Productive and successful use of a stock dog to herd livestock is based on using the natural behaviours of canines, says an experienced stockman and dog trainer.
Jared Epp shared his expertise on the subject with participants in a video presentation at the Ag in Motion Discovery Plus event in mid-July.
A good stock dog has three “ins,” said Epp. Intelligence, intensity and instinct are a winning combination though they are not easy to define.
With intensity, for example, “you see it when it’s not there maybe more than you see it when it is there. It’s something that helps that dog want to work through adversity.”
That adversity can be such things as pain, cold or dealing with angry cows. Instinct, as people define it, might be the easiest to find in a stock dog able to herd livestock whether that livestock is sheep, cattle or even poultry.
“The dog isn’t thinking about herding. The dog isn’t made or created in a way to wake up in the morning wanting to help care (for livestock) to earn a living. That just don’t matter to him at all,” said Epp.
“It matters a lot to me but it doesn’t matter to the dog. What the dog’s thinking about is getting some fulfilment.”
That comes in satisfying its instinct to hunt, though of course in a way that does not harm livestock. Dogs want to locate, stalk and hunt prey, said Epp. It happens with wolves and coyotes every day in the wild and it can be channelled.
“The beautiful part about the whole thing is … it’s all nature. It’s nothing manufactured by anybody. It’s merely utilizing what’s been put in these animals. The prey want to stay safe from the predator. The predator wants to hunt the prey and we just utilize that to move the animals in the direction we want to go.”
As for the relationship between dog and handler, Epp said dogs understand pack structure and they want a leader. The handler has to be that leader but not one that supresses or belittles the dog.
“What we’re trying to do is elevate ourselves to a point where the dog is like ‘yeah I want to be with that’,” he said.
“If you think you’re a leader and you’re moving around and nothing’s following you, you’re not leading. You’re just walking.”
He encouraged the use of whistles rather than voice commands due to distance, wind and other factors, as well as the fact that yelling can take the fun out of livestock handling.
Not every dog is cut out to handle stock, Epp reminded observers. The dog has to have enough presence that stock choose to yield to it. And it must have enough confidence to deal with livestock that occasionally challenge it.
Epp said there are four main stock dog breeds he sees in Saskatchewan: Australian kelpie, Australian shepherd, heeler and Border collie and he generally prefers collies in his own work.
No dog is too old to train, he said in answer to one question. Its background is more important than its age. Has the dog worked with stock before or been scolded for being with stock? Those experiences will make a difference.
When training, Epp encouraged the use of appropriate stock; animals that are not too erratic or confrontational. Successful early management of stock will help build confidence in the dog.
“I’d really encourage you, if you think it’s something that will work on your outfit and you enjoy dogs and enjoy stock, and getting the job done right is more important than getting it done fast, I’d super encourage you to take a look at getting a stock dog,” Epp concluded.