respond to the dog’s different postures, movements, and direct interactions, hence the learning on the job. Adult dogs can learn to herd, too, and in some cases may be able to start working sooner than a pup would.
The world of herding is vast and full of nuance, so much so that it is impossible to speak of all the facets succinctly. To watch a good herding dog at work is truly a thing of beauty. If the reader is unable to see them in action on a ranch or at a herding competition, one suggests searching the internet for videos. A single dog can do the work of several men, and it is quite something to behold.