Livestock handling with dogs requires the right animal, training and owner to ensure success in the field
No treats for good work – the reward for dogs is more work
Border collies are the pros at looking after livestock
Jared Epp and his wife Tasha have been raising and training stock dogs at their home east of Blackstrap Lake in Saskatchewan for almost 20 years. They got started in 2000 when, as a wedding present, they received their first border collie from a friend who knew they wanted to learn to use them and Epp has been training and selling them ever since.
“I was interested in learning how to use one and when (my friend) gave it to me as a gift, that was sort of the starting point that led to many, many more dogs,” says Epp. “I think we have 10 or 11 of our own, right now, plus train for other people. Most of them have been bred from our place, but they go back years and years of working lineage. Very proven dogs.”
Epp was at July’s All Canadian Sheep Classic hosted in Humboldt, Sask., where he, along with his dogs Budd and Stew, demonstrated the different jobs they can do and the effectiveness stock dogs can have in moving and controlling herds of livestock.
“The job that I really like getting them to do is gathering large fields, because you can send your dog across a quarter section to gather up everything and bring it to your gate,” says Epp. “While that dogs doing that, you’re not out there having to be on a quad or on a horse spending time doing it. And the dog will be way more effective with it anyways.”
Epp uses border collies because they naturally have the qualities needed to be good stock dogs that he calls the “three ins” – intensity, intelligence and instincts.
“That’s the hunting instinct. They’re not born wanting to herd. That’s the job we apply them to, that’s our task. So the dog has to have predator bred in to him because you can’t fake it,” he says. The intensity is what basically keeps the dog from being a quitter. If the dog has some intensity he’s going to work through discomfort. And the third thing we want is intelligence, because you got to be able to teach them something. You can have a dog that wants to hunt its heart out and won’t quit for nothing but if you can’t teach them anything he’s never useful.”
Epp’s general training process starts well before he ever even has the dog. It starts with the breeding and matching the right dogs together to get the best outcome with the puppies.
“When we match parents we are trying not to duplicate weaknesses,” says Epp. “There is no perfect dog, so instead of matching strengths we are actually just trying to make sure we aren’t matching weaknesses because we don’t want to exemplify those.”
The next steps are to raise the dogs in a way that they respect their owners and accept leadership as well as to get them to be comfortable being around livestock. After that, when the dog’s have some more maturity, Epp starts teaching and training them.
“At around 11 to 14 months we start training them and teaching them to basically go around stock and bring stuff to you, and then we just put some rules to it,” he says. “In our program I’m not working on getting that dog trained nearly as much as I am on conditioning his mind and developing his mind to be responsible to stock.”
Epp stresses never to use treats as an incentive while training stock dogs because it sends the wrong message to a dog that wants to hunt more than anything else.
“The greatest reward we can give our dogs is more work and they just feel real pleased, real confident. They feel like you’re kind of proud of them,” says Epp. “So there isn’t a treat in the world that we could give one of these dogs that wouldn’t belittle what they do.”
Epp goes on to say punishments also send the wrong message to the dogs because they come after the mistake already happened and the dogs won’t know what they are being punished for, which can cause confusion or more bad habits. Instead, he practises patience and prefers to just repeat the command until they get it right.
Punishments, if too harsh or used too often, can also be detrimental to the dog’s confidence, which can limit its effectiveness as a stock dog.
“In order for the dog to listen it has to have a reason to listen to us, it has to view us as a leader and I see two approaches being taken with that,” says Epp. “One of the approaches is the person dominates the dog so bad that the dog just becomes subservient to them and in my mind that’s more suppression than it is leadership.
“So sure you’ve got a dog that listens but you’ve lessened your dog, you’ve lessened his stature and as soon as you do that the (sheep or cows) you are working with are going to view him as less of a dog as well. What we would rather do is lead the dog at the highest confidence level it can be at and to elevate ourselves to be that leader.”
At about six to nine months the dogs start to show their instincts and Epp can start to see what aspects of herding they would be best at and can find them a home that suits their particular skills. He charges $800 a month to train dogs and training can last anywhere from one month to three or four depending on what the owner wants.
One of his border collie puppies usually gets sold for around $1,000, with the slightly older, training-ready dogs going for around double that. He says that the prices vary drastically based on how good the dog is and some fully trained dogs can even be upwards of $6,000.