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Finding The Right Dog


There are a lot of different breeds of dogs used in various regions of the world to manage livestock.  They fall into two general categories:  those who protect stock and those who move stock.  The protectors are guardians of the flock.  For guarding stock, there are a number of LGDs (Livestock Guardian Dog breeds), each with its own traits and strengths, but discussion of LGDs is not my purpose here (for more information on livestock guardian dogs, please visit www.lgd.org).  What I am discussing here are those dogs who move livestock from point A to point B.  Then movers might gather stock from vast distances and over very rugged terrain.  Some work stock in the small pens found at feed lots or auction yards.  Some are used for getting rank stock out of thick brush.  Some are used for seasonal trailing of stock over many miles to and from summer pastures.   And invariably, there is no dog better suited to any and all of the tasks listed above than a well-bred border collie.


Some readers may have had experience with another breed, perhaps a heeler or an Aussie or a kelpie. No doubt there are some fine working heelers and Aussies and kelpies out there, but overwhelmingly, a working-bred border collie is much easier to work with for several reasons: one, it has been bred to work easily over large distances as well as to work close at hand with stock. And two: it has the ability to gather stock to the handler as well as to drive the stock away. But perhaps the biggest issue is that the border collie has also been bred to have the desire to be a willing partner to a human being. The traits that make a fine working dog are extremely complex, but this willingness, referred to as biddability, is unusually strong in the working-bred border collie.


The working-bred border collie has consistently been bred for its ability to work in all these different situations, rather than bred to suit a particular look or coat color or ear set (for a full discussion of working-bred Border Collies and the fight to keep them purpose-bred, please see Don McCaig’s The Dog Wars, Outrun Press, 2007). Some lines of some of the other “herding breeds” continue to be bred for work, but generally speaking, in the United States, either the working ability has been diluted to some extent by breeding for a “breed standard” (a predetermined description of the proper “look” a particular breed should have), or the work these other breeds have been bred for is most often of a particular type, such as close-in work or boundary work. No other dog excels at all the possible types of work it may be asked to do; no other dog excels at effectively working so many different species of livestock.


Now, within the various lines of working-bred border collies, in recent years, at least here in the U.S., there are some lines that have been developed primarily for working cattle. Traditionally, the default breeding has been for sheep dogs, although over the years, many of these dogs have moved whatever stock they were presented with. There are certainly sheep dogs who work cattle, and cattle dogs who work sheep, and many dogs who work both readily and well. There are dogs who work goats for their livelihood, and some work hogs well, too. But with the recent tendency to breed for a particular type of stock or work, depending on your purpose or the stock you are planning on working with the dog, you may want to find a dog who has been bred for your particular type of work or stock.


It is important when purchasing a working dog to make sure that it comes from a reputable person who uses his or her dogs for working stock. If possible, watch parents or siblings as well as the prospective dog working. This will give you an idea of this line’s style of working. While a dog advertised “from working lines” may sound like a good thing, the dog’s level of usefulness can depend a great deal on how far back in the pedigree the ancestors were actually used to do real work. There are now conformation-bred (bred to look a particular way) “border collies” (often referred to as “Barbie Collies”) who have never done any real work at all being advertised as “from working lines” or even as having “herding champions” in their ancestry. Do not be fooled–in the U.S., the only “champions” are the National Champions. A sire or dam advertised as a “champion” has perhaps trotted around a small arena with very dog-broke stock. The usefulness of this dog or its offspring to you on your farm or ranch is questionable at best. You want to make sure you have a dog that is ABCA (American Border Collie Association) or CBCA (Canadian Border Collie Association) registered (or, if imported, ISDS registered), and whom you have seen doing actual work of the sort you have in mind. If you are unsure about where to find such a dog, check out the USBCHA (United States Border Collie Handlers Association) website (www.usbcha.com), contact your local Director, or find a nearby trial; from there you can be directed to persons in your area who are knowledgeable about real working dogs.


In addition, there are also several sales or auctions where a person can obtain a dog that already has some level of training. The most well known of these is probably the annual Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale (www.redbluffbullsale.com) held in late January in Red Bluff, CA; at this sale, young dogs who work cattle demonstrate their working ability over several days, and then are sold through auction.


Males and females both work equally well. Some folks have a preference for one or the other for all kinds of different reasons, but it really just depends on the particular person and the dog. Those who prefer females may say that males have a tendency to mark a lot or get preoccupied when there is a bitch in season nearby, while those who prefer males may say that some females get a bit “moody” when they are having their cycle. Generally speaking, most well-bred working dogs are fairly consistent when it comes to their work–nothing is more important to them than getting the job done, and if the dog is intact, hormones take a back seat to stockwork. Spaying or neutering your dog will not change his or her working attitude or abilities one bit, and it can certainly make your life simpler.


Most likely, if you’re wanting a dog that can be fairly functional on the farm or ranch right away, you’ll be looking for a started dog. That basically means that the dog has had some formal training, and is proven enough to be ready to go to work, but is probably not yet quite as fully trained as a trials dog. The main point is that you want a dog that knows enough to get your jobs done without creating more work or aggravation for you.

...from Working With a Stockdog © by Anna Guthrie, Outrun Press, 2009.

Home   How & Why "Herding" Works   Instinct Testing   Lessons   Finding The Right Dog   Working Cattle   Links   Terminology   Gallery   Contact Me & Directions

Anna Guthrie




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